Asphalt 3: Street Rules is a case in point. It’s a 3D racer incorporating aspects of Ridge Racer and Burnout, and it looks very pretty in the screenshots too. Actually play the thing, however, and your opinion soon changes. In landscape mode on the N81 it suffers from an arthritic frame rate, while the controls aren’t responsive enough to communicate any real feeling of seat-of-the-pants handling or aggressive speed. In terms of looks or playability, it’s a good league behind either Ridge Racers on the PSP or Super Mario Kart DS.
EA’s conversion of FIFA 08 fares slightly better, partly because EA has managed to design a control system where one button can do most of the hard graft, and partly because the visuals are vaguely reminiscent of FIFA on other handheld platforms. All the same, it still bears little relation to FIFA as you or I might know it.
The best of the showcase titles is System Rush: Evolution (screens below) – a Rez meets WipEout futuristic racer based on a hacking theme. It moves well and plays better than Asphalt 3, and it’s one of the few current N-gage games that you can actually play online. That said, it still fails my biggest test for any handheld game: can I play it and forget that I’m playing a handheld game? The answer, I’m afraid, is no. I could wile away the odd ten minutes playing System Rush were I stuck on a boring tube journey, but would I be pining for my PSP or DS? You bet. From the showcase 3D titles it’s clear that – whatever Nokia might claim – even the more powerful N-gage phones are no match for Sony or Nintendo’s specialist hardware when it comes to delivering compelling 3D action games.
N-gage fares better when it’s not trying so hard to show off. Brain Challenge is a decent spin on the Brain Training genre, with features like a day-by-day progress report that not every Brain Training rip-off bothers to include.
Hooked On: Creatures of the Deep, meanwhile, is one of those odd games that sounds hideously boring but turns out to be weirdly addictive. It’s no Sega Bass Fishing (and the pace could be described as soporific), but it has a little of the magic of Sega’s classic fishing sim. Thanks to some nice water shaders and pretty coastal scenery, it also has some of the best graphics I’ve seen in an N-gage game, making you wonder whether Nokia should leave the high-end 3D action titles alone and concentrate on more slow-moving but attractive sims, RPGS, adventure and strategy games.
Nokia does have more titles on the way, including a cute virtual pet game, Creebies, Worms World Party and Pro Series Golf, all of which could make enjoyable outings on N-gage handsets. For now, however, this is a well-built and intelligently designed platform in search of games that will highlight the strengths of the hardware rather than expose its limitations. Should that happen, an N-gage compatible handset may become the choice of every gamer, but at the moment there’s no need to plump for N-gage unless you’ve already decided on an N-gage compatible phone.
The strategy is more sensible for N-gage 2.0, but the platform still lacks quality titles. Meanwhile, in terms of 3D performance and controls, the hardware still sits behind the established handheld platforms.