Welcome to this week’s second gaming edition of iPhone Gems. As promised yesterday, today’s edition is focused on sports games—one ATV racing game, a miniature golf game, and a mixed martial arts fighting game.

Our top pick of these titles is 2XL ATV Offroad by 2XL Games, but all three of these games are worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genres they represent. Read on for all the details.

2XL ATV Offroad

When 2XL Games released 2XL Supercross back in April, we were impressed—prior to the release of the iPhone 3GS and 2009 iPod touch, this developer had managed to create a realistic-looking and smooth-feeling motocross racing game of roughly Sony PSP caliber for prior-generation iPod touch and iPhone models. Now the company has returned with 2XL ATV Offroad, which maintains the same $8 price, shifts the theme to ATV vehicles, and adds a couple of smart innovations to the prior formula.


In ATV Offroad, the primary goal is to cross the finish line of a multi-lap track before any of your competitors do, and success is as simple as maintaining or achieving a leading position while traversing deliberately bumpy, sharp-turned, and mostly outdoor courses. Additionally, six silver buttons on the edges of the screen let you do in-air tricks on your ATV—one of the smart innovations—and a “preload” button on the bottom left corner of the screen lets you set up a trick before you launch off of a hill or ramp. You steer with the accelerometer, which “just works” from the get go, and accelerate or brake with little buttons on the bottom right of the screen. This control scheme is fairly intuitive, visually non-intrusive, and leaves you feeling mostly like success or failure in the races is your fault rather than the device’s or the game’s—not something that can be taken for granted in iPhone and iPod touch racers.


A major selling point of ATV Offroad is the course selection, which includes 16 different tracks spread out across a number of different visual themes—all are Sony PSP-rivaling in texture quality, polygon count, and frame rate, with you and your fellow racers similarly all rendered with plenty of detail and nice shadow effects. Outdoors or indoors, the tracks have plenty of draw distance so that you’re not dealing with pop-in, and the smooth, speedy races are some of the most fluid we’ve seen on the platform. From track to track, the races are fun, challenging, and filled with unexpected little turns and bumps that can be exploited for tricks or saving time, or missed with resulting penalties. Resolution Interactive’s Dirt Moto Racing did a better job of marking some of its courses with arrows to show you where to go in otherwise open, sandy environments, but that’s pretty much the only place where 2XL falls short of its most obvious rival in the visual and gameplay departments.


A multiplayer mode lets you race up to five people, and on “normal” difficulty, the computerized challengers are well-equipped to beat you fair and square in the single-player races. All that’s missing here is in-game music, which we really consider to be a shame, as the residual in-game audio is lacking in pep—just engine noises and the occasional grunt as someone gets knocked off an ATV. Better audio is the only thing we’d like to see added to 2XL’s titles; otherwise, ATV Offroad is as close to console-quality ATV racing as can be found in the App Store today. It’s highly recommended. iLounge Rating: A-.

Adrenaline Golf Online

Full-fledged or miniature, we love golf games, and it doesn’t take much to find really good ones these days for the iPhone: Let’s Golf, Tiger Woods PGA, and Wacky Golf Mini Worlds have all really impressed us in recent months. Eurocenter’s Adrenaline Golf Online ($5) is unfortunately in another category: it’s a miniature golf game with interesting graphics and courses, but no soul. It appeared just in time to show off the new shader technology in the speed-bumped 2009 iPhone 3GS and iPod touch models, but in the many weeks we have spent trying to get enthusiastic about its gameplay, we just haven’t been able to do so.


Adrenaline Golf Online has two major things going for it: a collection of 72 different holes spread out across four themed backdrops, and a very modestly souped-up graphics engine that adds cooler-looking water when you play the game on the iPhone 3GS or 2009 iPod touch. The holes are all sort of tropical, ranging from jungle and tiki-themed to island and volcanic, and use both realistic miniature golf challenges—hills, artificially curved courses, and things that need to be reflected off of—and surreal ones, such as giant fans, bubbles that cover the hole and then disappear, massive elevated platforms, and vertical tunnels.


Even where these challenge elements haven’t been polished quite as much as they should have been, such as where tunnels require too much power or too precise of an entry angle in order to progress to the next part of the course, the fact that the courses are so diverse is a real positive. A handful of songs ranging from dreamy to adventurous are included, each repeating endlessly as you play through 18 holes.


