iOS Gems: Air Mail, The Amazing Spider-Man + Asphalt 7: Heat
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating today: the improvements between generations of App Store games are downright amazing at times—sequels to titles that were impressive only a year ago look dramatically better today, and that cycle seems to repeat annually. Thanks to both its family of franchises and its numerous development teams, Gameloft has been one of the App Store’s leading envelope-pushers, and two of today’s Gems demonstrate just how far it’s going: the action game Amazing Spider-Man and racing game Asphalt 7: Heat are both even more aesthetically impressive sequels to earlier releases, now universally compatible with current-generation iPads, iPhones, and iPods. Another recent release, Chillingo’s Air Mail, is one of the best-looking flying games for Apple devices. And all three of these games sell for $7 or less.
Our top pick of the bunch is Asphalt 7: Heat, but all three of these titles are worthy of checking out if you’re a fan of their individual genres. Read on for all of the details.
Of today’s three titles, Air Mail ($5) by Chillingo is the most impressive visually, though it falls a little short of possessing the finely-tuned gameplay that could have made it a true classic. Placing you in the role of a postman named Scoop, Air Mail gives you tilt or touch flying controls to pick up and deliver packages—or achieve similar objectives—within seven different environments. There are six four-mission chapters and a seventh two-mission chapter, each with relatively large, open world maps that can be explored without a timer, or with timed and star-rewarded tasks. A $1 “cheat” is optionally available to unlock all of the levels, permit your plane to fly through objects, and shoot fireworks; without this cheat, you must complete all of a chapter’s first three missions in whatever order you prefer in order to unlock the fourth mission, then the next chapter.
Air Mail’s highlight is a great 3-D graphics engine populated with impressively detailed steampunk levels and vehicles: as the screenshots suggest, the levels are well-populated with buildings, airships, boats, and targets, enabling you to fly high into the air and land temporarily on the water, each elevation showing off more than respectable levels of polygon and texture complexity. It’s no stretch to say that this is amongst the best-looking flying games released in the App Store, though unlike rivals, Air Mail makes no attempt to be realistic in anything save for the smooth frame rate and flight controls. On iPads, the frame rate only drops when enemy weapons are introduced into the action; adding dodgable polygonal projectiles and explosions to the mix. Epic-styled music is occasionally overlaid with simple sound effects and reasonable voice samples, none particularly memorable.
While Air Mail is initially structured with short but sweet training levels that teach you how to fly your biplane, and Chillingo wisely waits until the training is over to introduce you to a third, more complex control scheme that adds Z-axis rotation to the mix, the title doesn’t reach its full potential as a game—it winds up feeling like everything save for the missions was well-executed. Some of these missions challenge you to fly through rings a la Nintendo’s classic Pilotwings, while most others involve gathering and dropping off items somewhat akin to Sega’s arcade driving game Crazy Taxi, a process that quickly becomes repetitive and tedious. Open exploration opportunities highlight a further problem, a lack of proper visual guidance for object collection, as you attempt to collect scrolls merely to change the paint on your biplane. This lack of direction issue is intermittent, as more structured missions make better use of “fly here” arrows, but whenever the guidance falls short, you’ll find yourself circling around and around looking for objects that are hidden in unseen nooks. Developer N-Fusion deserves credit for actually having maps complex enough to include such nooks, but some extra fine tuning would have made them more fun to explore.
Flying games have been so spotty in the App Store that Air Mail’s very existence deserves some celebration: it is one of few flying games with a controllable plane and nice graphics, at a price that is unobjectable given its content. That said, it comes so tantalizingly close to feeling complete that we can’t help but wish that it receives a fairly substantial post-release tweaking, as the audiovisual structure and levels all work, but really need more gameplay diversity. A little extra development time could vault this title into the history books. iLounge Rating: B.
While it would be a stretch to call The Amazing Spider-Man ($7) completely new—it shares a lot in common with the 2010 App Store release Spider-Man: Total Mayhem—there’s little doubt that Gameloft has made big leaps in the audiovisual department from title to title. The prior game took Spider-Man into a simple but effective 3-D world with relatively basic multi-opponent fight scenes; this game radically improves the backgrounds, characters, and audio while matching the plot line of the impending Amazing Spider-Man movie. Everything’s been deepened and polished up, save for the simple brawling gameplay, which really should have gotten as much attention as the rest of the title.
