Gameloft has released eight games in the Asphalt series in just under nine years. If practice makes perfect, then Asphalt 8 should be nothing less than the greatest racing game ever made. It doesn't quite live up to that lofty goal, but as a top-tier Android game and an impressive arcade-style racer in its own right, it's worth your attention even if you're only casually interested in racing games.
Between the Hot Wheels physics, licensed cars, online play, and gorgeous presentation, Asphalt 8 is worth a lot more than its $1 asking price. Whether or not it's worth all the in-app purchases that the player is constantly inundated with is another question, but in the game's defense, none of them are necessary to get all the cars and upgrades. If you're wondering whether to buy Asphalt 8, the answer is yes, so long as you've got some high-end hardware to play it on.
If EA's Real Racing has a slavish dedication to authentic race car driving, then the Asphalt series could justifiably be called "Unreal Racing." From the city and country tracks populated with traffic, to the unbelievable Nitro boost system, to the titular aerial stunts, Asphalt 8 wants to be nothing more than a flat-out arcade fantasy. It shares its fast and furious style with the various console racers it apes, none more so than Criterion's Burnout series.
Gameloft as a development company has all the originality of a photocopier, and it's clear that Burnout was their barely-concealed inspiration for Asphalt 8. Unrealistic physics? Check. Smash-happy knockout mode? Check. Music that fades out for jumps? Check. A camera that slowly and lovingly pans over environments and crashes? Check. A zombie-inspired Infected mode? Well that's lifted out of Forza, but you get the point: connoisseurs of the racing genre will find nothing in Asphalt that they haven't seen before many times.
All that said, a well-made copy is still enjoyable, and Asphalt 8 delivers the goods. Zipping around the tracks, jumping 200 feet in the air, smashing an opponent, and raising the combined auto insurance rates of the entire world by an appreciable margin is undeniably fun. Whether you're going it alone in the campaign or quick race modes or duking it out with real people online or in local WiFi play, the feeling of speed and competition is an ever-present factor. In a starter car that might appeal to a lead-footed soccer mom or a half-million dollar piece of carbon-clad adrenaline on wheels, you're going to be enjoying the ride.
A lot of the fun comes from the jumps and multi-leveled nature of the stages, which you might have guessed from the title. Indeed, you'll spend a lot of time in Asphalt 8 airborne, paradoxically gaining speed and distance on your boring contemporaries who elect to remain on the ground. (You can even steer and lean while in the air. Somehow.) This serves to add Nitro boost to your meter, and you can get even more by flat-spinning or barrel rolling. Get the drift and the timing just right, and you can completely refill your boost in a single jump.
Speaking of boost, it's got a unique double activation mechanic. Press the boost button once to go faster, or twice to go much faster, but for a shorter duration. Time it right and you'll get a tertiary boost as well. It adds an interesting bit of strategy to the white-knuckle racing, and mastering this mechanic will be the difference between failure and victory in many races.
The tracks in Asphalt 8 are a bit limited at only nine for the entire game. But if the selection is limited, the variety isn't: you'll drive through everything from a relatively earthbound Monaco to an avalanche-prone Alps to a live space shuttle launch in French Guiana. (Huh?) Get a jump wrong and you might smash into a space shuttle as it's landing or bounce off the London Eye. I still wish there were more tracks, since you'll grind through the same ones over and over in career mode (see below), but the ones available are fun and challenging.
What Asphalt 8 lacks in tracks it makes up for in cars. It's got everything from pocket rocket hatchbacks to unattainable dream machines. 47 cars in five classes are available, though they're split into some strange divisions that don't seem to have much to do with real-world price or performance.
The latest from Ford, Dodge, Chevy, Audi, Nissan, Tesla, Bugatti, Ferrari, and Lamborghini are present, among other more exotic brands. The game doesn't have everything (I was disappointed at the lack of a Dodge Challenger, for example), and you won't find any classic models, but there should be plenty for gearheads to drool over. All the cars are souped up to extremes, but they have attributes that are generally analogous to real-world cars. For example, a Lotus Exige will beat a Ford Mustang off the line, but the Mustang will crush it when they trade paint.
