For years now, Crash Bandicoot and his band of wacky pals and adversaries have been providing consistently solid--if slightly unremarkable--gaming experiences in pretty much whatever genre they decide to dabble in. Primarily a platformer franchise, Crash and friends have, like most platformer heroes at one time or another, messed around with the kart racing genre as well. Once again, Crash is hitting the speedway in Crash Tag Team Racing. But don't mistake this for just another middling kart racer. Tag Team Racing combines kart racing, combat racing, and platforming all into one slightly jumbled mess--but somehow, someway, it's a mess that works. Though the racing can't exactly be called challenging, and the multiplayer component isn't exactly dynamite, Crash Tag Team Racing does each of its disparate parts just well enough to make the whole thing come together.
Crash Tag Team Racing takes place in a giant amusement park run by Von Clutch, a cyborg with a German accent. Tragedy strikes the park when Von Clutch's power crystals are stolen, thus putting the park in jeopardy. To try to get them back, Von Clutch decides to hold a series of races around the park's kart tracks for reasons that are beyond obscure. Whatever...it's a kart racer, and the premise is no looser than that of any other kart racer. All you really need to know is that the game features eight of the Crash characters to race with, and a number of different race and track types. But to actually get to any of those races and tracks, you'll have to wander around this bustling amusement park, platforming your way around obstacles, fighting it out with ninja penguins, and collecting copious amounts of coinage.
By that description, you might be thinking that Crash Tag Team Racing doesn't have a particularly good idea of what it wants to be. And you'd be right in thinking that. At times, the racing almost seems ancillary, since your primary goal is to collect enough smaller power crystals to feed a machine hidden somewhere in each of the five main worlds, which then allows you to grab one of the big power crystals. Sure, you earn crystals by winning races and such, but half the time you're just collecting lots of coins and hidden items to deliver to Von Clutch's wacky henchmen that populate many of the levels, who will then offer you crystals in exchange. It's almost like the racing is more a means to an end, rather than the end itself.
But in a game where the racing is this unchallenging, maybe that's not such a bad thing. That's not a knock against the racing as a whole, but compared to most kart racers, this one's kind of a breeze on all but the hardest difficulty level (and even then, it's not all that hard). Seemingly aware of this fact, the developers shifted the focus of the ontrack action away from constant powersliding and other nifty kart moves and went squarely in the direction of combat. The usual kart-racing combat trappings are front and center here, with icons on the track that you drive through to pick up assorted weaponry, like exploding chickens and dynamite-strapped monkeys. But there's a whole other element to the racing game called clashing. By pressing a button, your kart will become an electric blue, see-through color, and the second you come into contact with another kart, your kart and theirs will go all Voltron and combine into a two-man battle kart of death.
In this battle kart, one racer mans a big gun that can be fired at any point, and the other drives. Mostly, you won't need to bother driving, since the artificial intelligence of your partner is more than sound enough to get you around obstacles and pick up more weapons. Each racer has its own unique weapon type--Neocortex has sort of an electric grenade launcher, whereas Crush uses a chaingun. The weapons you pick up off the track icons are also more impressive when in clash mode, letting you chuck grand pianos, submarines, and homing missile sharks, among other things. The clashing element does unbalance things somewhat, as it becomes awfully easy to just traipse your way to the head of the pack as you blow away the competition with reckless abandon. Sure, they'll fight back, but they aren't necessarily as excellent at sniping off nearby foes as you are. Still, there is a degree of strategy to it, since you'll often need to detach from clash mode at certain times during a race, and being the one to initiate the detachment gives you a slight speed boost.
Apart from basic races, there are also the requisite time trials, as well as a few different types of combat races (standard races and arena battles), target-shooting races, and a stunt mode. All of these come into play at one point or another during the single-player portion of the game (though, again, you'll spend quite a bit of your time outside of a car rather than racing). Apart from the camera acting spastically at times and the very simplistic combat, the platforming portions of the game are surprisingly good for a game with the word "Racing" in the title. There are plenty of hidden areas and items to find, including unlockable costumes for each of the main characters. You aren't likely to love the game enough to want to find everything, but odds are you'll still stumble across plenty of hidden goodies.
Once you're done with the single-player racing and platforming after five or six hours, all the tracks will be available to you for multiplayer purposes. There's no online play, so you're relegated to split-screen and LAN play. Oddly enough, the multiplayer just isn't all that compelling. It's clearly because the racing aspect isn't as highly developed as it could have been, so while the combat can be pretty amusing in the multiplayer arena, the driving portion isn't all that good. It's not bad, but there are certainly plenty of other kart racers out there that actually do the racing aspect far better than this.
Crash Tag Team Racing does present itself well. The graphics retain the cute, cartoony, colorful look of the last few Crash Bandicoot games, and everything animates nicely. The ontrack action runs well, even with all the crazy explosions and high levels of speed. In fact, watching the cars blow up is definitely one of the great joys of the game, as they break apart wonderfully. You can't exactly call any of the graphics impressive, but they definitely get the job done. All three versions of the game run pretty much the same, too. The GameCube version suffers from a bit of frame rate drop, but it's minimal, at most. The audio is on the same level as the visuals: some of it's good and some of it's not. Some of the voice acting is kind of obnoxious, but quite a bit of it is also damn funny. Bits of the henchmen dialogue in particular is great fun, as are the woefully underutilized pair of chicken commentators, who sound like send-ups of Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley. The rest of the audio is the usual batch of goofy sound effects and quirky music. Nothing exactly standout, but it's entirely serviceable stuff.
Crash Tag Team Racing doesn't break down the door of the kart racing genre with wanton innovation and brilliant gameplay, but it has enough going for it to appeal to those with a penchant for cute characters racing and blowing up one another. It'll be especially good for younger audiences, since the difficulty level is set pretty low. As for more experienced players, Crash is probably more worthy of a rental than a purchase. But one way or another, it's worth checking out.