The latest in our series of reviews of the new batch of GPU-aware, high octane driving games, I take a spin in Raging Thunder 2 (or II, as the title screen proclaims it). With everything, including the kitchen sink and full Internet multi-player gaming, bundled into the new graphics engine, RT2 should be a huge hit. And yet, I can't help but feel that there's just too much going on, leaving the player high on console bling and short on raw driving satisfaction.
I was something of a fan of the original Raging Thunder, which managed to extract the last ounce of performance out of the creaky graphics in the previous generation of Nokia touchscreen phones, producing a fast core engine that ran at 360 by 180 pixels but then upsampled this to run full-screen.
Yes, RT1 proclaimed itself to champion fun over realism, but it stayed the right side of reality and there was always a semblance of feel that you were driving a real car, in terms of throwing around corners and up and down slopes and cambers. Raging Thunder 2 (RT2) uses a new version of the core 'FUSE' engine, now upgraded to run at full nHD resolution on the new phones with built-in graphics acceleration but with very little code shared withe previous game. This, as we shall see, is both good and bad.
Up front and centre in RT2 is Internet-wide multi-player gaming. As anyone who's tried such a game before will tell you, the extra buzz you'll get from challenging real people rather than computer-controlled 'players' is incomparable. The system's implemented nigh-on perfectly too, you can join an existing lobby or create your own. In either case, you wait for other players to join and for the lobby host to 'start' the race. If players are racing when you join the lobby, you'll have to wait a few minutes for them to finish, and then you're off with them.
There's an integrated chat system, though I hated the tiny font used, it's very hard to read on the smaller phone screen. It's also not obvious whether you're just racing against players of RT2 on Symbian^3 or (more likely) all RT2 players on all platforms (including iOS and Android). Making it truly multi-platform is a very smart move and ensures a plentiful supply of online opponents - though you have to wonder whether RT2 plays more easily or harder on any one platform and thus gives some opponents an edge. Or maybe I'm just not very good!
As before, there are also career and 'instant' modes, the former gradually unlocking extra tracks and cars. The RT2 tracks are visually stunning, with lighting effects, textures, animated scenery (windmills, fireworks, etc), all rushing past at a very high frame rate. The on-track appearance of speed is very fast and as with the original Raging Thunder there's definitely an emphasis on the game being harder rather than easier.
As you'll see from the screenshots, Polarbit has thrown everything at this game. Every last console gaming trick and effect, from the 'boost' lightning spikes (from RT1) to seeming force fields/shock waves, explosive oil drums, ramps, shortcuts, obstacles, the works. This makes the game very 'busy' and you've not only got to learn the track, you've got to work out the best lines to get the positive bonuses and miss the negative ones.
I could just about cope with all the additions (with my 49 year old reactions!) if the car handling had been the same as in the first game, i.e. if the driving experience was similar. Sadly, the totally rewritten RT2 loses points for being a different animal - the cars oversteer like crazy with the default settings and you have to go into Options and turn down the sensitivity. And even then, there's a perceptible delay between steering inputs via the phone's accelerometer and the car responding. Helped by 'auto' options for everything (apart from steering, obviously), even auto-boost, RT2 is definitely more an arcade game than simulation.
A couple of implementation curiosities. Another reason for the slightly lower-than-expected score is that RT2 doesn't override the Symbian screen dimming and power saving. So you're cruising towards a tricky section of track, pursued by opponents - and the screen dims in usual power-saving style, because you haven't tapped it for a while. This is pretty unforgiveable in an action game and I've NO idea how this slipped past Polarbit's testers. Or indeed past the Ovi Store QA process.
Secondly, RT2 uses a lot of RAM, with the effect that Symbian OS is quite zealous at reclaiming it when RT2 loses 'focus', i.e. when the user pauses the game and does something else on the phone. Several times I did this and found that the game had been closed by the OS. Maybe Polarbit can optimise RAM use more, such that the OS doesn't have to get heavy with it? After all, the other 'HD' games we've looked at don't get hunted down in the same way....
Personally, as a lover of titles which lean closer to simulation than arcade, I was a little underwhelmed. But for the Mario Kart generation, Raging Thunder 2 HD is a generally terrific title, and runs (the display glitch aside) as slickly on Symbian^3 as it does on the top iOS and Android smartphones - it's yet another great driving game for each platform.
Steve Litchfield, for All About Symbian and Ovi Gaming, 3rd Jan 2011