Things on Wheels (or TOW) is one of those rare treats on Xbox Live Arcade - it's a game that's easy to pick up and play, compellingly fun, should appeal to just about anybody, and is very addictive. TOW is the second offering on Live Arcade from Paris-based Load, Inc. and the studio took lessons learned from their first successful Xbox 360 title and applied them to TOW.
The game is a cart-style racing game, featuring radio controlled toy cars (much like Re-Volt from ten years ago) competing on enormous tracks staged out on the grounds of a
mansion. Despite the playful theme of the game, TOW features realistic physics, and in addition to the challenge of beating other racers on the track, there are environmental hazards and the dangers of the track itself to contend with as you race for the finish.
The central story to the game is that the player has been
invited to compete in an RC-racing competition held in
Florida by eccentric billionaire "Bill Doors" - the Citrus
Cup. This story and further exposition are delivered through 'blog updates' that the player unlocks with each successful race, but to be honest they're a bit dull and don't impact the game in any way. All you need to know is that the championship campaign, the single player mode, is split into four episodes, of five races each, for a total of twenty events or tracks. Most of these are of the general 'be the first to cross the finish line' variety, but about one-quarter of the race events change things up a bit. Some of the race events are team based, with the cars organized into color teams and the first car of a given color wins the race for the entire team - races like this encourage you to look out for your teammates cars and protect them from rival racers. There are also a few 'elimination' races, in which the last car to make a lap on the track is out of the race, but left on the track as a hazardous obstacle. As was mentioned, most of the races are just of the general 'be the first across the finish line' variety, but that simplicity belies the fierce nature of the racing in this game.
Load Inc's previous toy car race title, Mad Tracks, won
excellent reviews for its playful nature, solid production
values, its playability and the variety of games and
challenges for the players. Where critics did speak up about where the game could be improved was the general racing challenges - the cars weren't really fast enough, the A.I. wasn't very aggressive, and it just wasn't as exciting as it could have been. For TOW, Load focussed exclusively on racing and turned in a game that is quite intense to play - the first night I played the game I simply couldn't put the controller down. It's that kind of game where, once you get warmed up and 'in the mode', you just HAVE to beat that next track, you know that this is the only time you'll be able to do it.
The speeds are faster by far than Mad Tracks, and though you will initially be racing with 1930's-style vintage racers, these slightly slower and less powerful cars will let you get a handle on the physics and how the cars handle in the game before you graduate to the muscle-car racers and the sports models at the end of the game. The races ARE fast, and with the open, sometimes unfenced tracks (sometimes blinking indicator signs are the only indication to where you're supposed to be racing) you will have to race a particular course a few times just to get to know the lay of the road. Fortunately, restarting a race is simply done from the pause menu, and does not require any reloading on the part of the game. (Load times are a BIT long first going into a new race, though.)
There isn't any customization of your car or its parts,
except for its color, but each class of racer features
about a half a dozen models of car that can be unlocked and
earned that vary in performance stats, such as speed,
handling, power, and weight (important to consider when
you're jostling with seven other toy cars off the starting
line and jockeying to pull into the lead).
The A.I. is very aggressive even on the easiest difficulty
session, and to be honest, once the A.I. racers are in the
lead you'll be seriously hard-pressed to take first at the
end of the race. The game can be a bit frustrating at times, where a perfectly run race can go down the tubes within a second or two from an unfortunate collision with a table-leg, or just a random bump from another care. There is a button to 'reset' you on the track after a mishap, but at the pace this game goes it'll cost you too much distance to recover and you might as well restart the race. The game's power-ups on the track do help to even the odds - there are red 'speed boosters', a yellow 'lightning bolt' that saps the battery power of all nearby cars, slowing them, green 'defense fields' that temporarily protect you from other cars' powerups and also repel objects away from your car (great when you're in a fast corner and in the middle of a pack of cars) and also blue 'ice crystals' that freeze up the wheels of enemy cars nearby, costing them their handling. The powerups are persistent - always in the same place on a given track - and what's more, they remain there on the track even after a car picks them up. So if you grab a powerup jetting through a certain section of the track, odds are your enemies are packing the same thing, so you have to be a bit more strategic about how you use them in the race.
Visually, TOW's a nice upgrade from Mad Tracks - the
environments are large with lots of detail, and though the
scene is kept largely clear of clutter so as not to
distract, the levels still are immersive enough to really
convey the scale of these small, fast toy racers in the real world. The cars are nicely detailed and it's fun to compare the different makes, though when they're onscreen they're usually zipping about so fast you'll likely not notice. It's possible to play the game in a first-person perspective, too, in which case you won't see your car at all - but it does add to the tension; whipping through the legs of a dining room table and chair set at scale speeds of 100 miles an hour can feel a bit hairy!
Multiplayer is where the game really gets fun - without the
frustration factor of A.I. that knows the track better than
you and plays rough, the game is really given a chance to
show off. There are split-screen and Xbox Live options,
though split-screen means a widescreen high-def TV is pretty much mandatory, as the speed and scale are just too
difficult to keep up with on an old-school CRT television.
All in all, TOW is a good racing title that at higher
difficulty settings, will present a challenge to the more
experience cart-race gamer, and at the same time is
accessible to the more casual player. Its playful theme and
fun settings will appeal to most players, and its a great
game to crack out for a bit of competition. Buy Things On
Wheels and get those toys moving!