The iPhone’s first three racing games sell for $10 each—twice the price of past iPod games. Are any of them worth buying? As serious fans of action-heavy driving titles, we’ve spent the last week testing these titles for this edition of iPhone Gems, and while none was impressive enough to recommend to all of our readers, each had something to recommend it over the others to certain types of players.
All three of these games are, at least as of press time, saddled with the same limitation: they’re forced to use the iPhone’s accelerometer and touchscreen rather than a traditional gamepad or steering wheel for controls. No matter what might be claimed about the iPhone’s integrated controls, they are—like the iPod Click Wheel—not well-suited to serious game play. Depending on the angle the device is held at, whether you’re indoors or outdoors, under harsh or soft light, and how you’re sitting or standing, you may find either steering or seeing the screen to be a challenge. We continue to hope that an add-on digital or analog game controller with dedicated buttons is in Apple’s immediate future.
Of the three titles, Vivendi Games Mobile’s Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D ($10) is the least conspicuous on the App Store, despite the fact that its cast of characters are the best known. For those who may be unfamiliar, Crash Bandicoot was a Sonic the Hedgehog wannabe who started in his own series of platform, racing, and party games for the Sony PlayStation; all of the titles were heavily inspired by Nintendo’s Super Mario series games. Three of the racing titles, Crash Team Racing, Crash Nitro Kart, and Crash Nitro Kart 2, are based upon Nintendo’s Super Mario Kart driving games, and Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D is confusingly based upon the latest of those games, Crash Nitro Kart 2.
Like the Mario Kart titles, the Crash Nitro Kart games combine simplified, low-speed go kart racing with on-track turbo boost pads and cartoony weapons. You drive around tracks three times, trying to stay number one of six competitors, using both the turbo pads for speed and the weapons to knock out your fellow racers. One weapon makes you swap places with a leading opponent, others drop missiles, TNT and oil onto the track, and another acts as a temporary shield. The action is lighthearted, easy for players of any age to relax with, and structured in clumps of four track circuits. Beat circuits and collect items like the letters C, R, A, S, and H, and you can unlock additional levels and characters, which are very similar to one another in everything but looks.
One thing we really liked about Crash is the developers’ attempt to deal with the iPhone’s control issues. Unlike the other racers we tested, there’s no gas button to hold down, so most of the game can be played by just tilting the iPhone and occasionally tapping the screen. You do need to tap for weapons, soft jumping, and drifting if you want to use them; but this isn’t as much of a control hassle as having to keep one finger on the screen at all times. Vivendi’s developer Polarbit also includes an accelerometer sensitivity meter, a nice touch, though we think that offering an even more fully-featured calibration option would make driving games even easier until a joypad is released.
Aesthetically, Nitro Kart 3D is a good, but not great looking game. Besides the fact that it falls short of even the original PlayStation title in polygon counts and detail—it looks Nintendo DS-quality, not like a Sony PSP game—the frame rate is inconsistent, and never quite high enough. When a couple of vehicles are on the track at once, the game heavily drops frames, and all of the racing feels choppy rather than smooth. This could change over time, as Vivendi shows the shipping version of the game as version 0.7.4, but we can only review what we see, and what we saw was choppy. Overall, this is a fairly good start for iPhone racers, but we’re expecting more from second-generation titles. iLounge rating: B-.
Pangea Software’s Cro-Mag Rally ($10) has a lot in common with Crash in concept, but it’s more ambitious in scope, if not always as fun to play. Like Crash and Mario Kart before it, you’re in charge of a character on a go kart who goes around a track three times collecting items, using weapons, and basically trying to keep ahead of other racers. On positive notes, Pangea’s graphics engine is both more advanced and better used than Polarbit’s, with superior frame rates, much more detailed karts and tracks, and smoother colors.
There are at least nine levels, each with different art, and the levels are positively packed with things to find, smash into, and get sucked up by—the first stage alone is littered with weapon icons, and lets you get sucked up by a whirlwind when you’re not crashing into cacti or other racers. Another stage, Atlantis, puts you in command of an underwater submarine rather than a kart; Pangea could easily release an entire iPhone game around this concept.
