Retro 2D top-down racing is enjoying somewhat of a comeback thanks to the iPad. The large screen and adaptable control schemes mean that games like Micro Machines are once again fun to play on a portable screen.
PadRacer is one such top-down racing game that takes retro to a whole new level and attempts to leverage the power of the iPad and iPhone to bring an enjoyable social gaming experience.
Judging by the reviews on the App Store, PadRacer splits opinion. Some love the super retro, basic graphics, and some think that even retro gaming has moved on. Honestly, I think the graphics are too simplistic.
First the good. I quite like the old-fashioned racer style, with vehicles that look like the first iterations of purpose-built racing cars. The tracks too remind me a lot of some of the first racing games I used to play on my Acorn Archimedes back in the day.
The problem is that the game is poorly animated; in fact there's almost no animation at all. The car just pivots around a set axis as you turn, with an unchanging sprite that shows no obvious signs of movement other than going around the track. The iPhone controller, on the other hand, shows the wheels turning on the car as you tilt the controller (more on that later), so I'm not sure why the cars on the iPad couldn't show a bit more animation. Retro looks are fine, but things have moved on from static sprites that simply turn to simulate steering.
The controls available in PadRacer are polarizing. I say this because, on one device they simply don't work well, but on another they're great. The PadRacer app is installable on both the iPad and the iPhone. On the iPad you get the full game, but on the iPhone you simply get a Wi-Fi controller for the iPad.
You're limited to tilt controls, and that's where it gets interesting. Using the iPhone to control your racer is easy to set up; simply connect to the same Wi-Fi network as the iPad. It feels well connected with no noticeable lag and simple touch to accelerate, swipe to boost, with tilt to steer controls. The whole experience gels well.
The problem is when you don't have an iPhone or iPod touch to connect as a controller, tilting the iPad to steer the car is just plain rubbish. The iPad is too big to tilt to the amount and rate you need to in order to properly steer your car around the track. Games such as Real Racing also use the accelerometer to steer, but the view is first or third-person meaning when you rotate the iPad the car turns with your rotation. What's more is that PadRacer insists that you hold the iPad vertically in front of you like a racing car's driving position. It's all very well for the odd race, but holding the iPad out like that gets old quickly. For iPad-only game play, you really need on-screen buttons for steering, or at least have the option. As it stands, the racing in an iPad-only configuration is tedious.
PadRacer is best experienced with friends -- there's no two ways about it. On your own it's just you and the track. There are no AI cars to race against, though you can use a ghost of one of your previous races. There is an online leader board (not Game Center enabled) where you can post your times and check-out how you match up to the global audience, but that's about it. While it's novel to race around the track on your own for five laps, it quickly gets old.
With friends, however, it's a different story. Four cars can be controlled via four separate iPhones all connected to one iPad. It's here that the racing starts to get interesting, and where five laps are justified. Those with two iPads can connect them end to end using Wi-Fi to extend the race track across the two screens. The PadRacer developers have thankfully catered for those who don't have an iPad, but want to control a car on someone else's, by releasing a free controller app for the iPhone so that you don't have to buy the full game just to play with your mates.
There are only four tracks available as standard, plus a duo track for using two iPads. They're fairly basic. The developer has, however, included a brand new draw-your-own-track feature, called "Fingertrack." You use a finger to trace out the outline of a track and let the game fill in the detail (which apparently pushes the iPad to its limit). In theory, Fingertrack sounds awesome; in practice, you don't get a lot of space for any decent length of track. It's quite fun to sketch out small replicas of your favorite racing tracks, and it does add almost infinite replay value, but I honestly can't see myself drawing out many tracks just to race around on my own. With friends it could be a different story.
VerdictPadRacer is an interesting one. Some people are instantly going to hate it. At first glance, especially when you're just playing on the iPad with no iPhone wireless controller, it's a frustrating experience. The more I've played using the iPhone as a controller, the more I've come to like PadRacer, however. Its background sounds remind me of track days, while the graphics remind of games from my childhood. I still think more animation is needed at least for the cars on the iPad, and I really think the developers need to add touchscreen controls for iPad steering. But it has grown on me.
If you're looking for a game to play on your own on your iPad, PadRacer isn't it. There are much better examples of single player top-down racers, like Reckless Racing, that deserve your money. But it does use the available technology well allowing you to effortlessly join two iPads together and use four separate iDevices as controllers over Wi-Fi, and therefore is a game best experienced with friends.PadRacer is available in the App Store for US$4.99.