PREVIEW: Real Racing 3 [iOS]

Real Racing 3 is already a pretty direct title: At a glance, you know what to expect from the game. But EA and FireMonkeys, the game’s Melbourne-based developers, have taken an even more literal approach, promoting three specific elements that put the “real” into Real Racing 3: Real cars, real tracks, and real people. And of course, it’s all presented in a package that looks as real as we’ll likely see on current mobile devices.

That’s really the first thing that will strike you. Built with the new Mint 3 engine, Real Racing 3 is among the most graphically powerful on mobile devices. The detail of the cars is astounding, and the loving recreations make it obvious where the most care from the artists went. The landscapes are serviceable for quick glances, but if you take too long a look at the grandstands, the crowds or the texture of roads or grass, the claim of console quality visuals is lessened. But hey, we shouldn’t be that shallow: After all, you’re playing this on a device that fits in the palm of your hand, and with that in mind it looks remarkable.

And besides, the cars are the real stars of the show, with each one rendered in a crazy amount of detail, using real dimensions. For the series’ third entry, there’s more variety than ever: Players will drive almost fifty cars from manufacturers including Ford, Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini.

The menu is laid out like a catalogue, and players choose their next race by first selecting the type of car they’ll drive. From there, a list of events opens up, with a range of models of the selected car that can be used for each race.

Stats are presented for each model, which is daunting at first to non-car buffs. Thankfully, icons boil it all down to the essentials: Top speed, acceleration, stopping distance, handling. My initial method of choosing cars based on colour and general shininess soon gave way to comparing stats and picking the best, and the potential is there for more strategic racers to choose their vehicle based on their driving style.

[img_big]center,9977,2013-02-11/rr3_launchscreenshots_iphone5_silverstone.jpg,Real Racing 3[/img_big]

Honestly, I don’t know a lot about cars, but much of the detail that’s lost on me would excite car nuts, the kind of people that the game truly appeals to. Kynan Woodman, development director for FireMonkeys, emphasised the importance of accuracy.

“The bar has been raised on authenticity,” he said. Working with the actual manufacturers meant the team could “send (assets) through, and they give feedback on maybe a little detail that we’ve missed. Which is great because we know our customers are really enthusiastic about us getting the cars right.”

That authenticity now carries over to the tracks as well. For the first time in the Real Racing series, players will drive around famous real-world locales. The Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California, Hockenheim in Germany, and Mount Panorama in NSW, Australia, are among many tracks that have been recreated in as much detail as possible. There’s even a great Melbourne track, the home town of the FireMonkeys (and myself). Players will race through the Southbank area, passing landmarks like Flinders Street station, Federation Square, the Arts Centre and Crown Casino.

Creating a track based on a physical location brought about new challenges during development. “We had a lot more flexibility with what we could get away with when it was just two people making up the tracks as we wanted. If we didn’t want that corner to be like that, we could just change it, or if the AI couldn’t handle a corner like that, we’d just change it,” said Woodman. “Whereas now, with Real Racing 3, with real tracks, the AI has to be able to do the right thing, at the right time. There’s no way of faking it.”

The line between AI and human player is strangely blurred here. Real Racing 3 offers what they call “Time-Shifted Multiplayer” (TSM) – which is essentially their (trademarked) term for what everyone else calls asynchronous multiplayer.

What that means is that you don’t race opponents in real-time, but challenge them to beat your high scores after the fact. It equates to a leaderboard/ghost system: you see your friends’ top scores for specific events, and can choose to compete against a “ghost” of their time. Except it’s not a traditional racing game ghost, but a physical AI car that tries its best to follow the player’s recorded path – until you crash into them.

If you beat the kinda-ghost car, your friend will be sent a message, and they can try to reclaim their title. It’s a good way to foster friendly competition, although it’s not quite as revolutionary as they’d have you believe.

[img_big]center,9977,2013-02-11/screen_2.jpg,Real Racing 3[/img_big]

For that system to be most effective, EA hopes to expand the community around the game, by incorporating the free-to-play business model – a drastic and divisive decision.

Real Racing 3 can be downloaded for free from the Apple App Store – and soon, the Google Play store – but users can choose to make small in-app purchases with real money. While many fans have already expressed disappointment and anger at the change, it doesn’t seem to be too invasive. Players can spend money to unlock cars, tracks and events if they wish, but those things will eventually become available through regular play.

Where problems potentially lie is in the repair system. Your car will sustain damage during races, and you’ll need to send them to the shop, or deal with the corresponding stat penalties. Repairs take a certain amount of real time to complete, during which the car is unusable, but you can skip those by paying a certain amount. It may not be an issue if you have a whole range of cars unlocked, and can just use another model while you wait, but otherwise, a forced ten-minute wait could completely drain a user’s play session. They might be trying to sneak in a quick game on the bus – in ten minutes, they’ll be home. [Ed: This functionality is still being tweaked, and just how these transactions will function in the final game remains to be seen.]

We’ll have to see how the freemium model works over time, but besides that, the game itself is looking good. The visuals push the limits of the hardware, the attention to detail in the cars and locations is impressive, and the motion controls are genuinely intuitive. Car buffs will get a special kick out of the game, but even to car noobs like me, Real Racing 3 is an enticing package.

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