Monday, 14 April 2008

[16] Mario Kart Wii - Review

As promised, here is my review of Mario Kart Wii. It will probably be up in some form on CC2K within in the next week or two, but I'll give it a home here:

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The Mario Kart series is one of Nintendo's biggest selling franchises. However, it is also one of those very franchises which attract criticism from the more 360 and PS3 inclined gamers for cutesy design and essentially sameygameplay across the 5 (now 6) console installments. Sporting online functionality and a spiffy new Wheel peripheral, is this new installment a classic? The result is not ground-breaking - it does not, ahem, 're-invent the Wheel' - but it is a solid and enjoyable game only marred by specific, frustrating design choices.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What is this franchise all about? Well, Mario Kart is not Forza 2 or Gran Tourismo. The 'Mario Sports' series of games is well-known for taking a sport of serious and international stature (Soccer, Baseball, Basketball), flying in the face of the more simulation-minded competition (Pro Evolution Soccer) and creating addictive, arcade-style doses of pure fun. Since the first in the series, on the SNES back in 1992, Mario Kart has been based around the same central tenets. The player picks a character from the Mario family (Luigi, Bowser, Peach, Toad, Donkey Kong etc), and races around well-designed courses inspired by locales from the plumber's other games, all the while picking up power ups that either boost the kart's speed (mushrooms) or attack other racers (green shells).

Whilst ostensibly a 'casual' game (even after so many years, the game mechanics are still quite easy to pick up), the series has garnered a great hardcorefanbase. This is not only because of its association with Nintendo's mustachioed mascot, but through the deeply competitive multiplayer modes. One of the more popular 'gamer nostalgia stories' is going to a friend's house to play Super Mario Kart on a Saturday Afternoon, and Mario Kart 64's implementation of the console's 4 controller ports was a landmark in mutual gaming. Equally, 2005's Mario Kart DS added in significant Wi-Fi compatibility, taking the race online for the first time and marking Nintendo's first serious foray into a worldwide race.

So, the nametag alone guarantees hype, but Mario Kart Wii is itself notable for two reasons. One, for bringing the handheld version's online awareness to the home console market, and also for being the first iteration since Nintendo's return to the top of the best-selling lists with their latest family-friendly piece of hardware. The addition of the 'Wii Wheel', a free peripheral for the Wii-mote that turns it into a wireless steering wheel, is also a selling point, being emblazoned on ads and promo shots for the game. Opinion has been divided on this accessory, with many 'hardcore' fanboys lambasting Nintendo for going 'casual', whereas others have praised this use of the Wii-mote's unique technology. The reality is more in the middle: the wheel works well, and provides an easy, workable experience. It definitely adds to the pick-up-and-play factor of the game. However, on harder levels and higher speeds, where every drift and boost count, the responsiveness of the wheel is somewhat lacking. Luckily, Nintendo have once again displayed their deep understanding of giving the gamer choices - the player can choose from one of 5 controller schemes, including Classic and Gamecube set ups for the hardened old-schooler. Players will be thankful for these more traditional schemes, especially online.



Online play is where the game's strengths lie. From the initial press releases, which promised 12 player races and battles, Mario Kart Wii has been touted as Nintendo's first step into the world of Internet Gaming - a world dominated by competitors like Xbox Live and Playstation Network. The online package is well-designed, well-implemented, and, so far, a success. It is quick and simple for a player to join a race, and experience has proven there to be little lag. There are also worldwide and continental time trial leaderboards, with the option of downloading 'ghost data' (a recorded run-through) that lets you challenge the world's best Mario Kart players. Sadly, with less than a week since release in both Japan and Europe, leaderboards are filled with cheaters logging inhumanly fast scores, but hopefully these bugs and exploits will be ironed out before long. There is also space for 'competitions', which hasn't been explored yet. All this points to a good mileage for Mario Kart Wii's online play.

