Top 5 Driving and Racing games for iPhone

An ever-popular game genre, there are hundreds (literally) of car and driving titles for the iPhone and iPad, the vast majority of which are horribly flawed in one way or another. Crude graphics, appalling gameplay, over-zealous freemium grabs, and so on. Luckily, I’ve done the hard work for you – in a variety of sub-genres, I whittled the hundreds down to a dozen and then finally to the five you’ll want to think about loading up.

One note to ultra-arcade gamers out there – I’m not like you. A car racing game which involves flying cars, lasers, explosions, high speed collisions and impossible driving lines isn’t for me. The emphasis here is on driving skills, raw speed, realism, and not on distraction!

An even bigger note about the ‘F word’. In this case, ‘freemium’, you’ll be familiar with the idea by now, in 2015. But this particular selection of games take the freemium concept to the next level, requiring a serious investment of money and (to be fair) of time in order to get the most from each. So, as with my top 5 flight simulations, it’s best to clear a load of space on your iPhone, install and try each briefly (or rely on my opinions) and then pick a winner, the one that you enjoy the most, and only put your time and money into that one title. Seriously.

On with the countdown, then.  In reverse order:

5. Beach Buggy Racing

Kickstarting the top 5 and slightly contravening my own guidelines about gimmicks, I’m letting Beach Buggy Racing in because we’re already in a fantastical setting, a paradise island with exotic creatures, beautiful scenery and odd weather. So why not throw in the odd throwing weapon or nitro canister – it’s not as if things have to be kept ‘real’ here!

Beach Buggy Racing

In many ways this takes its inspiration in look and play from Mario Kart 7 on the likes of the Wii, if you’ve played the beach track on that then you’ll know the drill – arcade buggy racing, with forgiving physics, power slides on sand, and occasional (outrageous) weapons. And all tremendous fun, playing super-fluidly. And everything’s rendered fluidly in 3D at all times, though you’ll need at least an iPhone 5 – anything older and there are occasional pauses while the processor and graphics catch up.

Beach Buggy Racing

There are hundreds of levels overall, spread over a dozen 3D worlds/tracks. Control of your buggy is either via tilting the phone or using touch controls, according to taste. Traction/skidding is pretty realistic, or at least as realistic as you’d need it to be in an ‘impossible to die’ arcade title. Get things wrong completely (e.g. crash into a wall) and the worst that happens is that you’re ‘reset’ and back on the track…

Beach Buggy Racing

The 3D effects are impressive, with waves (you even get to see them lapping at the shore) waterfalls, rain, mud, evening lighting, and more. But most modern iPhones are more than up to the task. Just stock up with cocktails, kick back and enjoy.

Beach Buggy Racing

Although the coins, gems and tickets seem overwhelming at first, the developers have kept everything reined in and many casual players may be able to play for free. Get the driving right and you’re stocked up with everything needed to progress through the game. Fail too often, run out of green ‘entry tickets’ and you’ve then got some three-minute waits for ‘free’ tickets or else start ramping some of the sensible-ish freemium purchases.

Beach Buggy Racing

The developers certainly do everything they can to encourage you to spend real money, but in this case it’s worth it – Beach Buggy Racing is well (lovingly) crafted, well pitched and addictive to play.

iTunes link

4. GT Racing 2

You may be slightly surprised at this being down at no. 4, but there’s a reason. Although, taken on its own merits, this is absolutely ‘top 5 material’ – and here it is, to prove the point, it’s as if Real Racing 3 (mentioned below) was shoved into a photocopier and out came GT Racing 2, incredibly similar in many ways and yet slightly flawed at every turn (no pun intended, the cornering’s pretty good!)

GT Racing 2

Although the physics engine is great here, i.e. there’s a great driving simulation at the core, the structure of GT Racing 2, in terms of cars, challenges, upgrades, packs, championships, mechanics (I could go on), with all the attendant in-app-purchases, are a blatant copy of Real Racing 3 (RR3, for short hereafter). It’s as if, in February 2013, Gameloft’s designers saw RR3 released, tried it and thought “Oh, ****, this is awesome, we need something like this!” and, a typical nine month gestation period later, GT Racing 2 appeared at the end of the year. Just enough time to study, chart and copy, err.. I mean code its own clone.

