(Reviewed on iPad)
Formula Force Racing is…well, to be totally honest, it’s a bit of a disappointment. Although it delivers adequately on its graphics and art direction, a consistent lack of control over your vehicle, combined with nondescript, weightless and purely cosmetic cars, clumsy controls and a myriad of other basic problems really let it down in the gameplay department. It’s all wrapped up in an unhelpful user interface to top it all off, which does little to encourage you to keep playing or how to progress naturally without spending money.
Let’s start with the positives. For a mobile game, Formula Force Racing looks good graphically. The detail included in the tracks is impressive. Although the draw distance isn’t particularly far – trees and buildings will gradually pop magically into existence before your eyes – the inclusion of these small background details off in the distance of the courses is a nice touch.
Futuristic racers of yesteryear, such as 1995’s Wipeout, are strong influences on Formula Force Racing‘s track and level design; in fact, the game’s App Store page boasts that the developer’s team (The Pixel Bullies) contains members who have worked on “MotorStorm, F1, Wipeout and Blur”, and this pedigree definitely comes through in the art direction, if not the gameplay mechanics.
A lot of the tracks have big futuristic tunnels to race through, and the built up inner city tracks such as Russia and Korea have a cool cyberpunk feel to their design. The Korea level feels particularly Wipeout-esque, and looks like a stylish nod to futuristic dystopian games like Deus Ex in terms of its aesthetic.
However, what’s at odds with these interesting futuristic track designs is the fact that you race through them using contemporary cars of today, which feels a bit jarring and underwhelming to say the least. It feels as if the tracks and environments were designed for one game, and the cars were designed for a completely different one; it leaves the player in an uncomfortable lukewarm dichotomy of the two approaches. The game does provide some snatches of story, which is apparently set in the “very near future where custom race tracks have been designed to take advantage of the speed and down force of modern racing cars”, but it just feels muddled and adds to the game’s confused identity.
The starting selection of three cars – a Mini Cooper clone, a sports car and a pickup truck – feels like a good selection at first, as a lot of mobile games will offer you just a single starting character/vehicle, and then expect you to grind out in-game currency or real world money to unlock bigger and better characters/vehicles.
You naturally assume then that these three starting cars will have different attributes and handle somewhat individually. Unfortunately not; all the cars feel weightless and unsatisfying to control, with no noticeable differences in handling, acceleration, weight, top speed etc. They all feel exactly the same, and there’s no basic stats or information on how each car performs to tell you otherwise. Essentially then, you just pick the car you find the most visually appealing, and hope for the best.
To be fair, some of the later cars you can unlock (more on this a bit further on), such as the super cars, start to feel a bit more satisfying to drive, but generally speaking, they all suffer from an overall looseness of control which is just really frustrating.
On that unfortunate note, this brings us to the main problem with Formula Force Racing. You have very limited control over your vehicle, which for a racing game is a worryingly huge central flaw. Your car constantly accelerates forwards, as if a brick has been placed on the accelerator pedal in a suicidal blaze of glory. If that sounds terrifying, that’s because it is – especially in relation to how the controls work.
To play Devil’s advocate here, in some ways it’s a considered design choice for a mobile racing game; clearly designed with the intent of lowering the barrier of entry for players new to racing games. The decision to not make the player consistently hold down the accelerator pedal (like in other racing games) is a good one in some respects for a touchscreen device, as that could potentially cause a painful and annoying case of carpal thumb after only a short period of playing.
However, the knock-on drawback of taking the acceleration controls out of the hands of the player is that your car feels like it’s rocketing out of control all the time. Speed is nothing without control.
I found it consistently hard to make corners whilst playing, which I initially put down to my inexperience with mobile racing games in general. Neither the virtual direction button controls or the tilt controls felt great; every car’s steering generally felt sluggish and not responsive enough, and this was the same regardless of whatever car I was racing.
You can brake, but often this feels too abrupt when trying to make even the gentlest of corners. Even with the brake assist option on and turned up to the max, you really start to miss the omission of the usual acceleration controls of other racing games. Much like when I’m driving in real life (albeit without the strange physics, identical cars and cool cyberpunk environs of this game), I want to temporarily take my foot off the accelerator when making corners, rather than just slamming on the brakes every time – it’s a shame that I can’t do the virtual equivalent of that in this game.
Time and time again, I’d find myself going into a corner, repeatedly tapping the brake button lightly to get a bit more turning control back without losing too much speed, only to go slamming into the sides of the tunnel and launching into the air uncontrollably like an erratic metal firework of doom. That next inevitable crash and flailing spin into the air feels only seconds away whenever you’re playing, and you soon come to dread making even the most basic corners in Formula Force Racing.
Needless to say then, not being able to control your acceleration feels very frustrating, and you’ll find yourself frequently crashing into the track railings and the sides of tunnels, often flinging your car off into the air at ridiculous angles, which becomes unintentionally amusing after a point. I found that my races would devolve into seeing what daft gravity defying stunts I could pull off, rather than continuing to race with the other AIs.
