Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems. We’re looking today at only two titles, but they’re noteworthy ones: Gameloft’s Asphalt 5 and iD Software’s Doom Classic. Asphalt 5 is the very recent sequel to a racing game released last year for the iPhone and iPod touch, while Doom Classic is an official release of a landmark 16-year-old computer game that has been ported unofficially to a staggering number of different devices, including some that weren’t even believed to be capable of playing games.
Both of the titles receive our general-level recommendation. Read on for all the details.
Back a year ago when we reviewed Gameloft’s racing game Asphalt 4 for the iPhone and iPod touch, and even six months or so ago, the very idea of Asphalt 5 ($7) would have been thrilling: the company has so substantially enhanced its graphics engine and control schemes from the prior title that the result is quite nearly the equal of a PlayStation Portable racing game—a major accomplishment in and of itself. But the spark that takes a game from technically competent to really fun isn’t here, or at least, is buried beneath an unchangeable difficulty level that is literally a deterrent to fun, which makes Asphalt 5 feel like a game for hard core players on devices that appeal more to casual users.
The premise of Asphalt 5 is appealing. There are 12 tracks to race on and 30 different cars or motorcycles to select from, ranging from the humble Mini Cooper up to the Ferrari FXX Evolution, with acceleration automatically handled by default—all you do is steer by turning the iPod or iPhone, hit an on-screen turbo button to use limited supplies of nitro for boosting, and press a separate brake button to stop or initiate a drift. To Gameloft’s significant credit, this control scheme feels plenty natural and works better than the original Asphalt 4 steering options, though it’s not fine-tuned to perfection: in addition to racing, hitting other vehicles is also a part of the game, and achieving these Burnout-like takedowns requires a certain unnecessary precision or luck that needn’t be there.
As with the prior Asphalt game, icons litter the tracks to give you cash, turbo boosting ability, and repairs, and if you hunt around a little on the tracks while driving, you’ll discover shortcuts that generally give you a small edge against your five opponents. Different modes include standard three-lap races against other cars, a time attack mode where it’s only you against oncoming traffic and a countdown clock, and a “cop chase” mode where you need to smash seven other vehicles off the road.
Where Asphalt 5 suffers is in its imbalanced, overly punitive difficulty level. Casual racing fans needn’t apply at all, as the likelihood of a less than sophisticated gamer actually winning a race is low—a crash on the track can happen at any time thanks to oncoming traffic, and generally knocks you immediately to the back of the pack no matter how many laps you’ve put in. Race 2.5 great laps, get hit once, and you’re highly unlikely to be in the top three at the finish line, which is necessary to consider a standard race cleared. Moreover, Gameloft’s unchangeable difficulty level sets the bar crazy high for even the “cop chase” races: seven takedowns are required during a six car race. In Career mode, you’ll need to beat multiple tracks just to be able to unlock more than the first two vehicles and courses, and even fairly good players will be challenged to win a single race. We did, but found the process less fun than tedious, repeating the same races over and over again.
From a technical standpoint, the graphics and audio engines are pretty impressive. Asphalt 5’s cars and tracks move smoothly and look far better than the ones in Asphalt 4, including better weather effects, more sophisticated car models, and a cleaner interface design. Though the engine sounds aren’t exactly spectacular and the music has an old school arcade game tendency to play for a short while, stop for a stretch, and then start with a new track, the music’s generally fair to good, and some post-race cinematic movies break the game up with live voice actors.
Hard-core racing fans may find the prospect of unlocking literally everything from cars to tracks to be appealing enough to keep on going despite the difficulty level here, and we wouldn’t dissuade them: Asphalt 5 is almost an old school game in its approach to challenging players to improve. But even as fans of classic racers, we found Gameloft’s balance here to be enough off the mark that we couldn’t get anywhere near as much into this game as we’d hoped; our impression is that a subsequent patch and price change will make it far more appealing to the masses. iLounge Rating: B.
Before moving on to newer and more exciting titles in later years, we played iD Software’s classic first-person shooter Doom on various early formats: Sega 32X, Super NES, and Atari Jaguar to name just a few. So the release of Doom Classic ($7) for the iPhone and iPod touch brings back some memories: for the time being, it’s the original three-episode Doom plus the fourth episode called Thy Flesh Consumed, collectively forming the same content found in the PC game Ultimate Doom. These episodes span 36 levels that look and feel basically like they did in the original game, with modest visual upgrades in the form of filtered textures that soften the rough edges of the game’s bitmapped graphics.
