Vorsprung Durch Volkes Freispielen

(I don't speak German, okay?)

Especially alert viewers may recall two weeks ago, when WoSblog lavished praise on the rather lovely free time-trial racer You Cruise By Mazda MX-5. Man, those were the days, eh? But imagine my surprise this week when I stumbled into what appeared to be exactly the same game again.

And as it turned out, that was only the start.

The attack of deja vu arrived when I happened across the existence of Volkswagen Polo Challenge 3D. The similarities extended some way beyond the mere fact that it was another car-company promotional freebie driving game by prolific developers Fish Labs. In fact, it's the exact same car-company promotional freebie driving game by prolific developers Fish Labs.

Or at least, mostly the exact same. While obviously you drive a different car this time (see if you can guess which one from the clues hidden in the story so far) and all the locations and graphics are different, the gameplay and the actual track layouts in VW Polo Challenge are identical to those in You Cruise.

I must admit, this struck me as passing odd. My experience of driving-game development is zero, but I'd have thought that once you'd gone to all the trouble of making a complete new environment, actually putting a different track in it would be the easy bit. Evidently I'd be completely wrong, though, so there you go.

The one other difference between the two titles is more striking, though. While You Cruise employs an ingenious double-brake control system that makes it a joy to play, in Polo Challenge you only get a brake pedal in the bottom-left corner, making applying the brakes on a left-hand corner a much more awkward task. It's fascinating to see a game evolving in front of your eyes like this, which made the next thing I discovered even more interesting.

Because as it turns out, there's a whole suite of free VW driving games by Fish Labs. The next one I encountered was Volkswagen Tuareg Challenge, which is a rallying-themed game. But that's not its only difference from Polo Challenge by a long way.

The first thing that leaps out at you is the control system. Abandoning both the auto-acceleration of Polo Challenge and the steering buttons on the edges of the screen, here you get an analogue gas pedal and two virtual directional buttons in the bottom left corner (as with all the games we're going to be covering here, there's also a tilt-steering option).

The gas pedal is unusual, and works in a way I haven't seen on any other iOS racing game. The higher up on the bar you slide your thumb, the more pressure you apply – the number above the pedal indicates the percentage of power you're exerting. (Except that if you lift off it decreases rapidly, rather than instantly, to 0.) The reason for this becomes apparent in the game's second mode – Economy.

Tuareg Challenge offers two very different goals. In the normal Rally mode, your success is judged as you'd expect, by the fastest time you can reach the checkpoints in. Economy mode, however, is a racing-videogame first as far as this reporter is aware – the scoring mechanism, and therefore the measure of skill, is fuel efficiency. (You're scored on how many litres of fuel you've used.)

In Economy your job is to finish each stage as close to the exact time limit as possible. If you cross the Finish line with 10 seconds to spare, you've done a bad job – because you were clearly driving too fast and therefore wastefully. You need to drive as smoothly as possible (because changes of speed use disproportionately more fuel than maintaining a steady speed), and ideally you want to reach the end of the stage 0.1 seconds under the time limit.

The completely different approaches needed for the two modes (you can play both modes over the complete six-stage rally or on individual stages, incidentally, and there are separate online leaderboards for every mode and stage) extends the game's life considerably, and the green theme makes another appearance in the next VW game I picked up.

The oddly-punctuated Volkswagen Think Blue. Challenge completely abandons the pursuit of speed and instead focuses entirely on environmentally-responsible driving. I know – you can't wait, right?

Think Blue immediately resembles Tuareg Challenge, with the same analogue gas pedal and digital buttons combo for touch players. But once again, your goals are different. Here, rather than being judged over a fixed-length course, you're on an endurance mission – you simply have to get as far as possible before your fuel runs out.

There are still checkpoints, but in Think Blue they serve as refuelling stations. When you reach one, you're asked a multiple-choice question relating to fuel economy (Viewers! Try to control your excitement!) which will earn you either 500, 300 or 100 units of extra fuel depending on how many guesses it takes you to get it right. (You always get it right in the end, because obviously the game wants to make sure it gets its message across.)

It's surprising how quickly you start to care about efficient and conservative fuel usage when it's the only way you're going to get to see the next stage. As you drive, you pass named markers indicating the limit of other players' journey, which is a nice "live" slant on the leaderboard notion (you can also access the leaderboard normally between games), but it's the thrill of reaching new places that provides most of the game's appeal.

When you trundle to a halt in the middle of nowhere, you really wish you'd got that last question about the percentage increase in fuel consumption between 130km/h and 160km/h right so that you could have seen what was coming up next, and with the current world record distance sitting at under 8km (around 7 minutes driving time), it's never too daunting a task to go back to the start and have another go.

(The questions always seem to come in the same order, which also helps tempt you into another go.)

Even speaking as someone committed to protecting the environment by the method of hastening the extinction of humanity, I really rather like Think Blue. It's like going for a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive in open countryside, but with an added element of tension and excitement. The last title in the VW suite, though, takes yet another new angle on vehicular competition.

Volkswagen Scirocco R 24H Challenge sports yet another different control system. This time auto-accelerate is back – now optional – but instead of virtual digital buttons you have a very responsive analogue wheel at the bottom corner if you've chosen touch controls. (You can select right-handed or left-handed layout.) The biggest difference, however, is that for the first time in the series the game also includes other cars.

Rather than multiple stages, this time the setting is a single five-mile racetrack, supposedly in the "green middle" of Germany. Complete with graffiti (or something) on the road, it's clearly meant to evoke the Nordschleife at the Nurburgring (which former F1 champion Jackie Stewart described as "the Green Hell"), a course which causes obsessive petrolheads to foam uncontrollably at the mouth and trousers.

You can do solo timed laps around the track for as long as you want, and there's also an online multiplayer option, though I never managed to find any opponents, but the main mode is the "24H". Thankfully this doesn't last 24 actual hours – instead, you're dropped in with about six minutes remaining, and in 11th place. Your job, obviously, is to overtake the last 10 cars in front of you before the end of the race, which in practice means just under two laps.

(When time runs out you keep going until you get to the finish line, and anyone you overtake in "overtime" still counts towards your final position. The position of all the CPU cars is shown on the track radar so you can see how quickly you're catching them.)

This is a faster, looser game than the other three, and while the wide, sweeping track means you'll rarely have to call on the services of the brake pedal, you'll need to hold a pretty flawless racing line for all six minutes to have a chance of taking 1st place.

Sadly there don't seem to be any online leaderboards this time, but as Scirocco R 24H is much harder to "beat" than the other games you'll still be kept busy for a good long while trying to beat your personal bests (your fastest lap time and highest finishing position are both recorded).

The VW suite is a varied series of well-designed and well-implemented driving games, and it's highly impressive that you can pick up the whole lot for free, with the absolute minimum of corporate presence. (Basically Volkswagen seem to think that showing the cars themselves and providing links to their website and dealerships is plenty advertising for players to deal with.)

I'm not normally a fan of time-trials in racing games, but the concept is so deftly and differently twisted in the four games that I didn't really ever notice the absence (in three of them) of other cars – to be honest, I saw more CPU vehicles in a day of playing these games than I did in several hours of PSP Gran Turismo, where your only sight of the opposing drivers after the first few seconds of a race is in your rear-view mirror. They're all very enjoyable, and I recommend you go and download them all now.

I think that's all I have to say about the free VW driving games in the App Store.




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