Imagine taking bodily control of a hyperactive four year old child. Now add an imbalance complex, an extra dash of chaos, and the occasional adherence to your direction, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like to drive a radio controlled car. It takes a special kind of person to want to deal with the complexities of a vehicle that has a 100th of the mass of a normal car, and a thousand times the erratic behavior when you’re driving it. I know this, because I used to BE that person.
What Creat Studios has done, besides present itself as an emerging authority on radio controlled vehicles, is recreate the experience of racing in various terrains and routes in believably realized miniature off-road vehicles. RC Cars is the PC cousin to Creat Studios’ other RC vehicle game, Smash Cars for the PS2. While one would think a title so light on subject matter would be better suited for a console, RC Cars represents the hobby and the mechanics well enough on PC to be a contender for the best in its class.
In addition to the general spectrum of gameplay distinctions, a game like RC Cars has to pay particular attention to the visual aspect of proportions, i.e. making the cars actually look and feel small. What is actually done to make this happen in the game succeeds so well as to almost detract from control fluidity and accuracy. Outdoor and indoor environments are peppered with props that not only pose as functional obstacles, but also as measurements of the actual size of the vehicle. Running into a crab as big as your RC truck on the beach is not uncommon, nor would a giant barking dog or a human foot be remiss in reminding you of your diminutive stature. I was most concerned with how the visual presentation would affect this perspective, but after racing for a minute, it proved to be the least of RC Car’s hurdles.
Control is a different issue. Driving any RC vehicle is a challenge that may be cordoned into the realm of acquired tastes. Make no mistake about it, Creat did a wonderful job of simulating the jerky suspension, turn-on-a-dime steering, and the sprightly kinetics of these under-sized autos. The accurate movements and weight of the vehicles is represented so effectively that there are times when it will have you trying to climb walls, literally and figuratively. These little buggers can tip up on their back ends real easily, given the right moving violation, and will spin their tires away in blissful prostration to the sky. Fortunately, the space bar on the keyboard will right the vehicle instantly, however the space bar won’t win you the race; small mistakes with these vehicles can take you from a triumphant first place to a frustrating last place all too easily. The keyboard controls are workable, but unless you have a thing for carpal tunnel, I’d suggest a wheel or joystick peripheral.
As with a racer of any phylum and credibility, the customizable portions of your vehicles help to move you along a progressive track. New engines, tires, and speed boosters are available at various stages, and do make a significant difference in how you fare on the raceway. I struggled to maintain a pole position in the very first race until I plopped in an engine with a bit more zip to it, and voila! Instant gratification. That means I got first place. Sometimes the add-ons just aren’t enough though, and face it – it’s no fun racing the same car for too long when others are available. This sort of practical upgrade is more costly, but offers a fractional variation on your RC car’s look and feel.
Upgrades cost money – it might as well be a fact of life. The many race modes RC Cars contains each do their part to prepare you for advancement and, eventually, more lucrative races. At the onset, the Quick Race portion may be a bit redundant, since many of the tracks are locked. Once you have access to them, they’re available for no fee and will allow you to get used to the track. After that, jump into the Ghost Race section, and race against an apparition of your own RC vehicle to beat your best time and improve control throughout the race. After that, it’s off to Championship mode where you earn your nuts and bolts through victory. Multiplayer is also an option, and the interface to setup a hosting or just plain log into a group is laid out simply and is very easy to navigate. Since racing games lend themselves to group play, this is a natural addition to RC Cars.
In any of the race modes, the unlocked or initially available tracks are expanded variations of the standard fare. RC Cars makes good usage of the perspective and novelty of racing tiny, cross-country vehicles where normal cars aren’t allowed to go; unusual settings run the gamut from casual such as the beach front, to forbidding military bases and missile silos. Hitting empty soda or spray paint cans will accumulate “hit” points which are tallied and monetarily rewarded at the end of the race. Hitting the feisty dog, or worse, BEING hit by the spray of a soldier’s machine gun fire, will inevitably slow you down. Yet for all that the courses are set up to create a challenging race environment, I got the feeling that they were rather apathetically constructed. There are good dimensional layouts, taking you underground, over hills and well-rounded terrain, but the tracks seem arbitrarily dotted with overused and uninteresting challenges that don’t really inspire any specific adeptness. Mostly I felt like I was racing through cartoonish scenarios with no real meaning behind the placement of the obstacles.
Did I mention cartoonish? The visual style is more on the realistic side of cartoonish, but there’s a lot of colorful flare in everything from the cars to the directional graffiti, and that style suits the frivolous nature of the sport in this game. Small things end up throwing the superficialities off a bit, like uneven lighting, or pervasive and monotonous color schemes. Still, you’re watching the road, so a lot of the graphical inadequacies will go by unnoticed. The sensory component that grabbed me the most was the collection of arguably “cool” tunes that played in the menu, during races, and while I was gripping my wrist in jaw-clenching pain from controlling my flighty, virtual mini six-wheeler. There’s a little something for the “extreme” in everyone here: grinding speed-metal, glam-rock guitar solos, and moody techno fill the game with an instrumental wash. It actually works as a backdrop, but doesn’t inspire any truly extreme emotions. It also drowns out most of the ambient noises, so I won’t even comment on those.
Personally, a racing game has to do a lot of things to get me interested these days, because simply humping it around a track won’t blow my gasket anymore. RC Cars satisfies that part of me that needs to feel something fresh while playing, something new to absorb and experience. Unfortunately, RC Cars has a hard time pulling away from what makes a racing game tediously average (ho-hum tracks, typical car upgrades), and executes all too well the unstable vectors of those quick little radio controlled cars. Still, I wouldn’t call it a complete loss; the ability to jump in and just go for a race or two and still come away happy is worth a lot too. Certainly not a crash-and-burn... more of a spin-and-sputter.