Micro Machines is one of those names that's still spoken of in revered tones. Originally launching in 1991, Codemasters' tabletop toy based racer soon became a smash hit - and one that's long been ripe for a reboot. In fact, ever since Micro Machines World Series was announced, we've been keeping it on our radar, as it sounded so totally up our street. Arcade action, miniature fun, all wrapped up in some everyday item strewn, house-themed courses. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, quite a bit.
If there's one thing we've learnt over the years with games, it's that appearances can often be rather deceiving - and that's certainly true with Micro Machines. With support for four player local multiplayer (or up to a dozen players online), and a host of new, intricately themed tracks to burn rubber around, whether you're racing through a garden, jumping through a toaster, or skidding round a snooker table, everything here at least looks the part. There's even a bit of variety to the gameplay too, with standard races supplemented by a Battle mode, which sees you take on opponents in either a straight deathmatch, capture the flag, or bomb battle (get the bomb to the enemy base), while Elimination challenges you to be the last one left on screen - if you lag too far behind, you'll be deleted. But the more you play, the more problems you'll discover, and the more Micro Machines will start to feel like it's lacking.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that World Series has next to nothing in the way of a single player mode. While you can play on your own in either a Race, Battle (although only a bog standard deathmatch) or Elimination event, the game gives you absolutely no reason to do so. There's no career mode to work your way through, no series of races to take part in, and no challenges to test your skills against - something which makes this an incredibly limited package for those who are playing on their own.
Instead, the entirety of the game's progression system actually revolves around unlockables, with that most irritating of phrases, the "loot box" making an appearance. It's a fairly standard set up - completing races will let you earn experience, earning experience will let you level up, and by levelling up, you'll unlock a new box, each packed with four bonus cosmetic items, with the idea being to play and collect them all. The only catch is, you can't actually earn experience by playing in single player - or even in local multiplayer, for that matter. Somewhat stupidly, the only way to earn experience, and the only way to take part in the game's already poor progression system is to play online - and that's a game in itself.
While it's not obviously labelled as such, choosing the Quick Play option will let you jump into an online game, as Micro Machines tries its best to find someone to pair you with. With just three modes to choose from, and with the game having nothing in the way of a meaningful single player mode, you wouldn't think this would be too hard - yet should you pick one of the two less popular modes (that's Battle and Elimination, rather than the main races), you'll likely find yourself playing against either a single human opponent, or entirely on your own, with AI opponents filling in the blanks. Of course, should you choose to play online, and end up playing entirely against AI players, you'll still earn XP - even though you could set up the exact same race offline and earn nothing. Makes sense? Of course it doesn't - but then little about Micro Machines does.
Whether against human opponents, or computer controlled foes, though, none of the modes here are that much fun. Battles, whether deathmatch, capture the flag, or bomb battles are made immensely awkward thanks to the short range of your weapons, the overly skiddy handling of your vehicle, and the incredible ability of the game's AI opponents. Bomb battles especially are an exercise in frustration, as the opposing team only need to hold the bomb in your base for five seconds to win - and with your weapons being as crappy as they are in this mode, you can hit them as many times as you like, and you still won't manage to kill them. Capture the flag mode, on the other hand, is chaotic simply due to the amount of players - being stuck in a stalemate for nigh on the entire ten minute match because everyone gets blown up as soon as they pick up the flag is no fun at all.
In fact, overpopulation is something that crops up a lot when playing Micro Machines - with narrow courses, hard to control cars, and sometimes some immensely powerful weapons, forcing twelve players to crash their way around an already cramped course is a recipe for disaster. Equally weirdly, the game's multiplayer mode doesn't actually let you play with less than twelve people - while offline, you'll be amongst a much more reasonable four racers, if you venture online in battles and races, you'll always be against twelve, which totally overloads the game's courses.
Nowhere is this more true than in the standard races. Full of hairpin bends, awkward obstacles, and sometimes destructible areas of the track (like patches of weak ice on a lake that'll break if a car drives over them - good luck coming through that course towards the end of the pack), these tracks would be tight enough if you had four people playing, yet alone twelve. Adding to the chaos are the game's weapons, many of which are so incredibly powerful, using them if you're in the middle clump of racers can sometimes see you taking out half a dozen opponents in one shot. And that's fine when it's you who's doing it - but it's much less fun when it's happening to you, all the chuffing time. Even more annoyingly, many courses have areas that force you to bunch together, effectively ruining your lead - on one track, you'll load into a toaster, which you're forced to sit around in for a good few seconds, as you wait for it to fire, giving other racers time to get in with you, and stripping you of any lead you had in the process. Trying to navigate the game's already precarious corners is every bit as frustrating, as one tiny knock is all it'll take to send your lightweight car careering over the edge, and into the void below.
As if the insistence on cramming twelve people into a tiny track wasn't daft enough already, it makes even less sense when you consider the all but online only nature of the game. With games able to take so many people, you'll find you'll either end up waiting 5 seconds, or well over a minute to play, as all the available players jump straight into a single game that can absorb them all, before leaving you floundering in the hope that someone - anyone - else might turn up and play. Random disconnects also plague the game (which equally frustratingly, see you earning nothing in the way of XP), while there's also no private matches (so you can't play with just a group of friends), and there's literally nothing in the way of streamlining opponents at all. In our time with the game, we regularly saw level 1 players going up against people who were level 25 or higher, who'd clearly spent many more hours with the game, and knew each track like the back of their hand - we can only imagine the experience the new players must have been having. And even offline, it's no better, as unbelievably, there's no adjustable difficulty level - meaning if you can't take on the game's impossibly talented AI, you're basically screwed.
While there's room for a little bit of local multiplayer fun here (although only in elimination races, as the battles are rubbish), for the most part, Micro Machines is a crushing disappointment. With lots of modes and courses, Micro Machines has all the components it needs to do well, but then lets itself down through forgetting to include an actual game to play - you know, with difficulty levels, a single player mode, and plenty of things to do. Really, it's hard to see who Micro Machines is going to appeal to, and that's a crushing shame, as the franchise still holds such huge potential. If you're looking for a retro themed racer, you'd be much better off checking out Mantis Burn Racing instead, which, while it may not have cars that are anywhere near as cool, at least has both a substantial single player mode, and four player split-screen support.
Format Reviewed: PC