In many ways, Gameloft's Asphalt 9 Legends is a remarkable game, bringing console-quality arcade racing action to mobile phones, using many of the rendering techniques present in some of today's most advanced game engines. It's free - download it, try it out and see what you think. We did and we were really taken aback by just impressive this is. Eager to learn more about the current state of cutting-edge mobile game development, we contacted Gameloft to learn more - and an interesting story emerged.
Of course, looking back, there was a time when mobile graphics technology was seeing some incredible gen-on-gen leaps in performance, with John Carmack excited enough about phone graphics tech to write his own iOS games, Epic released the stunning Infinity Blade and at one point, DICE was even porting the Frostbite engine to work on mobile hardware. Reaching and surpassing Xbox 360 quality seemed like a given, but there reached a point where pushing the boundaries of mobile technology stopped becoming a priority and addressing the majority of devices out there with simpler titles became the focus. Meanwhile, lack of innovation in mobile rendering APIs and oppressive OS overheads put the dampeners on really pushing the hardware.
Asphalt 9 bucks the trend by featuring fluid performance, beautiful visuals and a rendering feature set rivalling a modern console game. For starters, it's heavy on post-processing effects, including really impressive motion blur. Tracks stretch off into the distance with minimal pop-in while the lighting and its interaction with materials is first-class for a mobile title. The cars themselves are rich in detail, with some models featuring in excess of 90,000 polygons. There's a full HDR rendering pipeline, high performance soft particles, a pseudo-physically based materials system and further post-process effects including crepuscular rays, screen-space reflections and colour grading.
Powered by Gameloft Barcelona's in-house Jet Engine, the focus for Asphalt 9 is to balance all of these high-end features with the limitations of mobile hardware while delivering smooth performance - something that was a particular issue on its predecessor, even on the most powerful mobile kit. Compared to its predecessor, Asphalt 9 is a big, big improvement in every way.
According to Gameloft, two of the main concerns when designing a high-performance mobile game are pixel cost and number of draw calls. These mobile GPUs are very capable when it comes to rendering lots of geometry but once you increase shader complexity and introduce more advanced post-processing effects such as per-pixel motion blur, you can run into performance issues and thermal limitations. This can either mean rapid battery drain, which is important in the world of phone games, or thermal throttling where hitting a certain temperature threshold decreases clock speeds.
This also helps explain the importance of frame-rate caps. Using an iPhone X, for instance, Asphalt 9 can easily hit 60 frames per second but doing so massively decreases battery life and can result in thermal throttling. Unlike a console game, you can't afford to run full out - it's a balancing act. You want to deliver the best performance possible without pushing the hardware too far. On top of that, when crafting a lot of the cool special effects, older hardware must also be considered - if this were exclusive to high-end iPhones it might be possible to utilise more advanced compute shaders but, as it stands, it's important to maintain a reasonable number of render paths while targeting the widest audience.
We played the game on all formats, using an iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S9+ and a Windows PC (yes, there's a Windows Store version, ported by another team within the studio). Apple's Metal 2 API is the default choice for iOS, and it's fast and efficient, allowing the team to reduce the number of draw calls and to lower temperatures. Open GL ES 3.0 is the API of choice for Android, and stacking up the two versions on their respective top-tier devices, it's clear that iPhone X has the advantage with smoother play via higher frame-rates and fewer frame-pacing issues.
Gameloft takes advantage of the relatively fixed iOS platforms by locking quality settings per device, while Android gets three selectable quality settings instead: default, performance and high quality. The latter increases resolution while performance strips back the pixel-count and post-process features like motion blur. Playing on default on the S9+, it's a visual match for the top-end iOS version - just somewhat choppier in motion. Primarily designed for lower-end Windows devices, the PC version still holds up - and with resolution scaling support, ultra-wide functionality and 60fps action, it's a fascinating comparison point - the chance to see the game running with all technical constraints removed.
More to the point, playing with a pad demonstrates that Asphalt 9 would hold up as a standard console game. The handling is fun and arcadey - especially with a pad - and there's a lot of content to enjoy without needing to spend anything on microtransactions. This is, of course, my biggest nitpick with any mobile game including Asphalt 9 - the microtransactions - but it's a frustrating reality of the modern mobile business and it does detract from the flow of the game. A bought-and-paid-for Switch version though? Looking at how this game runs on mobile, a version for Nintendo's hybrid would be a great fit.
But in here and now, Asphalt 9 is one of the first mobile games in a long time that caused me to sit up and really take notice. It offers a level of visual quality you just don't expect from a mobile platform and it plays great to boot. It's great to peek at what's happening in the mobile space from time to time: we were impressed with Fortnite earlier this year and are even more impressed by what Gameloft has achieved here. Asphalt 9 is just a beautiful game, and as frustrating as the microtransactions are, the free-to-play nature means you can download for free and try the game out. I reckon you'll be pleasantly surprised by the quality if you do.