There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you see an impressive game hampered by problematic controls and bugs. Though it may be the most fully “developed” racing game yet released for the iPhone and iPod touch, Gameloft’s Asphalt 4 Elite Racing ($10) is weighed down by these issues to an unusual extent, in part because it’s so ambitious, but also because it feels like the developers didn’t quite work out all the kinks before its release.
Asphalt is interesting for three reasons: it’s the first iPhone OS racing game that uses 28 licensed cars and bikes, including Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Chevrolet and Bugatti models. It’s also the first to work in horizontal or vertical screen mode, and the first to offer networked multiplayer play.
These facts—plus Asphalt’s legitimately well-developed nine different tracks, a cash reward system, and its borrowing of both nitros and “takedowns” (read: crash rivals out of contention) from Electronic Arts’ Burnout series—all make Asphalt 4 the basis for a legitimately awesome game. There are little rough edges on each of these points, such as occasionally pixelated textures, a lack of major differentiation in which the way the cars handle, and a real lack of peripheral vision when you’re driving in horizontal mode, but they’re mostly impressive overall; multiplayer shows a little lag in updating your opponent’s position, but it’s easy to set up and even gives you access to tracks that you haven’t unlocked in single-player mode.
Unfortunately, the iPhone OS’s pesky controls and instabilities get in the way of what could otherwise be a lot of fun. Part of the issue is Gameloft’s fault: despite the highly impressive backgrounds and cars you’ll see on screen, the frame rate is far from smooth or solid; it’s unclear whether this is due to a lack of optimization that will be fixed in an upcoming re-release, or an inherent weakness in the engine. We’re betting on the former.
By contrast, the controls strike us as an area that Gameloft tried its best to do well with: there are three options, ranging from an on-screen steering wheel to accelerometer control and on-screen tapping, but none feels right. We’ll sum the problems up simply as “the iPhone needs a joypad,” rather than going into all the details. And we also experienced an unusual number of crashes during the game, though they could sometimes be worked around by restarting the iPod touch or iPhone.
The fact that this game has control and related issues really bothers us, because Asphalt 4 is otherwise a title that we liked a lot.