Welcome to this week’s first gaming edition of iPhone Gems. Today’s theme is “racing,” with four recent racing games of different types all competing for your dollars and attention. We’ve issued ratings to three of them, but are holding off on rating the fourth due to its considerable depth, which we’re still exploring, and plan to discuss more fully in a separate review in the next couple of days.
For now, our top pick of the bunch is the short but sweet budget game Parcel Panic. Read on for the details.
There’s little doubt that Mad Processor’s Parcel Panic – Post Car Racer 3D ($1) is heavily inspired by Sega’s famous arcade and console Crazy Taxi series: both titles see you driving a vehicle in a 3-D world, and working as a deliveryman of sorts, picking up cargo—people in Crazy Taxi, boxes in Parcel Panic—to deposit at a destination before a timer runs out. And to the extent that Parcel Panic offers relatively spectacular graphics for the iPhone, distilling most of the Crazy Taxi experience into an accelerometer-controlled iPhone and iPod touch title, it’s worth seeing for the low price, even if it’s shallow by comparison with the title that inspired it.
More impressive than anything else in Parcel Panic is the artwork: Mad Processor’s graphics engine smoothly depicts an island with several difficulty level-based variations, forcing you to navigate your delivery truck on winding roads, over bridges, and through small town streets that—apart from the absence of people—look and feel pretty real. The nicely textured building destinations are clearly marked and pointed to with green arrows, one rotating and angling upwards or downwards at the top of the screen, and a collection of cargo boxes in your truck can be jostled off your vehicle by poor driving. It’s all pretty impressive for an iPhone title; a simple music track plays in the background as you drive.
There are two places where Parcel Panic falls short. First is in manic energy: in what retrospectively feels like a stroke of genius, Sega went over the top with Crazy Taxi’s characters, audio, and street populations, giving everything an edgy and lifelike vibe that’s missing from this title. Parcel Panic keeps you busy with fair, regimented checkpointing, but never quite reaches the level of “exciting.” The second issue is in depth: you can unlock a series of four total trucks and access three difficulty levels, but they’re basically just expansions of the same island course, which is eventually big enough, but not huge. For $1, it’s hard to complain too much, as the game is legitimately challenging and visually quite impressive; it’s one of the rare releases for the App Store that we’d love to see radically expanded and offered at a commensurate premium. iLounge Rating: B+.
As demonstrated by Parcel Panic, small game developers occasionally really impress us, but as the App Store continues to see more impressive releases from medium- to large-sized companies, it’s harder for the so-so stuff to even merit attention. Drag Racer: Pro Tuner ($3) from XMG Studio is one of those so-so titles—a 2-D racing game that would barely have been interesting right after the App Store opened, and one that today falls only a little above “bad” in our ratings. Just like an old, banged-up drag racing car, there may be a lot going on under its hood, but it needs substantial body work to be worth showing off.
The concept: you pick a car from a list of fake but fairly blatant clones of real vehicles, upgrade it with different parts and artwork, then bet credits on how it will do in a race against another car on a 1/4-, 1/2-, or 1-mile track. The credits can be used to further tweak your vehicle and buy other cars, and there are actually different types of races: quick straight line races, street races where you can tilt to sort of steer left or right, and tournament races with bigger prizes and challenges.
If all of this sounds interesting, it sort of is: the game’s back end, including its customization system and multiplayer Bluetooth/Wi-Fi mode, is pretty well developed, and in truth, the game’s on-screen controls manage to make the potentially boring concept of drag racing—accelerate, shift gears, and use nitrous—more compelling than we’d expected from race to race. But the game is substantially let down by its graphics engine, which presents everything as flat 2-D objects against a flat 2-D background, with a substantial portion of the screen reserved for the controls, and the audio, which is little more than engine noises and cue chirps without music. The artwork’s not awful, thanks mostly to the use of familiar-looking cars and plenty of objects to paint on their sides for customization, but it’s not great, either; 3-D models and a better use of the wide screen would have made the game a lot more appealing. In its current form, Drag Racer: Pro Tuner is a decent enough game with below-par visuals and well below-par audio; we’d expect that a full sequel would be needed for it to live up to its true potential. iLounge Rating: C-.
In time travel movies, success is the result of knowing the future: Marty McFly and Biff hope to strike it rich by betting with a sports almanac, while the Terminator uses foreknowledge to attack Sarah Connor and various members of John Connor’s resistance. But Gameloft’s success in the App Store has been the result of studying history: it has plucked virtually every major success story franchise from other platforms and created its own version for the iPhone and iPod touch, riding well-established formulas to become an uber-publisher for Apple’s devices. The latest result is GT Racing: Motor Academy ($7), which borrows heavily from Sony’s Gran Turismo series.
