For all Nintendo’s innovation in creating its DSiWare download service, it can’t be helped noticing that the Big N’s contribution to the line-up is pretty lacklustre – its calculators and clocks are derided, and for every Art Style there’s a Master of Illusion Express. They would do well to learn from Gameloft, who are steadily carving out a niche with full-featured, high quality download games. Their latest title is Asphalt 4 Elite Racing, and it certainly keeps their track record intact.
The controls are as you would expect – A to accelerate, B to brake and either the D-pad or touch screen steering wheel to manoeuvre your car. Using the D-pad is certainly easier at first, although it obviously lacks the analogue abilities of the touch screen making it something less of a fluid driving experience. Switching to stylus control has its problems too at first – holding down accelerate whilst steering feels unnatural and can be very awkward, but using your index finger instead of a stylus certainly helps. Sadly there's two pretty big flaws with the touch screen control that stop it from being a really satisfying control scheme: sometimes the wheel doesn’t reset properly to its central position resulting in a few infuriating crashes, but more annoying is the way holding the wheel alone is enough to slow you to a crawl, making it almost impossible to compete in the harder races using the touch screen.
Whichever way you choose to control your car, there’s a wealth of options available right from the start. Starting a career sees you pick from a tiny selection of cars (I went for the Mini – a classic!) and hitting the streets to take part in a simple road race, but later on there are one-on-one duels, challenges to take down a certain number of racers, cop races, cash challenges and more. Although Asphalt 4 might seem a fairly straightforward racing game on the surface, there’s plenty of variety in its challenges and it’s clear to see it models itself on the current crop of home console racers such as the Project Gotham and Burnout series, particularly with its use of real-world cities and “takedowns”. A quick tap of the B button will send you into a classic arcade tailspin as your back-end swings out wildly, which although satisfying at first can take a bit of getting used to if OutRun or Ridge Racer are more your usual racing tipple. The secret seems to be in tapping the B button to maintain grip, although there's something hugely rewarding about leaving your rear bumper sticking out for opponents to run into, causing all kinds of takedown carnage!
It’s not all arcade racing though, with the ability to customise your chosen car between each race with your hard-earned money. You can select anything from its colour to its crankshafts, and progressing further in the career lets you buy more expensive parts, increasing your top speed, acceleration, control and more. It’s not hugely important at the start of the game as unlocking the better cars happens pretty quickly, but as all your opponents drive similar levels of car to yours it becomes important to get the advantage wherever you can in the tougher races. It's not a case of buying the most expensive part either - some elements will increase your speed while decreasing your acceleration, so you can truly customise your ride to however you like to play, and even trade in your four-wheeled jalopy for something a bit slimmer by buying one of the available motorbikes.
The flyover before each course and overall level of detail in the game is very impressive for a download, and the ability to use photos of anything you like as billboards and adverts is a nice added feature. It works much better than in Real Football 2009 as you can get much closer to the adverts: it's surprising to see the posters you photograph heading towards you at 300 kmh! You can also use a photo to accompany your car in the local multiplayer races, a feature open to horrendous abuse if ever there was one. Sadly there’s no support for WiFi Connection races, but considering the completeness of the package it seems unfair to complain.
Asphalt 4 Elite Racing is potentially one of the best driving games on the DS, although some would say that’s damning with faint praise. Gameloft have set the bar for other developers to aspire to, with a huge amount of detailed gaming squeezed from the 800 points asking price with 28 licensed cars, 8 real-life cities and a decent-sized career mode. The lack of online multiplayer and dodgy touch screen controls are the only significant problems but don’t stop this being a must buy for anyone who’s keen to experience a top quality handheld racing game at a very reasonable price, and doesn't mind using the D-pad to do it.