What works against Adrenaline Golf are two factors: a mediocre frame rate, which chugs along and stutters on the 3GS, and two control schemes that do little to make you feel like you’re really golfing; one has you set the power level and then tap to shoot, while the other uses a swipe gesture to shoot. Neither is fun—or at least, as fun as in the aforementioned golf titles we’ve tested. It’s unusually difficult to judge power for distances, and there are plenty of blind shots that need to be taken due to differential elevations, curving courses, and camera angles that don’t do enough to show you how you need to be shooting. Eurocenter tries to make up for this with a few different play modes, including two challenge modes that go beyond the standard miniature golf configuration by adding stars that must be hit, or limiting the number of strokes you can take; these are nice additions, as is a multiplayer online mode that works effortlessly to bring you into matches either in-progress or about to start with other people. If the underlying golf game and course designs were better, we’d be a lot more excited by these features, and the price is unobjectionable; as-is, however, Adrenaline Golf is merely on the fine edge of our B and B- ratings, meriting the higher one only because of its matchmaking and showy shader tricks. iLounge Rating: B.

Iron Fist Boxing 3rd Strike

There are games where all of the pieces come together perfectly to form an awesome whole, and others where the pieces are generally there but don’t all work quite as they should together. Iron Fist Boxing 3rd Strike ($4) from Realtech VR is an example of the latter type of title—a mixed martial arts fighting game where you choose a kickboxer, brawler, or other martial artist, then punch, kick, and block your way through round after round of one-on-one fights. For whatever reason, you play the game in horizontal screen orientation rather than vertical, tapping the upper left and right of the screen for high punches and the lower middle for body shots, rocking the iPhone or touch to the left or right for stronger cross attacks, and hitting a block button to put up your defenses. Blocking is essential to recharging your stamina, which drops as you throw punches and kicks, and also as you’re hit by your opponent.


Iron Fist’s characters are rendered as fully 3-D polygonal models, and can add shaders and other visual effects that are unique to the iPhone 3GS and 2009 iPod touch to provide more realistic-looking models than earlier iPods and iPhones can deliver; the differences aren’t pronounced, but they’re there, and the frame rate remains a little shy of totally smooth regardless of the device you’re playing on. That aside, to the extent that they animate somewhat realistically and occasionally land impressive blows that are sort of like the super moves from the Street Fighter series—activated here by on-screen gestures rather than joypad quarter- and half-circles—the characters are sort of cool, but their faces and body textures are more than occasionally ugly, and a less than totally smooth camera has too much of a tendency to twitch as you move around.


And that’s basically all the time. Between the bobbing and weaving you need to do to activate your crossing side attacks to the constant tapping you’re doing on the screen, it feels like you’re constantly in motion from the start of each fight to the finish. Decent music keeps the game feeling somewhat exciting, combining with crowd noises, standard fighter hit and grunt sounds to create an fine overall atmosphere for the fights.


Apart from the ugliness of some of the characters and the shifty camera stuff, Iron Fist’s major issues are in gameplay and presentation. There are moments when the game’s controls seem inspired, such as when it calls for you to execute several gestures on the screen to release combination attacks, and when you first see a super attack that looks more like a cool martial arts move than most of the simple punches and kicks you’re delivering throughout matches. A star meter-based focus system, which slows the game briefly to let you deliver some undefended blows, also feels like a really good idea—the game’s on-screen suggestion to finish someone off when their lifebar’s down is a Mortal Kombat-evoking touch, complete with a spray of blood if you deliver a good hit. But there are equally bad moments, such as when you hit the canvas and need to get back up; you need to unnaturally twist the device rapidly and hit a button to regain consciousness. Moreover, most of the game is spent just bashing upper and lower punches, worse yet in the cramped vertical camera view, which you can alter using several preset alternative angles, but not flip onto the device’s side to give you more room for controls and seeing the arenas around you.


Iron Fist Boxing 3rd Strike has most of the elements in place to be a truly great fighter—plenty of characters, different fighting styles, and even some mini-games for training. With better controls, a widescreen mode, and enhanced audio, we’d have been much more enthusiastic about it, but fans of MMA-style fighting looking for an unpolished diamond of a fighter should consider giving this one a shot anyway. While it only merits our limited recommendation for now, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it improve markedly with future updates. iLounge Rating: B-.

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