For those who haven’t heard about Gran Turismo, Sony vaulted from a nobody in the driving game world into a pole position by creating this PlayStation series, which focused on real licensed cars, realistic tracks, and skillful rather than action-intense driving. Over time, the games became more and more impressively believable, though to some—including us—boring, while other people loved Sony’s driving tests, unlocking vehicles, and the focus on simulating believable tracks rather than the neon-lit, arcadey tracks found in titles such as Namco’s Ridge Racer. GT Racing borrows the Gran Turismo theme, offering 14 tracks, over 100 cars from 24 real manufacturers, and pushing players to learn the different handling characteristics of the vehicles. Innovations from the later Gran Turismo titles—motorcycles, F-1 cars, vehicle damage, and so on—haven’t made it into GT Racing.
Yet so much of the Gran Turismo content has survived for this $7 title that it’s hard to be anything other than impressed by the title’s depth: though there’s an arcade mode that’s a little too light on action to be really exciting, the career mode lets you go through numerous licensing challenges, plus sponsored and unsponsored races, all in the pursuit of credits that can be used to customize and unlock cars. Moreover, the car models are all surprisingly impressive in detail, and though the tracks aren’t as packed with exciting details as in some of the iPhone’s other racers, they’re built to look realistic. Graphics performance appears at this stage to vary considerably based on the model of iPod or iPhone you’re using.
We’ll have a full review of this title later this week, but for now, our impressions are generally positive, apart from what we’d describe as weak accelerometer-based steering and the issues noted above. iLounge Rating: N/R.
Tapulous’s series of Tap Tap Revenge music titles have, by most measures, been amongst the most popular rhythm games for the iPhone and iPod touch: millions of downloads, deals with bigger recording artists, and increasingly impressive—though non-linear—improvements to the graphics engine and gameplay have all taken place over the last two years. Riddim Ribbon Feat. The Black Eyed Peas ($3) is a courageous if misguided attempt to change up the formula behind Tap Tap Revenge, preserving the licensed music in the background and general visual style, while adding a true 3-D engine and a different style of gameplay: accelerometer-based tilting.
In Riddim Ribbon, you control a vehicle that looks like a cross between a ball and a yo-yo as it rolls down stretches of road; tilting left moves the ball to the left, and right to the right, with flicks upwards launching it into the air on occasion. A song plays in the background as you steer the ball towards a specific pathway on the road—a path that’s lined with Tap Tap-like balls and new elevated hoops, which can be reached by hitting ramps. Your challenge is to stay on the path as much as possible, dodging obstacles, and occasionally choosing directions at forks in the road. If you’re on the path collecting balls and hitting hoops, the background music plays properly, complete with changing segments taken from remixes; if you hit optional jump points and make it onto temporary above-ground roads, you enter more interesting remix zones for a little while before falling back to the regular track.
We’ve been fairly supportive of Tapulous’s musical picks in the past, and we even consider ourselves tolerant of the Black Eyed Peas—their older stuff—but the audio portion of Riddim Ribbon is, to our ears, largely depressing. Between the mediocrity of the game’s three bundled tracks (Boom Boom Pow, I Gotta Feeling, and Meet Me Halfway) and the fact that you spend much of an unsuccessful outing listening to stripped-down variations on the songs, which only “improve” to semi-listenable if you really ride the ribbon-like line tightly, Riddim Ribbon is just not fun for the ears. Or for the fingers: the “stay on the line” steering play mechanic is boring, tedious, and made even less fun by the sensitivity of the accelerometer. Tapulous has taken the least impressive parts of driving and music games and put them together here; the result is a game that feels like it could have been bonus levels for Tap Tap Revenge, but in our view, doesn’t stand well enough on its own to justify a purchase.
That said, parts of the graphics are impressive. While the roads and ribbon-like paths are nothing to get excited about, the animated 2-D and 3-D backgrounds—complete with appearances from the Black Eyed Peas, and other artists if you’re willing to pay $1 per track to download their songs—are pretty cool, and step one or two levels beyond what Tapulous has done in Tap Tap Revenge. Deliberately trippy 3-D effects are included, and the use of widescreen here rather than Tap Tap’s typically vertical orientation works well, too. Here’s hoping that some of these innovations wind up either improving the Tap Tap series or inspiring a more fun and worthwhile Riddim Ribbon sequel. iLounge Rating: C+.