It's perhaps not the obvious comparison, but the more I played Rail Racing [$0.99], the new racer from Reckless Racing 2 [$1.99] publishers Polarbit, the more I was reminded of the classic NES game Excitebike from Nintendo. This is a lane-based racing game where the key to winning is hitting speed boosts laid out on the track, avoiding patches that slow you down, and knocking around your opponents by cutting them off. Of course, it's played from behind the car instead of a side view, there aren't many jumps, and there are numerous touches in this game that seem to pay tribute to other classics, but at its core, it gave me a pretty similar feeling.
In Rail Racing, you're racing what appear to be slot cars around tracks set in real world environments. Your vehicle is toy-sized, naturally, leading to a bit of novelty in racing around giant-sized everyday objects. At first blush, this looks pretty similar to the old Micro Machines racers, the ChoroQ/Penny Racers series, and iOS's very own Table Top Racing [$1.99], but the lane mechanism and vehicle physics give this game a feel quite unlike those other games. For however much I loved those other toy car racers, the cars never really felt like toys. They usually controlled just like a full-sized car would in any other racing game.
Rail Racing's cars really feel like toys. They feel light, a bit squirrelly, and genuinely limited in their manouverability. The tracks twist and turn all over the place like a crazy Hot Wheels playset, and true to the name, you're on rails the whole time. You don't need to steer around the corners and curves of the track, as your car will do so automatically as you move forward. The only control you have going around turns is how fast you take them. In place of the ability to turn anytime you'd like, you have the ability to hop over a lane in either direction. The track sometimes splits off, but you'll usually be dealing with four lanes. If you want to pass a car in front of you, you will of course need to switch lanes to do it, but there are other reasons to change lanes.
The tracks have little boost strips scattered around, along with the letters to spell 'EXTRA', and you'll want to be in the right lane for both of them. On the other hand, there are numerous obstacles to avoid that will slow you down or prevent you from lane-switching for a brief period of time. On top of that, the game takes slipstream into account, so you'll want to be aware of any other racers both in front and behind you. Finally, you can tackle other racers by lane-switching to cut them off, but be careful, because they can do the same to you. It's not an incredibly deep racing experience, instead being more of an exercise in learning the tracks, but it's still pretty fun anyway.
In all, there are 50 tracks spread across five different areas of a house. You'll start in a bedroom full of toys, but before long you'll be cruising around the kitchen, the garage, and even the backyard. There are supposed to be races that take place in the attic, but they're either not in the game yet or they're bugged, because that area stayed locked no matter what I tried. You'll open new areas by collecting enough stars, which are earned by placing in the top three on each track. First place gets you three stars, second gets you two, and third gets you one. If you place any lower than that, you'll fail to unlock the next track for the area and have to try again. The amount of stars needed to unlock the next area isn't set too high, so even if you're having trouble getting first place all the time, you'll still be able to see everything. You'll also earn coins by placing, which can be used to buy new cars.
Each area of the house allows you access to a new set of four cars. You'll start off with cars that resemble classic automobiles before moving to heavy vehicles, supercars, and racing cars. You can't pick and choose which set you want to use with each location except in the last set of bonus levels, which is a bit weird, but hey, those are the rules, I suppose. The game will give you the first vehicle in each set as you unlock each area, but the others have to be purchased with your coins. I'm not sure if there's any actual performance difference between them, but I guess it's cool to get them all for variety's sake. In all, there are 16 cars to collect, and if you spend some coins, you can even kit them out with decals and change their paint jobs.
In addition to the main campaign mode, there's also a time trial mode and a hot lap mode that can be unlocked using your coins. Although the menu touts multiplayer, you're just racing against the ghosts of other players. It's better than nothing, but I really would have loved to do some local multiplayer at the very least. Curiously, although the game supports multiplayer through Game Center, it does not have Game Center leaderboards or achievements.
The game gets pretty challenging as you go along. You really do have to learn the tracks inside and out if you want to keep winning races. The coins flow pretty well, at least, and you can run previously completed races if you want more. The in-game shop also sells a variety of IAPs, with some pricey boosters and a key to unlock all the levels if you're having trouble doing so on your own. A cynic might argue the game's high level of challenge is there to promote the purchase of these IAPs, but I'm going to give the developer the benefit of the doubt and say they were going for old-school difficulty. I was able to get through without buying anything, but not without some serious effort, so I could easily see people getting frustrated and just tossing the dollar to unlock all the levels.
Rail Racing has a nice, colorful look to it, and I really like the way the sound effects sell the slot car concept. The controls are pretty easy to use, and you have your choice of swipe controls or virtual buttons, as well as turning auto-acceleration on or off. The UI is easy to use, but the game could do with a few more explanations about things. I'm still not entirely sure what collecting the 'EXTRA' letters does for me besides giving me a special mark for the level. Are the cars different in performance? I still can't tell for sure. I should also mention that the game had some serious stability issues when it first released. They seem to be mostly cleared up after a patch, but I still had some crashes now and then on my iPhone 5S.
It's a fun little game, and there are tons of tracks. It has a slightly different feel from many of the other racing games I've played on iOS thanks to its focus on giving an actual toy-like experience. The biggest problem is that there isn't much depth to the racing itself. The challenge of the game is connected to your familiarity with the tracks. Once you learn which lanes you need to be in and when to be in them, there isn't much to keep you coming back. If you liked Excitebike's style of play a lot, or you just want to play around with a slightly different kind of racer, Rail Racing is an enjoyable enough romp for your money, but it's probably not something you'll come back to much after your initial playthrough.
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