In its first few months as an iPhone games publisher, Gameloft has done a nice job putting out an assortment of casual and evergreen games, but we hadn’t gotten the sense that the French mobile games titan was really exerting itself. With Asphalt 4: Elite Racing, all that has changed; Gameloft is serving notice that it intends to own the App Store. When Gameloft brings all of its considerable resources to bear on a game’s production, as it has here, the results can be scary good–this is one of the first iPhone games with console-quality production values, from pricey luxury vehicle licenses to multiple camera angles. Asphalt 4 isn’t purring like a kitten just yet, due to several outstanding balancing and technical issues, but gamers are going to love it anyway.
Asphalt 4: Elite Racing’s flagrant lack of realism pays homage to EA’s Burnout series of arcade racers, which reward you for driving like a demon and causing as much mayhem as possible, rather than carefully hewing to the right line around an S-curve. The tools of the trade are nitro boost, automatic acceleration, Tokyo drifting, and “takedowns” (malicious ramming) of other vehicles; there’s a brake button, but it’s almost entirely vestigial. This game is clearly designed to get your adrenaline pumping, and it does the job admirably, whether by sending you flying off a ramp at 150 mph, or by challenging you with angry cops in turbocharged cruisers. The more damage you inflict, the more cash you earn, which in turn unlocks new venues, events, cars, tuning equipment, and girls (yes, girls).
There are five different kinds of events in Asphalt 4. In a simple Race, you have to place in the top three (out of eight other cars) after three laps around the track. Beat ‘Em All requires you to knock off six out of your eight opponents by shunting them into obstacles, or nitro-boosting yourself right into their bumpers, before your three laps are up. In Cop mode, you get to take a break from rampant law-breaking, put on an emergency siren, and try to knock off the leader of the pack, all while the other seven cars act as the leader’s vehicular goon squad. Duel is a mano-a-mano race to the finish for an adjustable cash bet. Finally, Cash Run is all about the Benjamins; you need to make a certain amount of money to pass. Each of the 12 venues has an assortment of four unlockable events, on which you can earn gold, silver, or bronze trophies, depending on your performance.
The developers clearly put a lot of thought into nailing down the game’s controls. There are three options for steering: tapping the screen on either side of your car, manipulating a miniature steering wheel with your thumb, or tilting the iPhone. The first two modes use a button to initiate a nitro boost. You can use the same button when in accelerometer control, or simply tilt your phone forward to rocket ahead. All of these methods work pretty well, so you should experiment to figure out which you’re most comfortable with. Our personal favorite is tilt controls combined with the nitro button; you must access nitro constantly in order to win, and flicking your phone forward to boost gets old fast. Drifting around corners effectively is also much easier using the tilt controls.
Performing “takedowns” reliably is a challenge with all three control types, but this seems to be more of a physics model issue than a control problem. It’s tough to get a handle on what angles and speeds you must hit an enemy car at to wreck it; you can grind an enemy right into a wall with no effect, and then randomly tap another from behind and send it spinning wildly. This inconsistency can get a little frustrating during the Cop and Beat ‘Em All events.
You start the game driving a Mini Cooper, but as you pile up the cash, you get to steadily upgrade your ride, working your way into the Ferarris, Lotuses, and even Bugattis. There are also several Ducatti and Kawasaki motorcycles to try for a change of pace. In addition, the game includes a huge array of tuner upgrades for your car or bike’s engine, chassis, tires, brakes, pistons, and so forth. The funny thing is that these simply unlock as you progress through the game; you don’t have to make any tactical cost/benefit decisions on what parts to spend your hard-earned bills on, which could have been much more interesting. Furthermore, you have to reapply your custom configuration every time you switch vehicles. The process gets tedious quickly.
Earning money also unlocks different female companions. Each of these sultry girls gives you a different special power, like giving your car an additional boost or keeping the cops off your tail. They also please the all-important teenaged boy demographic. If you didn’t realize this game was aimed at console gamers by now, this is your wakeup call. Finally, the whole show takes its act on the road to various exotic locales, such as St. Petersburg and Mumbai, but it takes forever to earn enough cash to unlock the later tracks. All of the game’s content is doled out in this oddly decelerating fashion–you unlock a bunch of stuff at the beginning, and then you hit the doldrums, where you have to start repeating races and the new stuff comes far less frequently.
Happily, Asphalt 4’s presentation is so good that you won’t mind re-running a race every now and again. The tracks are rendered with lush environmental details–you can send parked bicycles flying in Paris, for instance–and there’s even weather and lighting effects. You can switch between four different camera angles, and play in either landscape or portrait view, too; the view switches seamlessly between the two. Every so often, the game will suddenly give you a view of the action from a hovering news chopper, or cut away to the results of a skillful takedown. These impressive moments provide a more immersive experience than most other iPhone games. However, we also noticed occasional slowdown, particularly when lots of cars are on the screen in landscape mode. The game’s included music, a collection of thrumming Euro-house tracks, complements the gameplay superbly. If you don’t like it, Gameloft welcomes you to provide your own soundtrack via the iPod.
Overall, we think that Asphalt 4: Elite Racing is well worth the asking price of $9.99, given its sophisticated graphics and enjoyable gameplay. If Gameloft irons out the game’s remaining trouble spots in an update, it is within striking distance of becoming a “Must Have”.