Weekly iCross: developer Remedy downshifts with Death Rally

, | Features

I’m always curious to see how things turn out when the developer of big AAA console or PC games turns their attention to something decidedly smaller, like a Nintendo DS or iPhone title. Sometimes, you get id Software’s Rage HD: gorgeous graphics marred by overly simple shooting-gallery gameplay. It’s more of a tech demo than a game. I mean, more so than most of id Software’s products. Other times, you get Epic and Chair Entertainment’s Infinity Blade, a full-featured game that perfectly understands the platform it’s on. So naturally, I jumped at the chance to dive into Death Rally. My nostalgia for the old Windows game of the same name is basically zero — I don’t think I ever played it — so it would have to stand on its own merits.

After the jump: Great game, now where’s the rest of it?

The description page for Death Rally proudly proclaims “Brought to you from REMEDY, renowned developer of MAX PAYNE and ALAN WAKE!” Someone needs to tell Remedy that if you have to explain what you’re famous for, then you aren’t famous and the people you’re explaining your fame to won’t care. They’re clearly trying to trade on their name, because I don’t think the game is really made by Remedy at all (the 1996 version was, though). The Death Rally blog says it’s “A game developed by Cornfox & Brothers Ltd. and Mountain Sheep, Inc. Published by Remedy Entertainment Ltd.” I’ve never heard of the first company. This seems to be their inaugural product. Mountain Sheep is the developer of the pretty decent iPhone game Minigore. As atrocities committed in the iTunes description go, the chest-thumping credit hounding is fairly tame. It also proclaims, “IT WILL BLOW YOU AWAY, LITERALLY!”

I haven’t even bought the game yet and it’s already losing points on the 7-9 ratings scale for incessant all-caps shouting, for apparently not giving the real developers enough credit, and for not knowing what the world literally means. This game had better be goddamn amazing.

The intro scene makes me think I just might be in for something special. There’s a reasonably protracted prologue that is suitably dumb and features a villain that looks disturbingly like George Lucas. You even get to play a little bit of the opening scenes. Then you’re thrust into the game proper and everything goes on cruise control. I promise that’s the only bad car metaphor I’ll make.

The premise is simple enough. You enter various races, whipping around the track, shooting your enemies, trying to earn money by placing at the front of the pack, racking up kills, beating your best lap or race times, etc. At the end of each race, you spend that money upgrading your car or weapon. The controls are simple and a bit of a point of contention. You don’t steer with the left circle as though it were a steering wheel, but treat it like an analog stick, pointing it in the direction you want your car to drive. This control scheme does away with a gas pedal so your right thumb is free to hit the fire button. I think it works just fine, but there are complaints from players who can’t come to grips with it and find it makes the game utterly unplayable. For me, the bigger problem was that it’s a little too easy to get stuck on the corners and then quite hard to get free.

That didn’t stop me from basically steamrolling through the whole game in a couple hours, though. You don’t really need to come in first place in each race so much as you need to rack up dollars. Grabbing bonus cash and getting lots of kills while coming in third will often give you just as much money as trying to drive perfectly to come in first place. The developers really understand the scope of the platform. Perfection isn’t required to advance, the races are all quite short at three laps each, and improvements are doled out quickly. It’s just the thing to kill a few minutes on the bus or waiting in the doctor’s office or whatever.

It’s just that it doesn’t feel like it’s done. The opening cinematic implies there’s meta-game here, and there isn’t. There’s a prologue, but I never encountered any further chapters or an ending. I got the best car (the Deliverator…yes, that Deliverator), fully upgraded it, upgraded the weapons, and nothing happened. You can do all this and still come nowhere near to filling up the Fame meter that slowly increases after each race. In fact, the game never even says what it’s for. It doesn’t appear to do anything at all. I’ve conquered practically all there is to conquer in the game and I’m only modestly famous, and the only story bit I’ve seen is a prologue. There’s supposed to be more. You don’t call it a “prologue” if there isn’t any more.

The blog promises future updates. More cars and weapons for sure. A couple new tracks wouldn’t hurt. Mostly, we need the rest of the meta-game. We need the rest of the story chapters, the goal line to play toward. It’s not that the story is very good, it’s just that the game feels like it’s not heading toward anything. If it gets that, and it still costs $4.99, it could be a must-have iPhone/iPad game. It plays well enough, but you’re constantly left with the feeling that you’re just spinning your wheels. Okay, so I lied about the bad car metaphors.