Micro Machines (Xbox) review
"All in all, if this latest version of Micro Machines proves anything, it is that games cannot live on nostalgia alone. Perhaps some excuse can be found in the fact that it was Infograme's first shot at the series that CodeMasters did so well for so many years, or perhaps it is just another case of a series finally running out of steam. Either way, sadly, Micro Machines is to bare thread for fans of the earlier games, and suffers from too many flaws to draw people new in. "
I feel like Micro Machines, as a series, has always been there for me. It was probably my most loved game on my humble Nes, followed me faithfully like a wide eyed puppy to my Mega Drive, and even kept me entertained on my shiny PSX. Oh, the happy hours I have whittled away racing my tiny vehicles through sheds, baths, lofts and breakfast tables, among many others. Over the years it has provided me with reason to mock those who dare challenge me, computer or hapless human foe, as I left them in my dust, after seeing them off with one of the plethora of little weapons your chariot of choice can collect amongst the way. And then, one day not so long ago, I wander into a game store, and see that it has been brought back on the newest of formats without my notice.
Two things bothered me at this point; the first being that even when the PSX version (the awesome Micro Machines V3) was released, it was made known and advertised -- and as well it should be, seeing as it has carved such a long line of successes in its above average shelf life. The second being that CodeMasters was not blazoned across the box like all the Micro games of old, but Infogrames seemed to be the company in the driving seat (With Atari responsible for the XBox port). Sceptical, I gazed at the back of the box, and with nostalgia washing over me like a giant washy thing, I proclaimed loudly "But it's Micro Machines, by Jove!", and ignored the quizzical glances of the staff as I parted with my cash.
This is my story.
Micro Machines puts you in control of your miniature vehicle (in this case, car, sportscars, off-roader, motorbike and boat), and lets you race against three opponents, be them computer or human controlled. The cleverly designed race tracks include such places as a pond, loft rafters and sandy beaches. This was my first nostalgic letdown -- not only had some vehicles, such as tanks, been omitted, but some of the levels which had made the backbone of Micro Machine games for years failed to make an appearance, those levels including the infamous kitchen and the pool table stages. You have several options in how you choose to race what tracks are left, with time trial, tournaments and multiplayer making the bulk of it.
To start racing, you must first choose one of 8 differing cast members - nostalgia let down #2 shows up here when I find the old cast completely wiped out in favour of the newer, more outlandish assembly -- but this is somewhat made up for when you find that each differing character has differing vehicles. For instance, choosing Frank N Stein (as much the rip off as he sounds) will see you piloting things like a funeral hearse as his standard car. Nice cosmetic touches are present here, such as each vehicle having noticeably different engine sounds, and character individual horns blasts.
When it comes to in-game racing, it does feel very much like the game that I have so enjoyed over the years, but it quickly becomes apparent that it lacks the frantic scramble gameplay its predecessors enjoyed so much. Firstly, the camera is a little erratic, and often feels too close to the action, not giving you a good enough view of the track ahead, adding to this game a hardness level to it that it really shouldn't have. You have little chance completing most tracks without memorising pretty much every corner, because in the faster paced races, you need to start turning before the corner even comes up to make it round. Then when you add in such variables such as jumps and obstacles, it becomes less of a challenge and more of a frustration. The fact that if you car strays but a small distance from the trodden track means exploding also sees off another chunk of what had made the previous games so great, effectively killing the ability to discover and abuse shortcuts. It's a shame too, as many of the levels are superbly made, but the effect is lost when you have no level of freedom to roam around in. All this combined makes it quite the frustration, even to those already familiar with the Micro Machines universe.
It does keep its classic Multiplayer mode, where you need to move a screen length away from those racing with you to gain yourself a point, with the first car to lose having a point minused from their tally, but thanks to the problems noted above, it loses so much of the charm it held on other titles. You can't get ahead by using shortcuts, and the tighter camera makes this less of a joy then it should be. Far from unplayable, but a let down nonetheless. A lot of enjoyment is brought back from the various weaponry that is scattered around however, and the old joy of attaching a frying pan to your bonnet as to happily pulverising the car in front of you carries across just as well.
In an attempt to update the multiplayer section, there is also now a 'Bomb Tag' option, in which four cars are placed in an arena, one infected with a bomb, which he has to tag another car with to dispose off. Whoever has the bomb when the timer reaches zero loses a life, and you continue until there is only one car left unexploded. As fun as this could have been, it's deeply flawed. For starters, even if only one human person competes, the screen is cut into quarters, each vehicle given his own section - understandable should all four slots be filled with human players, but for a more limited player interaction, it makes the whole thing a great deal harder; thanks to the very limited view you have, seeing the upcoming obstacles is a big enough challenge, let alone the cars advancing on you trying to unload their bomb virus. There are several unlockable features that can add to the multiplayer aspect of the game, but none that really stands out, sadly.
Another big let down was the number of tracks, being only 24 - less then half the amount offered on Micros Machines V3, Add that to the previously mention loss of vehicles and environments, then chuck in the loss of several features, such as the ability to win different class of cars and race them against others with the losers having to give up their car to the victor, and a much more limited single player game, and you have to admit that more was expected. If such great things could have been done in the 32 bit world, the 128 bit possibilities should have been endless. Sadly, it seems to have been a wasted chance.
Because the game looks middle of the road. Although certainly far from outdoing anything we have seen so far, it does retain a touch of charm. The levels themselves are often quite the work of art; the barn level has you dodging moving roaches, spiders and rats, plus offers the rather eerie threat of being either pecked or urinated on by the various chicken spectators. Go outside to the pond and you'll find calm and well animated water, complete with reeds and fish swimming contentedly beneath you while frogs trying to snare you with their tounges. Even the vehicles, despite being obviously on the small side, look the part, having nice touches like small orbs of light emanate from their headlights and being individual to their owners. Be it police issue cruiser, space age buggy or 80's style yuppie convertible, each car, bike or boat does what it can to look the part.
Even the music strikes an unusual chord of being directly in the middle between catchy and cheesy. Sadly, these tracks are rather limited, and they will soon become more of an annoyance as you rack up more game time. What does help is the rather charming sound effects, such as the chirping of birds, or the ribbiting of frogs. This all cumulates into quite the ambience, giving each level as certain atmosphere the changes with each track setting. The differing engine rumbles of vehicle types, and the sounds of the blaring horns only add to this.
All in all, if this latest version of Micro Machines proves anything, it is that games cannot live on nostalgia alone. Perhaps some excuse can be found in the fact that it was Infograme's first shot at the series that CodeMasters did so well for so many years, or perhaps it is just another case of a series finally running out of steam. Either way, sadly, Micro Machines is to bare thread for fans of the earlier games, and suffers from too many flaws to draw people new in.
The license's last great game remains Micro Machines V3 on the PSX. This simply doesn't compete.
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