Gameloft’s Asphalt racing games have spent a long time trailing in the slipstream of bigger, better-known franchises. Is number eight in the series the one to finally rocket into pole position?
They grow up so fast, don’t they? It seems like only yesterday Gameloft’s flagship racing franchise Asphalt popped into the world, squealing to anyone who’d listen it was just as good as ‘proper’ series like Need For Speed and Burnout. And now it’s eight! That’s practically hitting a mid-life crisis in videogame years.
An awful lot of people see Gameloft as good for nothing but copying better, more successful games. But now their golden boy’s all grown up, Gameloft want to prove they’re doing more than simply cloning what everyone likes about the competition and aha, ha, ha, no, it’s no good, I can’t say that and keep a straight face. Like the previous games, Asphalt 8: Airborne is the same grab-bag of all the best bits of those other racing franchises.
Awesome to the MAX
At least, on the surface, that much is undeniably true. Here’s the thing, though: Gameloft’s Barcelona studio appear to have thought “Ah, sod it” and stopped aspiring to any degree of restraint. Asphalt 8 is out to convince you it’s COOL and AWESOME in capital letters. It wants you to know it’s got everything you could possibly want out of an arcade racing game… and whisper it softly, but this approach has produced something rather special.
It is overeager to a comical degree. You want licensed cars? They’ve got ‘em. You want to see those cars crumple like tinfoil in high-speed collisions? You’re in luck. You like your racing all nitro, all the time? You want ramps that send you twirling like a leaf three hundred feet in the air over impossible jumps, like someone pounding Jägerbombs and screaming while the laws of physics whimper off in a corner?
Asphalt 8 is Burnout with all remaining subtlety stripped away (yes, I know what I just said). This is a game where several tracks will let you nitro through the pack within mere seconds of leaving the starting line, cars flying like seaspray to the tune of thundering dubstep. It’s enough to make a Gran Turismo fan do a horrified spit-take.
But there’s more going on than surface thrills. The new physics engine is a marked improvement over the fairly mundane driving model in 6 and 7. Fill the boost gauge with pickups, or by smashing through obstacles (your opponents, preferably), tricking off those giant ramps or drifting around corners. Tap the brake to drift; there’s little need to actually slow down. It’s simple, and utterly ridiculous, but there’s enough nuance that practice and concentration make for some absolutely thrilling races.
Do the robot
The track design helps, too. Gameloft are frequently derided for copying the looks of established franchises, but not the heart, as it were. Asphalt 8 is certainly pretty: there’s some wonderful art direction here, from the giant robot on the Tokyo stage to the sunlight in Barcelona or the rocket launchpad in French Guiana (a real heart-in-mouth moment the first time you see that one, seriously).
Yet these tracks are also packed with alternate routes, some simply gloriously scenic, others demanding a real show of skill to take one of the faster cars through them without smearing it all over the walls. Miss a shortcut and the tension ratchets up even further. There’s a smart Active Reload trigger for your nitro which gets you moving even faster, desperately aiming for each new pickup and trying to keep the gauge from emptying.
Sadly, Gameloft haven’t sworn off all their bad habits: while the career mode is deep and expansive, the price of each new car rises suspiciously fast as you climb the ranks, relative to what you’re actually earning. And yes, you can pay real money to fill out your garage quicker. It’s far from the worst paywall ever conceived (and unlike Real Racing 3 there are no timers here) but there’s definitely a sense you’re being held back, even if it’s just a little.
Say it with me: “It’s not faaaiiir!“
On top of the slight push towards in-app purchases, there are more than a few moments you feel the level of polish isn’t quite all it could be – jumps that send you out of bounds for no reason at all, say, or hitting a wall at a fraction past a certain angle and instantly wrecking your car. These things will rob you of what felt like a guaranteed victory: sure, you’ll happily try the race again, but feeling you’ve been cheated is still deeply frustrating.
To be fair, there’s always multiplayer to boost your virtual earnings. While Gameloft have stripped some of the visual detail out, and you lose a couple of the game modes from the singleplayer career, matches are quick to start and relatively stable, with little if any lag. You’re still prey to the odd lop-sided match-up and sore losers logging off without warning, but you’re rewarded fairly generously for completing a race, let alone a podium finish.
And it’s important to remember what we’re talking about here. A racing title on smartphones and tablets that not only outstrips much of the immediate competition (the mobile version of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, for example) but also compares pretty favourably to home console releases. Asphalt 8 is pretty enough on an iPod Touch; try it on upmarket hardware and the extra effects are frequently breathtaking.
Sure, it’s wildly over the top, but it wears its cartoon frat-bro guise much better than you might think. Despite its flaws, this is a hugely entertaining game, thrilling and challenging with splendid production values, and surprisingly smart despite all the wub wub wub and the gleeful disregard for anything approaching realism. If you’re even slightly keen on arcade racers you owe it to yourself to get Asphalt 8: Airborne for your mobile device as soon as humanly possible.
Asphalt 8: Airborne, by Gameloft Barcelona, is available now for iOS (reviewed) and selected Android devices.