The single player and local multiplayer modes, in comparison, seem a little overlooked. Mario Kart DS featured 8 Grand Prix cups, a total of 32 tracks; half were remastered classics from previous installments. MK Wii follows this formula, although the new tracks are given a little design boost over the handheld, with some details that will impress and amuse, even during a heated rush. Tracks shift and change during races: one example, based around a volcano, has the outer edges of the track crumbling away, leaving the final lap to be fought out on a thin strip of land surrounded by lava. Sadly, beyond Grand Prix and Time Trials, there is little to keep the solo player interested. The missions mode from the DS, which included challenges and boss battles, provided a neat little break from the pure racing experience; it is a shame Nintendo didn't transpose this mode for Wii.

The resulting game is solid, however it is the minor niggles which reduce it from 'real classic' to a mere 'step in the right direction'. Previously, I mentioned the importance of the local multiplayer, with fanatics wasting hours on the battle mode. MK Wii's local multiplayer is arguably 'botched'; the free-for-all, 'deathmatch' style battles have been replaced by a strictly team-based approach. Equally, the 'balloon battle' mode is now timed, with the epic encounters now replaced by a points scoring scramble. The 4 player mode is also restricted by the tracks, which have been tooled for 12 player online games; with only 4, courses and arenas seem over-whelming, and much of the enforced time limit is spent simply trying to find opponents. These little design choices really hurt the game, especially since they could have been avoided by extending the multiplayer options.

Sadly, these minor issues aren't restricted to the multiplayer. Even though the gameplay is on the whole of a good standard, not every aspect truly resonates. This installment brings bikes into the competition, and although it is good to see the developers trying new things, they do not greatly affect the overall feel of the game. Equally, adding 'tricks' that can be easily performed while jumping off ramps, and simplifying the drift-and-boost mechanic from previous games only serves to make harder modes more frustrating (you will need to nail every jump and boost on every corner to secure first place). Speaking of difficulty, this game is hard, and sadly, not in the challenging and fun way. The set up of the Mario Kart series has always been somewhat tough, mainly due to its array of items which punish speedy racers in favour of those lagging behind. However, with Mario Kart Wii, it seems the contingency factor has imposed itself even more - you can be a consistent and speedy player, and finish first on one race, only to be struck by 5 lead-killing attacks at once, finishing 12th on the next. Also, the lack of a 'replay race' function, effectively binding the player to the rest of the Grand Prix (unless they restart from the beginning), is immensely frustrating, since you will want to try the harder difficulties, and the gold trophy will be your ambition.

However, even though the dev team have packed the game with unlockable characters and vehicles, they are not really desirable or worth the effort. The player can unlock all the tracks within their first hour of play, on the easiest difficulty. Beyond that, there isn't anything that will change the game; only aesthetic differences, such as that between playing as Donkey Kong or Funky Kong (or Bowser and Skeleton Bowser). There is the unlockable option to play as your mii avatar, which is a nice touch. However, I stopped playing as my Mii because the provided voice acting was so unbearable. Little pips and squeaks that NO-ONE wants to hear during a high speed chase. I know it is hard to expect anything more from a Mario game, but the sound effects, and especially the voices, are utterly terrible. Maybe I was spoiled by Mario Galaxy's surprisingly graceful, even at times epic rendering of Charles Martinet et al's usually god-awful, racist, sexist etc voice work, but in Mario Kart Wii it is badly-judged and badly-implemented. The music, too, is underwhelming, generic and forgettable, although thankfully they retained the classic tunes for the retro tracks.



This is a divisive game. It is not bad, it is not perfection. It is a bold statement on behalf of Nintendo that they take online gaming seriously; however, they have taken one of their flagship franchises and, through nothing but absent-mindedness, removed some of its prize aspects and brought relatively little to the table. Instead, we are saddled with a game that is undeniably impressive on the one hand, yet upsettingly stripped and hollow on the other. Its addictive quality centres on the Wi-Fi angle, and will go down a treat with high score fiends and those who don't mind long-distance competition. Those who prefer a night in with friends will most likely be sorely disappointed.

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