Driving games have been a staple of video gaming for a long, long time now. You can go all the way back to 1976′s Night Driver if you so choose, although we’ve thankfully progressed a way since then, and plastic overlays in the place of actual in-game graphics are no longer acceptable.
Still, Night Driver showed what could be done with a nascent platform — in its case, arcade game technology — and I’ve been playing a game recently that has many of the same benchmarks. It’s on a nascent gaming platform — in this case the iPhone — and it does look a lot better than the games that came before it. In this case, it’s Gameloft’s Asphalt 4: Elite Racing. It’ll cost you $12.99 from the App Store, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that my copy was supplied by Gameloft.
The game opens with what I think is a really clever little trick. A very high resolution race plays, getting your adrenaline running (and, it’s got to be said, making you think the game might actually rival the best you can get on cutting edge games consoles). It is, sadly, a trick — if you tap the screen you’ll see it’s actually a running video that can be paused or skipped over.
Asphalt 4 can be run in either portrait or landscape mode, although understandably the landscape mode affords you a much better view of the track. You can also pick from four different camera angles, although only the in-car view gives you a real sensation of speed. You’ve also got three choices of steering — with an onscreen steering wheel, by tapping the sides of the screen, or by tilting your iPhone or iPod Touch.
I’ve long joked with friends that the inclusion of a brake button in racing games is overkill, as most players will simply fang it around the track with their fingers glued to the accelerator anyway. Gameloft’s taken this view to the extreme, in that there’s no accelerator at all; you constantly accelerate, and only need to control your speed with the brake button. Nitro boosts are earned by driving over them, or in a move stolen from Criterion’s Burnout series, by forcing your opponents to crash against walls. Oh, and apparently the authorities take a dim view of illegal street racing (who knew?) and you’ll have to outrun cop cars and survive sections where the camera splits to a helicopter view of your vehicle. For a mobile racing game, in other words, Asphalt 4: Elite Racing is surprisingly deep.
As you progress through the game, you unlock extra vehicles (including motorbikes), and for the petrol heads in the crowd, you’ll be pleased to learn they’re officially licensed models from a range of sports car manufacturers. On the slightly less pleasing front, you also gain the ability to pick a single bonus attribute for each race — and these take the form of somewhat scantily clad womenfolk. Perhaps not the best way to appeal to 51% of the audience there, Gameloft.
Where Asphalt 4 bears its comparison to Night Driver is in that it’s pretty handily the best looking driving game on the iPhone to date. Car models have a good level of detail, the replays of crashes are well handled (if you like that sort of thing) and the racetracks have good variety. There are points where pushing all this data does clearly strain the iPhone, and a touch of stuttering isn’t uncommon, however.
On the minor niggles front, the very first time you start it up, you’re given the choice of in-game or iPod music. Choose carefully, because I certainly couldn’t find a way to choose iPod music later on. Which brings me to perhaps my biggest niggle with Asphalt 4: Elite Racing — the ingame sound effects.
Now, imagine, if you will, a washing machine. Now, imagine (and bear with me here) that your washing machine had a mouth and, for some improbable reason, genitals. And that, for some unfathomable reason, you were torturing those genitals with a rusty belt sander. The screams your washing machine would make in protest? That’s the skid noise that Asphalt 4: Elite Racing makes several times per race. Whatever you do, disable the in-game sound effects. Your ears will thank you for it.
Australian Macworld’s Buying Advice. Asphalt 4: Elite Racing has its history in the mobile phone gaming world, and given the limited nature of most mobile phone games to date, it’s quite a cracking achievement. It’s not without its flaws, but as a good mix of casual gaming — you can finish most races pretty quickly if you’re just waiting for the bus to come — and long-term appeal — as it’ll take you some time to unlock everything the game has to offer — it represents good value. Just don’t enable the sounds.