The game’s description says that racers can ride the walls and ceilings once they are travelling fast enough – which is true. You can ride up on the walls and ceilings, but it isn’t advantageous at all; it just sends you flying off hopelessly. Once you’ve whipped up the walls and you’re on the ceiling, you lose all speed almost instantly and you just end up plummeting back to the ground again, usually upside down and skidding on the roof, leaving you having to helplessly wait for a few seconds until the car resets.
When you’re not spinning out of control or climbing the walls, and you’re still in the race so to speak, the computer controlled competitors perform adequately. They sometimes flank you when racing alongside them, and will attempt to bash each other (and you) off the track from time to time. However, as it’s so easy to flip your car over and get sent to the back of the pack, there will often be races where you don’t get to see much of them at all, but when you do, one thing you’ll see is that they also don’t know how to use the walls and tunnels to overtake either. You’ll see them flip out of control often, so at least you won’t feel alone in your inability to control your car, or use the tunnel walls tactically like the game’s description leads you to believe you can.
On a few occasions, when using the tilt controls, my ipad would start to go into sleep mode whilst running the game if I hadn’t touched the screen in a while. As you can imagine, this was quite annoying (and initially surprising), causing me to frantically tap the screen in panic and lose my place in the race in the process of stopping the screen from dimming. After this happened a few times, I decided to test this out further. I deliberately didn’t touch the screen at all when using the tilt controls just to see what would happen, and lo and behold, the device shut itself off. Brilliant.
I have no idea how to develop or program games myself, so this is purely speculative conjecture on my part, but surely this is a bit of a major oversight for a mobile game? If my ipad can’t recognise that I’m playing a game whilst it’s running, then that’s a pretty major problem; one which I’ve never experienced before from a mobile game.
There’s no easy way to say this – the game’s sound design is pretty awful, in that it solely consists of just the continuous high-pitched dentist drill-like whine of your car’s engine for the entirety of each race. Even when driving a muscle or super car, which you’d expect would have a suitably throaty roar to their engines, the same unbearable screeching of the starter cars is always there in the audio. Thankfully, it can be turned down in the options.
The soundtrack is lively and each tune suits its level. Imagine a blend of plastic Cascada style Europop with a dash of trendy glitchy dubstep bleeps and bloops and you’re on the right lines.
The game handles its free to play structure well in some respects, but it’s a bit cagey with details at the same time. Coming in first place in a race earns you 1000 coins, which is enough to bag you another skin for the car of your choice. However, that’s pretty much all the coins are used for, and as the cars feel indistinguishable in terms of performance, the ability to pick your car’s skin feels a bit pointless.
You can unlock everything for about 69p (on iTunes), but that sort of removes the incentive to keep playing. Perhaps a bit more user-direction in the interface would have been helpful, as the game doesn’t really tell you how to unlock further cars without paying for them. I attempted to see how much it would cost to buy the other cars by going to the ‘Unlock All’ function. This brought me to the following confirmation screen:
Even at this point, there’s still not a word about how much unlocking everything would cost me. Clicking on ‘Buy’ brings up a prompt for you to enter your Apple ID password and confirm the purchase – without telling you how much it is! I was only able to find out the price – 69p – by leaving the game and then looking up the game’s listing in the App Store. Would it really have been a big deal to tell the customer how much they might have to pay to unlock everything? It just comes off as lazy at best and misleading at worst.
I did manage to unlock the muscle cars by winning a championship race, but its unclear as to how I unlock any of the others without paying for them. Are unlocks based according to player scores? Does the car I’m racing with have any influence on the unlocks I receive? Do I need to consistently get 1st place in every race rather than just by winning a championship race outright with the highest points total? I have no idea, and Formula Force Racing offers no guidance on how I might go about unlocking new cars and tracks without coughing up real world moolah.
From what I’ve been able to work out, I think you need to play a championship race with whatever class of new car you’ve last unlocked in order to unlock the next class; you unlock the muscle car set by winning a championship race with one of the starting cars. That’s just my guesswork though; some indication on the user interface about how to unlock new cars and stages would be very helpful to the player and encourage them to keep playing.
The championship race itself is a good inclusion, offering an extended opportunity for players to race, although these do feel a tad too long at seven to eight races. The single race and time trial modes feel a bit more suited to mobile play – I can see the quick two lap races being the ideal game length for mobile gamers on the go.
Overall, Formula Force Racing just feels confusing and unsure, with some significant problems rattling around under the bonnet. It gets some of the small details right, but it really falls down on the absolute basics of what a racing game should deliver. The game feels like it has some of the parts of a good mobile racing game in place; it’s just that they’re all pulling away from each other in different directions, like the uncontrollable cars in this game with virtual bricks on their virtual accelerators. Is it a serious modern day racer, or an arcade-y futuristic sci-fi one? Who knows? It’s a shame, as Formula Force Racing does look good for a mobile title, but it’s hard to appreciate the game’s strengths when they are overshadowed by some serious weaknesses.