Model Shown With Optional Extras
Asphalt 8 costs $.99. And it never lets you forget that.
From the very first moment you open the game, you're inundated with offers for in-app purchases. These come in three flavors: straight-up currency, car packs, and season unlocks. While it's true that you can get every car, every upgrade, and every event without spending any extra money, every development decision seems to have been made to push you towards parting with your real-world cash. There are links to the store on every menu page. The game tells you when you can afford a new car and gives a handy prompt to go buy it. Upgrades are outrageously expensive after the first round.
But none of this is as manipulative as the structure of the single-player mode itself. The campaign is split into seasons of 12-20 races. Most races are limited to a class of car, but after the first season, more and more of them are limited to a single manufacturer or even a single model. That means that to continue to buy new cars, you'll either have to buy specific cars that you may or may not want, or grind through races you've already played to get all the objectives and more cash. (Or, of course, you can fork over a few bucks.)
It doesn't help that the AI opponents are unbelievably cheap. Cars that are technically inferior to yours will zip past you even when you're boosting. The crash mechanic is much more forgiving to computers than to humans. And the single-player races have so much rubber-banding (cars at the back of the pack being artificially sped up to catch the leaders) that at times I felt like I was playing Mario Kart. Basically, the game will do everything it can to keep you from winning the single-player races, pushing you towards purchasing cars or currency with real money so you can complete more events.
But I found it hard to stay mad at Asphalt 8, even with its painfully obvious pushes. Going through the older races to complete the objectives was still fun, and once I'd mastered the subtle boost and drift mechanics, the AI didn't seem nearly as cheap. During my review time I only managed to make it to Season 5 of 8 without spending money, and getting every car and upgrade without further expenditure would be a herculean effort.
You can view this as a playtime extension or an annoying barrier. It's up to you. At least the game doesn't charge you for re-painting your cars, and the truly maddening dual-currency system found in games like Real Racing 3 is not present in this game.
Seats Up To Eight Passengers
Everything that Asphalt 8 gets wrong in single player is forgiven in the online racing mode. Races are rock-solid in terms of connection, and the matchmaking mechanic makes sure that you're unlikely to meet a human player who's unreasonably beyond you in either car or skill. Here's the blurb that Gameloft is going to take away from this lengthy review: Asphalt 8 is hands-down the best multiplayer racing game on Android.
When you enter online mode, you select your car, then you're then dumped into a room with up to seven randomly-selected strangers. The group is matched to the technical capabilities of your car (by car rank) and skill (by your own multiplayer experience points). Sometimes there's more variety and sometimes you'll be playing against seven identical cars, but for most races, you won't be up against players with cars that are more than 10% better or worse than yours.
You choose a racing style (standard race, elimination, or the zombified Infected mode) and a venue, and the combination with the most votes in the room wins. The multiplayer bouts deal out almost as much in-game currency as the campaign mode, so there's no reason not to try it. Integration with Facebook, Google+, and Google Play Games for achievements and cloud saves is included.
And the races. Good grief, the races. Playing against human opponents is not only more rewarding than single-player mode, it's also objectively easier, since all the rubber-banding has been left out. Get a sizeable lead in the first lap, and you'll only have to maintain to win. Fall behind too far, and you'll have to hope that someone else screws the pooch. You know, like a real racing game.
There's one exception to that, and it's Infected mode. This mode marks the last-place racer as "infected," and it bestows upon him or her strange and terrible powers. Infected racers get infinite boost, which makes it easier to smash up other racers. When they do, the "infection" is passed on, so now you've got two super-powered racers. Yes, not even the racing genre is immune to the unstoppable zombie gaming hoard. But there's a catch: stay infected too long, and your car will overload and explode, "curing" you and setting you back considerably. You can keep the infection going by infecting other cars, landing jumps, or grabbing boost, but eventually you'll either blow up or finish the race. It's a very interesting way to play, and it makes for a much more dynamic give-and-take than a regular race.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Asphalt 8 looks better than it looks. Allow me to explain this: while the actual cars and environments in the game are OK, they're far from the best available on Android. Real Racing 3 still holds the crown for the best graphics. But with all the added effects and dizzying speed, you'll have a hard time noticing. There's bloom. There's motion blur. The vehicles and parts of the environment are destructible. And there's so much lens flair you're tempted to see if J.J. Abrams is hiding behind an overpass column with a film crew.
