Racing games are nicely suited to portable gaming. The fact that you can drive a quick race on the subway and then pocket the console when you get to your destination is always a plus. That’s why it’s not surprising to see a couple of them as launch titles for a new portable console. Unfortuately, those are also almost invariably rather lackluster.
Asphalt Injection belongs to the most arcade-ish category of racing games. Forget simulation or complex effects of tire pressure on grip and physics. Cars are like starships on wheels and their inertia while drifting is exactly the same a starship in the vacuum of space would have. It’s not a bad thing, mind you, but that’s exactly what you can and should expect from this game.
The first thing you’ll notice of Asphalt Injection are its visuals. Unfortunately you’ll also notice that they are rather poor, and that’s a mild way to describe them.
Cars are the true princesses of a racing games, but in this one they look more like wrinkly baronesses quite a bit past the proper age for courting. The low-polygon models show little detail and textures follow the same philosophy. When you add decals the effect is even worse, given that they are pixelated and rather muddy.
If the cars don’t look exactly in their prime, what really breaks the deal are the environments. The models of buildings and props look more like cardboard boxes than anything else and they are covered by textures that seem to be taken directly from a PSOne title.
Ultimately Asphalt Injection is a PS Vita title, but doesn’t look like one. There are racing games on the PSP that look better, and considering that the PS Vita runs circles around its predecessor in terms of processing power, that’s not exactly something I can consider acceptable.
Graphics aren’t the most important aspect of a game, though, so let’s give a look at gameplay: Contents are actually rather beefy, with a career mode split in twenty leagues, ten different racing modes that vary from different variations of a vanilla competition to a full fledged elimination mode in which you have to destroy as many opponents as possible, and 47 licensed cars to unlock and collect.
Unfortunately the numerous variations won’t avoid, after a while, the sense of déjà vu that will inevitably come after a few leagues, especially considering that the differences in handling between different rides aren’t as marked as one would expect.
Cop Chase mode is probably the most fun between the available rulesets. You’re given a car and get to try and escape a swarm of police cars. They won’t just try to stop you, and won’t relent until you win or your car is turned into a smoking wreck.
Driving in Asphalt Injection is actually quite fun. The action is fast and and fluid and gets even faster when you engage your Nitro boost. Drifting takes a little while in order to get used to the handbrake-like control style, but after that it’s rather satisfying, as calculating starting points and drifting angles is basically the real challenge of the game, and can lead long stretches of rubber burning and sizable returns in the form of Nitro recharge bonuses.
The weakest link in the gameplay of Asphalt Injection is represented by the AI behind the computer-driven opponents. It’s extremely weak, and it shows: when a car occasionally drives into a tree, you can interpret is as a clever variation in the AI behavior to simulate realistic opponents that can make mistakes. When multiple cars crash into the same tree almost every single time, the only logical conclusion is that the AI isn’t good enough to keep up with the challenges of the track.
The poor quality of the AI is made even more evident by how much it needs to rely on some atrociously noticeable rubber banding. At the start of each race, no matter what car you drive and how souped up it is, your opponents will display some kind of extreme launch control, speeding ahead regardless of what you do.
After a while you’ll finally be allowed (and I didn’t use the verb “allow” randomly) to catch up. At that point more rubber banding will take place, letting the opponents catch up very easily with you, no matter how well you drive.
This is not to say that the game is too challenging, quite the contrary, but it’s done so openly that it can easily get jarring and shouldn’t be necessary in a game released this year, on a machine that doesn’t really lack in processing power that can be dedicated to AI cycles.
When you wreck another car or your own, you get to see a brief cutscene. It’s fun maybe for the first five times. After that you’ll start itching because it represents a rather jarring interruption of the action, and due to some evident clipping issues that cause various vehicles to partly sink in the titular asphalt, it doesnt even look that good.
Add to that the fact that often that cutscenes will make you miss shortcuts and bonuses, because your car continues driving (by itself) while you watch them, and you get the picture.
One of the best perks of Asphalt Injection is, paradoxically, that it doesn’t really force-feed you with Vita-centric gimmicks, relegating touch control to the menus and providing a responsive and precise classic control scheme by default. Tilt controls are optional and absolutely forgettable. While they are extremely responsive, they’re also as precise as trying to drive your car with your teeth.
Multiplayer racing is available, and it actually offers a fun experience for a while, when the connection of the host doesn’t cause unbearable amounts of lag (which can lead to complete loss of synchronization, wasting your progression in the race entirely), especially due to the lack of rubber banding.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that there are no different classes of cars and no way to separate drivers that unlocked the whole garage and all the customization options from those that own only a Mini Cooper, most races are decided by who can bring the fastest ride, and not by individual skill.
The only mode available for multiplayer are Normal Races, completely removing the degree of variation offered by single player gameplay. Add to that the lack of any means of communication with your opponents, and you get a multiplayer feature set that is only somewhat competent and definitely half baked.
Ultimately Asphalt Injection is a relatively enjoyable portable arcade racer, as long as you keep your expectations low. The driving itself is fast and fun and the suite of content is sizable, but basically everything built around it goes from mediocre to downright poor.
I can’t think of a single feature in the game that hasn’t been done better on older and less powerful consoles, and that doesn’t seem rushed to the finish line. Even the single player, that obviously received the majority of the development resources, ultimately feels underwhelming due to the predictable AI and its rubber banding slapped shamelessly right in the player’s face.
If you really can’t do without a racing game on the PS Vita, you can give this one a try, but don’t expect much more than an iOS game ported to the PS Vita with a few frills added, because that’s exactly what Asphalt Injection is.