If you've ever wished you could be Mel Gibson in 80s road movie Mad Max, now's your chance. Death Rally for the iPhone plonks you in a car in the middle of a post-apocalyptic landscape and requires you to race against a series of computer-controlled drivers (or human ones in the online multiplayer mode) This is no holds-barred racing, so as well as trying to beat them fair and square to the finishing line, you can also play dirty by shooting at them and destroying their vehicle. The better your finish position and the more opponents you kill, the more money you will earn to upgrade your car and your weaponry.
On paper, Death Rally sounds like great fun - what's more enjoyable than driving and shooting? (in a game, of course; not in real life!) And things certainly start off promisingly. Presentation throughout is excellent with some great intro screens and detailed high definition tracks that look superb. The game takes a top-down view of the races which gives a reasonable view of the play area and enough time to spot upcoming corners or hazards. Enemy cars and other objects might be quite small, but they are easily distinguishable and surprisingly detailed. Whilst the game colours might primarily be a combination of dark yellows, greys and browns, this helps create the atmosphere of a grim, post-apocalyptic world.
Sound is a little more disappointing. Again, it starts off well enough with a suitably thumping soundtrack over the main screens, although in-game tunes are a little more subdued and don't really add much to the atmosphere. In-game sound effects are regrettably weedy. There's no throaty roar of car engines, explosions are muted, dull thuds and even the more powerful weaponry doesn't sound particularly scary. A game like this needs to be loud and brash, unapologetically full of crashing metal, loud explosions and metallic mayhem. Death Rally falls down badly on this front.
Track layouts - an important part of any racing game - are reasonable. They are not particularly large, but they manage to combine short, sharp bends which test your driving skills with longer straight sections where you can build up a bit of speed and have the opportunity to pick off rival cars in front of you. That said, it's not always clear exactly where the road is heading and some tracks will take you several goes before you memorise them sufficiently to able to run a competitive race.
As a bit of variety, the game also has a number of boss levels. Rather than taking place on narrow, windy tracks, these are more open-ended in that you can drive anywhere within the arena. On boss levels the aim is not to win, but to score more points than your opponent within a set time limit by destroying more rival racers than he does.
The other novel feature of boss levels is that they feature a "guest star" from other games. The first one you encounter, for example, is Duke Nukem. To be honest, this is nothing more than a cheap gimmick. Apart from a small image of the character next to their score and the occasional bit of badly impersonated speech, there is really nothing to suggest this is Duke or any of the other "guest stars".
The levels are quite well designed in that you can select several at once. Many games of this type make you finish in the top three before the next track is unlocked. Death Rally allows you access to around six at once (including the boss level). This is good, because it means that you don't suffer that frustration of being unable to progress just because you find one particular track hard. If you get stuck on one, you can try a different one and come back it later.
Despite such promise, the game is ultimately let down by some appalling controls; easily worst I have experienced on the iPhone (and there's some pretty bad ones to choose from.) A game like this needs tight, instantly responsive controls that give massive degree of control over your driving. The controls in Death Rally enjoy none of those qualities. They are incredibly twitchy and unresponsive. Most of the time, I never really felt more than about 20% in control of the vehicle. It's like trying to catch an eel whilst sitting in a bath tub full of baby oil and being attacked by a wild bull (that's probably not an image you want in your head, I know...)
In fairness, the developers have recognised this and tried to do something about it. Early releases of this game had the car controlled by a small circle which you pressed to move in that direction. This was confusing and, astoundingly, managed to make the car even more uncontrollable (does no-one playtest these things?!). Subsequent updates have seen the addition of left and right arrows to this circle, which has improved matters slightly... but only slightly. The real issue is that the game seems to require EXACTLY the right amount of pressure to get the car to go where you want it and this is very hard to judge correctly. Sometimes you press heavily and it's like trying to steer a brick; other times you apply a light touch to the button and your car slaloms all over the place, careening wildly into every available bit of scenery.
It's possible that with a lot of practice you might master these controls, but who wants to do that? The whole point of driving games is that they are instantly accessible. I don't mind having to spend time improving my skills on a game, but I don't want to invest it in learning how to do basic movement.
In addition to the awful controls, the game is also very unforgiving. On some tracks just a single collision can destroy any chance of finishing in the top places, which is both unfair and very frustrating. The terrible controls mean that you are rarely going to have a flawless lap so you end up playing the same track again and again until you its layout so well that you know exactly when to turn. Even then, the controls will still do their best to scupper your chances.
Death Rally is a really frustrating experience. There is clearly a very good game waiting under there, but the controls render it virtually unplayable unless you are going to invest a serious amount of time in mastering them. Sadly, even at the download price of 69p, it's hard to recommend. There are other driving/shooting games out there that are just a lot more fun to play.
© Copyright SWSt 2012