Nintendo systems often get tie-ins for popular family movies, fleshing out the multi-platform offerings that are available. It's absolutely understandable considering the fact that young audiences do get drawn to Nintendo hardware, and that's continuing with the Switch. Cars 3: Driven to Win is an early contender in this space; while it has some of the usual shortcomings it also has some strengths worthy of praise.
The Cars series of films has, as you can guess by the arrival of its third entry, proven to be a popular part of the regular output of charming animated kids movies. It's perhaps not as big a hitter as a few other notable brands, but it's a success story with the usual merchandise of toys, stationery, lunch boxes and other plastic bits and bobs. In a little over a decade between the series debut and the most recent cinematic release it's also had various games, with Nintendo entries going from GameCube to Wii, DS to 3DS.
This latest arrival on Switch shouldn't be entirely written off as a sloppy movie tie-in, however, as Avalanche Software has put more effort into the project than that category would suggest; it's a development studio that did Cars 2, but more tellingly Disney Infinity, a series of toys-to-life games that was ambitious but squeezed out of the market. Now owned by Warner Bros., Avalanche Software has shown that it's a company with a good eye for what makes for an entertaining game, albeit while working within the constraints of the IP.
Cars 3: Driven to Win does attempt to tap into the IP, with a story punctuated in the experience. It's extremely thin, with a small number of cutscenes and challenges interspersed among a lot of Hall of Fame 'Skill Checks'. Some of these are unlocked through simple actions, others require a bit of time and grinding, and reaching a certain level of fame triggers these brief story segments and challenge events. The time it takes to go between the final checkpoints is far too long, to the point that the story is a miss.
We suspect the target audience - young gamers and fans of the films - may not mind too much, however. The characters and culture of the series are predominant through standard play, with plenty of unlockable characters and tracks as nods to the films. The personality of each car may not be reflected in their abilities (none are faster than the other, with no visible stats for each vehicle) but they babble a lot of voice lines during and between races. Throw in post-race commentary that loosely follows your performances and there's been good effort with the presentation. For our taste the cars are all too chatty during a race, repeating lines and forever talking, but we suspect young gamers will love that very feature.
The game has a nice personality, then, and we've also been surprised at how interesting some of the mechanics are - your humble scribe is new to this series of games. In addition to accelerating with ZR and drifting with A - the drifts take a little getting used to, but work nicely with practice - you have various driving tricks and stunts to consider. Flicking up on the right stick takes you onto two wheels, or you can flick the other way to drive backwards. This speeds up your turbo accumulation, and when you match these tricks with the right strips of illuminated race track you get further bonuses. You can either use your four turbo bars as they're available or fill them up to go 'in the zone', during which you have greater speed and can simply bash opponents out of the way.
All of these abilities come into play in a standard race, and then in a battle race you also pick up a variety of weapons - such as rockets, oil slicks and electric shocks to damage other cars - to dish out punishment. Battle races are predictably manic, and there are some fun ideas at play, including the fact your tyres can be punctured and you struggle along for a few seconds until they auto-fix. If you want to simply enjoy the weapons without being the victim you can also do a Takedown event, in which you destroy as many AI targets as possible in a time limit.
The final driving style to consider is stunts, which are naturally important in Stunt Showcase events but can also be used in other events to gain turbo. When in the air you can flip you car to do tricks with the right stick, while you also need to target ramps and use B to jump in order to get the best airtime. Wrapping up the modes beyond standard Races, Battles, Takedowns and Stunt Showcases we have 'Best Lap Challenge', a series of relatively tricky time trials.
You have plenty of freedom, with those basics in place, in how you play. You can cherry pick events, and typically by trying new tracks and various modes you'll unlock the aforementioned skill checks along with more tracks, playable characters and modes. There are over 20 tracks (some unlocked with Skill Checks), and they're quite lengthy, varied affairs. Though some of the settings and visual themes repeat there's some smart design; laps and races my be relatively long, but there are plenty of shortcuts and surprise routes to discover. Utilising these can certainly be the difference between winning and losing.
This game has a surprising range of difficulty settings, too. Before every event you can choose between easy, normal and hard, and we typically found the middle setting to be challenging enough, and even easy should keep younger or less experienced players busy. Even in the middle setting you need to use all of your car's abilities and master shortcuts and stunts to win consistently. That's certainly not a bad thing, even if we suggest that some players stick to the lowest setting.
Naturally this game also allows for various local multiplayer options, with additional players able to simply jump in at pretty much any time. It's an amusing game to play with friends and family, even if the mechanics can throw off those new to the title and more used to being 200cc masters in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. The game sensibly strips back the visuals to achieve relatively smooth performance in splitscreen, meaning it's not much choppier than the core solo experience. You can either play normal events or 'Cup Series', or do the multiplayer-only 'Sponsored Team Play' where you can choose to play against your buddies or to team up together.
Playing solo or with friends you can also use a few control options. We preferred the dual stick setup with the Pro Controller, the Joy-Con Grip or portable mode, but you can play with a sideways Joy-Con. These latter controls with a single Joy-Con are fiddly (though on-screen prompts and pointers help) but functional; great for small hands and children, though this scribe's hands found it far too cramped for sustained play.
That does bring us to one of our primary issues with this title; a mix of sloppy performance and modest visuals. Visually the game is a par at best, with some odd moments where assets are either extremely low in resolution or aren't being generated correctly. That said it's not terrible looking, but it's just rather mediocre. On top of that there are regular performance hiccups, where too many effects, explosions or other cars can lead to judders and dips below the 30fps target. This is noticeable in both portable and TV play, in solo and multiplayer. It's not game breaking by any stretch of the imagination, but with basic visuals and a 30fps target it's disappointing for those modest goals to be let down by these sorts of issues.
Those complaints are also reflective of a broader sense of a game that could be a strong entry in its genre, but falls slightly short due to the IP or inevitable development constraints. Rough edges in performance, the introduction of a story and narrative at the start which then falls almost entirely off the radar, enthusiastic voice lines that loop too often; all issues that would be improved with a bit more budget and time. Alas, it's the fate of many movie-based games to not have the luxury of time and money. Many of these complaints won't be too relevant to big fans of the films, however, as the game has enough character and delivers enough fun to mostly outpace its flaws.
Cars 3: Driven to Win falls for some of the pitfalls that are expected of a game released to coincide with a movie's arrival in theatres. Rather rushed, rough around the edges and with minor but persistent annoyances, older players will certainly recognise the symptoms.
That said, it hits top gear in some respects. Its gameplay mechanics are rather fun once grasped, there are a variety of modes and tracks to master, and despite its sidenote of a narrative it goes big on the film series' charms. Young gamers and fans of the films will likely get beyond its flaws and rather enjoy what it does well, and it comes across as a game that was pushed out the door early but, nevertheless, was developed with some pride. It's a bit of a 'banger' in car terms, but it has a good lick of paint and a good engine - one to pick up on a whim or at a discount, perhaps.