GT Racing 2

I’m being a bit harsh because GT Racing 2 is patently a very decent racing simulation (aside from the awful ‘Auto-steering’, which I turned off after about ten seconds!), wherever the game’s structure took inspiration from. It’s not perfect, mind you – the graphics aren’t as jaw dropping as RR3’s, the in-car view is more limited and utterly useless after you’ve had a small shunt since all you see is cracked glass, there’s no ‘hood view’ (my favourite from RR3) and the track map graphics don’t show enough of what’s upcoming. Plus I had numerous touchscreen glitches where in-app-purchase dialogs couldn’t be dismissed using the little red cross – instead you’re forced to dive into what was being offered before being able to back out.

GT Racing 2

In typical Gameloft fashion, the in-app-purchases dominate proceedings even more than in the other titles here, with the usual waits and payments needed to progress smoothly – and I’m never impressed by a maximum freemium purchase of £80 (in the UK), which is clearly crazy. But invest your time and money in this title and you’ll have great fun – it still deserves a top 5 slot – despite all my complaints!

GT Racing 2

iTunes link

3. Mini Motor Racing WRT

Mini Motor Racing WRT

An unlikely title from a driving viewpoint – literally, this sees you controlling a car from above – a long way above. The cars are ‘mini’, effectively, racing around rallycross-style tracks, under your control with a virtual steering wheel. It’s a lot harder than it looks, not least because when the car is coming towards you, left is right and right is left, etc.!

Mini Motor Racing WRT

The idea has been done before, in a variety of ‘mini’ driving games, but never with the style, depth and fluidity in Mini Motor Racing. The keys here are the graphics, the lighting, the sound effects, all adding up to a very polished package.

Mini Motor Racing WRT

Added on to the racing itself are the usual freemium upgrades to the car, to your team, and so on. Though in my experience the limiting factor in most races will be your own skill (or, often, lack of it!) rather than raw specifications. The freemium mechanics are driven (so many racing puns…) by ‘trophies’ here and a slap on the wrist to the developers for, yet again, sticking in in-app-purchases of up to £80 – just crazy and over-greedy.

Mini Motor Racing WRT

However, there’s so much here to explore, and the in-game worlds/tracks are so enticing, that all is forgiven. The game modes include being able to invite your online friends, with you cherry picking a set of in-game rewards if they install the game and take up the invitation, which is a nice touch. And, as your car slams into the back of the race leader with a satisfying crunch, punting him off the track, I can guarantee there will be a smile all over your face.

Mini Motor Racing WRT

iTunes link

2. SBK15

With the wind whipping past your helmet, you approach a group of other riders as you all brake for a 90 degree bend, heading slightly uphill. The sun is in front of you, glinting off the track and inside your helmet as you lean over, judge the apex perfectly and apply the throttle early enough that you scream past the others, exiting the corner in the lead, the tarmac streaming by just a metre below.

SBK 15

Rinse and repeat and have an awful lot of fun. You don’t have to be a superbike fan in order to really enjoy SBK15. Plus there’s an extra factor that makes this a ‘must’ – it’s not dumbed down at all, it’s not a glorified acrade game – get the line wrong through a pack of riders at 200kph and you will crash horribly. Take a corner too fast and you will slide wide and have to make your way slowly back on track. It’s really not easy and even a casual glance up at the track overview schematic up top for a second can be enough to put you off your rhythm and timing and mean that you slide off and lose several places. Jaw clenched, you’re then up against it as you fight to catch up the rest of the pack.

With a full championship mode (a season’s worth of races, each with qualifying and two stage race, completing the lot means something like 15 solid hours of gameplay – and then there’s next season, and so on), ‘quick race’ and various challenges, including racing ‘ghosts’ of your friends in the SBK15 system, there’s an awful lot here, and it’s slick and solid throughout. You can configure SBK15 to work as you wish – there’s a wide choice of ‘HUD’/controls, with various combinations of accelerometer and -on-screen controls, in various positions – and even the ability to adjust the overall sensitivity, so that the bike ‘feels’ right in your hands.

