Very often the case against microtransactions is overstated by zealous traditional gamers. Despite EA’s gung-ho attitude toward in-app purchases, they’ve mostly been inoffensive in practice. Last year’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Mass Effect: Infiltrator had totally benign currency systems that could be completely ignored by those who didn’t want to pay to cheat. But every so often, we get a reminder of why there is such hysteria about this business model; a game whose sole purpose is to extract as much cash as possible from players, while leaving them on a hamster wheel of tiny payments that never ends. Real Racing 3 is such a game.
There are a million obnoxious free-to-play games out there, and they’re seldom worth complaining about. Real Racing 3 is so heartbreaking because in many respects, it’s so very good. Firemonkeys is easily one of the best mobile game developers in the world, and this is one of their most anticipated releases yet; the sequel to arguably the best racer on the platform, and the showcase title for the amazing new Mint Engine 3. The foundation is here for a real console-quality racer on our phones, if not for the painful reminders about the mobile marketplace.
There is no doubt that this game is stunning. The vehicle detail is astounding, and on high-end hardware, the tracks are beautifully rendered, with subtle reflections from the sun on the asphalt, and beautiful natural lighting. On lower-end devices, it looks closer to Real Racing 2 with a few more polygons, but it still runs as smooth as silk on an aging Galaxy S II. It’s easy to see why Apple used this title as their showcase for the iPhone 5; it really is the best-looking game you can get on a modern smartphone.
Graphics are nice, but what always separated the Real Racing series from other mobile racers was its attention to detail. This is as close to a serious racing simulation as you’re going to find on your phone, and it’s miles away from the likes of Asphalt and Need for Speed. It isn’t quite as hard-nosed and unforgiving as something like TOCA Touring Car, still it does its best to deliver a complex physics model and realistic handling.
By default, the game offers a slew of control “assists” to make the driving more accessible to casual players. When all of these are turned on, the game will completely handle braking altogether; asking players to do little more than gently steer the car between the lines. Suffice it to say, this can get pretty dull. Manual control is much more challenging, but with a little practice it will also lead to much better times. Although RR3 doesn’t go as far as simulating slipstreaming and drag, there’s a lot more subtlety to it than you’d expect from a mobile game.
There’s also a staggering amount of content to play through. The game features a whopping 900 events, distributed between 26 individual campaigns. There are 46 licensed cars to unlock, and tons of courses to race on, all modeled after real-world raceways. It’s a car junkie’s dream, and enough meat to last for months.
All of this content is accessible for free… but at what cost? Real Racing 3 features all of the usual microtransaction hooks you’d expect, and most of them aren’t that bad. Yes, the price of many of the cars is insanely high, and a few can only be bought with the precious alternate currency, “Gold.” Its most expensive vehicle costs 800 Gold, which translates into a laughable $96 even if you buy the largest currency packs – hardly a “micro” transaction by any measure. Theoretically, it may be possible to earn this in-game, but realistically most players won’t even be able to save up half of that even after weeks of grinding.
While this slow pace for earning upgrades hurts the game, it doesn’t wreck it. That’s job is reserved for its various timers, which effectively hold the entire game hostage for more “Gold.” After every race, you’re handed a list of repairs, which include (theoretically) avoidable collision damage, but also basic wear and tear like oil and tire changes. Performing any repair causes that car to be unavailable until that repair is completed. An oil change on a low-level car might only take 5 minutes, but servicing a high-end race car can take hours.
It doesn’t end with repairs. Want to upgrade your car? Wait an hour or so. Want to buy a new car? It’ll be delivered in 30 minutes. Real Racing 3 basically shuts you down every few races. Of course that nasty wait could all be over now for 5 Gold (about a dollar). EA’s hope is that players who are sick of waiting around will buy more Gold. But paying only relieves the pain for a few minutes, before leaving players in the same sad state as before. It’s a microtransaction treadmill that never ends. You can either pay a dollar every few laps, or sit and wait.
If you can get over the initial hump, things do get easier eventually. These service time-outs only apply to car being worked on, so once you have three or four vehicles in a few different classes, you can rotate between your cars to stay busy during the wait. The wait times for repairs on high-end racers are still obscenely long, which can get frustrating, but if you build up a well-rounded garage you can keep busy most of the time.
I’ve never had a problem paying for a microtransaction that genuinely makes a game better. I also don’t mind paying a subscription for a game that is truly going to keep me busy for months to come. But when a title tries to annoy me into a never-ending cycle of payment every few minutes, that’s where a game is reduced to little more than some kind of vending machine. Real Racing 3 will assault you with sales pitches about all the ways you can spend your money at every available moment. It is clear that its primary purpose is not to entertain players, but to extort money from them.
Between the ads, flash sales, and wait times, there’s still a great racer lurking underneath. In the end, Real Racing 3 is good enough to put up with it’s flaws. It would be good enough, in fact, to be worth paying quite a bit for, if the result of that purchase was a game that worked like it should. Alas, that isn’t an option. Real Racing 3 is worth downloading, and worth playing, but when your primary sale item is just a momentary fix, there’s really nothing worth paying for.