Reviewed: December 11, 2004
Released: November 17, 2004
Asphalt: Urban GT is one of the ďLucky SixĒ titles that launched with the Nintendo DS in November, so it has the luxury of being one of those titles that people will pick up simply because they need something to play. Itís also the only racing game for the new handheld, at least until Namcoís Ridge Racer arrives in December.
Urban GT comes to us from Gameloft, a company primarily known for their cell phone games. Theyíve managed to take all of the addictive gameplay, intense racing, and even an elaborate car parts upgrade system normally reserved for the larger consoles and stuff it onto a tiny DS game chip.
With more than 25 licensed cars including Lamborghini, Hummer, Jaguar, Audi, Volkswagen, Chevy, and Ford, plus plenty of concept cars your racing options are massive, but then you get to add more than 30 options for upgrading your car. Install a new flywheel, clutch, brakes, exhaust, or perform several levels of weight reduction to tweak your car to racing perfection.
Of course you need realistic places to race and we have numerous tracks based in real world locations like New York, Paris, Miama, and Cuba. These can be raced in reverse to double your pleasure.
Asphalt: Urban GT comes with three primary racing modes, Arcade, Evolutions, and Multiplayer. Arcade basically lets you pick from your library of unlocked cars and tracks then choose from Instant Play, Road Challenge, Free Race, Time Attack, or Cop Chase. Race for high scores and the chance to unlock new cars in the Road Challenge mode.
Multiplayer racing requires that you have 1-3 other people with DSís and a copy of the game. I would have preferred at least some type of client download multiplayer like the Super Mario 64 DS. Multiplayer racing comes with a few noteworthy problems. Traffic and computer opponents are not available, which is forgivable, but the entire online racing aspect is slightly flawed.
In Single Race mode unless you tell each other which car you are picking before you start a race you have no idea who is racing what. Obviously this can lead to some mismatched races if you donít communicate with the other players. Championships mode fixes this problem by structuring the races into class restrictions. The Cop Chase mode is only for two players and there is no scoring system or attainable goals. You simply chase, catch, repeat. Yawn.
Evolution is the career mode of Urban GT and this is massive, almost on par with the career mode of Need for Speed Underground. There is a huge list of events; most of which are locked and each event consists of multiple races of various types. You score points based on how well you finish so thankfully, you donít have to finish first on every race, but you usually have to place in the top three.
Race types include a Radar Race where you simply sprint for a checkpoint and pass through at the target speed. These speed traps are usually after a hairpin turn, so you need a car with killer acceleration.
Golden Races are basically a ďknockoutĒ challenge where the person in last place at each checkpoint is removed from the race. Unlike most games where this is done on a lap-by-lap basis, here the checkpoints are much more frequent. If you donít kick in the nitro off the starting line you will lose in the first 20 seconds.
You have your Normal race, which pits you against six other cars for a three-lap race. These generally arenít that difficult if you have been keeping your car upgraded along the way. There is also a Challenge race that has you racing head-to-head against one other car for a two-lap race. These are the easiest races and can earn you a good amount of cash but no pink slips.
You must qualify to enter certain events. This not only includes unlocking the events by completing prerequisite races, but you must also have the proper car in your garage. If you only have a Corvette and a Hummer in your collection you canít enter the Concept Car event. Other races have an entry fee (or wager) that you can win back if you win the race.
Youíll earn money for winning races and events and youíll need plenty of cash to keep your stable of cars upgraded or to purchase new cars. By design, if you play the events as they are structured in the list you will often win cars that are required for upcoming events. I found this out the hard way after I dropped $75K for a new Corvette then won one in the next race.
You can sell your cars to get extra cash but this can be tricky. I sold my Corvette (and all its installed upgrades) after I had finished the event that required it but about 3 hours later I hit another event that required the car and had to buy it back, stock of course, then upgrade it all over again.
Control is reasonably good considering there is no analog input. I would have loved the chance to steer with the touch pad, but alas, I was left to steer with the D-pad, which is as unruly as the GBA or a PS1 racing game. Even so, the game design works around the digital nature of the steering and the game remains quite fun and challenging.
The B button is the gas and the A button is the nitro. The X button sounds the horn but nobody ever seems to get out of your way. The left trigger gives you a rear view and the right trigger cycles the camera from near and far chase and even a bumper cam. The Y button is your brake but who uses those?
Anybody notice anything missing? Yep, thatís right, there are no shift buttons, thus no manual transmission. Not a huge loss for me, as I almost always use automatic shift in console racers, but for those that do care, sorry.
