My driving instructor had a nickname for me. He used to refer to me as Oliver Brown Trousers because that was the colour he feared his trousers were likely to turn after an hour of trying to teach me to drive. I never even got as far as taking my driving test and it was generally felt that the roads would be a lot safer if I was never allowed anywhere near them in a motorised vehicle. It wasn’t that I was an aggressive driver nor that I was particularly timid, it was more that I was disposed to drift off into wondering whether the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could best The Predator in a fight when I ought to be concentrating on not driving straight into oncoming traffic. I’ll never forget the howl of abject terror he unleashed the time I spotted a sheep scrambling down a steep incline and absentmindedly steered us towards the precipice as I watched its nimble descent. In my defence the part of Yorkshire where I grew up is very picturesque.
As a result of my inability to master driving I’ve never really become a fan of cars and thus racing games as a whole leave me cold. However if you strap a machine gun, rocket launcher or a set of spikes onto a vehicle then I become instantly tumescent. I was crazy excited by Mad Max 2, Deathrace 2000, the classic table top games Car Wars and Dark Future and, as a small boy, I reread the classic Fighting Fantasy book ‘Freeway Fighter’ until the pages fell out. This probably explains why Death Rally, the iPhone remake of a venerable action racing game from 1996, is right up my street. It’s a grungy dystopian game that’s far less about shaving precious seconds off your lap time and far more about gaining position by murdering the opposition with machine guns, mines and rockets. In fact there’s a lot more to gained from murder than there is from driving well, which is handy because I suck balls at driving well.
Racing fans may well find the control offensively primitive with only a single virtual stick controlling your cars movement with another button for firing your weapon but I found it pretty smooth once I got used to it and the developers get bonus points for pitching the controls squarely at the touch screen and not over cluttering things. It’s definitely more Micro Machines than Gran Turismo but there’s plenty of responsiveness and it frees the attention up for murdering the other racers. Unlocking things is the name of the game, starting with something that looks like a VW beetle armed with a humble machine gun you progress by racing towards a camper van type thing and something that looks like a Dodge Challenger. Your machine gun is very soon supplemented by shotguns, mines, and the gatling gun which is my favourite. Your machine gun has unlimited ammo but your other weapon will run dry pretty quickly which means accuracy is essential.
Death Rally has that magic, ‘just one more go’ factor that means that although the races are short bursts of mayhem there’s always this nagging feeling you could do better if you only you had another chance. I quickly found that the game was eating considerable chunks of time without really trying and mastering and upgrading the various different cars was a serious challenge that kept me coming back for more. Also I conceived of a deep and abiding hatred for the named race bosses (who include cameos from many other games) that kept me playing out of the soulless and malicious need to murder them all, a bit like a serial killer version of Pokemon. The graphics are pretty good with the tracks in particular looking very nice on the retina display and this is one of the first games to be optimised for the iPad 2, which is nice.
There’s a relatively small selection of tracks which you’ll find yourself going round forwards, backwards and sideways and unlocking everything is unlikely to keep you quiet for too long which is why I’m very glad the updates for Death Rally are dropping fast. New cars and new weapons are being added very quickly and every new feature adds to the play time. This is a coffee break game, the races rarely last for more than ninety seconds and there’s not a lot of depth to the strategy but whilst its firmly rooted at the casual end of the spectrum it is also enormous fun. The first time I managed to kill the race leader with a well placed burst of gatling gun fire I felt a rush of pleasure equal to that felt by a woman putting a cat in a wheelie bin.