Review: Gameloft GT Racing: Motor Academy
For years, the most popular driving games were based on coin-operated arcade machines -- ones that were designed to thrill players for short periods of time -- but as arcades faded away, developers became increasingly focused on driving games with the sort of depth that would keep people playing for weeks or longer, earning money to unlock real cars, tweak them with parts, and attempt to get top lap times on tracks that were grounded in realism rather than fantasy. Using this formula, Sony vaulted from a nobody in the driving game world into a pole position by creating the Gran Turismo series for PlayStation consoles, focusing on rendering licensed cars believably in 3-D, while modeling each car and track to reward skillful rather than action-intense driving. Now Gameloft has duplicated that formula, more or less, with GT Racing: Motor Academy ($7).
As with so many of Gameloft’s titles, GT Racing: Motor Academy pares down the modern console gaming experience you’d expect into a version that’s simpler, but preserves the core essence of its inspiration—particularly older Gran Turismo games such as GT1 and GT2. After unlocking everything, you’ll get to select from 14 tracks, including both paved road and rally courses, as well as over 100 cars from 24 real manufacturers, most of them with surprisingly big-named licenses. Gameloft includes both cars and supercars from Audi, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Mercedes, and RUF, plus humbler models from Citroen, Dodge, Ford, Mazda, and Toyota, and a number of options in the middle of the pack. Consequently, you can race a stock Prius without worrying about the brakes due to settings that automate braking for you, or tweak out a 2009 Lotus Exige S with the sorts of customized parts that only serious car enthusiasts will care about, then drive it with fully manual, challenging controls. A YouTube video upload feature lets you share your performances with friends, as well.
Ultimately, the controls and the graphics are going to spoil GT Racing for some potential players. We found the accelerometer-based steering to be twitchy; by following the Sony Gran Turismo model, Gameloft has backed itself into a corner by going for realistic handling in a driving game without a true steering wheel peripheral, a gear shifter, or pressure-sensitive pedals, so it’s forced to simulate differential handling for various cars using the accelerometer and/or on-screen buttons. Due to the limitations of the iPhone/iPod touch controls, we found ourselves seeking as much automation as possible, largely defeating the purpose of such a realistic simulator; unlike the PlayStation consoles, there’s no way—yet—to connect a wheel or other accessories to make the iPhone or iPod touch feel closer to right. And we can’t say that we’d be willing to pay for such a sophisticated accessory for these devices even if it did exist.
Visually, GT Racing tries as hard as it can to offer a Gran Turismo-like visual experience, and generally succeeds. The car models are both numerous and impressively detailed—amongst the best we’ve seen on the iPhone and iPod touch—with simple reflection effects and slightly rich color saturation. Regrettably, car damage isn’t included in this title, and neither are special effects like sparks, but then, Gran Turismo only started to include damage when it reached the PlayStation 3. Gameloft’s tracks have been designed with the same sort of realism we’ve seen in the Gran Turismo games for years: they’re cleaner than the ones on the original PlayStation but a step down from the PlayStation 2, even when running on the iPhone 3GS, due to a surprising level of pop-up that’s most obvious in city tracks such as Sydney, where pieces of skyscrapers literally materialize in front of you when they’re 1/8 of a mile ahead. We also noticed slowdowns and frame drops on the 3GS under certain conditions, particularly when several cars were on the screen at once, though Gameloft does include a rain and fog weather mode that makes pop-in seem a little more believable, adding raindrops to your screen as you drive. Music and sound effects aren’t especially noteworthy; menu screens and races have good but not memorable synth tunes, overlapped by competing engine noises and modest, infrequent chimes.
If you’re willing to accept GT Racing’s shortcomings, there’s also a lot to like here. Gameloft includes a ton of camera views, including manufacturer-specific in-car views and multiple behind-car, on-hood, and no-car options, then lets the camera turn dynamically as you tilt the device regardless of whether you’re using accelerometer-based steering controls. Those who dislike tilt-based steering can activate an on-screen wheel—ugh, we say—or invisible on-screen turning buttons, as well as calibrating braking, traction, and steering with considerable CPU assistance. Those looking to sweat out gear shifting, manual acceleration, braking and steering have only one challenge to worry about: fitting all the required buttons on screen. GT Racing limits your ability to overload the display with too many control overlays, but with full manual controls, managing everything is a challenge.
Though the graphics and controls may quash some players’ interest, others will be completely sucked in by the game’s depth and features. There’s an arcade mode that’s a little too light on action to be really exciting for single-player action, but does provide instant access to enough of GT Racing’s cool cars and tracks to let players immediately start having fun. Wi-Fi, two-player Bluetooth, and Online modes are all available for multiplayer racing with the better cars, as well. As with Gran Turismo, the meat of GT Racing is in its Career Mode—the reason for the Motor Academy subtitle—which offers four sets of licensing tests that help you perfect steering, braking, overtaking, and drifting, a car dealership, the aforementioned aftermarket part garage, and a collection of special races, all designed to work with a system of earning and spending cash-like credits. This is where you customize and unlock cars, and earn your way race by race from a low-end ride into expensive exotic sports cars.
We’re not going to try and feign a greater level of enthusiasm for GT Racing than we actually feel: under the best conditions, driving “simulators” like this really need to have some arcadey content to get us excited, but this one doesn’t, and it’s hard to feel completely serious about a “realistic” racing game for a platform that demands such substantial control compromises. For what it is, and at the $7 asking price, GT Racing is worthy of a general recommendation: it’s currently as close as anyone has come to a Gran Turismo-style title for the iPhone and iPod touch, and to the extent that this isn’t an easy feat due as much to the manufacturer licensing and car modeling as anything else, Gameloft deserves some commendation here. Just don’t expect to be amazed by anything except for its depth, which will keep simulation fans interested and playing for much longer than anyone else.