Reviewed: August 2, 2006
Released: June 27, 2006
I absolutely love racing games whether they fall into the ultra-realistic sims like Gran Turismo or the wacky remote control action of Smash Cars. With so many racing games out there it’s becoming increasingly harder for developers to give their game the necessary hook to make their title stand out.
Supersonic is no stranger to racing games although Micro Machines V4 is their first trip around the track with this particular franchise. Micro Machines, the game, is based on Micro Machines, the toy, which has been around for more then 20-some years now. The toys were incredibly inventive miniature cars, not unlike Hot Wheels, that sparked the imaginations of millions of kids who “drove” these tiny cars all around the house, backyard, and playground.
Micro Machines V4 definitely borrows on this wondrous childlike imagination to create what are easily some of the most inventive tracks of recent memory. Granted, the 750 cars, split into 25 classes, are a bit plain and repetitive in their designs, but they are so tiny and insignificant during the races, that this is one of the few racing games that’s all about the tracks.
Coincidentally, Micro Machines V4 is targeted toward the younger gamers, and I had the luxury of allowing my nine-year old niece to play-test this game for me. The results were rather surprising. She lost interest almost immediately, even after I explained the rapid nature of the battle mode and the tug-of-war meters for each player. So while I know of one nine-year old girl who didn’t like the game, I also know of one 42-year old uncle who did.
Despite some floaty controls and physics playing Micro Machines V4 couldn’t be easier. You have your gas and brake buttons and you steer with the stick or D-pad. You also have buttons to fire any weapons or activate a power-up or to drop a power-up you might not want.
Steering is intentionally slippery forcing you to master drifting techniques normally reserved for games like Ridge Racer. Depending on the surface, gravel, metal, glass, tile, the level of grip varies forcing you to not only memorize the textures you are racing, which change numerous times within a single lap, but also the amount of drift you need to compensate for on those surfaces.
There are more than 40 wildly creative tracks in Micro Machines V4. Regrettably, these tracks are so creative and full of life that they ultimately turn up a bit short in length. This isn’t so bad in the Battle mode where you might score three or four times in a single lap, but in the 3-lap races, most only last 90-120 seconds.
Some of my favorite tracks include the rooftop race with a gutter half pipe, and a stuck kite that serves as a banked turn. There is also a construction site with a pounding jackhammer just waiting to pummel your car if you drift too far out of the turn. It gets even more creative indoors as you race along kitchen counters, display cases at a dinosaur museum exhibit, or on a pool table where you must dodge balls rolling across the felt or avoid cue sticks as you race around the edge of the table. There is even a track inside a hen house where you must not only weave in and out of the pecking birds, but also slalom your way up a conveyor belt transporting “giant” eggs.
Scale is used to perfection in Micro Machines V4. Everyday objects become challenging obstacles when you are driving a miniature car. For instance, one level has you racing on a miniature train set and you must time it just right to drive across the flatbed cars to reach the other side of the track. A steam iron can blast you off an ironing board and a rotary saw can spin you off a rooftop. Sinks become bottomless pits and a harmless crab on the beach can achieve Godzilla status.
This latest installment features a new dynamic camera mode that keeps the camera constantly in motion, almost to a degree of nausea. It is pretty good about anticipating curves, even hairpins, and swinging high or wide to cover the action. For those who prefer the more stable camera you can opt for the Classic view found in Micro Machines V3, and if you can find the bonus code you can unlock the Retro camera for a bit of top-down racing action.
There are several racing modes in Micro Machines V4 that are mirrored across multiple skill levels. The Battle mode is probably the hardest to come to grips with, especially if you have never played a game like Tokyo Extreme before. Rather than winning an actual race, this mode merely requires you to get your car ahead of the rest of the pack. You can do this by clean driving or by collecting and using power-ups to slow down or take out the competition.
There are more than 20 weapons and power-ups in the game that range from lasers, machine guns, and heat-seeking missiles, to dice bombs and a giant hammer you can pound the competition into the ground with. The weapons are as creative and fanciful as the tracks themselves and add a bit of strategy to the racing experience.