Nitro is a huge portion of the game. Itís virtually impossible to win a race on speed and clean driving alone. Youíll earn nitro for powerslides and for near misses and for smashing through trackside objects. These Break Bonuses fill your nitro meter and even give you extra canisters. Save these and use them on the straight-a-ways and final laps to put you over the line ahead of the pack.
As always, learning the tracks is a key element of winning races. The bottom display is used to provide a detailed map of the track, but you can seldom glance down to view the track or any of the messages that pop-up indicating special race moments. If you are lucky you can steal a quick peek to see how far you have to go to catch up to the leader.
The dual screen isnít really implement too much for gameplay. It does come in handy with the aforementioned maps during the race and there is a wonderful informational display for the garage and upgrade shop complete with multi-colored bar graphs, paint swatches, and digital readouts. This display is updated in real-time as you switch around parts so you can see the potential increase or decrease in performance if you confirm the installation.
The racing AI uses the rubber band racing concept where if you park your car the rest of the pack will wait for you. Well, not quite, but itís hard to screw up to the point where you canít at least place in the top three. Normally, there is one super driver who jets out to the front of the pack and keeps the lead for the entire race. Only perfect laps and continuous nitro boosts will get you within site of the leader on some of the later races.
Love it or hate it, Urban GT doesnít allow you to restart an individual race within an event. This means if you screw up you canít restart the race. Bailing on a race starts the next one in the series. This also creates some problems. You cannot save your progress within an event. If you race the first three races of an event and have to quit playing you will have to re-race those races when you come back. You also canít leave an event to upgrade your car without losing your progress. Cash winnings are preserved but not completion flags.
Likewise, if you come to a Challenge Race and donít have enough cash to enter you are forced to skip it. It would have been nice if you could race another race down the list so you could earn some cash then come back to the one you couldnít afford. The only event that you can retry infinite times is the Radar Race.
A lot of people say the DS is capable of PS1-quality graphics and Urban GT is proof of that. While there are some obvious sacrifices in trackside object quality, the vehicles are stunning, both in the garage and on the track. Rotating my cars and outfitting them with new parts and body styles is just as much fun as it is in NFS Underground. The detail is staggering.
Special effects are equally as nice. There is a warm blue glow of the twin exhausts when the nitro kicks in and the day and nighttime lighting works wonderfully. Streetlights glow and blur as you streak by and the sensation of speed is amazing for a handheld game. This game flies by at a flawless 60fps, which not only looks great, but makes the game much easier to control despite the fidgety steering.
The overall presentation is excellent with a nifty opening movie and fantastic menus and status screens in the garage and car dealer screens. The touch screen menus are a bit small and youíll be forced to use the stylus if you want to use them, but the D-pad and buttons are just as easy to navigate.
The only thing I found at fault with the visuals was the race replay. First, it only shows the final lap of the race, and second, it strips away all of the traffic and the other racers. So you get to see this wonderful TV-style replay that really showcases the game engine but it just looks weird (or stupid) to see any of your jumps, wrecks or other mishaps when you are the only thing on the road.
The sound is excellent with great engine noises that not only change based on the vehicle but also the parts you have installed. Kicking in the nitro revs the engine to a whine as you streak past traffic and hopefully the competition. There is excellent left and right speaker separation so you can hear cars on either side of you and there is even a Doppler effect to distort the sounds. The effect is even more pronounced when you wear headphones.
Music is good for a handheld game but not entirely my taste, at least for the most part. You can pause the race and enter the Jukebox where you can select from numerous tunes that range from rock, techno, and atmosphere. Youíll certainly find something you like but odds are there is just as much there that you wonít like.
Urban GT is massive. Iíve logged 10 hours in the arcade and nearly 25 hours in the Evolution mode and I still have at least another dozen events to finish. The difficulty and the progression ramps up about halfway through and you might find yourself racing previously completed events just to get some spare cash to buy a necessary car or upgrade an existing one to be competitive.
The multiplayer modes offers dubious longevity to the title. If you happen to have a few friends who have DSís and copies of this game youíll certainly enjoy the Championship mode. It would have been a lot better to have at least one single-cartridge multiplayer game, maybe the cop chase.
As I finish this review I have Namcoís Ridge Racer looking at me, so Asphalt: Urban GT is about to see its first major competition in the DS racing genre. On its own merits, Urban GT is a great racing title that has offered me more than 40 hours of fun and the promise of many more.
Everything from the car selection to the parts upgrade and unique track environments mirrors that of what youíd expect from a console title. The gameplay is a bit primitive but still fun and challenging. My only regret is that the dual screen wasnít used more prominently in the game. As it is, graphics not withstanding, this game could have been released for the GBA. Even so, if you own a DS and want to play a fast and fun racer, Asphalt: Urban GT is worth the price of admission.