Hands-onMicro Machines

We take Infogrames' minuscule racers for a test drive in a PS2 preview build of this top-down racing game.

The Micro Machines series of racing games seems to have been around forever--the diminutive racers were certainly popular on game consoles long before their 1997 appearance on the PlayStation in Micro Machines V3 . At that time, the Micro Machines games were being developed by UK-based Codemasters, who also sought to take the series off in a slightly new direction with the 2000 release of Micro Machines V3 .

Infogrames has since acquired the Micro Machines license, and with the game currently in development at the company's Sheffield House studio, it appears to be sticking very much to the long-established gameplay formula while also adding a few new features. We recently had the opportunity to spend some time with an unfinished PS2 version of the game, and while we're pleased to report that fans of the series will find plenty that's familiar in Micro Machines, we're not entirely convinced that this latest installment will attract many new players.

After selecting one of the eight incredibly diverse characters available, we decided to skip the tutorial option (actually, it wasn't available in our version) and head straight for the championship mode--a series of four three-lap races against three opponents, with points determining the winner at the end of the series. The races themselves take place in what, from the player's point of view, are gigantic gardens, cemeteries, barns, and the like. The courses all look great on the PS2, particularly those that take place on the impressive-looking water of a garden pond. For the most part, the actual course designs are less impressive, though, providing either very little challenge or an exercise in frustration depending largely on whether or not it's possible to fall off the track at any point.

No matter whether we were playing the first, bronze championship or the final, platinum championship, the other racers on the track were the least of our worries--even if they were tooled up with any of the numerous available weapons. In fact, we found that even after completing all four of the game's championships--which, incidentally took around an hour--we'd barely made use of a single weapon and hadn't been on the receiving end of very many, either. We also found no need to employ the game's new jump or powerslide buttons.

The single biggest threat to our success in the game was actually the camera, which hid our vehicle behind obstacles or walls on some occasions and swung around at certain track positions on others. It proved a worthy adversary, but one that we'd rather not have been pitted against, as the AI opponents we were racing were obviously not affected by it. The camera issues were at their worst if, as has always been encouraged in previous Micro Machines games, we decided to stray from the track in search of shortcuts. There were still occasions when we were able to cut corners, but very few of these appeared to be by design, judging by the camera's response to them.

Taking shortcuts in the single-player game wasn't strictly necessary because, with the exception of in the platinum championship, all the racers seem to be in vehicles that are significantly slower than the player's vehicle. In the preview version of the game that we've been playing, the speed of the other racers appeared to be the only difference between the different difficulties levels, as the course designs weren't really any more challenging from one series to the next.

For the most part, Micro Machines is very easy on the eyes, with plenty of animated objects both on and around each of the tracks and some really nice vehicle designs for the car, sports car, off-road, and aquatic variants of each character. We occasionally found it a little difficult to see where we were supposed to go next on some tracks, but then the need to learn the courses has always been something of a feature in the series, particularly for the multiplayer modes, in which the player leading a race has traditionally only been able to see an extremely short distance ahead of his or her vehicle.

Stressing again that the version of Micro Machines we've been playing is unfinished, the sound in the game really did verge on being painful at times. The problem is that while each of the tracks features some decent ambient sounds such as rats squeaking in the barn, a guy singing in the bathroom below the attic course, and sirens going off in the space station, no matter how much we played with the audio options, these noises were all that we could hear. The engine sounds of the vehicles were practically nonexistent, and even a race that lasted for less than two minutes seemed like a test of endurance when all we could hear was a siren going off.

Given that the main strength of the Micro Machines series has always been its multiplayer mode--which we've not been able to play at the time of writing--we actually think that it's shaping up to be a pretty decent racer. While the version we've been playing has some very apparent and occasionally frustrating problems, there's really nothing in there that Infogrames won;t be able to fix before the game's release.

Micro Machines is scheduled for release in Europe on November 8. The North American version won't be arriving in stores until early next year. For more information, check out our Micro Machines V3 of the game.

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