Videogame critics are a slightly different breed of people to gamers. The latter, partly because of the investment they've made in a product, will often be prepared to overlook a number of flaws and focus on the balanced pros-versus-cons merits of a game. Critics tend to be less concerned with such earthly matters and much more perfectionist, because they're focused on the game's place in the pantheon of artistic posterity rather than its instant here-and-now worth. The ponces.
As such, they (or I should say, we) can often be a lot angrier at games that are nearly brilliant than those that are just plain mediocre. This week's case in point: VS Racing.
Fortunately, at the time of writing VS Racing is temporarily free, so it's a lot easier to examine it on artistic grounds alone. And on that level, the game is something close to a crime. It's SO close to being completely fantastic, and the things that spoil it SO stupid and lazy and needless and rubbish, that the huge clanging sound made by the errors almost drowns out everything that's excellent about it.
So that they don't get completely overlooked, then, it's worth pointing them out. It's a stunningly beautiful game with gorgeous, detailed Retina graphics, it's fast and superbly smooth in play, the various control options (both touch and tilt) are all exceptionally well-executed, and it's even got a rather charming and funny plot, with short dialogue scenes (which you can tap past in a second if you want) which are also reflected cleverly in the gameplay.
At its heart VS Racing is easily the best overhead-view racer in the App Store, effortlessly more enjoyable than bigger-name titles like Reckless Racing or Death Rally. So it's by turns disappointing and enraging that the game is let down by simple, needless omissions and also despoiled with some hamfistedly imbecilic errors.
The most immediately obvious is that it's upside-down. The iPhone 4 has been the lead iOS platform for a year and a quarter now, and since pretty much Day One users have been aware of a design issue with it in relation to landscape-format games. If you have a sideways-display game and you depict it in such a manner that you have to turn the iPhone clockwise from its normal orientation rather than anti-clockwise, your left hand will invariably muffle the device's loudspeaker – located on the bottom-right edge – almost to the point of complete silence. (The same issue also affects the iPad to a lesser degree.)
This isn't normally a problem, because 99.999% of developers have the wit to implement screen-flipping, ie the automatic 180-degree rotation of the display if the user chooses to turn their device the other way. The coders of VS Racing, however – experienced iOS devs also responsible for the superb Dark Nebula marble-rolling games – haven't bothered, with the result that if you're using the touch controls you have to either play the game with your left hand contorted into an awkward, uncomfortable claw position, or without sound.
That single piece of idiocy, along with the retarded App Store screenshots which illustrate the game, actually stopped me from writing a glowing review when I first encountered VS Racing a couple of months ago. I have something very close to a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to iOS games that make me laboriously and unnecessarily take my own screenshots in order to get ones free of dickheaded marketing blurb, and I suspect a significant number of potential buyers of the game will also have been put off by the fact that the App Store entry apparently depicts a portrait-mode game when in fact it's played in landscape.
(On Podgamer my policy was to only feature blurb-disfigured games when they were free – and to illustrate them with a picture of something other than a screenshot – so that the developers wouldn't be rewarded for such hatefulness, but as well as the game being on promo I've made a partial exception here because I happened to take a couple of pics of VSR while I was playing it anyway and found them on my hard drive.)
The other main let-downs about the game are both related to a lack of content, in different ways. Firstly, it's short of tracks. There are 42 races in the game, unlocked in sequence, but they're set on just six different courses. (Raced both forwards and backwards, so a certain type of person would say there were 12. The name of that type of person is "a cretin".) You get bronze, silver or gold medals for a podium finish, and qualification criteria increase as you move through the game, eg to clear the last race only a 1st-place finish will do.
I've never really understood why racing games – especially 2D ones – find themselves light on tracks, because it seems to me that once you've done all the hard work of creating the game engine and the CPU AI and such, sticking additional circuits in would simply be a case of drawing them and plugging them in.
The best defence I could think of for VS Racing is that it currently comes in bang on the 20MB limit that Apple put on downloading apps directly through your iThing rather than via iTunes, but on examination that case doesn't really stand up. Plenty of games in the upper reaches of the charts – six of the current top 20 games, including the No.1 – are well over that size, so it's clearly not a dealbreaker, especially if it actively impacts on the quality of your game.
But even if it was, there's no excuse for the game's second content problem, which is the shortage of replay value. Once you've cleared all 42 races in the story mode, there's almost nothing to do. You can play each track until you get a gold medal on it, but the chances are you came first on most of them anyway as you played through the story. A recent update also added a slightly weak time-trial mode, but with only Facebook connectivity (no Game Center or OpenFeint) it's of very limited value. Similarly, you can have multiplayer races but only local bluetooth ones, no online.
It would have cost the developers next to nothing to throw in at least, say, some sort of high-score endurance mode where you raced tracks until you failed to win one, or an Expert game where you repeated the story mode against better opposition (VS Racing isn't the hardest game of all time) and while WoSland viewers will be aware that I couldn't care less about online gaming, the absence of even basic leaderboards is a glaring oversight. As it stands you'll pretty much exhaust the game in a couple of hours, and that's a crying shame.
Of course, none of this matters much when it's free. You should absolutely definitely download VS Racing today, because while it lasts it's terrific fun. But a game this good deserves to be more than a two-hour distraction, and it certainly doesn't deserve to have its chances hampered even further by boneheaded carelessness and remedial-level marketing. Because that sort of thing just pisses us critics off (as we have to endure a vastly greater number of plain-awful games than ordinary users, and therefore cherish the few precious diamonds even more). And you wouldn't like us when we're angry.