Doom is one of very few games that almost need no introduction: because of its PC-pushing 3-D graphics engine and action intense gameplay, Doom was a breakthrough back in 1993, for the first time completely texture-mapping the 3-D levels you walked in, adding staircases and pits to create differences in height, and using novel lighting to create frightening dark areas. While Doom 3 took the formula to new heights 11 years later, changing the “race around and kill everything” formula of Doom to a slower-paced, creepier theme with horror show-quality cinematic moments, gamers on PCs and consoles loved the original Doom’s fast pace, crazy assortment of weapons—some from iD’s earlier Wolfenstein 3-D, others like the B.F.G. not—and gritty, Alien-like sci-fi and hellfire level designs. A highly similar sequel, Doom II, was released for PCs in 1994 and is expected to be offered as either an in-app purchase for Doom or as a standalone title.
In practice, Doom’s combination of guns, enemies to shoot, and mazes to explore is as much fun now as it was 16 years ago: iD’s “survive to the exit” level maps mightn’t look phenomenal these days, but they’re almost timeless in packing action, secrets, and exploration into bite-sized experiences. On the iPhone and iPod touch, you can turn the game on, play long enough to blast a bunch of demons into meaty piles, find one of the three keys necessary to get to the exit of a certain stage, hit the Home button, and come back later to the place where you left off. No saving is required—the game handles that for you—and whether you’re familiar or unfamiliar with Doom’s stages, the challenges of managing your limited supply of health, armor shielding, ammo, and multiple weapons have the right balance of fun and risk; the joys of discovering the shotgun, a plasma gun, and a chainsaw remain intact and amusing, while the terrors of being confronted by overwhelmingly powerful demonic aliens and needing power-ups to stay alive are nearly as engrossing as they were way back when. A multiplayer mode, including cooperative and competitive access to all of the game’s levels from the very start, is based upon local Wi-Fi.
Obviously, Doom Classic is saddled with an iPhone- and iPod touch-specific challenge: it needs to forego the mouse and keyboard of the PC version or joypad-based controls of the console versions for Apple’s completely buttonless game interfaces. Like Wolfenstein 3-D Classic, Doom Classic places a move and turn joypad on the left of the screen and a firing button on the right; you can also tap doors and switches that are directly in front of you—directly—to activate them. Alternate controls let you have two virtual controllers on the screen, separating movement from head motion, and tapping on the upper left of the screen opens the overhead auto-map created by the game as you explore each level.
iD’s iPhone interface does a good enough job of emulating the console controls that most players won’t be hugely put off by the joypad-based motion, but there are times when the joypad feels too sensitive and thus imprecise, costing you a life as you accidentally fall into a pit or run your way into a crowd of demons. Switching to the dual-joypad schemes clutters the screen, and though iD includes various settings to let you move the controls around and tweak their performance, there’s a certain geeky DIY look to both the menus and the settings screens that won’t appeal to most iPhone gamers. PC gamers may or may not feel otherwise; we suspect that the extent to which fans of the original PC Doom will find the controls unacceptable will largely depend on whether they subsequently tried and came to accept the imperfections of the stripped-down controls that were developed for game consoles.
From an audiovisual standpoint, Doom Classic is a fine rather than great title. With the exception of Doom Resurrection, which borrowed Doom 3 backdrops and character models to create the best-looking iD title yet on the iPhone and iPod touch, the company’s other releases have been all but uninspired aesthetically, and Doom Classic continues that trend—it’s a port of a 1993 title rather than a reinvention, and it looks the part. Imps, Cacodemons, possessed soldiers and the like have not received the redrawing labors of Wolfenstein RPG, so as was the case many years ago, the emphasis here is on offering a high frame rate and texture smoothing. The result is a game that looks fluid at all times but pixelated at the edges of textures and soft everywhere else. Music is chip-tune-quality, and sound effects remain only decent, with nearby soldiers as likely to emit demonesque growls as anyone else.
Overall, Doom Classic is a nice enough port of a classic game, with the types of aesthetic and control limitations we’ve come to expect from iD’s ports. Fans of the series who aren’t too easily upset or surprised by iPhone/touch-related control compromises will find it to be a far better version of the title than was previously available in hacked-together form for past iPods. iLounge Rating: B.