Real Racing 3 iOS preview: beautiful, hugely ambitious, totally free

Mobile racer brings console-standard visuals to iPad

Take a look at those screenshots. Go on, browse through all of them. That's how Real Racing 3 actually looks. Not just when you're watching an intro video, or spectating a polished replay - that's what you see when you're driving it. The phrase 'looks great... for an iPad game' is often passed around by PC or console gamers looking to poke fun at mobile games, but Real Racing 3 would look handsome if it was running on Xbox 360 or PS3.

Super-car showdown on Laguna Seca

The content is pretty substantial too. Although there are only nine tracks planned for the game's launch on February 28, you'll be able to tear up those circuits with 46 top-end sports cars over 900+ events. Oh, and did we mention the game is free to download and play on both iOS and Android?

Ok, so there's a catch. Accessing everything Real Racing 3 has to offer either requires a colossal investment of time, or the spending of real money. "All the content is available from the start - we don't block anything out," says Associate Producer, Michael De Graaf, speaking exclusively to CVG.

"But if you want to access something without playing through to it, you can buy extra currency and skip straight there. Plus, if you don't want to wait for repairs you can buy gold to skip through those as well. However, you've always got the option to wait for repairs or play through the game to unlock new stuff. We don't force you to spend any money to complete the entire game."

While the benefits of the freemium business model are debateable on console and PC, they're a great fit for mobile, and everything about Real Racing 3 - the looks, the controls, the UI, and yes, the business model - feels like it has been tailor made to fit iPad and iPhone like a velvet glove. Too many big-budget mobile games stem from 'traditional game' mindsets, and they often feel compromised or fundamentally flawed. No so here - Real Racing is a proper mobile game.

Try it with assists on to start with. Trust us...

"You're hitting a very different audience: the mobile audience is immense, and growing hugely," explains De Graaf. "And the style of games that this audience is looking for is quite different". You really notice this when you play Real Racing. At the start, all assists are turned on, so all you're doing is steering the car around the track. Using the iPad's tilt controls, we comfortably manoeuvred our BMW through the field at Laguna Seca, and finished a respectable third in our first race.

Sure, we made some mistakes, but that's only human. Thing is, the way Real Racing 3's AI behaves is possibly the game's biggest achievement. And you've looked through the screenshots, right? Good. Just checking. It uses something called Time Shift Multiplayer to keep races fresh and up to date with how the game is being played.

"We pull down times from the server based on how people have raced from all over the world. If you've connected with friends in Real Racing we'll also pull down their performances for you to race against." Essentially, then, you're competing against friends and other races of your skill level - except they're not actually in the game with you.

Real Racing 3 uses online data to create the behaviour of its AI drivers. "It's not an exact ghost," explains De Graaf. "We wanted to avoid that to make sure you can actually be involved with their car in the race - you can bump into them, knock them off the track and things like that. What we do is try to recreate friends' uploaded performances in your game, based on the time they set, the car the raced in, the upgrades they had equipped and things like that. If they drive aggressively, for example, that'll be reflected on the damage that their simulated car has in your race."

Even the interiors look decent

Competing with friends without the bother of having to sit guiltily in Starbucks to steal a stable internet connection is pretty huge, and it always means more when you know that your opponents are more than just pixels following a simulated racing line. What's more, the game will actively goad you to play by pinging over a message every time a friend beats one of your times. Yes, it's 'inspired' by EA's Autolog, but given that EA is publishing Real Racing 3, we doubt they mind too much.

Everything about Real Racing 3 is impressive. Later in our hands-on session we started turning off the assists, and the difficulty level began to climb. With brake-assist on low, for example, you need to tap and hold on the screen to apply the brakes. Sounds easy but when you're flicking your car through tight corners on the Melbourne street-racing track, trying to avoid other racers, it becomes a real challenge.

Tellingly, though, our times and podium placement did improve when we took more control into our own hands. This isn't five minutes of mobile fluff, and it certainly isn't 'great for an iPad game'... it's shaping up to be a great game in its own right.

Want more great iPad game features, reviews and guides? Check out iGamer Magazine on the App Store now!