Since PAX East this year no racing title has left more excited than Jimmie Johnson's Anything With An Engine, made by the folks at Isopod Labs (a company founded by the dudes who created a little game called Vigilante 8) and Autumn Games. With each taste I had of it at both PAX and E3 the same sentence kept coming out of my mouth: This could be a Mario Kart killer. However as a follower of smaller game developers my optimism was cautious, as I've had full meals of disappointment served to me on many occasions by these lesser-known companies. After playing the final version of it, those doubts have since been trashed into scrap metal.
Players can choose from twelve racers (seven right away, five unlockable), each one of them special in every way. You can choose to race in a bathtub, a coffin, shopping cart or even a rocket, and each vehicle comes with its own crazy character to drive it for you. You can ride on thirteen different tracks, which all have their own hidden goodies and secret ways to reach victory. Throughout a regular race you can earn points by lighting up specific switches, and the more you light you the sooner you'll be able to use such tactics as boosts, ramming, missiles and mines. Here's the cool part: each missile and mine is made custom to the vehicle you're racing. For example if you choose Couch Potato (a man trapped in a mascot uniform riding a recliner) the missiles will be pizzas and the mines will consist of exploding TVs.
Anything With An Engine features a Career Mode that has eight different Cups to win (five main, three bonus). Each Cup features a mixture of every type of race in the game, ending with a duel between you and Mr. Johnson himself. Once you beat Jimmie you are given a token to unlock one of the other four racers you can hit the tracks with. Once you unlock those and win the Diamond Cup you will have the ability to play as Jimmie and his barstool from Hell.
Besides the regular races there are other modes to compete in. In Survival players will have a set time limit to escape from being in last place, which will lead to their elimination. Endurance has you facing your opponents in a long race that is determined in the end via a point system; the higher you are in the ranking at the end of each lap, the more points you will earn. No other mode will keep you on the edge of your seat than Matador, where eight racers are spilt into two groups, placed on opposite ends of the track and forced to literally go head-to-head to win. Trying to evade racers that speed towards you, not to mention trying to reach the front of the pack further than the racer at the other end, make it the sort of nail-biting racing experience that gamers have been clamoring for.
As you race your vehicle will get beaten up, which is where the Pit Stop comes in handy. By pushing the Repair button fast enough not only will your vehicle be good as new, but your weapons will be replenished. Be careful, for if you don't reach a Pit Stop in time your vehicle will explode, possibly pushing you back to last place. It makes me wonder why many kart racers -- or racing games period -- don't have a feature like this, as it adds on to the strategic experience of racing.
Strategy plays a major role in how to win a race. You're given boosts, missiles and mines, but it's about how and when you properly use them that will either help or hinder your chances at a victory. You can have one of your mines sticking out in the back of your vehicle to keep people from ramming behind you, but at the same time it takes away a bit of your speed. Using your Boost will come in handy, but if you use it too soon another racer might come up from behind and pass you. Then there is the red buttons on the track, which will spring Gotcha! traps on you or your opponents if triggered at the right moment. You can even find secret pathways on the track that will lead you past your opponents and into first place. Don't think that victory will come easy, as these races are just about neck-and-neck at every corner of the track. (Don't be surprised if one of your opponents passes you at the very last second of the race and steals your victory away.)
While the control aspect of the game is standout, there is but one minor gripe I had with racing in Anything With An Engine. In order to use Boost you need to double-tap the Gas button to activate it, which can sometimes lead to a quick slowing down of your vehicle if not done properly. I'm surprised that one of the other buttons that's not used wasn't chosen to be just the Boost button, as it would've made it a bit easier to operate it. However this tiny problem does not take away anything from the experience of this title, as it is much harder to not use Boost the right way.
While there isn't many racers to choose from the variety you get from each character will keep you entertained for as long as you want to race. There will also be some DLC content later on in the year that will feature more racers to choose from, the first of which will be talk show host Jimmy Fallon. (Proceeds from that specific DLC will go to the American Red Cross, so not only will you be downloading another fun vehicle but you'll also be helping out a good cause.) Players can also race online with one another from across the globe (except for the Wii version, sadly), as well as do split-screen mode in the same room, guaranteeing much craziness for all to enjoy.
Anything With An Engine is one unique title, as Jimmie Johnson himself was involved with creating much of the style of the game. Having an actual NASCAR racer, not to mention one of the world's best, on-hand to help design a kart racer had many advantages. Yes, it has much cartoonish elements thanks in part to its racers and usage of weapons, but its handling, steering and Pit Stop usage help add a sort of realism to the insanity on the tracks. It's that sort of combination that makes Anything With An Engine one amazing thrill ride around the track.
- Edge-of-your-seat racing modes
- Fun characters, tracks and weaponry
- Solid control scheme, vehicle mechanics
- Last-second losses will probably leave you frustrated
- Boost could've had its own button
Jimmie Johnson's Anything With An Engine might not be this year's prettiest racer out there, but it is certainly the most fun and exciting. Isopod Labs, Autumn Games and Jimmie Johnson have developed something that both Sony and Microsoft have failed to accomplish on their own: a game that not only rivals Mario Kart, but also makes a fool out of it. If that statement doesn't make you run out and give Anything With An Engine a spin, maybe this will: it's only $30. Your move, Nintendo!
FINAL GRADE: 9.6 (out of ten)
Review copy provided by the folks at Isopod Labs