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Asphalt 9: Legends review - “Totally gorgeous, shockingly hollow”

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Asphalt 9: Legends review - “Totally gorgeous, shockingly hollow”

Asphalt 9: Legends is an undoubtedly lavish affair, one that is rightly used as a benchmark for the latest mobile devices. It’s a genuine stunner, boasting next-level particle effects, lighting, and realistic weather. But what lies beneath that polished exterior is something I’ve always struggled to get on board with: an arcade racer that strips the genre to the bone, offering up a theme-park experience more akin to a tech demo than a fully-realised game.

In its best moments, you can expect the same gleeful sense of speed and violent carnage as the earlier Burnouts, albeit with a much-reduced sense of danger. Crashing headfirst into an oncoming bus isn’t the recipe for disaster you might expect; instead registering only as the slightest inconvenience. Part of this is down to non-racer vehicles functioning like props on a set as opposed to genuine hazards.

Even when you do wrap your Porsche around the pretty scenery, the worst you can expect is to lose your lead. And this is part of a larger problem: the game is in such a rush to keep you going, to push you rapidly to the finish line, to serve up your latest reward, that it can feel like your input isn’t wholly required and that the racing itself is an afterthought. Even when using the manual control scheme, there’s a lack of complexity to the core driving experience that limits its long-term appeal.

After many hours of play, I never once felt like I was improving or pushing myself. Progression here isn’t hard-earned or personal; it’s about treating the game like a mindless time sink, coming back time and again for more upgrades, blueprints, coins, etc. That hook will just never be as strong as the gradual satisfaction of turning off the various assists in, say, the Forza Horizon games – a series that nails the balance between arcade fun and hard-fought self-improvement.

Some scarce interest lies in the branching tracks, all full of curved ramps and ludicrous shortcuts. There are many, and they're drip-fed to you in bits and pieces. This approach works surprisingly well, helping to keep the expertly rendered locales, from Scotland to Shanghai, fresh through the many times you’ll encounter them. Again, though, the sensation of discovering an alternate path is dulled by the game’s reliance on upgrades over skill, brute force over gutsiness.

Perhaps its hollow core would sting less if there wasn’t an expectation for you spend dozens of hours with it to see even half of what’s here. It’s hard to imagine a version of Asphalt 9 that isn’t free to play; those elements are so deeply embedded in every facet of the experience. In many ways, it’s as if the free-to-play elements are the game, with a definite feeling that you’re putting more time and effort into sifting through menus, checking in on timers, and opening card packs than actually racing.

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The £19.99 launch bundle by no means turns it into anything resembling a premium title. At best, it’ll allow you to play the first few hours without ever having to sit around and wait on your cars to refuel. The 200,000 credits and 300 tokens are handy, but you’ll likely burn through them in no time at all, with card packs going for 65-75 tokens apiece.

And I do hope you’re ok with touchscreen controls, because trying to navigate Asphalt 9’s menus, submenus, and sub-submenus with your Joy-Cons is an exercise in extreme frustration. Nothing ever quite works in the way you wanted or expected it to. You might grow used to it after a while, but UI woes don’t stop being an issue just because you learn to live with them.

And my gripes with the Switch port don’t end there. The frame rate during more hectic races, often when there’s a bunch of particle effects being thrown about, judders and splutters like nobody’s business, and connection to the game’s servers drops frequently, resulting in you having to wait 5 or more seconds for it to spring back to life.

These are all issues that some may well turn a blind eye to on mobile, but in coming to Switch, Asphalt 9 has now invited comparisons to the superior Horizon Chase Turbo and Grip: Combat Racing. It may technically be a flashier, more recognisably AAA package, but that means nought to me when it’s otherwise a barely-holding-it-together shell of a game.

If you're just starting out in Asphalt 9: Legends, be sure to check out our extensive list of tips, tricks, and guides.

Asphalt 9: Legends review - “Totally gorgeous, shockingly hollow”

Asphalt 9: Legends serves up the glitz of a high-quality arcade racer, though its hollow core makes for an overlong, vapid experience when compared to its Switch contemporaries