Like a lot of people, I have fond childhood memories of playing Micro Machines. I used to play with the Micro Machines toys as a kid, building make-believe cities out of whatever I had at hand and then driving these little tiny cars around. Then Micro Machines came along, and as limited as it was, given the technology of the day, it still managed to bring those games to life in a way that only a videogame can. It’s not a game that I played extensively, granted, and I didn’t really discover it until long after its initial release, but I still have vivid memories of that first Micro Machines and its sequel, Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament.
Also like a lot of people, I was very much looking forward to Micro Machines World Series, because – at least prior to release – it looked set to deliver everything that made those early games great, but in a modernised way. After years spent slipping further and further off the radar, and being passed around between different studios to middling results, Micro Machines looked set for a comeback. Sadly, World Series isn’t it.
The game actually starts off quite strong. The first time you boot up the game, you load straight into a brief tutorial to get you up to speed. There’s a modern control scheme with acceleration and brakes on the shoulder buttons, and a role-based approach to car design that’s no doubt inspired by MOBAs and character-focused shooters like Overwatch. Each car has its own set of abilities based around a particular play style – the ambulance is a healer, for example – and a special ability that charges with time and kills. It certainly looks the part too, with this tutorial playing out across a tabletop arena made up of books, pens, and other pieces of stationery. It’s a wave of nostalgia and modernity all rolled into one very sharp training level.
But after that, everything starts to fall apart. When the tutorial ends and you see the main menu for the first time, it’s immediately clear that single-player modes are almost entirely non-existent. This is a multiplayer-focused game, and though there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I couldn’t help but be disappointed after how much I enjoyed the arcade-like Challenge mode in the original game. For those who want to play alone, individual races or battles against AI opponents are the only option; there’s no story mode, not even an equivalent of a fighting game’s Arcade Mode.
Still, I wasn’t ready to jump straight into multiplayer and expose myself to humiliation just yet, so I spent some time with the limited single-player options to better acquaint myself. That’s where I discovered that the roles and unique abilities of each vehicle are exclusively for battle mode; in races, weapons are picked up by driving through markers on the track, and everyone has the same pool. This is the standard approach for kart racers – which Micro Machines World Series essentially is – but after a tutorial that introduced different roles and mechanical identities, reverting to a more traditional kart racer setup felt like a step back. It didn’t help that none of the weapons are particularly memorable or impactful, really living up to the Nerf branding. Nor did it help that, as far as I could tell, every car was identical even on basic statistics like speed and acceleration; if there is any different, it’s subtle enough that I couldn’t find it.
That all amounts to the racing modes of the game being lifeless, tedious, and feeling like an afterthought in a game that wants to be a car-based arena shooter. It’s also really frustrating because of unreliable controls that seem impossible to really come to grips with no matter how much I play. Awkward analogue input sensitivity meant that over- and under-steering were far more common than taking corners with a decent racing line, even with hours of play under my belt. And yes, I did adjust the sensitivity settings, but that made little difference.
I did start to enjoy the game a bit more when I started toying with the battle modes, because they’re where roles comes into play. With the right mix of vehicles, your squad becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. This system is probably the single best idea in Micro Machines World Series, but that too is hampered by the game’s control issues. The majority of weapons shoot straight in front of your vehicle, so aiming is tied to that same awkward steering with reliable results almost impossible to achieve. As a result, I found the combat that’s central to the battle modes devolving into a crapshoot most of the time, clawing away at everything that the role system tries to achieve.
Basically, for all the good ideas and franchise history, Micro Machines World Series is a frustrating ordeal to actually play. This is an even bigger problem for the online modes, which make up almost the entirety of the experience, because the community is dead even though the game’s been out for little more than a month. Matchmaking options are extremely poor, and I it’s rare to get even one or two other players in a game, let alone a full roster. When matchmaking times out, any unfilled spots are filled with AI cars; most of the time, most cars are AI-controlled, and it’s not uncommon to be the only actual player.
There’s also a local multiplayer option of sorts, but it’s not split-screen, so an already flimsy selection of game modes is whittled down further to just those that can work with all players sharing the same view. This is arguably where World Series is at its most fun, but a lot of that is in a “misery shared” sort of way.
To its credit, I did really enjoy the look and feel of Micro Machines World Series. There’s a simple, joyful charm in racing through levels designed around household objects and other toys, and the power of today’s game platforms allowed Codemasters to bring this to life better than ever before. I did find the Hasbro branding a bit on the heavy-handed side, to the point that the game almost felt like an advert for Nerf, but that’s all within the context of that childlike fun of taking whatever you can find to build a race course for toy cars. It’s just a shame that World Series falls flat in almost every other regard.
Micro Machines World Series is developed and published by Codemasters. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.