GROUND EFFECT


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Ground Effect Hands-On Preview

Between all the recent go-karts, rally cars, and dirt bikes, racing fans may be looking for something different. Well, if you took the colorful jets from Above and Beyond Air Combat and had them just barely skim the surface of the ground in some intense, tilt-controlled races, you’d have Ground Effect.

What stood out to us in this game first and foremost are the stunning graphics. The environments are very beautifully rendered, and the contrails behind your skimmer serve two purposes. One is to give you an idea of the flight path of your opponents, and the other is to look really, really cool.

Your jets come in 10 varieties, but don’t have any distinctive attributes– just different paint jobs. Ground Effect does have 14 different environments to skim through, and from the time we spent with it, these tracks each have a very unique feel. For example, in the third track, Nightwind, we loved taking the big jump towards the end of the course and racking up massive air.

Even though your craft is flying low the whole time, you can’t adjust your altitude. A few bumps and jumps will send you flying higher for a short period of time, but you can also crash into steep mountainsides and explode. A series of checkpoint gates will return you to the track, but making it to the front of the pack (you always race against seven other fliers) takes real precision. A brake pedal and rechargeable boost are your only reasons to touch the screen as you fly.

A few problems we could see with this game include a lack of sensitivity adjustment for the tilt controls, and some underwhelming sound effects that are drowned out by the rock soundtrack. However, we enjoyed watching the game’s cinematic replays, and the additional ghost race mode is a nice extra. Ground Effect has been submitted to Apple, so look for it soon on the App Store.

(Note: Looks like we missed the touch-joystick control scheme on the options menu first time we played through Ground Effect. There is more than just the tilt-control option available, but you can’t change the sensitivity in our preview build. Slide to Play regrets the error.)

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Ground Effect Review

For what’s supposedly a futuristic racer, Ground Effect has an incredibly serene feel to it. WipeOut’s almost dystopian signature or the snaking behemoth-style courses common in F-Zero are nowhere to be seen in its 14 short, but still visually impressive, island tracks.

Yes, while a close look reveals some of Ground Effects tricks (namely keeping it simple, achieving a smooth and sleek look by simply changing the color of the ground rather than layering each level with several slowdown-inducing objects), the end result is an enviable one: each race zooms by at fast pace and sells the iPhone at a technical level. Games, at least so far, don’t often look better than this.

Such simplicity is also mirrored in the actual gameplay, which takes an arcade approach to progression: racing into the top three as you snake between gates in your flying machine is the only goal. Using the term “flying” is, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration. The ship at your command essentially hovers above the ground, and tipping the device left or right gently sends your craft quite deftly in that direction.

Coming right at ya!

There’s also a boost button available, monitored by a gauge that runs short after prolonged use but refills in the intervening periods. It encourages prudent play as a result, the best tactic being to use the boost button in straight, flat stretches running up to the gates, flying past your rivals as you go.

But, though there are eight other ships on track, in reality this is a solo encounter, your competitors acting as little more than markers to pass along the way as you try to get through each course with as little fuss as possible (gentle movements being key here).

Not that branching out on your own isn’t an option. While there might appear to be a singular, set path for each of the courses, Ground Effect in fact lets you fly off course to find shortcuts. Skimming over hills seemingly blocking your path to the next gate is often the best way to make up time. It’s a skill that takes practice, however, as any sharp incline causes your craft to fly straight into the side of hills rather than climb them. Repeated play of each track is the best way of pinning down which shortcuts bear fruit and which result in an explosion.

Such sneaky tactics could really mix things up in any sort of online mode, but as things are, with just solo play and a time attack mode on offer, Ground Effect would appear to have a limited lifespan.

Highway to the danger zone.

Though initially impressive and playable, the fact that it’s impossible to interact with competitors (rival cars can simply be driven through) and all the ships on offer are in fact identical in all but color, means that Ground Effect feels a little soulless: a dream to control, a marvel to watch in action, but a touch sterile to play for long periods.

No doubt, an update or two could right some of these wrongs. The foundations of Ground Effect’s gameplay are solid and strong. But what’s currently on offer simply doesn’t pack the same punch as some of its rivals. Fishlab’s year-old Powerboat Challenge has now been surpassed here on a technical level, but still manages to flavor its play with both excitement and a sense of character in spades.

Despite these faults, there is still much here to tempt out the racer within. Boosting as you fly towards the edge of one of Ground Effect’s numerous jumps is the very definition of fun. A good opening, then, but one whose smooth play doesn’t seem quite as sleek once you’ve scratched beneath the surface.

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