Reviewed: September 1, 2003
Released: August 13, 2003
As a huge fan of real-life racing and computer simulations of real-life racing I was rather skeptical when asked to review Smash Cars, the latest RC racing simulation from Russian developer, Creat Studio. Perhaps my skepticism was due in part to the fact I never had an RC car or plane when growing up – but since my girlfriend is constantly telling me to “grow up” perhaps I still have time. Until then, Smash Cars is absolutely the next best thing.
The premise is quite simple and made abundantly clear in the opening movie. You pick your favorite RC racer and challenge five other cars in 3-lap races around exciting environments like the beach, skate park, Area 51, etc. and create as much havoc as you can while trying to get across the finish line ahead of the others.
There are plenty of hazards along the way that are scaled appropriately to give you the unnerving feel that you are this tiny plastic car in a very large world. Hitting something as small as a can of soda will send your car or truck careening off-course, but hitting objects is a huge part of the game as is pulling off crazy tricks and stunts.
Smash Cars features:
Smash Cars offers some surprisingly additive gameplay that is both fun and challenging. You get to pick from over a dozen unique cars - all but three are locked at the beginning - and race in some of the most cleverly crafted tracks I’ve seen in an arcade racing game. Much of this creativity is born from the fact that you are racing miniature cars in settings that real cars could never drive and encountering hazards that would never be an issue in a full-size car. After all, when was the last time a dog bit your car and threw it across the ground? Yugo owners need not answer.
Typical of racing games, you have several modes to play including Quick Race, Championship, Stunt, and several mini-games. You win money for winning these races but it also costs you money to enter them, so there is a bit of strategy involved in choosing your events wisely while upgrading your cars at the same time. It does no good to empty your bank account on car upgrades then find you can’t afford to enter a race.
The Championship Series is obviously the core of Smash Cars and is surprisingly vast with no less than seven sub-modes to compete in ranging from standard Cup Races, to Smash Drive, Stunt Races, Hot Pot, Flashback and others. Some of these modes are extremely challenging, especially the Flashback races where your opponents are fully outfitted with all of the upgrades and you have nothing but a basic car and your driving skills.
Each of the 13 vehicles in Smash Cars feature unique properties for grip, speed, and boost. You are free to modify and enhance any or all of these vehicles with new tires, engines, and boosters giving you incredibly flexibility in fine-tuning the game to your style of driving. The only downside I noticed is that by the time I had unlocked some of the cooler vehicles I had already upgraded my earlier ones to the point where they exceeded the stats of the new ones.
Racing is a total blast and you are introduced to the unique style and perspective with a tutorial that sends you around a starter track in search of cans to knock over and graffiti-style checkpoints to drive through. Control is flawless with the analog stick but a bit twitchy (as expected) using the D-pad. It was also rather unsettling to be using R1 for jumping but the face buttons were already occupied with controls like gas, brake, handbrake, and car reset.
There is also a trick system in place but I found that tricks here more often crashes that I recovered gracefully from than anything I could plan. There are some vert ramps in the skate park and you can manage to get some air and do flips and spins to earn stunt points, but unless you are actually playing the Stunt mode there is no real reason to attempt any of these.
Track design is quite clever including several real-world and fantasy locations. You’ll get to drive around the exact same beach environment that you saw in the opening movie or how about a quick 3-lap race through Area 51 complete with guard dogs, machine-gun toting guard, roving Humvee, and even a UFO. Each of these themed levels has plenty of interactive objects, shortcuts, and surprises in store for you. The tracks are actually living environments so obstacles change from lap to lap. That angry surfer that kicked your car across the beach on the first lap might be on the pier for lap two.
Finally, Smash Cars supports two-player split-screen racing and you are free to go head-to-head in events like Quick Race, Stunt Race, Smash Drive, and Hot Pot competitions. The two-player action is nearly as intense as the solo gameplay and can easily make this game a huge favorite at your next gaming party.
The thing that really sold me on Smash Cars was the excellent sense of scale the graphics were able to deliver. Sure, it’s easy to “say” you are in an RC car then put you in typical environments so that you would never know, but when you are racing past humans that tower above you, or dodging a German Shepherd the size of the Goodyear Blimp it really enforces the illusion that you are in a tiny plastic car.
Another thing that really sells the game is the physics and the way the cars bounce and tumble when they strike an object (or an object strikes them). You’ll almost wince as you expect parts to start flying off. There is also subtle motion in the animation such as independent suspension of the wheels and a bounce to the cars and trucks as they navigate uneven terrain or careen down some steps. Special effects add to the realism with dust clouds, flames spouting from the boosters, realistic water, and other subtle additions that help to sell cars and the racing environments.
There are a few things that could have been improved. The game does have that PS2 shimmer and there are some noticeable jaggies, but most of these issues are easily overshadowed by the immersive fun that quickly consumes you.
After the rocking soundtrack for the open movie you are left with some very poor music. There is nothing here that is remotely exciting or conducive to racing. It’s all quite juvenile and simple, almost like something you’d expect in Mario Kart. For a while I tuned the music out then I realized I could turn it off in the options and once I did I never missed it.
With the music off I was able to appreciate the wonderful sound effects such as the whirring of the electric engines, the powerful boosters, and all of the subtle environmental effects like dogs barking, UFO’s whirring, guards shooting at me, waves lapping up on the beach, and the metallic clank of soda cans bouncing off my bumper. What the game lacks in music it more than makes up for in creative and realistic sounds that bring the levels to life.
I took me around 15 hours to finish off a single Championship game, but the fun doesn’t stop there. The additional modes and the compelling two-player action will have this game making frequent visits to my PS2. Best of all, it’s budget priced at $29.99 so I can easily recommend this as a purchase rather than a rental.
Even going into this review with a skeptical outlook, Smash Cars has managed to make an RC racer believer out of me. While I doubt I will be running to my hobby shop to invest in a $200 RC truck or car (one that I would probably break my first time out) I will certainly be spending countless hours driving these miniature racers in one of the best PS2 racing games I have played this year.
Smash Cars is original and most of all FUN!