iPhone Game Review: Race After 1977 Reviewed by Tim Harvey
Why is it that the post-apocalypse and racing fit so comfortably together? In the 1980s, drive-ins were filled with cyber punk films about lone heroes driving across deserts in search of oil or power crystals, or fill-in-the-blank, and while those movies wore out their welcome quickly, there's something still so simple and fun about them. The '70s were an even better era for the setting, due mostly to the cool muscle cars and grimy, grindhouse sensibilities of filmmakers, just ask Quentin Tarantino.
In gaming, we've seen plenty of devotion to the urge to get down and dirty kicking up dust after the end of the world with games like Rock'n Roll Racing, Twisted Metal, Carmageddon and Motorstorm: Apocalypse. Race After 1977 follows this tradition while adding sensibilities from one of the most underrated decades of the 20th Century and as a fan of racing games as well as muscle cars and 1970s muscle car racing culture (Vanishing Point is one of my all-time favorite movies), I was eager to give it a go. Unfortunately, the initial release was plagued by a few serious problems that made the game difficult to enjoy. Xpect Games subsequently issued an update, however, which went a long way in addressing the issues the 1.0 release had. The game is now frequently a lot of fun, even if there are some areas where it seems to fall a bit short of greatness.
Right away, you'll notice that you can play in two different modes: "Quick Race" and "Story Mode." You won't get much mileage out of quick race, though, until you've unlocked events and cars in the story mode. Eventually you'll be able to use 9 different vehicles across 5 different tracks, which can be inverted to provide the illusion of 10 tracks. After selecting your desired game mode, you'll also be able to choose between 3 difficulties, which provide a very good challenge for beginners on "Easy" and will even test the skills of racing veterans on "Hard." Personally, I go for the medium option most of the time.
The story mode is the campaign portion of the game, and it is a bit disappointing in some respects. You will play through the five events in the first cup only to move to the next cup, and the next two after that which feature an increasingly familiar experience--the same opponents, same tracks (except sometimes inverted) and largely the same vehicles. Unlocking new vehicles does make for some much-needed variety, but you can't upgrade or customize cars in any way after unlocking them. The events are all the same too--no elimination races or head to head bouts--just the same 5-driver races. Yeah, this is what we all came here to do, but I do wish that more creativity had been used in designing the campaign.
As for the racing itself, it's pretty satisfying overall. The car physics are a bit floaty and the first few cars feel sluggish and don't achieve very good traction on the roads, but as you progress you'll notice the sense of speed is pretty impressive. Some of the tracks are extremely cool and allow you to ramp over large obstacles and drive at extreme angles across walls. Rubber banding, which is a common way that arcade racers (especially those with few cars featured in a race at one time) keep events competitive, is minimal in the game and therefore you can find yourself far ahead in an event if you race well, or far behind if you mess up early in the race. I think rubber banding can be a useful tool in the AI design for some racers, but it usually feels very unrealistic and, more importantly, just flat out cheap, so I'm glad that it's minimal here and that skill is rewarded with a strong lead even at the expense of not all the races being white knuckle drag-outs to the bitter end.
Vehicular combat, which the game seems to promise plenty of, doesn't feel as exciting as I'd hoped. The crashes are usually somewhat low-impact and more brutal and destructive collisions would have been nice. I'd hoped that the game would have replays of particularly crazy crashes from different angles so as to provide moments of awe, and even moreso I was looking forward to plowing rivals off the track into walls, taking them out of a race completely, but neither of these things was delivered. Usually it's difficult to impact other drivers' trajectory all that much, and when they do flip or go into a wall, they almost immediately right themselves and blast off at nearly full speed, so don't expect to affect the outcome of a race too much by assaulting other racers; you'll need to win with skill and finesse rather than ruthlessness and brutality. On the positive side, the opponent cars are quite aggressive, towards you and other AI drivers, which is great to see.
The cars show a good deal of variety in design and the way they drive. You'll find you may need to experiment with which cars to use on different tracks, as some will have the advantage with their traction in open and dusty environs whereas others with greater acceleration will have the advantage in tighter quarters. The setting and the tracks really are the standout, visually and in the way they let you find your own path. Some tracks are very open affairs, and while you can't just go drive off into the desert, (you'll find yourself hitting an invisible wall should you try), you are often free to explore alternate routes and shortcuts. All that really needs to be said to illustrate the strength of the cars and tracks is this--you can drive a police car up the wall of a dam. Pretty cool.
