Sunday, July 16, 2006

Micro Machines v4 Review

Micro Machines v4, developed by Supersonic Software and published by Codemasters.
The Good: Interesting and difficult racing, very competitive AI, tons of cars to unlock and trade, multiplayer, unique track locations, limited track editor
The Not So Good: Camera view is horrible, some console port issues (mostly keyboard/gamepad input and control), perfection required for lapped races, at times too difficult and frustrating
What say you? A shockingly demanding arcade racing game with skilled AI and tough circuits ruined by camera issues: 6/8

One of my major collections when I was a child (three weeks ago) was die cast cars. We had a large cardboard box full of these things and would race them around the house, which eventually sparked my interest in NASCAR. I have fond memories of these little cars, and it’s good to see them rise again (in virtual form) in Micro Machines v4. I didn’t play any of the past iterations (most of them concentrated on the evil platforms instead of the angelic PC) and since a PC version was published 10 years ago, making comparisons between this version and past iterations is insane (I’ll leave that up to lesser review sites that copy and paste reviews of the same game for different platforms). Micro Machines v4 is a decidedly arcade racer where you pilot really small cars around real world environments, like a barber shop or a garden, and utilize weapons to blow your opponents up. How will racing tiny cars stack up against bigger competition?

The graphics of Micro Machines v4 are pretty good for an arcade racing game. The game takes place of 17 different environments (a pool table, science lab, bathroom) and each of them are distinctive and contain some unique elements. The cars themselves are as detailed as their real life counterparts, and look believable although generic in the game. The biggest issue with the graphics is the camera. The camera zooms up instead of out in battle races, which makes it extremely hard to see corners coming up. The view needs to be behind the car at all times, like in most racing games. I like how the camera anticipates upcoming corners, but in battle races, it zooms out to show all of the competitors. In one online race, I was far ahead of the other car, but then slammed into an obstacle I couldn’t see because the camera was providing a top-down view clipped at the front of my car. You are traveling so fast in these races and there are so many random obstacles on the tracks that you need to see what’s ahead of you at all times. I don’t care where the other car is located; just show me what lies in front of my vehicle. Suffice it to say I lost that race, not because of my poor driving skills, but because of the camera. That should never happen in any game on any platform and is completely inexcusable. The sound is a generally forgettable arrangement of environmental sounds and weapon effects: they do an adequate job and that’s pretty much it.

First off, getting into the actual game is a chore. Do we really need three intro videos and four splash screens every time you start the game? Pressing “enter” seven times before I even get to play is highly annoying. The first time you run the game, that’s fine, but if I’ve seen them once, I’ve seen them enough. Once you do eventually enter the game, you’ll find racing action against the AI and other humanoids. The single player mode allows you to challenge the AI to tournaments where you can unlock additional cars and tracks, or practice on existing tracks. There is an editor in the game, but it only allows you to create a track from three of the game’s 17 environments and you have to utilize existing checkpoints in your design. It’s not as cool as it could have been, but it can result in some interesting online racing. You can play on the same computer with multiple control methods (keyboard, gamepads) or online in all-against-all or team games. You can add AI racers to multiplayer matches but not to online events for some reason. Finding an online game is very simple through the game’s integrated browser. Progressing through the single player campaign will allow you to unlock some of the game’s 750 cars that you can trade online. There are only 25 different car styles in the game (the 750 total comes from different paint schemes), but 25 different cars are still more than most racing games. Trading online is as simple as creating a race, and there are several options available if you want to swap duplicate cars or have the game suggest appropriate trades. There could conceivably be a number of people who are interested in trading virtual cars, so it’s nice that the option is there. Micro Machines v4 gives players enough different features to keep them involved in the game for a while.

There are three styles of races in Micro Machines v4: the usual lapped races, single car rally-like checkpoint races, and battle mode. In battle mode, if you get far enough in front you earn points and last place loses points no matter where you are on the track. The race then begins from that point, and you keep going until someone earns a set number of points. This is probably the best way of playing the game, and it results in some intense back-and-forth action as points are earned and deducted. If a race is lasting too long, the game switches to “end game scoring” where points are only earned to decide a winner. There are a number of power-ups available in the game, which include weapons (bombs, guns, flamethrowers, cannons, hammers, missiles) and health bonuses to counteract being hit by weapons. Lowered health results in your car going slower, so you can have the strategy of slowing opposing cars or just running them off the track.

In a “known issue” (if it was known, why didn’t they fix it?), you have to use the same control method for the menus as the game. If you use the keyboard for the menus before entering a race, the game won’t allow you to use any gamepads for racing, even if you have the gamepads set as the input device. This is an odd issue that probably results from porting the game over from console land. You also can’t use the keyboard to spell out anything: thanks consoles. The game also arbitrarily decides which controller goes to which player and it can’t be switched. If you have two gamepads (for two players), you can’t switch which gamepad is for which player, as the order is decided by the Windows game controller settings. I appreciate that the developers ported this game over to the PC, but the control issues are something that just shouldn’t be a problem. There are also some other compatibility issues with the game: Micro Machines v4 seems to have some problems with dual core processors (speeding up and slowing down after a while) and the game always crashes when I exit. Of course, since I’m exiting it doesn’t really matter, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

The gameplay of Micro Machines v4 is fast paced. The tracks are very narrow and treacherous and it’s extremely easy to just fall off the edge. Because of this, battle races are much better than lapped races. If you fall off the edge once during a three-lap race, you’re screwed; during a battle race, you’ve just lost once and can rebound if you careen off-track. The tracks leave very little room for error and they require precision racing, although the camera issues prevent some of the precision from happening. The power-ups add some more variation to the racing, and racing against the track, the opponents, and the opponent’s power-ups is difficult. The AI opponents are very good and aggressive. They stay on the track pretty well (they don’t have to content with the camera) and provide a good challenge, even on easy. In fact, it took me 11 times to beat the easiest three-lap race, and there are a host of races on “rookie” level and easy difficulty I am having problems with. The more I played Micro Machines v4, the more increasingly frustrated I got with the camera issues and the cheating. “Team” races are a joke, as you need to beat two AI cars working together in order to win, which is nearly impossible even on easy difficulty. It also seems like the AI cars don’t need to lead by as much in battle races to win a round as the human player does. I can be leading by a full ten car lengths and not “win,” while the AI can pull ahead by two car lengths and end the match.

Micro Machines v4 is one of the most difficult racing games I’ve experienced. The combination of fast cars on tight tracks littered with obstacles makes for some white-knuckle racing, and the aggressive AI doesn’t make life any easier. I was going to give Micro Machines v4 a higher score, but the camera views are so hideous that I couldn’t do it. The rest of the game is pretty solid: lots of collectable cars, fun battle mode races, interesting environments, and a high level of difficulty for an arcade racing game. But the stupid camera gets in the way of the game, adding to the intricate nature of the races. Just give me a view that’s above and behind my car at all times and I’m happy, but Micro Machines v4 is content with zooming out really far while rotating and eliminating any view of anything in front of your car. It’s so exasperating because the rest of the game is pretty good and potentially fun to play, but actually playing the game often results in a maddening experience. Luckily, the camera issues could be easily resolved through a patch that gave a camera view that actually showed what’s around the bend instead of useless top-down view. You can’t have that view with cars going this fast, and that’s the major problem associated with Micro Machines v4. Porting and camera issues aside, the rest of the game is surprisingly fun, I just wish that Micro Machines v4 came with a complete package instead of wearisome gameplay.