Disney's Planes — the movie, not the game — was originally intended to be a straight-to-DVD spin-off of the popular Cars franchise helmed by DisneyToon Studios instead of Pixar. Presumably Disney's executives looked at the release schedule for 2013 and decided it was looking a bit barren, because the movie was re-tooled as a cinematic release and hits theatres next week. With an almost depressing degree of predictability, a bunch of video game adaptations have also touched down on Nintendo formats just as the red carpet is being unrolled, the most notable of which is arguably the Wii U version. Starved of titles lately, there will be some famished Wii U owners out there who are likely to snap up anything that's half-decent, and while Disney's Planes doesn't quite crash and burn, it's a some way off being a must-have release.
Like Cars, Planes has a central hero who longs to be a racing champ. However, unlike Cars, the lead character simply isn't designed to perform this task. Dusty is a humble crop duster and not a racing plane, and the tale therefore has a true underdog feel. Well, Dusty's does, anyway — in the game's story mode you can play as several different characters from the movie, including Rusty's main rival Ripslinger. Each plane has their own set of unique missions which take place in ten different locations — needless to say, there's a little environmental repetition, but the designers have at least given players plenty of objectives to tackle.
One mission has you channelling electricity from clouds in order to reactivate power stations on the ground, while another is like Crazy Taxi in the air. Yet another level has you shooting piles of coloured powder to prepare for the Indian festival of Diwali. All of these objectives are fairly entertaining to complete, thanks largely to the tight and highly responsive controls. The primary set-up has you using the Wii U GamePad, with the left stick influencing directional movement while the right stick performs stunts, such as 180-degree turns or sideways rolls. Other commands — such as firing a weapon or taking a snap with a camera — are mapped to the face buttons. Off-TV play is supported, which should instantly tell you that the GamePad's screen isn't used in any meaningful fashion.
The story-based missions are just one part of the complete Planes package. There's Free Flight, where you can simply explore the game's locations, and Air Rallies, a racing segment which calls to mind the underrated PlayStation title N-GEN Racing, coded by members of the original Wipeout team. There's also Balloon Popping, the appeal of which diminishes faster than we'd like. Four distinct game types sounds like quite a generous offering on paper, but the story mode is insultingly easy to complete and the trio of remaining modes aren't strong enough to stand up on their own.
It's the drop-in, drop-out co-op multiplayer which restores a bit of respectability, offering the chance for some serious entertainment alongside a fellow human being. Sadly, it's limited to just two players, with one viewing the GamePad screen while the other looks at the television and uses the Wii Remote and Nunchuk — there's no option for split-screen play, so no additional people can join in the action.
Given that a Wii version of the game also exists and is being produced by the same developer, it was almost inevitable that the Wii U edition was going to disappoint graphically — Planes looks every inch like a standard definition title which has been up-scaled to suit the Wii U's HD output. Locations are sparsely detailed and the plane models are similarly drab; the only blessing is that by keeping the detail level low, the developers have been able to maintain a steady pace. Planes moves smoothly for the most part, although it can chug during the racing sections when there's a lot of on-screen activity. As if to illustrate the game's lack of commitment to the Wii U's increased power, the loading screens — which feature character artwork — are so horribly pixelated you'll want to look away when they appear.
On the upside, the music is suitably rousing, and is presumably lifted from the movie itself (we haven't seen it yet, so can't say categorically). Disney has even been able to rope in some of the principal voice cast to lend their talents to their individual characters, but it's blatantly obvious that some of the other actors didn't play ball, as their voices are replaced by sound-alike substitutes. This wouldn't be an issue in itself, but during the missions you'll hear the same dialogue over and over and over again. By the tenth time you've heard Bulldog brag about his stiff upper lip, it will be painfully obvious that John Cleese wasn't involved in the recording of the speech for the game.
In many respects, Disney's Planes just about manages to pull out of the nosedive which seems to curse so many movie-to-game adaptations; it controls well enough, has some varied mission objectives and comes with four main modes instead of just one. However, the simplistic visuals, lack of challenge and limited multiplayer options all count against it — these are issues that could and should have been fixed before release, and would have resulted in a much better package overall. Planes isn't a terrible game by any means, but it's hardly spectacular — and irrespective of how hungry you are for Wii U software, it might not fill you up unless you're a novice player with a passionate love for the movie itself.