It's all about the spectacle, which fits in with Asphalt's fun over realism aesthetic. Between the shuttle launches, neon lights, Nitro effects, and the ever-present speed, the message of arcade-style racing is clearly communicated. Playing Asphalt 8 is kind of like meeting a woman who's clearly compensating for average looks with skillfully-applied makeup: she might not be beautiful, but you'd have a hard time believing it. We haven't quite reached the level of console graphics, but with high-powered hardware, you'll get a visual treat. Older devices won't fare so well, of course, but Gameloft has included four graphics settings to let at least some low-power hardware in on the fun.
Sound is pretty similar to racing games everywhere: lots of engine noise and Doppler effects, with music more or less taking a backseat. I can't say I was a fan of the soundtrack, but it fits the mood, and electronic and dubstep fans will be pleased. The Play Store description mentions "Bloc Party, Mutemath & The Crystal Method," bands that I am not acquainted with. An Xbox-style option to listen to your own local music would have been welcome.
Handles Like A Dream
It's 2013, and touchscreen controls still suck. There's not a lot that anyone can do about that, but Gameloft has tried: on tablets and smartphones, you're given no less than four control options, two with tilt steering and two with manual. Since I don't like shifting the perspective on the screen every time I have to turn, I opted for the latter.
It takes some getting used to, and I had to bump up the sensitivity in the steering, but eventually I got to a point where I was comfortable (which is more than I can say for Need For Speed: Most Wanted). After half an hour of practice, I was hitting flat spins on the jumps with virtual controls and drifting with the best of them. Here's a hint: if steering feels sluggish, drop the visual effects down a notch or two in the Settings menu. The combination of 1080p resolution and a Snapdragon S4 Pro processor on my Nexus 7 2013 was too taxing to run the game with all the bells and whistles.
Of course if you're a real racing fan, you want real controls. I'm happy to report that Asphalt 8 works with both MOGA-branded controllers and (wait for it) the NVIDIA SHIELD. I used the SHIELD for most of this review, and I must say, it makes the game feel like a "real" console racer in almost every way. Also, using a controller is nothing short of an unfair advantage in online play. While using the SHIELD I consistently beat players in cars that were far superior to mine. If you've got a SHIELD or a MOGA, you want Asphalt 8, if only to show it off.
Remember when you played Cruis'n USA (or Daytona, or Rush, or what have you) in the arcade, with a gigantic cabinet and a wheel that felt like a real race car? And you had so much fun that you bought the home version, only to discover that an analog stick could never let you control a virtual car as well as a wheel? That's the difference between SHEILD/MOGA controls and touchscreen controls in Asphalt 8. The virtual controls are not bad by any means, but this game aspires to be as good as its console contemporaries, and you'll need hardware controls if you want a console-style experience.
All this boils down to one thing: is Asphalt 8 worth a purchase? At just a buck, it absolutely is for just about any Android gamer. There's no racing game out there that gives you so much content for so little cost. As a matter of fact, Asphalt 8 would have been worth the $7 prices that Gameloft used to charge for its mobile titles... if it wasn't for the overly pushy in-app purchases.
But you can play through all of the content without spending an extra dime, if you've got the time and the patience. The excellent multiplayer racing makes up for the manipulative single-player mode, and some of the car packs are not totally unreasonable, opening up new seasons and races for a few extra bucks. Asphalt 8 is the most fun you can have with an arcade racer on Android. Don't hesitate to pick it up... just make sure you've got relatively recent hardware and a spare 1.5GB of space.