Cars 3: Driven to Win Review

Switch on those headlights.

To be honest with you, I won’t pretend I’ve kept up with all the minutiae and deep lore contained within the Cars universe. Lightning McQueen is a cool guy (car?) without question, but I only vaguely remember the second movie, while the third seems like milking it a bit. Regardless, none of this ambivalence towards the greater narrative stops Cars 3: Driven to Win from being a surprising game.

It’s surprising for two main reasons: firstly, it’s not terrible. Yeah, you heard: a movie tie-in that’s not a blight on the gaming landscape. Secondly, and this ties very closely into my first point: it can even be pretty decent, sometimes.

Initial impressions are that of a bizarrely off-brand Mario Kart-like game, but Cars 3: Driven to Win is something different entirely. Taking to the track as Lightning McQueen or Guido (there are loads of unlockable cars but let’s face it if you’re not racing as McQueen or the fantastic Guido, what’s the point in racing at all) you can jump and do tricks, boost, drive backwards, go on two wheels, and in some cases even use power-ups to smash your opponents to pieces.

All of the tricks will build your turbo, and you’ll need that to win a race because this game is really hard. Seriously, even on medium the rubber-banding is a nightmare. You can never get far enough ahead to feel comfortable, and in battle races you’ll need to save boost for the last stretch to get first place. Easy mode is actually not that easy, but it’ll at least let you get your first few wins in. It’s clearly a game aimed at fans of the series (read: a younger audience) so why it’s this difficult is beyond me. Nailing combos that have you come out of a trick-laden jump into driving backwards (which reverses the controls), then banging a fellow driver off the road is great, but it’s going to confuse the younger players, and they won’t have the patience to build the boost up fully to unleash its full potential.

But there’s plenty of content to get your teeth into, at least, even if you’ll find yourself racing on the same old tracks. Standard races, Battle races, Takedown events, Stunt showcases, boss races and more, and all of this is supported by a set of challenges that constantly give you ideas about how to change up your actual racing. An overall progression bar moves as you perform well or complete these challenges, with each major milestone offering a boss battle which, in turn, unlocks that boss as a playable racer. The boss fights are actually half-decent, but are ruined by constant dialogue from the boss taunting you, even when you’re ahead.

We don’t get too many big third-party games on Switch, so it’s interesting to see Warner Bros. putting the game out here, and while it’s a pretty enough game to look at, it doesn’t break new ground compared to games like Breath of the Wild or Mario Kart 8. What is worth pointing out, however, is that it can struggle to hold its frame-rate when under stress. From the very opening there appeared to be frame drops in a cutscene, and the racing is mostly fine, but know that it will drop from time to time.

It’s better on the big screen, but it’s entirely playable in Tabletop or Handheld mode. Adding a second player is easily done via the menu, and it’s a bit more fun in multiplayer. But therein lies the biggest problem with Cars 3: Driven to Win: it’s just not all that fun. There are chuckles to be had and there’s definitely charm in the visuals, but even at its best it’s just alright. Games like this need to be rewarding, but the difficulty isn’t well balanced and the fun doesn’t last for long enough. The courses are quite open, but this means sometimes you can lose sight of where you’re trying to go which, again, will confuse younger players.

The story is thin on the ground, and involves Lightning’s place as The Best being challenged because he’s becoming an old man. Look, I can totally identify with being ousted as the best by a younger generation whose Overwatch skills make you feel borderline decrepit, but honestly, most of the tale is doled out via commentary and a few odd cut-scenes before boss races. Much like a lot of Driven to Win, it’s serviceable, but could be better.

It shouldn’t be a surprise in 2017 to get a licensed game that’s not irredeemable, but Cars 3: Driven to Win is actually alright. It’s hard to heartily endorse on a console that has Mario Kart 8: Deluxe on it, but if you’re hankering for yet more arcade-racing, this is a decent enough game especially if you can find it slightly discounted.