One of the first things the representative for the game asked me when I arrived for our meeting was, “You know who Jimmie Johnson is, right?”Â, and the look on his face when I said I had no idea who he was talking about could only be described as Oh-Great-Not-This-Crap-Again. It’s amazing how expressive the human face can be. It’s true though, I didn’t know who Jimmie Johnson was. Turns out he’s a NASCAR driver who loves video games and wanted to be a part of the process of creating something he could enjoy with his children.
As he explained this, I’m fairly certain I shot the “Oh-Great-Not-This-Crap-Again” look right back at him. I’ve got nothing against NASCAR; some people talk about how it’s something only rednecks can enjoy, but as someone who likes Demolition Derbies, I don’t think it’s redneck enough. Racing in a circle where the point is to not crash? Boring. A game he wanted his children to enjoy? Great, so it might be boring and dumbed down for children.
So I think we were off to a great start.
JJ’s Anything With An Engine is a kart racer with a name that is just far too long. Aside from the long title, it differs from other kart racers as a game where the karts can be, well, anything with an engine. They’ve shoved an engine in what looked like a bomb, a reclining chair, a lawnmower and other odd objects. These rigged together karts are driven by equally odd characters. After choosing to play the duel mode both the representative and I chose our karts. I went with the reclining chair, which for some odd reason had a mascot character by default… or a furry, but this is a game for kids, so I assume it was the former.
The duel began. It was till three laps or until one of us destroyed the other. The representative pointed out tips on how to race. Jimmie Johnson’s Anything With An Engine differs from other kart racers in a lot of ways; for example, there are no random power ups on the track. You have a push-away move that I was told you would always have, along with missiles and mines. This in some ways was similar to Crazy Chicken’s Star Karts (I’ve played a lot of kart racing games), except instead of collecting weapon upgrades on the track, you instead collect votes. Votes are what you gets from the fans, and you get them from either performing well, taking out other racers or by driving over small highlighted sections of the track. Doing this will give you more ammo, or upgrade the weapons.
The missiles are also unique for each character. As the reclining chair kart my missiles were pizzas, and my mine was a TV. You press one button to arm the mine behind you, press again to let go. Dragging the mine will protect against missiles, but will slow you down. Upgrading via votes, on the other hand, makes more powerful versions of these weapons. My pizza missile turned into three simultaneous pizza missiles. The missiles themselves have slight homing properties, but you still need to be pointed towards what you are trying to hit. There was also nitro boosting that was activated by double tapping the accelerator.
As you can see, with this system, there are no real blue shell power ups like there are in the Mario Kart games, and if you’ve been living in a cave for a few decades, by that I mean there are no powerups that vastly change the course of the race. There are two types of kart racers, those who don’t like how the blue shell style powerups imbalance this kind of game, and people whose opinions don’t matter. You can probably tell by that which type I am. I was enjoying that aspect of the game when the representative started talking about rubber banding, and how Jimmie Johnson loves that mechanic. I felt a sinking feeling about this until he showed me how rubber banding works in this game.
First, if you don’t know what rubber banding is in a racing game, it is an artificial game mechanic designed so that at no point the person in first place is very far ahead of the pack. This is meant to keep races competitive, though it also means that no matter how well you are racing, the person who is driving like they’ve had about six shots of Jagermeister will always have a chance of winning. This game takes a different approach though; instead, if you are in last place and behind the pack at times, shortcuts will open just for you. These never will help someone from last place to reach first place, it just helps you get into the middle of the pack again. Some kart racing games are so unbalanced from rubber banding that it actually discourages the player from getting into first place before the final part of a race, but this works as a compromise to keep it competitive without resorting to punishing those who are racing well.
The track we played on was also a good representation on what to expect from the game. Multiple obstacles and voting zones were laid out around a crowded but aesthetically pleasing race track. There were parts of the track that you could race over that would cause traps to activate for racers ahead of you.
I was really impressed by this game. You don’t need to be a fan of Jimmie Johnson (or in my case know who the guy is) to see that this could really be a surprisingly good game. Most kart racers try to hard to be like the dominate game in the genre, Mario Kart. Jimmie Johnson’s Anything With An Engine manages to throw some unique, fun ideas into the genre while offering multiple karts, upgrades, modes, and so on. I still thought that maybe it would be something they might have a hard time selling as a full price retail game, and then was shocked to learn that this is actually going to be a Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network game (with a retail Wii release planned at a later date).
If the final product is anything like the E3 demo, than it will be a steal at anything less that $20.