Review: Oval Racer


Steve Litchfield finds an astonishing piece of programming and a pretty absorbing game...

Author: Great Ape Software

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Let's get this straight - Oval Racer is a stunning, stupendous piece of programming and a labour of love. And, to a hardened journalist like myself, it's very refreshing to come across a game in which the developer has really 'gone the extra mile'.

Two things set Oval Racer apart from any competition. Firstly, it's programmer is a keen kart racer and has put everything he knows about the physics and feel of racing into the game. As a result, it's as close as you can get to the real thing while still in a simulation. Secondly, there are no sprites here, no perspective cheats, no simplified physics. Oval Racer is programmed from the ground-up  as a full 3D vector model, meaning that although the screenshots may not look as crisp as those from sprite-based games (although the rendering on the graphics-accelerated N93 comes close), the physics (including collision detection) can be 100% perfect. With a commendable degree of optimisation (and a dozen settings that you can manually turn on or off), the result is an astonishing frame rate, considering that every single texture-mapped surface is being calculated and drawn in real time.

The screenshots here are variously from the E70 (which runs in a kind of pixel-doubled mode) and the N93 (landscape mode works particularly well).

Oval Racer screenshot Oval Racer screenshot

The original artwork used in the few backdrops sit well with the vector nature of the main game and there's a completely gratuitous (but rather fun) animation applied to all menus and sub-menus. You can elect to race on any of the 27 included oval tracks, to practice on your own, or to take part in a 12-race 'Championship'. This latter takes 12 tracks from the aforementioned 27 and, contrary to what you might expect, the tracks do have significant differences, in terms of width (important for ease of overtaking or being overtaken), dimensions (important as it determines time spent at speed and your racing line) and traction (the mud tracks allow glorious slides while you have to be a lot more precise on the tarmac ones).

Oval Racer screenshot Oval Racer screenshot

Once underway in each race (which will take about two or three minutes at most), it's every car for itself, with one of the main ways to get round corners on some of the narrower tracks being to simply dive up the inside of an opponent and use their car to stop yourself and bounce yourself round the corner. Although based on karting tactics, with these cars being strictly virtual you can be a lot rougher than you could in reality (obviously). The same applies when squeezed against the barrier.

Oval Racer screenshot Oval Racer screenshot

The frame rate during the race is impressive, considering the speed at which some previous S60 3rd Edition games have played. There's good digital sound effects and excellent use of the vibrator in the phone to give you added feedback when touching another car, the grass or the barrier. In short, Oval Racer is immersive, the sign of a great game, and you'll find yourself with adrenaline in your stomach and with your phone held at an angle around many corners in a futile attempt to 'lean' the car in and not slide too far....

Oval Racer screenshot Oval Racer screenshot

So far so good, but it gets better. After each race there's the option of replaying it, both to enjoy what you did right and to learn from, should you have got things horribly wrong. Now, because of the vector modelling, it's just as easy for the game to render a viewpoint from any position in 3D space. So you get a wide choice of viewpoints to watch the race from, including TV-style panning vantage points, to onboard cameras (including rear-facing) - there's even a helicopter view, and I could swear the developer's added a mock camera shake, as if from the aircraft's rotors... During replay, the navigator key is mapped to let you switch cameras and car focus, giving you TV director-like control of displaying your finest hour in the mud....

Oval Racer screenshot Oval Racer screenshot

You'll notice the high score awarded to Oval Racer. Yet it could have been in the 90s, a true must-buy. Ultimately though, despite the variation in oval tracks, they're all basically the same sort of shape - what I'd love to see would be the same graphics and racing technology applied to real world tracks (e.g. Silverstone). Oval racing is fun, but you do get slightly, ever so slightly bored after a while. But throwing your car around a traditional circuit, that would be yet another leap forward....

But I digress. Oval Racer is the most impressive game I've yet seen for S60 3rd Edition (by quite some way) and huge kudos must go to Great Ape Software. Grab this game if you're into car racing. Or grab it if you want to show off to your friends what your smartphone can do. Either way, it's virtually an essential download.

Steve Litchfield, November 2006

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