Asphalt has long been something of a flagship for Gameloft. Their longest running series, it was one of the first to really push high-end 3D graphics on the wimpy dumbphones of the day, and Gameloft’s only series that continues to appear on handheld gaming systems alongside phones and tablets. And, unlike much of their lineup, it’s an original series that may occasionally crib from the likes of Need for Speed, but over the years has carved out its own identity.
Asphalt is important to Gameloft, but last year, it seemed as if they were content to rest on their laurels. Asphalt 7 not only recycled the gameplay of its predecessor wholesale, but most of its tracks as well, leaving something that felt like a gussied up expansion pack; hardly any way to treat a flagship. But Gameloft is not content to merely coast. Asphalt 8 is a return to form, built from the ground up on an entirely new engine. It’s a true next-gen effort in every sense.
Asphalt 8 is the first game to use Gameloft’s latest tech, and it’s simply miles ahead of anything else on mobile right now. Gone are the bright, cartoony visuals of the last few entries, replaced with more realistic sets bathed in natural sunlight, and rendered with a host of effects that seem almost exaggeratedly real. Despite the move away from the colorful palette of the past games, Asphalt 8 is realized with a whole lot of style. Every effect has been dialed up, with bright glare staining a dirty lens, contrasted by long shadows cast by a low-hanging sun. This is the perfect game to show off that new superphone you just picked up, but what’s just as shocking is how good this game looks even on older dual-core handsets. In a refreshing reversal of policy, Gameloft has even allowed users to set the rendering detail manually, although it should be noted that texture detail seems to be tied to the same dodgy auto-detection that plagues their other games.
Despite the move to seemingly more realistic environments, Asphalt 8 has not toned down the action at all. Track designs feel a bit more like real places, but are even more outrageous than ever, sending you blasting through rocket launches, avalanches, and shopping malls. Stages are actually dynamic now, with animated events triggered at key points to pump up the action. There are even more multiple paths than before, and it’s impressive the extent to which Gameloft has kept these balanced rather than just including obvious shortcuts.
With a subtitle like “Airborne” you’d expect there to be some crazy jumps, and boy, does it live up to the name. The last couple entries in the series certainly had some wild vertical leaps, but Airborne makes them a real part of the gameplay. Throughout the stages, there are ramps that will launch your car for a boost. Hitting the ramp in a slide will perform flat spins for an added bonus, and banked ramps will send you into a barrel roll. These moves help to show off the new, fully-3D physics system, although the barrel rolls are a bit canned so you usually land right. In practice, this feels a lot like the trick system in Riptide GP, and it adds both technique and strategy to the already crazy driving. There are still nitro tanks to pick up, but with some deft tricking, you can keep your car almost constantly supplied, allowing you to smash through your opponents.
Gameloft’s titles have often suffered from laggy online play, but they’ve stepped up their game here as well. Asphalt 8 finally ditches Gameloft’s old proprietary social elements and uses Google Play to connect with friends and reward achievements. Getting a game is fast and smooth as butter. On both WiFi and LTE, games run flawlessly, and a wealth of modes keep things interesting.
The only thing that keeps Asphalt 8 from truly taking the mobile racing crown is its pacing. As in past games, you progress by earning stars in various events and money to buy new cars. Most of the money you earn this time actually comes from earning stars, and can only be had once. This makes it very tough to grind your way up to earn more money. Even worse, the game is packed with vehicle-specific events, requiring you to buy far more cars than you really need. It smacks of greed, in the hopes of selling car packs, but it’s still not quite as obnoxious as Real Racing 3. Even if you could progress faster, there are only nine tracks this time around. This is hardly a meager offering, but it’s around half of what the last game had, and even with mirrored versions, you’ll feel like you’re playing the same levels over and over.
It’s good to see Gameloft once again making this series a top priority. With a new release every year, there are times when Asphalt has threatened to grow stale, but Asphalt 8 is the nitro boost this series needed. It doesn’t totally reinvent the brand, but it takes it even further into it the realm of utterly fantastic, high-flying arcade action that no one seems to do better, all while introducing a new level of polish and graphical splendor that seems impossible given the platform.