Movie inspired video games have often taken the liberty of deviating from the plot, throwing in events and scenarios that may be considered out of "canon" with the film's storyline and universe; a lack of faithfulness to the source material has been a frequent criticism throughout gaming history. Little Orbit's Disney Planes: Fire & Rescue, however, breaks the mould and actually follows the movie's plot exceptionally well. Unfortunately, this is a rare instance when divergence from the original storyline could only act to improve what is a drab, repetitive and unremarkable title.
Following the movie closely, players take control of Dusty, the once famous aerial racer who joins up with a band of firefighting planes, helicopters and other rescue vehicles who serve to prevent the forest fires that threaten the Piston National Park on a daily basis; Dusty must complete his training at Piston Park in order to qualify as a certified firefighter. Due to the lack of a story mode, none of this is explained, and you are instead dropped straight into the training missions without any back story or explanation as to why the events have unfolded, so be prepared to brush up on the movies or peruse IMDB if you are at all interested in the plot.
As Dusty, your duty involves patrolling the national park for fires and those in need of help. All in all, there are thirty training and academy missions and twelve unique Fire & Rescue story missions. The training missions can be bypassed, allowing you to get straight into the Fire & Rescue challenges should you wish, however this will reduce the content of the game by more than half. The number of levels sounds fairly satisfactory, but after playing four or five of the missions the lack of variety becomes extremely apparent. Putting out fires, guiding lost camper vans and airlifting stranded hikers to safety soon becomes repetitive, and it will not take long for those with a limited attention span to lose interest altogether.
Even the more tolerant players will quickly become bored of flying over the same terrain, carrying out the same tasks over and over again. Night-time missions or a rescue in the rain are about as diverse as the experience gets, and when you welcome a level just because the sun has gone down, you know there is something wrong. The main assignments are forever broken up by smaller tasks, too, which adds to the hectic rescue feeling the game is going for, but becomes increasingly frustrating as your progress is forever being halted and drags out what is an already wearisome experience.
Despite Dusty's rather stiff and unintuitive controls, each stage is a breeze to complete and experienced gamers will have no trouble whatsoever in finishing each stage. The only real challenge is in how quickly each task can be completed, and each successful mission is ranked with either a bronze, silver or gold medal, depending on your clear time. The monotony of each stage offers no real incentive to replay in order to gain top marks, especially when the sole reward from gaining gold ranks are unlockable stills which can be viewed from the Gallery in the main menu.
Certain missions switch things up by allowing you to control one of seven different characters, besides Dusty. Unfortunately, this is only the case when the game prompts you to, not allowing you free reign over who you play as. None of Dusty's friends handle quite as awkwardly, and it's a welcome respite whenever you're required to take control of another character — many of the other planes and vehicles lack any truly unique traits or abilities, which greatly limits their impact. Some of the planes, such as Windlifter, can winch objects and and are required in order to airlift deer and stranded hikers to safety, but generally they all still do the same job; Dipper, for example, simply acts as a more lightweight and agile version of Dusty, and rarely features throughout the game. The Smokejumpers (a team of construction vehicles) offer the most contrasting style of gameplay when available, though mashing the B button or rotating the control stick round in 360 degree circles to remove boulders and rubble from the road is about as deep as their involvement goes.
Visually, it's clear that Disney Planes: Fire and Rescue is an upscaled Wii game. The visuals aren't bad, and the characters themselves are bright and colourful, but it's clear that the title was made for a system from the previous generation. What is most regrettable, given the appealing style that has come to be associated with the films, is the lack of cutscenes; particularly disappointing considering the animated visuals one would expect from a Pixar-inspired game. Cutscenes could have acted as refreshing, appealing breaks in gameplay, progressing the story along. Instead, aside from the mission selection map, you're forced to look at the same murky brown and green terrain for almost the entire duration of the experience, with the only "plot" coming from the characters' dialogue boxes.
Gameplay is accompanied by a majestic, empowering and soaring piece of orchestral music that accompanies you as you glide through the air, fighting fires and rescuing deer (tractors with antlers); it really does enhance the experience. However, after five minutes on a loop, it becomes a bit of a nuisance and after an hour you'll wish there was no music at all. The developers presumably knew this themselves, as there is thankfully the ability to turn the music as low as you like (the Top Gun Soundtrack makes a great alternative). The voice acting (or lack of) doesn't come off a great deal better. Characters randomly blurt out choppy sound clips from the movie, often totally unrelated to what they're actually saying in their dialogue box, and at times are barely audible. Almost every time you receive Intel from base, Dynamite will declare "I'm Dynamite!", with looping samples like that rapidly becoming an irritation. Thankfully, the Voice volume can be turned down to zero too, and the experience does not suffer in the slightest from doing so, especially when considering the lack of cutscenes.
Disney Planes: Fire & Rescue is a title with no surprises. To use an old analogy, it does exactly what it says on the tin. The game consists of putting out fire after fire, with the odd rescue mission (from fire of course) interspersed between. Despite Planes: Fire & Rescue having an abundance of missions, the limited variety is a problem; the lack of modes and extras make the overall package feel extremely hollow. What is upsetting is that Disney Planes: Fire & Rescue could have been an enjoyable title, had the developer added a bit of its own originality into the experience. Instead, Disney Planes: Fire & Rescue is a very middle of the runway experience; by following the film's "fire and rescue" premise far too rigidly, the game is left grounded, unable to soar to the heights it could have.
Disney Planes: Fire & Rescue isn't a completely lost cause. It's definitely playable in short bursts, and the controls are (for the most part) perfectly responsive. However, it's clear that the game - like the film - is aimed at a younger audience, and will certainly appease children with less demanding expectations. The more experienced gamers out there, however, will find limited enjoyment here, and anyone hoping for rip roaring ride should steer clear of this one altogether.