The superbike format should be familiar to most people, with qualifying, ‘Superpole’ and then two race stints, from which your overall position for each event is determined. To cater for absolute beginners (and, for bikes, that includes me!), there’s an ‘Easy’ setting, ensuring that you’ll still be close to the front even with no experience. From which point you can try the whole thing again (or adjust as you go), on ‘Medium’ or ‘Hard’ as needed.

SBK 15

But really, SBK15 isn’t even about points, grid positions and championships (satisfying though these might be) – it’s about the thrill of racing, about pitting your wits against each course, against AI and ghosted human opponents, and against your own hand/eye coordination. Get all of these right and it’s almost as good as being out on the track for real. And a heck of a lot safer!

There are two main dangers in the real sport, as I see it – screaming around a bend at an extreme angle might cause the bike to slip away beneath you and you’ll go sliding off – in the game, you do indeed miss the corner if you get the timing and speeds and angles wrong, but thankfully you don’t actually come off the bike. Think of it as ‘auto-balance’!

SBK 15

The second danger in the real world is of colliding with other riders, and this is indeed modelled in SBK15. At low speeds, it’s just a gentle nudge and you both stay seated on your steeds. At higher speeds, both bikes and riders are left sprawled across the scenery in a spectacular accident. Happily, you’re put back on within a few seconds and there’s always the chance of catching the pack and making up a few places before the end of the race, whereas in on a real track you’d be in hospital for the next three months!

A neat, though ultimately somewhat pointless tie-in is with the latest Mission Impossible movie, with appropriate scenery/roads and you riding as Tom Cruise, with no helmet and your hair streaming behind you. Ah well, it’ll get the game more attention, which can only be a good thing.

SBK 15

I’m not quite sure where SBK15, or indeed the entire sport, has been all my life, but consider me a convert. I loved reviewing this game – the thrills and, yes, the spills. And at only a couple of quid (in the UK), turning what’s effectively a trial into the full game, it’s not a massive outlay for something which will give you tens of hours of pleasure (or more).

iTunes link

1. Real Racing 3

No prizes for guessing the winner, of course. Real Racing 3 is the benchmark against which every other mobile driving game has to be measured, and for good reason. Based around touring, road and high performance sports cars – and phone graphics performance permitting(!) – the realism and speed of Real Racing 3 has to be seen to be believed. Play it on an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and prepare to be blown away. The scale of the real world tracks and their 3D detail, the speed with which the textures fly by, the sense of immersion in a real racing world, are nothing short of stunning.

Real Racing 3

In theory, you’re racing against online friends and strangers(!), using ‘Time Shifted Multiplayer’, but there are clearly liberties being taken here. For example, how can the online, visible car you see in front of you, driven by your ‘friend’ weeks ago, respond to your presence/overtaking? Plus you always start at the back. As did your friends when they played…. Oh heck, who cares, it’s challenging, it’s fun and there are occasional bragging rights!

Real Racing 3

Are there caveats, other than your phone being fast enough (4S comment)? Sure – with all its tracks and cars loaded you’re looking at a couple of Gigabytes gone on your iPhone’s disk. These don’t all have to be downloaded at once, but you’ll need them all eventually, as you progress. The heavy freemium aspect to Real Racing 3 was criticised (by me) at the start, but we’ve since seen many ‘copies’ and freemium culprits that go much, much further (ahem, see GT Racing 2, above!)

Real Racing 3

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve been playing Real Racing 3 now for three months and have never paid a penny – the in-game money and gold coins are acquired through daily racing (and just turning up, daily bonuses being a freemium aspect again pioneered by RR3) and spent by buying new vehicles and speeding up ‘servicing’. If you’re prepared to wait (i.e. get on with your life) for a few hours after a particularly hard-fought race then you won’t need to spend coins on anything other than actual performance-enhancing upgrades. Gaming on mobile tends to be in snack-sized sessions, and Real Racing 3 turns out to be more or less perfect for this!

Real Racing 3

 

Real Racing 3

So, install Real Racing 3 (which takes a good ten minutes or so!), get comfy and get set to be as close to ‘real racing’ as you’re ever likely to get. The title is that accurate and it really is that good.

iTunes link

Let me know your favorite racing game for the iPhone in the comments below.

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