Video game spinoffs of animated movies have a spotty track record. Often these games are quickie add-ons or dubious cross-marketing gambits, aiming to add a few zeros to the profit margins of the studio.
The late, great Disney Interactive Studios, which shut down last year, consistently went against the grain in this regard, putting out video games that were much better than they strictly needed to be – and sometimes better than the films they were based on.
Such was the case with “Cars 2” (the video game), released in 2011, which was vastly superior to “Cars 2” (the movie), generally acknowledged to be Pixar’s weakest effort. As a souped-up kart racer, “Cars 2” was one of the year’s best games and a worthy competitor to the venerable “Mario Kart” franchise.
“Cars 3: Driven to Win” (rated E10+) is the latest entrant in the game series, and while it’s not as good as its predecessor, it’s at least as good as the movie it’s based on, so I suppose that counts for something.
Fans of the old game will find plenty of familiar elements in the new title, which retains the same basic control scheme and racing mechanics. Players adopt the role of car characters in the film – Lightning McQueen, Mater and the gang – and race against computer-controlled opponents or other local players in split-screen.
In Battle Race mode, players can grab up various weapons like missiles, machine gun turrets, oil slick droppers and bomb tossers. It’s the same basic array from the last game, although the animations are much slicker. All of the violence is harmless and cartoony – the cars just spin out and bounce back – so the game is plenty gentle enough for littler gamers.
As you proceed through the game levels, you unlock new vehicles, tracks and modes. The track designs are especially good this time around. Based on digital locations from the film, each race track has dozens of shortcuts, ramps and other tricks that you’ll need to figure out to compete properly.
The game has three difficulty settings, and on the hardest mode you’ll need to memorize the shortcuts and drive strategically to have any chance of winning. You’ll also want to master the cornering maneuver known as drifting.
These core racing mechanics are ultimately the best reason to pick up “Cars 3.” Despite all the goofball humor, the game is a serious challenge for dedicated kart racers. Controls are exacting and responsive, and the physics of the game are reliable. Without the tight racing action, everything else falls apart.
The game’s biggest disappointments have to do with what isn’t there. Developer Avalanche Studios has excised several of the best racing modes from the previous game, including the popular “Disruptor” option, which played like the coolest capture-the-flag game ever invented.
“Cars 3” kinda-sorta approximates the missing game modes with a new open-world playground, in which you’re free to zip around, work on your target practice, and engage in different challenges. The new Stunt Showdown and Takedown modes pick up some of the slack too.
But the awful truth is that “Cars 3” doesn’t improve on “Cars 2,” which is kind of a surprise and definitely a bummer. Still, it’s a solid investment for family gaming. Kids and grownups can compete on more-or-less equal footing, although the young people will have their usual advantages with hand-eye coordination and reaction time. I speak from experience, having just spent a week getting slapped around by a cabal of fourth-graders. It’s unfair, is what it is.
“Cars 3: Driven to Win” is now available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.