App of the Day: Death Rally

Shut up and drive.

Version tested iPhone

It's funny to think that Remedy, that most verbose of modern developers, actually started life building a grubby top-down PC racer. The original Death Rally boasted no existential angst, zero trench coats and even fewer spiralling monologues about the nature of morality, and thankfully nor does its glistening iOS remake.

No, this is unadulterated action from green light to chequered flag; a classy combination of car combat and drift-happy racing that sits very nicely on the shiny screen of an iPhone 4. After a brief comic book-panelled prologue (alright, perhaps Remedy can't help putting a bit of story in there), you're left with nothing more than a banger to drive and a handful of curious-sounding events to enter, ranging from straight races to all-out ammo-fuelled wars.

Death Rally doesn't explain much at first, but it doesn't need to. With each race, the ideas driving the experience reveal themselves. First of all, winning doesn't necessarily matter. Far more important is picking up money along the way (done by shooting other cars and hurtling over pick-ups), all of which allow you to upgrade your motor, kit it out with new weapons or even buy a new one if you find yourself particularly flush.

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The menu screen is a littered with options. Daunting at first; enthralling after a few hours.

Brilliantly, instead of just unlocking new gear and wheels when you hit an arbitrary amount of XP or ascend a numerical level, you actually find new kit strewn across the road. You might swing past part of a Gatling gun on one lap, so you make sure you grab it on the second, even it means dropping a couple of places in the standings. At the end of each race you see what gubbins you've accumulated and plan your next add-on like some psychotic Scrap Heap Challenge contestant.

Quite who's putting all this stuff on the road is a mystery, but it's a fantastic way to give meaning to every event you enter. Like the early hours of a Call of Duty multiplayer campaign, it's all about the small victories, the little awards that help you claw your way to the top. You might not have won that one, but now you've got a powered-up shotgun and a taste for vengeance! Someone's going to pay.

Of course, none of this would matter if the actual racing wasn't as swift and gratifying as it is. An on-screen analogue stick is usually the bane of the discerning iPhone gamer, but for top-down (or isometric, if we're being pedantic) racing it's fantastic. Remedy has chosen to put steering, acceleration and braking all on the left 'stick', meaning you actually point your thumb in the compass direction you want to drive. At first it's unwieldy, but within a couple of races you'll be sweeping around corners and cutting dramatic lines in between competitors, and it genuinely feels new and fresh. Not bad for a remake of a 16-year-old game.

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Pick-ups are more important than winning. Keep telling yourself that.

There's even a competent online multiplayer mode rounding out the package, although its reliance on in-app purchases makes the whole process a little daunting (unless you're prepared to splash out real-world cash on pretend air strikes and landmines). Still, that it's this smooth and thorough is a credit to all involved.

As is the game itself. Death Rally might not be the best pure racer on the iPhone, but it's one of the most complete. It looks spectacular, features a rare sense of progression and controls beautifully. It seems Remedy has learned that sometimes, it's better to just shut up and let the game to the talking.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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