Tossing another racing title onto the racer-rich PlayStation Portable is sort of like dumping a bucket of water into the ocean, but to its credit, Cars isn't just like everything else available for the system. Based on the recently released Pixar film of the same name, Cars is a youth-oriented racer that's challenging enough to still be engaging to older players. And though it may lack some of the minigames and open-ended qualities of the console versions of Cars, the PSP version's tighter focus on the core racing component makes it a better fit as a handheld game.
There is a story element to Cars on the PSP, but it's not nearly as fleshed out as the one found in the console games. The basic premise is that a team of unruly street racers (complete with ridiculous spoilers, more neons than you can shake a stick at, and some heavy, heavy subwoofers) comes to the town of Radiator Springs to cause some ruckus. Local hero Lightning McQueen (the star of the film) and the local population challenge these street racers to a series of competitions to run them out of town. That's about it. Little pieces of story interject themselves from time to time via some nice-looking cutscenes, but generally, you're just going to find yourself doing a whole mess of racing.
There are 15 playable racers in Cars, ranging from Lightning McQueen to the country bumpkin tow truck Mater, Lightning's lady friend Sally, and the aforementioned troublemaking street racers. Each car has a few unique statistics in terms of top speed, acceleration, handling, and the like, and the differences between them are tangible, if not overly differentiating. Regardless of who you pick, the same core racing mechanics apply across the board. When racing, you can drift behind other cars to fill up a speed-boost meter, as well as jump over certain obstacles and powerslide around turns. Tracks often present ramps and shortcuts, which adds a touch more strategy to the races.
Fundamentally, the racing in Cars is quite fun. The opponent artificial intelligence is fair challenging, so you're definitely not going to get too many guaranteed wins beyond the first couple of tracks. Conversely, the handling of the cars is quite easy, so it's not tough to pull off big turns and powerslides. Powersliding in particular is ridiculously easy. It's not so easy that you won't ever wreck, but often simply initiating a slide any time before you take a turn is enough to basically guarantee an easy turn, even on the most harrowing hairpin.
While the racing is most certainly fun, it does get rather repetitive after a while. Cars is basically a kart racer where the characters themselves are the karts, and there's no weapons combat or other wrinkles to add some punch to the experience. The core racing is good enough to basically carry the entire story and grand-prix modes the whole way through, but you'll still likely find yourself unable to play the game for more than quick bursts of time. The ad hoc multiplayer is a little more enjoyable, given that racing against other people is generally more exciting than playing against the computer, but even that can wear thin after a while. If playing in short, controlled bursts works for you, then you'll undoubtedly enjoy Cars. If you're the type that prefers to power through your games, you may find Cars to be a tougher pill to swallow.
Cars' production values on the PSP aren't quite as impressive as they were on console versions, but they're still quite good. The car models are nicely designed and the facial animation is great during cutscenes. The problem is that the environments aren't quite so interesting. Most of the tracks run together and feature little to really catch the eye. It's all technically nice-looking stuff, and the frame rate is fully consistent throughout the experience, but it's not exactly an aesthetically impressive game. Like the console games, Cars includes voice acting from the full cast of actors from the film, though the amount of actual dialogue contained in this version is considerably less. There's just not as much story here, so there's less opportunity to hear the actors outside of their one-liners while on the track. Those one-liners are pretty good, though, and not as oft-repeated as they were in the console versions. The same basic soundtrack and sound effects from the console games are in this version, and they sound just as great here.
Cars for the PSP is hardly a game any driving fan should just run out and buy. It's a solid little racer that will certainly hold some appeal to fans of the movie, and any younger players with a PSP ought to get a kick out of it. However, those with more discerning driving tastes might want to give Cars a test drive before taking the plunge.