Late last year, we decided to stop formally reviewing iOS apps and games because it had become nearly pointless — when software is free or less expensive than a cup of coffee, it’s easier to download and try for yourself than read (or write) about. But once in a while, we’ll make an exception for an app that’s noteworthy enough to merit a special spotlight. Asphalt 8: Airborne ($1) is one of those exceptions, a racing game so impressive and affordable that we can’t help but wonder how Gameloft will monetize it. Along with EA’s Plants vs. Zombies 2, it’s one of several recent premium-quality games that can be played for almost nothing, relying on in-app purchases from impatient players as the equivalent of donations. Whether that’s enough to sustain the development of further titles of this caliber is an open and increasingly intriguing question.
Although Gameloft has worked hard to advance the iOS platform with each Asphalt title, it has come a very long way since the release of Asphalt 4 Elite Racing five years ago. Twenty-eight affordable, boxy-looking licensed cars have given way to a collection of 47 incredibly detailed vehicles from top manufacturers including Tesla, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Bugatti. Moreover, the franchise’s originally iffy frame rates have been pushed upwards to the point where older and newer iOS devices alike can produce almost consistently smooth races, despite delivering the sort of detailed 3-D environments that were once solely the province of expensive game consoles and arcade machines. Largely because of special effects and more interesting locales, Asphalt 8 blows past EA’s Real Racing 3 in the graphics department, though each title has different strengths; for better and worse, Real Racing 3 is focused on realism, while Asphalt 8 is full of color, energy, and destruction.
Asphalt’s controls, which in past games were less than entirely reliable, have become tight enough here to make lane changing, hard drift turns, and high-speed crashes legitimately fun. Matching the progression of other racing games, the Asphalt series has evolved from an Outrun-style beat-the-clock racer into something more diverse, including eight “seasons” with 180 events that vary considerably from race to race. Some challenge you to knock as many cars as possible off the track in a certain time period; others eliminate each lap’s last-place car or “infected” car, and you’ll occasionally have one-on-one matchups between two vehicles. Local and online multiplayer modes are also included. Thanks to multi-stage turbo charging powerups and a reduction of track-littering cash bags in favor of more traffic to dodge—including light-flashing oncoming cars—the races are so fun and intense that we even enjoyed losing. We couldn’t say this when drudging through the comparatively technical stages in Real Racing 3.
Apart from a reduced number of cars, Asphalt 8 is markedly better across the board than last year’s Asphalt 7: Heat. Asphalt 7 was a great budget game and didn’t slouch in the racing department, but as its name hints, Asphalt 8: Airborne introduces vehicular acrobatics to the mix. This time, ramps are scattered throughout courses, and if you tap the left side of the screen to start drifting before you hit them, you can flip your car through barrel rolls, 360-degree spins, and combinations thereof. While the ramps—particularly some curved, oddly-angled ones—add a little eye candy to the courses, they wind up improving the gameplay experience, as well.
Once you learn to vault your car into the air at high speeds using right-of-screen turbo taps, you can reach bridges, narrow ridges, and other second- or third-floor areas in stages. These elevated surfaces are sometimes faster routes than the basic tracks, and often include extra turbo powerups as discovery rewards. Additionally, your car may fall through a gap in the road and land on a lower elevation path or tunnel. Skill and luck will help you land on a bridge rather than smashing into it, introducing elements of excitement and tension that we found a lot more fun than aggravating. These little tweaks, plus numerous same-elevation secret paths, make Asphalt 8 feel like a more polished and engaging version of Atari’s once-famed San Francisco Rush series. Between these jumps and crashing opponents’ cars—complete with polygon-shattering debris effects—Asphalt 8 feels like a further evolution of Criterion’s Burnout franchise, which Gameloft has been using as inspiration for several years.
The single biggest factor that makes Asphalt 8 feel special is one we’d describe as “swagger.” Before each race begins, Gameloft’s Barcelona development team shows off with new course introductions, using David Fincher/J.J. Abrams-style polygonal locale names and 3-2-1 countdown numbers that stylishly float alongside the tracks and cars. Depending on the device you’re using, you may also see gorgeously colored lighting and water-splashed camera effects when you round corners or drive alongside waterfalls. And the game’s soundtrack consists of three separate collections of music—bass, rock, or electronic—each with separate licensed tracks from well-known (Queens of the Stone Age, Crystal Method) and lesser-known (Awolnation, Mord Fustang) artists. Combined with the solid audio effects, the music and graphics create a truly immersive gaming experience.
There are small issues, including the absence of a cockpit camera—you get external third-person and vehicle-free first-person views—and a passive in-app purchasing system that offers numerous paid unlocking and customization opportunities, such as a ludicrous $100 “Supreme Car Pack” that includes seven supercars. But in the grand scheme of things, these are tiny complaints. Apart from the $1 purchase price, Asphalt 8 needn’t cost you another dime to continue playing, and doesn’t bug you to make purchases before every race. We only wish there was a reasonable up-front price to unlock all of the courses, rather than a series of seven separate season unlocking charges. That said, gamers accustomed to playing through races one-by-one will have no problem paying nothing to make steady progress through the seasons, getting better on their own.
Overall, Asphalt 8 is a remarkable iOS racing game: visually and sonically fantastic, a tremendous amount of fun to play, challenging, and diverse in unexpected ways. Despite the low price, it’s the best driving game we’ve yet seen in the App Store, and we consider it to be highly worth considering for any iOS gamer—mandatory for racing game fans. Gameloft Barcelona has set a new high bar for iOS driving excitement, and we’re anxious to see how this already superb game evolves over the months to come.
Company and Price
Title: Asphalt 8: Airborne
Compatible: iPhone 4/4S/5, iPad 2, iPad (3rd/4thGen), iPad mini, iPod touch 5G