Racing games are one of the first genres to truly benefit from 3D gaming on consoles, so naturally gamers will be eager to get behind the wheel on the 3DS. And what better way to launch the new 3DS than with the latest in the racing series that launched with the original DS: Asphalt 3D. But the Asphalt series has mostly focused on the iPhone and iPad market for a while now. Can Gameloft make a successful return to Nintendo's handheld?
It should first be noted that Asphalt 3D is, essentially, a port of the iOS game Asphalt 5 released back in 2009. Already that sets Asphalt 3D to a rocky start. But if you're the forgetful type or, like me, haven't paid much attention to the series' iOS entries, then Asphalt 3D will still seem like a brand new racing game. Which is good, because the racing gameplay itself is quite enjoyable, and very reminiscent of Burnout upon first impression. Driving close to oncoming traffic or crashing your competition adds to your boost meter, and tracks are filled with narrow shortcuts and tight turns to accommodate.
Unfortunately, a number of issues build on one another to hamper the experience. First among those was the choppy framerate, causing the game to stutter when more than 3 or 4 cars were on-screen. Interestingly, turning off the 3D effect seemed to fix the framerate issue, which leads me to wonder if this will be a recurring issue in future 3DS titles. But even with the framerate issue resolved, you'll still be competing against rubber-banding AI, questionable collision physics, and baffling race objectives. For example, one track tasked me with drifting an obscenely large distance during a race. The only way to drift that amount was to essentially forfeit the race and do nothing but drift for three laps. Even if drifting non-stop for 3 laps were fun (which it isn't), why even bother including other racers to compete against if you can come in dead last and still come out a winner.
The game's gravest misstep though is its bafflingly bad method of progression. While I've begrudgingly accepted that grinding is an inevitable part of any JRPG, it isn't exactly a gameplay element I want spread into other genres. Yes, you will level grind to progress in Asphalt 3D, since the only way to unlock new cars and parts is to level up your career profile. But of course each new group of tracks, which are unlocked in groups of five, are essentially impossible without those upgraded parts. So you'll be forced to replay the same tracks over and over again to gain enough levels unlock the next part.
There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the order of unlocking new cars and parts either. Though the game boasts over 40 licensed cars, there seems to be very little difference between each car's stats, making the choice primarily a cosmetic one. When a superior car is finally unlocked, it is vastly superior, and followed by another dozen car unlocks of comparable quality. Since it's rare to actually unlock a new car that is useful, it's really the infrequent new parts that you'll be level-grinding for. It doesn't help that each part needs to be repurchased for every car model using the in-game currency, which encourages players to stick with one car rather than experiment. Perhaps giving the cars fairly identical stats was the developer's way of compensating, as if to say "sure there are more than 40 cars, but why bother using more than two or three?"
But this is a 3DS game, at least the 3D effects are spectacular, right? Well, yes and no. On the plus side, it is definitely easier to gauge the distance between cars when 3D is enabled. This is especially helpful when it comes to dodging incoming traffic. But using 3D isn't without its faults. Aside from the framerate issues mentioned earlier, when the 3D slider is turned on there is an odd floating effect, as if the car is hovering just above the ground rather than driving on it. The 3D effect also causes the transparent blue HUD to blend in with the scenery, making it difficult to tell how much boost you have or what place you're in.
There is one area where Asphalt 3D gets it right, and that's in the game's use of Streetpass. Using Streetpass with Asphalt 3D allows you to download other players' best times as ghost racers to compete against. Of course, this function requires other players to actually have the game, and since the 3DS launch I've only managed to downloaded one player ghost through Streetpass. Even still, it's probably the 3DS launch title that best takes advantage of the Streetpass feature.
Asphalt 3D isn't necessarily a bad racing game. When you take just the core racing gameplay and turn off the 3D effect, it's actually a lot of fun. Of course, if you're turning off the 3D effect, you might as well just buy Asphalt 5 on an iOS device for $6.99. Even better yet, get the newer Asphalt 6 for the same price (actually, the iPhone version is a little bit cheaper). That's the real issue here, the fact that the exact same game released two years ago and costs five times less elsewhere. I commend Gameloft and Ubisoft for making excellent use of the 3DS's Streetpass feature, now if only they would put that functionality into a game designed from the ground up with the 3DS in mind.
A copy of the game was provided by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review. I completed 7 of the game's 14 cups, and have played the game for a total of around 5 hours according to my 3DS activity log.