The controls are a mixed bag. You are given three options: tilt, touch, and wheel, which can be placed on the left or the right side at the bottom of the screen. I always like to use tilt in racing games and I think that the iPhone and iPod Touch are pretty much made for racing games due to how great tilt controls often feel. Sadly, in Race After 1977 this is not the case, as the tilt controls are much too loose to prove useful. Touch controls work pretty well but also have a flaw. In this method, there is a directional arrow placed at the left and right sides of the screen that you tap to turn. Normally this is a pretty good option, but you do need to be very on-target with your taps, because if you tap too low then you'll hit the brake rather than the turn. There also seemed to be times when my taps didn't register at all, leading me to crash straight into a wall rather than corner cleanly. Finally, there's the wheel option, which is my favorite. This is the one that feels the most like real driving and seems to offer the best and most responsive controls.
There is no multi-player of any kind, which is pretty disappointing, although the game does support Game Center leaderboards and 50 different Game Center achievements, which provides some extra replay value if you're into those sorts of things.
Car models have a lot of character and look pretty realistic. There aren't any reflections on the cars but there also isn't any noticeable jaggedness to the lines and textures look very good. There isn't much pop-in although the game does suffer some slowdown on my iPod Touch 4G at times (nothing game breaking, just a bit visually distracting). Again, the settings look great. Lighting isn't all that special, but it is at least somewhat varied and you'll find darkness in tunnels and more pronounced color under the sun, although reflections would have really looked great with these contrasts.
Each racer has a portrait that you'll see when beginning an event, and they are full of character. It would have been nice to see more characters, however, as you're supposed to be moving up the ranks, and it doesn't make much sense to face the same opponents in circuit after circuit.
Something that might go unnoticed by many but that I really liked a lot was the HUD. It's very distinctive and works well, as well as fitting the visual theme of the game. The environments and car models may stand out a lot more, but to me the HUD is, in a sneaky way, the best thing about the game's visual design. On the flipside, menus can be a bit confusing when you're trying to figure out which events you've already cleared in the campaign, and it's not extremely obvious that you can invert courses by tapping on them in the quick race mode.
The music is flat out awesome, channeling heavy, groovy, funky rock into a perfect vibe. The race announcer is nondescript, and sound effects are a little uninteresting, if competent, but the music alone makes for a very strong overall experience with the soundtrack.
I'm just a guy with a word processor, but it seems like a 3D racing game has to be one of the most technically difficult types of games to create, due to the need for visuals to render quickly to reduce pop-in, the somewhat high demands for texture mapping, and to get everything running smoothly with a physics engine that not only looks good but is fun to interact with. I would expect that Xpect Games worked with more constraints than the teams that brought Real Racing, Need for Speed and Asphalt to iOS, and as such they probably needed to make some decisions about things that sometimes come across as pretty big compromises when you've got the end result in your hands. For example, the car physics being a bit floaty allows for a greater sense of speed without making things uncontrollable. I think most of the flaws I've noticed in Race After 1977 can easily be placed in this sort of a dichotomy, as in, "well, the cars respawn quickly after wrecking, but this allows for a lot less rubberbanding," and I do think that Xpect made the best decisions they could when faced with these choices the great majority of the time.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 4 - While technically not the class of iOS racers in the looks department, the stylishness of the setting, cars and characters as well as very strong rendering and design ensures that Race After 1977 looks great overall. Sound: - 4 - The music is fantastic, and the sound effects do a workmanlike job. Controls: - 3 - The wheel option works well, but unfortunately the tilt controls provide nothing but frustration. Gameplay: - 3.5 - An interesting mix of sim and arcade racing elements provides a fun experience most of the time, although the campaign mode lacks real depth. Overall: - 3.5 - It?s a pretty simple proposition: if you like the idea of a fully 3D post apocalyptic racer full of muscle cars on your iPhone then this game is definitely worth checking out. It?s not the best racer out there although it is one of the better ones, and it?s certainly one of, if not the most distinctive of them all.