Ground Effect is a vicious dichotomy of everything that should be right about racing games and everything that is wrong about them. It boasts some of the best track design I’ve seen in a mobile racing game to date, yet this same track design makes the races aggravating and seemingly impossible to win at times. The game encourages you to think outside the box and then punishes you for doing so. Luckily the game gorgeous to look at, has a cool soundtrack, and despite its frustrations can be quite fun to play. If you understood all that you probably don’t need the remainder of this review, but for the rest of us…
The game is quite simple. You compete against 7 opponents in an increasingly difficult series of tracks. You must place at least third in each race to unlock the next track. So far all the tracks have been three laps, though that might go up as you progress. I’m only on track 4 at the moment, and have a feeling I’ll be there for a while. The first track was deceptively simple. It took me a couple of tries mainly because I needed to get used to the controls. I was at ease with the game, and even found it to be relaxing. Then came the second course of the game, the figure 8. This one took a bit more doing, but I was finally able to slip into third place to unlock track three. Track three drove me nuts. It’s one of those tracks where the slightest turn that’s either too big or too little can cause you massive headaches. I spent a lot of time watching my craft explode as I didn’t make a turn quite right and hit the side of a mountain.
After many more attempts than I made at track two, I finally managed to skate by in third place again on track three. This is another thing I don’t like about a lot of racing games. If I’m going to lose the race, I’m okay with that. If I’m going to win, however, it shouldn’t be because at the very last second I managed to slip past the person in front of me to get to the final checkpoint. However, that seems to be my fate with Ground Effect. The checkpoints are really getting on my nerves as well. If you miss a checkpoint your turbo meter goes down, but that will refill eventually anyway, so that’s not quite such a big deal. What I don’t understand is that sometimes when I miss a checkpoint it says I missed the checkpoint and I can move on, but other times when I miss a checkpoint it makes me go back and fly through the checkpoint. What situations trigger one response over the other? Usually if I have to go back to fly through a checkpoint that I missed I might as well restart the race, because there’s no hope of me placing in the top 3 anyway.
Now we move on to track four. This is probably the most creative track I’ve ever seen in a racing game, yet I despise it with a passion. The track is basically a series of small land masses that separate two checkpoints, and you have two choices. The first is to completely circle the land masses to get to each checkpoint, in which case you’ll never get the third place win you need to unlock track five. Unfortunately, the other option is to find a way through the land masses that gets you to the checkpoints quicker than your opponents can manage. Now, on a couple of occasions I have managed to find a pretty good path, amidst a bunch of trial and error and exploding. The problem is that I can never remember how to retrace that path once I find it. So, while on occasion I might end up in seventh or even sixth place for a small stretch, it’s not long before I’m the leader of the back of the pack again.
To start each race off you get your choice of a bunch of different vehicles. They all look fairly similar, and quite frankly if there is any difference between them in terms of function I haven’t experienced it. I really think the choices are there just for show. Regardless, once you’ve picked your craft you appear at the first checkpoint, all by yourself. Yes, you actually have to catch up to the racer in front of you. To me this is almost worse than the scenario where all the racers are at the starting line and everyone manages to get out of the gate faster than you. At least there you feel like you’re part of a race from the beginning. Here you feel like that poor boy that gets lost on a mall tour far from home.
At any rate, to move around the beautiful world of Ground Effect you can either use the tilt feature of your iDevice or a virtual joystick that shows up in the lower left corner of the screen. Sometimes it’s easy to overcompensate with the tilt control, causing you to inadvertently study the textures of a mountainside way too closely. However, this is definitely the more solid of the two control choices. On the lower right side of the screen is a “turbo” meter that fills up as long as you pass checkpoints and manage to travel without hitting things. Once the meter reaches a certain point you can hit the right hand pedal to get a speed boost until the meter runs out again. The left hand pedal is a brake, which is also powered by a meter.
There’s also a mode called Ghost Race. I really didn’t think there’d be much to the mode, but decided to give it a whirl. It turns out the Ghost Race is you against one other racer. It also turns out that if you can take first in this mode you can also unlock tracks. So finally, after many failed attempts at beating level 4 against seven racers, I managed to beat it against one. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not taking back everything I’ve said up until now. Personally, beating a level against one racer feels like a cheap victory. I’m just glad it’s given me the ability to move on and see other tracks.
The game is visually stunning. In fact, I’d say it’s probably one of the best racers I’ve seen on my iPod. However, the vehicles themselves aren’t really that special in my opinion. They look kind of cool, but I like the vehicles in Phaze a lot better. What sells this game is the backdrop. The tracks look wonderful, even up close. And because your perspective is low to the ground, you loose out on a lot of the redraw issues you normally see with 3D engines that try to draw vast horizons. The other thing that’s really neat is watching the trail left behind as other racers zoom by you. Of course, I’m sure the computer drivers are just as impressed when they see your trails as well, but my competition doesn’t have to worry about that very often.
There isn’t a whole lot in terms of sound effects. You may hear an occasional whoosh when taking a turn particularly fast, and of course there’s the dreaded explosion when you don’t quite make the turn at all – or just hit a wall dead on for the ambitious folks. What’s noticeably and thankfully missing is the annoying engine revving that most racing games feel the need to include. As for the music, there appears to be only one song. However, it’s a rather enjoyable one, with a nice mix of relaxing moments to keep you calm and exciting moments to get you motivated when you’re slacking a bit too much.
I won’t lie to you. Ground Effect has produced some of the most frustrating experiences I think I’ve ever had in a racing game. The truth is that I don’t even really care for racers that don’t go all out with things like machine guns and wacky gravity, so Ground Effect was going to be a hard sell anyway. As luck would have it, I’m sold. The tracks are immensely inventive, the graphics are phenomenal, and the music is worth listening to even when you’re taking a break from playing. I can’t say that I’m not a bit disappointed that I had to resort to “cheating” by playing ghost race mode to beat track 4, but I’ll get over it as I whiz by the opponents on bigger and more challenging tracks. If you’re a racing game fan, there’s no doubt you need this game, but even if you’re not you might consider giving it a try. You could come away pleasantly surprised like I did.