The negative differences between Crash and Cro-Mag are several in number. First, the characters are all cavemen. Though the polygonal models are very detailed, they’re on the ugly side, which doesn’t make the game as endearing as it could be; there’s also a lot of music, but it’s not great. Similarly, though the textures are smooth and fairly detailed, they don’t contrast enough with the characters at times, so it’s easy for the eye to get lost with everything that’s going on. Items tend to be easy to spot, but made from unattractive flat textures. Another visual issue is a bit harder to describe, but ever-present: for better and for worse, Pangea gives you more freedom of vertical and off-axis horizontal movement within a level. This is better in that you can drive up the side of a hill or off into a moat, but worse in that your viewpoint constantly is rotating. Unlike Crash, Cro-Mag lets you shift into a first-person mode in a settings menu, though the game is decidedly more difficult to play when you can’t see your kart, as you can’t always figure out what to do when you hit a wall.
Apparently, the correct answer is to “back up.” Unlike Crash, Cro-Mag makes you hold a finger on the screen at all times for acceleration, releasing it to slow down, hitting a brake to stop, and an R button for reverse. You also have weapon release buttons on the right side of the screen. Between the steering and the buttons, we found the interface here just a bit too complex for the iPhone; adjusting the iPhone’s steering sensitivity was also necessary, but not completely sufficient, to improve the game’s controls. Offloading similar steering and button features onto a joypad would have been fine. A second game play mode, Gather, lets you more casually explore the levels to collect items; some players may find that this is more their speed.
Overall, we were more impressed by the game engine in Cro-Mag Rally than the one in Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D, but there are reasons—control and theme—that some users will prefer one to the other. Because of the submarine mode and Pangea’s more ambitious design, we’d give Cro-Mag a slight edge and our general recommendation, but we think that some control modifcations and a lower price would make this game more compelling. Our strong hope is that Pangea reuses this engine, or a souped-up version, for a racing game with a better theme. iLounge rating: B.
The last and simplest of the iPhone’s racing games is Freeverse’s Wingnuts Motoracer ($10). Unlike the other two, this is a motorcycle racing game where you can select from three characters and 10 tracks, which are unlocked one after another as you play. Motoracer’s inspiration isn’t Super Mario Kart, but an older Sega motorcycle game called Hang-On, which rather than giving you full freedom to turn around on a 3-D track basically optimized the gameplay to keep you going forward, and have you respond to things that come straight at you. Your goal here is to pass through multiple checkpoints before your clock runs out, staying as much as possible on paved roads, and avoiding obstacles that can slow you down.
Most of the obstacles are, predictably, on the sides of the tracks—trees, rock walls, and unpaved ground will delay you by crucial seconds and stop you from making a checkpoint. Miss one checkpoint and the level ends, forcing you to start from the beginning. Occasionally, you’ll find a turbo-charging coin on the track that gives you a jolt of speed, and in some locations, you’ll hit a big jump that will let the camera switch to a dramatic slow-motion angle. Moving cars can also be impediments, while other motorcyclers will, in the spirit of Electronic Arts’ now-classic Road Rash, require you to punch your way to freedom.
The good news is that the tracks are at least a little different and stay interesting from level to level, even if the objectives and action stay pretty much the same, and occasional glitches—especially in later tracks with narrow roads—cut into the action somewhat. On the easiest difficulty level, the game is a breeze to cut through, but the fewer seconds you have on the clock, the better your chance of needing to play a level multiple times before completing it.
Unfortunately, Wingnuts Motoracer is a pretty shallow game, with highly repetitive music, camera issues that could easily have been corrected, and controls that would really benefit from a user sensitivity adjustment. While it’s very obvious that Freeverse knows how to create interesting 3-D worlds, there are parts of the game—a winding mountain pass, for instance, where you spend way too much of the time with only the road texture in your face, and only the slightest movement is enough to turn you off the beaten path to your death. Additionally, like Cro-Mag Rally but unlike Crash, you have to keep one finger on the gas button almost all the time, but then need to release it to throw punches at other motorcyclers. There has to be a better way to control the game than this.
Overall, Wingnuts Motoracer isn’t precisely the same type or depth of racing game as its iPhone launch comrades, but it’s an interesting diversion with good graphics and straightforward gameplay. You’ll find yourself cursing thanks to the sensitive controls if you’re playing on a bumpy subway, train, or plane, and we think that $10 is too much for what you get, but as time-wasters go, this one’s not bad. iLounge Rating: B-.
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