Version tested: iPhone
When was the last time Eurogamer praised a game for its lens flare? The visual flourish so beloved of the late 1990s became a cheap trick; once a sign of contemporary graphical frisson, it was fast turned into a cliché through incessant use. But as you clutch your iPhone like a miniature steering wheel, tipping your body left and right to negotiate high-speed chicanes, the flash of Real Racing's lens flare is almost an epiphany.
Like the very first time you set eyes on the PlayStation's Gran Turismo, it's a vision of the impossible: evidence that videogames may surpass even the wildest imaginings of our youth, squeezing worlds into pockets. From Nokia's primordial Snake, the mobile phone game's evolutionary trajectory has soared like no other. In Real Racing's skies it breaks the stratosphere, and the dazzle is blinding.
So, Firemint's car game presents a towering technical achievement. A fully 3D racing game with the superstructure of a full-price console release, it packs time trials, global leaderboards, online championships and custom soundtracks into a £5.99 suckerpunch. In-game, racing against the plucky, challenging AI of five other vehicles, it comfortably represents the pinnacle of technological accomplishment on the iPhone and iPod Touch, the driving model much more robust than its immediate competitors.
And yet, for these very same reasons, this is a game that sits somewhat awkwardly on Apple's machine. It takes an orthodox, blockbuster console game approach, pushing the boundaries of what's possible on the platform, aping the greats of the racing genre in form and function, demanding that serious gamers take it seriously. But, in the context of a platform that prides and defines itself on low-priced, throwaway entertainment, it seems like too much - a showboating embarrassment of riches that, in its vainglory, almost misses the point.
The democratic publishing system of the App Store encourages the sort of low-budget, high-impact productions that defined the bedroom coding days of the 1980s. And these are the games that directly appeal to iPhone's gamers, those in their late twenties and thirties for whom bombastic visuals and technological accomplishments play second fiddle to brevity, efficiency and, dare we say, reheated nostalgia. As such the economic style of Space Invaders: Infinity Gene is far more likely to produce a groundswell of support from iPhone owners than, say, a miniaturised big-hitter such as Resident Evil 4: Mobile Edition. In this universe, the traditional roles are reversed: the 59p arcade-style punts are the headline hits, while the polished blockbusters are the risk-takers.
For that reason, Real Racing's ambitious approach shifts the boundaries somewhat. Whereas the average iPhone game can be stacked up favourably against any number of throwaway webgames, Real Racing's rivals are handheld heavyweights such as Ridge Racers and the forthcoming Gran Turismo PSP. Compared to a webgame, Real Racing is the future inpixellate, an experience of such awesome depth and breadth as to render the competition redundant. But set against Sony and Namco's greatest, is it really anything more than a polished but uninspired racer, high on showboating graphical pizzazz, short on innovation and second-tier features?
Judged by the former criteria, there's certainly a lot of game here for your money. Career mode has you playing through 18 championships, each playable at three different difficulty classes (the higher divisions unlocked by placing first in the previous ones). The main cup races, which consist of three consecutive races, require qualification in preceding events, ensuring that the game opens up in a staggered and sensible step with its difficulty. Taking its cue from Forza and Gran Turismo, time trails across the game's 12 courses are offered as a sideshow to the main career, and with synching to the game's leaderboards at the touch of a button, competition with peers and strangers is both straightforward and compelling.
The out-of-car camera is selected by default but, by tapping the top right of the screen at any point during a race, you can switch to an impressive cockpit view, where the vehicle's dials and displays act as a HUD, framing the smooth and lifelike driver's animations. Firemint offers five control schemes, none of which are perfect, but all of which have been carefully thought through. The default and optimal option has the car accelerate automatically, while tilting the iPhone from side to side steers it. Control is sensitive and the punishment when you veer off the road, by way of instant deceleration, is harsh. As a result, learning to make small, smooth precise movements is of paramount importance. Playing the game on public transport is risky: the rocking of a bus or train carriage will inevitably knock crucial seconds from your lap times.
None of the game's cars are licensed, so you've little to direct your pre-race choice beyond engine size and its number of doors. Neither are there any customisation options, either superficially (in terms of liveries) or in terms of the cars' performance. This omission, alongside the limited damage modelling, weakens the game's impact as a simulation racer as well as its standing against rivals on other handhelds, even as it effortlessly tears past its immediate competition on the iPhone
After prolonged play, other concessions Firemint has made become apparent. For instance, your car is always significantly overpowered in comparison to your rivals, so, while races are tight, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is possible even when you enter the final lap in last place. Without a handbrake, drifting around corners isn't possible and, if you do slide at a right angle off a hairpin, the game will usually keep you from spinning out, so correcting mistakes is far easier than it is in Forza et al. As a result, despite the austere presentation, the game occupies a spot somewhere between arcade flamboyance and earnest realism, a happy compromise considering its platform but one that will no doubt disappoint more serious racing game fans.
If these criticisms seem overly harsh for a game of such relatively low cost and such hulking ambition, that's only because Real Racing's achievements have propelled it into the big league. In these early days of iPhone development critics and consumers alike are still feeling out the boundaries of the machine's capabilities, and as new territory is revealed, so the scales of judgment are adjusted. Make no mistake, this is the best racing game on the iPhone by a drag-racing mile. But set against the other handheld stars of the genre, as it so clearly desires to be, its brilliance is somewhat diminished.
7 / 10