What bothered me about the Battle mode is that there is no distance meter to judge if you are winning or losing. Sometimes the computer would win when it was only a few feet in front of me and other times I would have to be a quarter-lap ahead before I would score a victory.
Each time you win one of these sprints (which generally only take 10-20 seconds) your progress meter advances to the right. If the enemy wins they push their color toward you on the left. The scoring is basically a big game of tug-of-war where you try to fill the entire meter with your color.
You also have traditional racing where the first person across the finish line after three laps wins, and there is even some four-car racing setup in a tournament structure where you are awarded points that are tallied across a series of tracks. As you win each race you are awarded new cars from the massive garage of nearly 750 vehicles, as well as unlocking tracks for multiplayer modes.
Micro Machines V4 supports up to four players using a Multitap or even more originally, shared controllers, where one player controls their car with the right stick and face buttons, while the other player uses the left stick and D-pad. I’m not sure how well this would work for adults or kids with big hands, but I suppose it might work if your hands are small enough. Still, having two people trying to use one controller just seems awkward.
As creative as all the tracks are, the overall visual quality is pretty generic by PS2 standards. There is a great deal of shimmering and jagged edges on the levels although this seems to be more of an issue during the pre-race flythrough of the track. Once in motion, the gameplay and dynamic camera mask these imperfections.
As previously mentioned, there are 750 cars but you’d be hard pressed to tell many of them apart unless you actually bring them up in full detail in the garage. Once in the game, you’ll probably be racing more by the color-coded initials than the image of the car. Once in a great while the camera gets close enough that you can appreciate the model of the actual weapon mounted on the roof, and the little jig the car does when it wins each sprint is charming the first 200 times you see it.
The best thing about the graphics is the ultra-smooth framerate, which is essential in a game like this that focuses on slip-n-slide gameplay. The dynamic camera can take a few races to adjust to, but you can always opt for the more traditional up/down view from MMV3.
I find it ironic that the most powerful sound in the game is the sound that accompanies the Dolby Pro Logic II splash screen. After that, you’d have a hard time telling there is even that much sound, let alone a DPL surround mix.
Music is some very basic midi-style tracks that are suitably energetic for the racing action but not really themed to the tracks. Plus, the short burst nature of the Battle mode means that ever 10-20 seconds the music gets interrupted for the little ditty that plays while the victor dances on its tailpipe.
Sound effects are nothing more than whiny engines sound. It probably would have been more enjoyable and realistic to record a bunch of kids making their own sputtering engine noises and put those in the game. There are some simple effects put in for weapons and power-ups but they aren’t that powerful or impressive. In all, Micro Machines V4 is just a very average sounding game.
There are numerous gameplay modes including a lengthy and surprisingly deep solo mode that will have you questing to unlock the entire stable of 750 cars…or maybe not. My motivation for playing the game was primarily to unlock all the tracks. The cars weren’t nearly as impressive as the courses.
There is also plenty of multiplayer goodness for up to four racers in versus and team modes, and if you don’t have a Multitap you can even try out the shared controller scheme. Those with a creative streak can check out the track editor, which merely allows you to plot your own routes through existing levels. There is even a trading system in place so you can swap cars with other gamers or even race for ownership rights.
There is a lot of racing but most events are finished almost immediately after they are started. You can do an entire difficulty level in less than two hours, although kids might take a bit longer. Then again, the game isn’t all that challenging, even for kids, and you will likely only lose if you really screw up more than once within a single race.
I’m not embarrassed to say that I really liked Micro Machines V4. After playing all of the more serious games that come my way, this was a pleasantly mindless, yet challenging diversion that showed some real ingenuity, especially in the visionary track designs and great use of scale.
As my niece proved, not everyone in the target demographic will take to this game, and I can see why. The presentation and overall layout of the game isn’t quite up to the level we are now expecting from the PS2, but if you can overlook a few blemishes, there is a fantastically fun “little” racer waiting to be played here.