Hardcore racing gamers are part of a rare breed. Anyone and everyone picks up a racer every once in a while, some even get good at one or two. But the hardcore racing fans—the few, the proud—put up with a lot to get to the good stuff. You also have to at least be ready to stomach a certain degree of repetition. After all, these games are all about honing your skills and slowly getting better in small increments, posting faster times, racking up better scores. Unlike other genre enthusiasts who often find themselves somewhat disappointed when it comes to mobile formats, racing fans playing on mobile devices find that the stakes are pretty high, because there are some seriously epic titles to compete with.
When I hit the throttle on Colin McRae’s Rally, I was less than enthused. The first set of tracks (aptly titled “Introduction”) was boring and the controls didn’t seem intuitive. Bear in mind that I come from the ranks of avid fans of the Asphalt series, which employs arcade-style physics and exciting graphics. So when McRae put me onto a somewhat realistic off-road course, with a car whose physical condition affected its performance, I had to step back and adjust my strategy.
So let’s get into said strategy, shall we? Players have two fundamental gameplay options: tilting your screen to turn or using virtual arrow buttons on-screen. Maybe I was primed by almost every original iPhone ad, but there’s something about using the tilt-screen method that feels so intuitive for racing games. There’s nothing like edging your car along a track with the tactile feel of tilting your screen, which is not unlike a steering wheel. The controls are rounded out by a gas pedal on the right side of the screen, and a pair of brakes (hand for slides and pedal for full stops) on the left side.
The game’s structure is pretty similar to most racing games, in that the core campaign involves completing small groups of races to achieve the best time, thus winning each title. Once you’ve beaten titles, you get new cars, which in turn allow you to beat further tournaments and so on. This repetition is something racing fans will be familiar with, though in this game it did feel a little more, well, repetitious due to the fact that these were all similar off-road courses.
The actual feel of the game was where it fell short for me. I found it pretty frustrating that when you started to lose control of your car, it was very, very difficult to regain traction (even if you slowed down significantly). So, barreling through courses like arcade racing titles encourage was simply not advisable in McRae. In addition, there are no other “computer” cars within the course while you’re racing, but rather, your time is ranked against other virtual racers after the tracks are completed (leaving you to believe each car completed the race alone, qualifier-style). While this may be realistic for real-life off-roading, I really missed the cat-and-mouse rivalry you get with crowded racetracks.
The other thing that I found pretty suspect was the whole map layout system. Normally racing games offer a map overview superimposed on the screen. McRae didn’t. Rather, the developers elected to show you the track layout during the loading screen, and flash momentary “turn this way soon” signs on the screen while you’re racing. And because these were off-road courses, there wasn’t much of a road to latch onto. It only took a couple of “ughs” when I ran straight into that picket fence (instead of taking the hairpin turn) for me to yearn for that in-race map.
Now, this is a premium title, so there’d better be some positives, right? Well, while the gameplay felt a little less familiar to me than other titles, there was a serious sense of accomplishment when I overcame that tricky tournament and got the next tier of car. And believe it or not, I did get better and better as tracks went on. After all, without a challenge to overcome, how are you going to grow to new accomplishments? So by about the 5th group of tracks, I found myself pretty addicted to posting the best time. The hand-brake slides were fun, and the accompanying sound effects were surprisingly satisfying.
Oddly enough, I’d say my favorite part about the game was the repair system. Most arcade racers allow you to slam into walls and spin out left and right with little-to-no consequence. In this game, however, if you damage your car it has very real effect on its performance. You’ll never stall out completely, but damage to your whip is definitely best avoided. For example, if you dent the car’s body too much, its aerodynamics begin to perform poorly, thus diminishing your top speed. Luckily every second or third race (depending on the tournament), the game allows you to allocate a finite amount of repairs to various categories including your engine, tires and body. So, not only is there an overarching game strategy based on car selection, but there’s a strategy within the tournaments themselves. Pretty cool.
All in all, the game was just middle-of-the-road (pun shamefully intended). While I grew to like the hardcore elements of the gameplay and found myself with a strong sense of accomplishment as I built my off-road career, I thought the physics could have been ironed out just a bit more. And while the graphics were sufficient, I’d say the premium price left me wanting something just a little sharper. But if you like other mobile racers and want to try something that’s fresh and realistic, then give this one a spin. A bit of closing advice: take the races slow—you’ll thank yourself for being more tortoise than hare.
An offroad racer with dodgy traction and a pretty solid career mode