Racing games for the iPhone and iPod touch have proved surprisingly challenging to develop—and enjoy—due both to the devices’ unusual controls and the relative unfamiliarity of developers with Apple’s hardware. In recent days, however, two titles have appeared as noteworthy entries in the modern and futuristic racing genres: Firemint’s Real Racing ($10) and Handmark’s Phaze ($5). Both games make better use of the iPod touch and iPhone hardware than similar predecessors, but one is especially amazing given what users have seen on Apple’s pocket devices to date.
That would be Real Racing, which not only lives up to its name, but also delivers legitimate value for its asking price. Rather than attempting the hackneyed, easy tricks of creating flat 2-D car models or backdrops, Firemint by default places you inside the 3-D cockpit of a car, using in-vehicle gauges rather than on-screen overlaid text to tell you your current position in the race, lap number, time, and speed. You see your hands gripping the wheel and shifting gears, the wheel itself, part of the dashboard, and the upper frame of your car, all shifting in 3-D perspective as you tilt your iPhone or iPod to and fro. Then you see five detailed, smooth-modeled opponents’ cars and reasonably detailed 3-D backdrops; a tap on the upper right of the screen lets you view the outside of the car, instead.
The bulletpoints that make Real Racing deep are as follows: 12 unique tracks, 36 cars—34 of them unlocked through good play—and three increasingly difficult divisions to work though across 57 racing events. There’s also a Wi-Fi local multiplayer mode, with online league and leaderboard features. While the cars are in some cases little more than modestly tweaked, color-swapped alternatives, others are more significantly different. Similarly, the tracks are all road- and car-focused in that presenting the road and competitors in front of you are the game’s visual priorities, but there are enough scenery differences in the tracks that you don’t feel like you’re just re-racing in the same backdrops with different road configurations.
In a word, what Firemint has accomplished here is awesome. Real Racing is visually nearly at a Sony PSP level of quality, and Firemint’s control scheme—acceleration’s automatic, braking is assisted as much or as little as you want—actually works to make driving fun, thrilling, and challenging; the presence of smart enough, competitive computer opponents on the tracks really makes the game work. Additionally, there’s an actual soundtrack of good rock music that adds to the game’s excitement, with 10 audio tracks changing automatically as they end. This isn’t a budget game; it feels as if it was developed to rival what someone would get on a Nintendo DS card or a Sony PSP disc.
If there’s anything that’s not ideal about Real Racing, it would be a factor that only the very best developers ever seem to be able to achieve: creating tracks that are visually memorable. Long-time racing fans no doubt remember Sega’s Daytona USA slot machine overpass, bridge spans, and other landmarks that set its courses apart from anything else released before, and companies like Namco have created wow-inspiring mountain ridges, cities, and towns in Ridge Racer games. But these games are historic high water marks. By contrast, Firemint’s tracks are more in the Sony Gran Turismo vein, populated with occasionally nice but forgettable objects, then with fewer such objects than one would expect to see on a well-developed PSP title.
In summary, Real Racing is a triumph for this platform—as impressive as anything we’ve seen on the iPhone or touch to date. More than any other title we’ve seen, it underscores how sad many earlier racing games have been on these devices, especially putting to shame the ones that looked like early 1980’s arcade games and sloppy mobile phone ports. It is a clear sign that if huge companies such as Namco won’t spend the time necessary to create truly great titles on Apple’s platforms, smaller ones are now ready to come in and eat their lunch. We can’t wait to see what Firemint has in store for the future. iLounge Rating: A.
Make no mistake: the futuristic racing game Phaze—not to be confused with the earlier iPod rhythm game Phase—is not as impressive as Real Racing. But it’s better than Cobra Mobile’s earlier Low Grav Racer, another game that tried to clone Sony’s popular Wipeout series of high-speed hovercraft racing titles.
For whatever reason, the original Wipeout formula—let floating vehicles zip across gritty urban tracks—has proved too difficult for developers to copy outright or improve upon, so titles such as Low Grav and Phaze both take a modestly different approach, placing their racetracks on plain-looking planets and focusing largely on making the tracks and competitors’ vehicles run smooth. Low Grav accomplished a smooth frame rate by keeping the sides of its tracks very simple, offering limited track visibility ahead, and fading in graphics as they were needed. By comparison, Phaze provides greater track visibility, more diverse-looking tracks, and more interesting vehicle models, but offers less flashy special effects. The glowing Wipeout engines Cobra Mobile wisely borrowed are a little less plausible as boring polygonal cones here, and weapon effects are similarly bland. Both games offer decent synthesized music as you use accelerometer-based steering to turn and take shots at opponents.
Phaze’s primary advantage is in diversity. There are 16 tracks, 10 different vehicles, and four difficulty levels, with easy so mind-numbingly simple that kids will be able to lap their opponents; normal begins to make for a legitimately challenging game. Though its power-ups aren’t as visually interesting in execution or iconography as Low Grav’s, Handmark has done a nice job of making power-ups visible on the tracks, placing them on perpendicular angles as boxes rather than as flat surfaces a la Wipeout. They’re easy to snag when you learn the controls, which include both steering and an acceleration/braking system—arguably the game’s only major issue.
Rather than presuming as Real Racing does that you want to be accelerating except when you tap the screen to apply the breaks, Phaze makes you tilt the iPhone forwards to move faster or tilt it backwards to come to a stop, with the screen shifting to red to tell you you’re accelerating too much. This makes the game potentially more challenging, but also somewhat annoying; it adds little beyond making you feel like you shouldn’t be holding your iPhone on whatever angle you’ve chosen. Combined with a not always obvious system of delineating the smooth and rough surfaces you’re flying over, Phaze could use some fine-tuning to make its gameplay more fun.
That having been said, it’s obvious that developers are coming ever closer to creating an iPhone title with Wipeout-like appeal, and even if Phaze isn’t quite there yet, it’s a pretty good hovercraft racer at a fair price. If nothing else, it raises the bar just a little bit for other developers; hopefully, someone will take the best elements of Phaze, Low Grav, Real Racing and Wipeout to create the ultimate iPhone OS futuristic racer. iLounge Rating: B.