Turning gently so as to slide past a competing hatchback rounding a left bank, the vehicle vibrates over the edge of the course. Cars roaring by are interrupted by an incoming call, the only reminder that this game sits on an iPhone and not a lacquered handheld or hulking console guided by a controller.
With Real Racing, Firemint waves the green flag for a new generation of iPhone games that rev up more than just slick visuals. This has the potential to become the portable counterpoint to PlayStation's Gran Turismo, an impressive show of muscle that immediately establishes new expectations for handheld racers. The race is on.
"Our passion is to do top notch stuff," states Robert Murray, Firemint CEO. Real Racing certainly has the look of a top notch game, promising an authentic racing simulation that goes well beyond any previous iPhone title.
While the incorporation of inventive elements such as online leagues and video sharing put the game at the forefront of a new wave of networked games, it's the fundamental racing mechanics and undeniable polish that give it a sophisticated feel.
The game's Career mode spans nine events, several of which include multiple races on a dozen different tracks.
Tournaments are joined by qualifying circuits and tough endurance runs. Each event is organised into a trio of increasingly advanced divisions ranked from C to A. Naturally, winning races unlocks new events and vehicles in three separate classes: hatchback, sedan, and muscle.
As you'd expect, a hatchback controls much differently than a muscle car. Real Racing highlights class distinctions through nuances in handling. Muscle cars possess great horsepower, but are bulkier in contrast to the nimble hatchbacks that turn with ease.
The slightest tip of the handset delivers a responsive turn, whereas a muscle car needs more coaxing to round the bends.
Of the game's four control settings, three of which utilise the accelerometer for steering, the default scheme works best. Automatic acceleration and braking frees up energy for navigation: you're still granted license to brake at will with a tap of the screen, but the game manages your speed so you don't veer off course.
The controls are amazingly precise, exerting a level of realism previously unseen on the platform. Murray knows it too. He observes, "Other racers haven't gotten the controls right."
By offering an in-car view, he contends Real Racing delivers on the promise of accurate, responsive controls. "The in-car view helps ground the controls and gives a feel for the physics of your car as it speeds down the track."
Zipping through the deserts of Sonoma Canyon, you can feel the grit of sand vibrating under your feet as you work quickly to bring the car back onto asphalt. In the streets of Alkeisha Island, careful tips are needed to manuever through tight turns and avoid swiping competitors.
By virtue of its Career mode, complemented by Quick Race and Time Trial modes, Real Racing is shaping up to be a highly competent racer.
Network innovations, however, shift the game to high gear. Asynchronous multiplayer will support leagues of drivers in ranked tournaments where the top two racers get a boost up, while the bottom two drop down a division.
YouTube video sharing enables you to post replays. Murray even hints at leveraging existing social networking tools for comparing stats with friends.
While Murray won't nail down a release date, he makes it clear more work needs to be done before Firemint is ready to fire up the engine.
Adjustments to the graphics, full testing of the network features to ensure stability on day one, and thorough vetting of the driving mechanics are all in store. "We're aiming for the best-looking, best-feeling racing game on iPhone."