As with Air Mail, the star of The Amazing Spider-Man is really the new 3-D graphics engine, which is universal to current iOS devices and dramatically better than before. The titular hero’s body is so nicely modeled, shaded, and textured that even close-ups look great—smooth, and with reflections in his costume’s shiny eyes—though other characters are noticeably boxier. Buildings and vehicles have also received upgrades, falling only a little short of the most ambitiously “alive” open worlds in titles such as Grand Theft Auto, though for a reason: Spider-Man is able to fluidly web-swing up, down, and across the sides of skyscrapers in the game’s version of New York City, sometimes displaying dozens of buildings at a time. While the streets aren’t as populated as they might otherwise be, you’ll still get the chance to sprint through and leap over lines of cars, and see Spider-Man twisting effortlessly in the wind as he shoots lines of webbing into the air.
It’s because of the graphics engine that the Amazing Spider-Man manages to feel fun and interesting, even when you’re just moving around the Manhattan skyline: you won’t be daunted by the prospect of climbing a building to find spider point icons, somehow grabbing onto a zeppelin, or otherwise getting from one place to the next. A map screen can be used to guide you to destinations, with nicely newspaper-themed mission graphics and intermissions to break up the action. Gameloft uses a DNA-inspired power-up system to let you upgrade Spider-Man’s fighting, defensive, web slinging, and experience characteristics as you complete missions, and keeps the plot moving through early fights with gangs to positive and negative encounters with Dr. Curt Connors, who later becomes The Lizard. While the voice acting and writing border on camp, they’re true to the tone of Spider-Man comics, while bringing you into contact with the latest movie’s characters and themes.
The biggest issue in The Amazing Spider-Man is that the meat of the gameplay—the fights with street toughs and bosses—doesn’t feel like it has evolved much beyond mid-1980’s brawlers such as Double Dragon or Golden Axe. You hit a bunch of virtual buttons to punch, kick, shoot webbing, and launch special attacks, all extremely familiar from Total Mayhem, but there’s very little depth or sense of precision control in the fights. While the game skillfully uses camera shifts and perspective-shifting motion blurs to keep the action interesting, the effects feel like lacquer atop less than valuable base material. Gameloft breaks things up by introducing alternate activities, such as riding a metal sled behind a car, doing stunts in photographs, and boss fights, but there’s an underlying sense that the game is just a little too shallow for the engine that powers it. Still, there’s so much to do here that The Amazing Spider-Man generally justifies its $7 asking price; hopefully Gameloft will revisit this game with a sequel that ups the ante in the gameplay department. iLounge Rating: B+.
While it would be easy to simply write off Gameloft’s new Asphalt 7: Heat ($1) as “just another sequel” in the company’s long-running arcade-style driving franchise, two factors weigh against that: the shockingly low asking price and the fact that it is indeed an improvement upon its predecessors. Now wonderfully distributed as a single universal app with support for iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, Asphalt 7 includes 15 different tracks and 60 cars, all at least a little better-looking than what was featured in the last Asphalt game—and some of what’s here is actually better.
Sure, the expected licensed cars are in here from major manufacturers, but once you spot the early, unexpected presence of the classic DeLorean DMC-12, RUF-customized Porsches, and multiple exotic models from Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Pagani—all beautifully rendered with reflections, appropriate curves, and textures—you’ll be glad that Gameloft wisely offers vehicles both for repeated “sale” use and limited “rent” at lower in-game currency prices, both achievable without making in-app purchases. There’s a lot of fun to be had here just unlocking new cars, even apart from the on-track action, which is very similar to past Asphalt titles: multi-car races, Burnout-style takedown events, and time trials are alternated to break up the action. Better yet, tighter controls and improved camera work make the driving easy to enjoy without any need for settings customization.
As a sequel, it’s no huge surprise that the events, tracks, music, and sound effects all feel very familiar—techno-ish songs with a female commentator and engine noises as the dominant audio, paired with backgrounds that flip from semi-realistic to neon-glowing as you activate turbo thrusters. But the artwork has improved, complete with superior lighting effects and frame rates that make tracks such as Shanghai, China feel for the first time like Namco’s classic Ridge Racer games, while the Havana track could as easily come from a Sega racing title such as Outrunners or Sega Rally. Combined with neat car animations such as bursts of blue lightning that roll off the hood when you touch a speed boost power-up, and the continued presence of glowing icons for collectible cash and nitro, Asphalt 7 feels like a more realized version of what the last two titles had hoped to pull off.
Is Asphalt 7 as huge of a release as, say, the more dramatically overhauled N.O.V.A. 3? On an absolute basis, no, but for only $1, the answer’s yes. As a universal app with a ton of great tracks and cars, good audio, and solid controls, Asphalt 7 is the best release yet in the family, and certainly worth grabbing if you’re a racing game fan. It wouldn’t hurt Gameloft to make bigger changes to the samey gameplay in the next edition, but this version delivers exactly the sort of improvements that fans of the series were hoping for after Asphalt 6, at a crazy low price. It comes highly recommended. iLounge Rating: A-.
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