Alongside Cars, the newest addition to the ever-growing and consistently high-quality lexicon of Pixar animated films, comes the predictable video game tie-in. But there's something altogether unfamiliar about this version of Cars, something unexpected from the perspective of anyone who's ever played a lackluster Pixar-licensed movie game before. You see, Cars isn't just a middling cash-in on the license. It's a legitimately fun piece of work that combines driving game components with an open-ended gameworld and a host of goofy minigames that aren't broken, tacked-on, or otherwise unpleasant. It also manages to capture the heart and humor of the film pretty well, thanks in no small part to the great character animation and use of the entire celebrity voice cast from the movie. Certainly there are a few aspects of Cars that feel hurried for the sake of getting the game on store shelves in tune with the film release, but Cars transcends these few nagging issues with its charm and character, and it manages to be a good bit of fun to play, too.
Leave it to Pixar to take big hunks of combustion-powered metal and rubber and turn them into endearing characters. Just in case you haven't seen the movie, Cars is about a world of, well, cars. These are cars with faces, unique personalities, and no human drivers to get in the way. The story focuses around an up-and-comer in stock car racing named Lightning McQueen. Lightning is the next big thing in racing, but when he inadvertently wreaks havoc in the sleepy burg of Radiator Springs on his way to his next race, Lightning finds himself stuck with these country bumpkins, learning inevitable lessons of life and love. You don't necessarily need to know any of this going into the video game version of Cars, but it helps to have seen the movie first, since Cars the game actually takes place after the movie's plotline. The vast majority of the principal characters from the movie, as well as their associated voice actors, are on hand here for an entirely original tale that sees Lightning working his way through the new racing season against his rival, Chick Hicks (voiced to twitchy perfection by Michael Keaton). It's a cute story that's got a good bit of humor, and anybody who liked the movie ought to be able to get into it easily.
As far as how Cars plays, imagine Grand Theft Auto if you never got out of the car (or, at least something along those lines). Radiator Springs isn't a particularly huge area, but spread across it are multiple locales that you, as Lightning McQueen, can drive to in order to acquire missions. You typically only have a few missions available to you at a time, and some missions are only unlockable after you complete an entire story chapter's worth of missions, but generally you can just kind of drive about the area with freedom, collecting bonus points and other hidden items as you go.
For the most part, Cars' missions revolve around racing. These are cars, after all. The racing itself is largely pretty simplistic. There are some powersliding and boosting mechanics included, as well as a few goofy moves like making the car jump at will, and even driving backwards for point bonuses. The handling of the cars is pretty easy to get a handle on, though powersliding isn't always as effective as you might expect it to be. But you only use stuff like powersliding and boosting in the off-road races in Radiator Springs. When you're competing in the professional races, it's like a NASCAR cartoon. You drive to the left, occasionally bump up against other racers, and occasionally have to make a pit stop.
The pit stops are just one of several minigames contained within the game. Most minigames are missions unto themselves, where you'll be collecting tires as Guido, the local tire mechanic, for example, or "tractor tipping" around a local farm as Larry the Cable Guy-voiced Mater. Pit stops are the only in-race minigames to speak of, and they simply involve timed button-presses and analog stick movements at random intervals to make your pit crew work as fast as possible. For the most part, these games are actually pretty fun. The pit stop game is rather pointless, though, in that you arbitrarily have to do it once every race, and the only benefit for doing it quickly is that you don't lose any race position. But the mission-based games are pretty amusing and tie in to the flow of the game nicely.