Of all the developers that have taken a stab at the N-Gage, Gameloft seems to have had the most-consistent luck, releasing quality titles like Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm and Rayman 3. Asphalt: Urban GT is another success for the mobile developer, delivering straightforward street racing that helps bolster the N-Gage's shaky lineup. It's a pretty derivative game, lifting elements from Collin McRae, Need for Speed Underground, and Burnout, but most of what it borrows is good, and generally the game plays pretty well.
Asphalt aims for a simple, arcade-inspired design ethic, and this is very much apparent in the game's controls, which consist simply of gas, brake, and turbo-boost buttons. Taking a page from Criterion's Burnout series, the game allows you to increase the amount of nitrous you have at your disposal by drifting around corners and coming dangerously close to the other traffic on the streets, though in Asphalt you're constantly gaining more turbo boost even when not pulling off such maneuvers. The game has a pretty good sense of speed, and each of its 20-plus licensed cars handles fairly uniquely and appropriately. This sometimes leads to certain cars not being that much fun to drive, but for the most part it works to the game's advantage.
The biggest fault in Asphalt's gameplay is with the collision detection, which is all over the place. The sides of the streets are littered with benches, stacks of boxes, phone booths, hot-dog carts, and various other props that you can run into and destroy without any effect on your speed, but then there are other objects--such as the palm trees that split part of the course on the Miami Beach track--that you can just pass right through. Collision with other cars is the worst, though. Bumping into other cars going the same direction as you is stuttery and unnatural looking, and running into oncoming traffic causes your car to go into an awkward, canned 180-degree spin before automatically resetting.
It's obviously not a simulation, but Asphalt does make a nod to many rally-racing games by flashing the general direction of an upcoming turn moments before you hit it. This provides you with just enough time to position yourself and get ready to start applying the brakes to begin the drift, and it helps compensate for the narrow N-Gage screen, which has severely hobbled previous, lesser racing games. Asphalt gets a lot of mileage out of this straight-up control scheme with a decent variety of gameplay modes.
The arcade mode offers a variety of race types, including instant play, road challenge, free race, time attack, and cop chase. The instant play mode throws you into a random car on a random track in a random gameplay mode, no questions asked. The road challenges are a series of races against AI opponents divvied up by class, and the free race is similar, though it's just a single race in which you can choose from any of the cars and race on any of the nine tracks in the game. Time attack takes out the other racers and the ambient street traffic, pitting you against the clock.
The cop chase mode is kind of like the classic Atari arcade game A.P.B., except in 3D. In a souped-up sports-car-cum-cop-car, your goal is to chase down a number of escaping cars before time runs out. All you have to do is line up behind the perp and keep him within the targeting overlay on your screen for a few seconds, and he'll automatically pull over. It sounds simple enough, but unfortunately the control in Asphalt isn't precise enough, and the tracks are usually curvy enough that it's exceedingly difficult to keep the cars in your sights long enough to pull them over. It's a good enough idea, but most rounds usually just end in frustration.
If you're looking for something a little bit bigger in scope than just a handful of races, the evolution mode gives you a garage and a series of race challenges in which you can win cash and cars. You can also go to car dealers and buy new cars, or buy upgrades that affect both the performance and the look of your car.
The game also features Bluetooth support for up to four players. You can choose a single race, in which you define which track you race on and which class of cars you race in, or you can go into the championship mode and select from a variety of race series in which the cars and tracks are already defined. The cop chase mode is also playable over Bluetooth, though because of its cat-and-mouse mechanics, it's limited to two players. In all, the multiplayer functionality is pretty good, though we did occasionally experience difficulty establishing a connection.
We've seen the N-Gage struggle with 3D graphics in the past, but Asphalt is a testament to the fact that polygonal graphics can be done on the N-Gage, and done well. The bevy of licensed cars featured in the game capture the look of their real-world counterparts quite accurately, though they do tend to be a little boxy. Along with a downright impressive variety of cars, the game keeps the visuals interesting with tracks set in a great variety of locations. Each track has a unique and well-defined look, and they're all quite good at evoking the feel of the cities they're based on (smart use of shadows and some reflective effects help to further the feeling that you're actually in these environments). On the technical side, Asphalt is one of the most accomplished N-Gage games so far, though it still has a pretty noticeable draw-in distance. It's something that doesn't affect the actual gameplay, and usually you really need to look for it to notice it. Most importantly, though, the game is able to maintain a pretty consistent frame rate--it's definitely not running at a full 30 frames per second, but consistency is of paramount importance in a reflex-driven game like Asphalt.
Though the game is graphically impressive, its sound leaves much to be desired. Our biggest issue with the sound is that of the actual cars. The effects themselves aren't that bad--the engine sounds good and throaty, with a layer of high-pitch whine at higher speeds, and the tires squeal around corners satisfyingly. But no matter what you're driving, be it an H2 Hummer, a Jaguar XKR, or a classic Aston Martin roadster, all the cars use exactly the same sound effects, which takes away from the uniqueness that the game otherwise does a pretty good job of imbuing all the cars with. Filling in any gaps underneath the blaring car sounds is a rather trite soundtrack of mechanical break beats and by-the-numbers synth sounds.
Asphalt's production is a little uneven in spots, but it gets enough of it right that, in the end, the experience is pretty enjoyable. The fundamental gameplay is fast and accessible, and there's enough variety in both the single- and multiplayer modes that you could spend a lot of time with the game.