Review: Firemint Real Racing 2 HD
Over the past three years, the game developer Firemint has built an interesting reputation, all but defining the "budget iOS game" genre with the simple but widely praised and copied 2-D plane game Flight Control, then roaring out of the gates with the equally influential 3-D driving game Real Racing. While other developers have let their car titles bounce radically up and down in price, Firemint has treated Real Racing and its sequel Real Racing 2 as crown jewels, offering only modest discounts -- but also rewarding players with non-trivial post-release updates. For that reason and several others, the story of Real Racing 2 HD ($10, version 1.10) is more interesting than it might otherwise have been, and the game itself is compelling enough to highly recommend -- at least to iPad 2 users -- despite our strong general dislike for non-universal iOS games.
It was obvious when Firemint released Real Racing 2 late last year that the iPhone- and iPod touch-only game was good but unfinished—an early example of how highly detailed 3-D car models and backgrounds could look on Apple’s new Retina Displays, with caveats. On the plus side, Firemint included 30 licensed cars ranging from low-end Volkswagens to tricked out Lotuses, plus 15 entirely different international tracks, and some seriously impressive synthesized music. Between the highly detailed vehicles—complete with full interiors and exteriors where drivers’ heads could be seen through the windshields—and special effects such as limited car damage, lens flares, and dust clouds, the game looked even better than its predecessor, which set new standards of realism when it was released two years ago. Additional details on the gameplay experience are available in our original Real Racing and Real Racing 2 reviews.
Seemingly rushed out to appeal to last-minute Christmas shoppers, the iPhone and iPod touch version of Real Racing 2 unfortunately exhibited noticeable frame rate issues with 16 cars on the track at the same time, used a rigid career mode structure to lock most of its content away, and included a career-crushing bug that could lose all of your progress after a failed Game Center login, all issues discussed in our prior review. Firemint addressed the bugs and improved performance somewhat in post-release updates, but Real Racing 2 is pretty much the same game it was last December, and still designed solely for Apple’s 3.5”-screened devices—without proper iPad support.
Real Racing 2 HD is a somewhat different story. Launched for the iPad and iPad 2 on the day of the iPad 2’s release, the original 1.0 version of Real Racing 2 HD provided an early—though clearly underoptimized—glimpse at the major differences between the new and old iPad graphics hardware. On the original iPad, Real Racing 2 HD suffered from repeated low memory crashes and a certain frame rate sluggishness when starting new races, but otherwise looked like an even cleaner, bolder version of the iPhone and iPod touch release. On the iPad 2, it included new anti-aliasing effects, plus a considerably smoother frame rate. Truthfully, Real Racing 2 HD on the iPad 2 was the first version of this game that moved as smoothly as players should have expected on any iOS device—as implausible as it is, it felt as if Firemint had been developing Real Racing 2 all along for a device with the iPad 2’s capabilities, and never quite figured out how to optimize it perfectly for everything else.
Today, Real Racing 2 HD was upgraded to version 1.10, and the iPad 2 code is even better: in addition to looking smooth and beautiful on the iPad 2’s own screen, the game now supports up to 1080p video output to a TV screen when used with Apple’s Digital AV Adapter accessory. We tested Real Racing 2 HD on both 1080p- and 720p-maximum screens, and it works properly on both types of HDTVs, putting out images that are even clearer on a pixel level than what the iPad 2’s own 1024x768 display is capable of performing. Between the licensed car models and the detailed race tracks, Real Racing 2 HD looks better on an HDTV than the PlayStation 2’s Gran Turismo titles—with no major frame rate problems even when 16 cars are on screen at once, including only slightly less than perfectly smooth animations taking place in the background objects—while texture and polygon levels fall short only of what is now possible on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in the best developers’ hands. Considering that the addition of this feature was essentially “free,” offset only by the need to buy Apple’s accessory and possibly a spare HDMI cable, it’s pretty impressive; the iPad 2 is in the early stages of becoming a rival to standalone game consoles, albeit a comparatively expensive one.
Will most gamers really care to use the TV-out feature? Well, that’s a good question. Just as when the game is played on the iPad 2’s own screen, the tablet’s gyroscope and accelerometer controls make for a surprisingly outstanding steering wheel, though one that is unnecessarily large and not particularly benefitted yet by the integrated touchscreen. When the iPad 2 is connected to an HDTV, the iPad’s screen contains only a very plain 2-D map and statistical information, while all of the 3-D graphics are offloaded onto the external display. Though there would be no reason to mirror the 3-D content on the iPad 2, Firemint’s tiny control icons for camera switching, pausing, braking, and the like could really stand to gain additional prominence—and in some cases, just obviousness—on the iPad 2’s screen while in this mode. It’s to the developer’s considerable credit, however, that switching between integrated and external displays is handled with true grace: the game doesn’t crash or complain when the Adapter is plugged in or pulled out. It just switches between formats without complaints, and plays. Someone at Apple must be smiling about this, and justifiably so.
Apart from Real Racing 2 HD’s still somewhat lackluster performance on the original iPad, complete with continued early race frame rate stutters that should really be cleared up, our only residual issue with this version of the title is the continued rigidity of the career mode. The game retains the same “everything’s locked at first” structure as before, forcing you to actually play through the career mode in order to enjoy “Quick Races” on the same tracks. Since Real Racing 2 HD’s races start out slow, providing access to only bargain-priced cars, the experience just isn’t as fun as it could be at first. As an offset, Firemint’s Cloudcell lets iPad users access the entire career from the iPhone or iPod touch version of the game, including the cars and tracks that were previously unlocked, via a wireless saved game synchronization system that is buried within Real Racing 2 HD’s menus. While this feature’s not as easy to find as it should be, and you still have to buy the same game twice—both bummers—the save game sync option works well to give players back what they’ve already earned.
Thankfully, even if you’re starting at ground zero in the title, Real Racing 2 HD gets better. A lot better. After the first handful or so of races, you’ll have enough money to buy a good second-tier car, start racing with a wider variety of cool makes and models—think BMWs rather than Ford Focuses—and the tracks just keep opening up with increasingly global, interesting designs. You’ll be able to enjoy local or online multiplayer games over Wi-Fi with up to 16 players online, and after playing enough through career mode, you’ll have access to enough additional tracks and cars to make the game fun to pick up at any time. We just wish there was more fun to be had at the very start.
Overall, between its 1080p external display support and the wonderfully impressive 3-D graphics it performs natively on the iPad 2, Real Racing 2 HD is certainly worthy of a high recommendation for its $10 asking price—on that device, specifically. Original iPad users will be less enchanted by the game’s frame rate issues and won’t benefit from the video-out feature, both reasons that the game merits a lower recommendation for the original Apple tablet. Small but important further improvements could make Real Racing 2 HD better on both of these devices, and we continue to hope that the company embraces a universal iPad/iPhone/iPod touch release for its next major release in this series.