Review: Resolution Interactive Aqua Moto Racing 2
Just as the iPhone platform has come a long way since our February 2009 review of Resolution Interactive's Aqua Moto Racing, so too has the series: Aqua Moto Racing 2 ($5, version 1.0.1) is an even more impressive, deep, and worthwhile rendition of Nintendo's seminal jetski game Wave Race 64, though it's also a little more expensive. Fans of water racing games looking for a single-player experience will jump at this title's graphics and controls, but they'll also find a bunch of loose ends that leave plenty of room for improvements in a sequel.
Any review of a jetski game needs to at least briefly explain the debt of gratitude the genre owes to Wave Race 64: by combining believable water and vehicle physics with upbeat racing and a trick system, Nintendo’s 1996 release effectively defined expectations for every water sports game that was to follow. The ideal balance it established was a game where the thrust of the action was an intense multi-vehicle race, barely interrupted by the player’s ability to do tricks off of ramps, and challenged by increasingly rough weather conditions. Beautiful settings, charming music, and tight controls made the game thrilling.
Aqua Moto Racing 2 comes closer to Wave Race 64 than most of the clones that have appeared over the years, and that’s really saying something. Water that looked good enough in the original Aqua Moto Racing now looks almost completely flat by comparison with what’s in the sequel: now the water has gentle swell points, bigger waves, and small splashes, lacking only for full transparency, wakes, and the sense that you’re actually changing the fluid’s behavior by zooming through it. The brightly-colored, reasonably detailed levels still challenge you to steer around buoys, which look better than ever, and avoid crashing into other racers, who also are plausibly detailed and respectably animated. Apart from its lack of iPhone 4 and iPad high-resolution artwork, there’s no doubt that Aqua Moto Racing 2 looks really very good by App Store game standards; the frame rate is pretty solid, too, apart from the occasional little hiccup. By comparison, the music is chip-based, upbeat, and basically forgettable, as are the limited sound effects.
There are some medium-sized issues that detract from what could otherwise be really great gameplay. To its credit, Resolution’s steering, acceleration, and braking controls make sense—more on them in a minute—so you can be up and racing relatively quickly after turning the game on for the first time. Missing three buoys disqualifies you from the race, and hitting successive buoys entitles you to a limited use turbo boost that may make the difference between a first- or fourth-place finish.
But the game’s trick system isn’t especially well-explained: a tutorial is hidden on a main screen that’s hard to get back to after you’ve selected a game mode, and after fiddling around, you’ll realize that tricks are just six buttons that appear briefly if you hit a ramp at a high enough speed. Hit one quickly or they disappear and the race goes on; succeed and you just watch an animation take place without any interactivity. There are two tricks per “easy,” “medium,” and “hard” level, with the latter two difficulty level tricks unlockable only by buying new vehicles. Between the simplicity of the tricks and the lack of real interaction with other racers—you occasionally get smashed off of your vehicle or do the same to someone else—Aqua Moto 2 feels like a racing game that added tricks and combat solely to tick off checkboxes. Deeper interactivity would have made the game more involving and, for lack of a better phrase, more Wave Race-esque.
That you become less susceptible to being knocked off your vehicle by buying newer and better jetskis makes sense, even if it’s not an entirely thrilling way to improve your performance. Treasure and cash-earning opportunities are scattered across the tracks as a fun incentive to race a little more dangerously, and performing tricks earns you different dollar amounts based on their difficulty. Winning races unlocks additional tracks that can be played either in sequential championship or quick race modes; all that’s conspicuously missing here is online multiplayer capabilities.
Finding ways to control tricks and even a jetski is obviously a challenge for a device with no joysticks or buttons; here, Resolution does a good but not great job. The game starts with a virtual steering wheel and “push to accelerate” button that we didn’t like, but offers an accelerometer-based steering option with automatic acceleration and “push to brake” features that we found perfectly suited to the action—after we made a sensitivity adjustment for the steering. Properly set up in the control department, the game became quite fun, but until that point, it didn’t quite feel right. Aqua Moto 2 should really have defaulted to the accelerometer controls, and like Wave Race’s first practice stage, its tutorial should be mandatory so that you learn how to use the controls properly.
Though Aqua Moto 2 includes 48 courses by Resolution’s count—and lots of courses are appreciated, even if they reuse the same general background art—the ramp-up in difficulty is very uneven. An island resort’s gentle, semi-twisting paths quickly give way to super-aggressive turns when you move on to the first of the Grecian courses, settling considerably before you move on to levels in Egypt. Some of the turns in Greece are so sharp that levels feel really hard to master, becoming manageable only when you get the right steering and vehicle combination; floating red and white dividers in the water are more confusing than helpful in steering you towards your next goal, and you pass right through them rather than bumping into them.
While that’s less than graphically thrilling, it’s a good thing for the gameplay. Though the screenshots and course designs create the impression of a serious jetski racing game, Aqua Moto Racing 2 succeeds because it’s a lot of fun despite the flaws, and makes solid gains on its predecessor, which was itself good by the App Store’s standards a year and a half ago. There’s very little doubt in our minds that rivaling even the 1996 Wave Race is a major programming challenge, and the knowledge that Nintendo will never release its games for the App Store makes “close enough” alternatives a necessity for iPhone and iPod touch gamers. Aqua Moto 2 is close enough to Wave Race to impress many water racing fans today, and it’s worth checking out for $5—or less if it drops in price. That said, we would love to see Resolution work on even better course designs, trick controls, and a multi-player feature for a sequel. iPhone 4 and iPad high-resolution support should be a no-brainer update to this version, as well.