iPhone Gems: Siberian Strike, Cops & Robbers, Metal Gear Solid Touch 2.1, Pandemonium & Shadowland
This week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems is devoted to two types of games—shooters and platformers—with three total genres represented across the eight titles we’re looking at. Two 3-D platforming games are up first, followed by three overhead shooting games, and finally three 3-D shooting gallery titles.
Our picks of the week are Siberian Strike by Gameloft and Cops & Robbers by GLU Mobile, but additional titles such as Metal Gear Solid Touch 2.1 and iFighter Lite might well appeal to you, as well. Read on for all the details on these games and a few others.
It’s obvious at this point that iPhone developers have the ability to create games that rival or exceed the original Sony PlayStation in 3-D polygon counts—a fact that has enabled new and talented developers to create some pretty impressive 3-D games, while emboldening older and more established ones to dust off and transfer their PlayStation titles into iPhone format. Cops & Robbers ($3) by GLU Games and Pandemonium ($5) by Electronic Arts/Crystal Dynamics are examples, respectively, of each of these phenomena in practice: Cops & Robbers is an original title, while Pandemonium comes straight from the old PlayStation. Both are technically “2.5D platformers” in that, unlike the truly 3-D Super Mario 64 and its successors, these games are basically 2-D platformers in terms of gameplay, but use 3-D environments and shifting cameras to make you feel like you’re in deeper, richer worlds.
Like IUGO Mobile’s earlier Shaky Summit, Cops & Robbers places you in the role of a character who is pushed automatically by the game to run either left, right, up, or down through environments that have been layered with obstacles to jump over, jump onto, or slide under, along with dangerous rivals to avoid. In the main game mode, you control a “robber” who is locked out of his or her own home by the mob, and must find nine diamonds scattered throughout the game’s urban-themed levels to get back in. The robber is constantly pursued by cops, who catch up with him if he stumbles too much in completing the level. Every completed level unlocks cop mode, which lets you race your cop through the same obstacle course, and “win” if the cop beats a ghost image of the robber to the end.
What GLU has accomplished with this title is actually pretty impressive. The levels are mostly jumping and dodging exercises with a linear, fixed camera path through obstacles, but the camera turns 90 degrees from section to section so that you feel like you’re rounding corners while fleeing the cops or chasing criminals. In retrieving diamonds from glowing building windows, you’ll find yourself wall-jumping to scale up pipes—some of which break in later levels—playing safe-cracking mini-games to secure them, and sometimes having to hunt on alternate paths to even locate the safes in the first place. Buildings, your characters, and the mix of bumbling cops, angry old ladies, and guys with cop-hating dogs aren’t amazingly modeled, but they all look pretty good considering the platform.
If Cops & Robbers has any major flaws, they’d be the simplicity of the gameplay and some clunkiness in the execution. This is clearly a casual game with streamlined action, and beyond your ability to go back through the levels as a cop or your need to go back through to find missed diamonds, it doesn’t have the sort of depth console players might be expecting. Additionally, there are some interface issues—the presence of what looks to be a frame rate meter at the top of the screen, the appearance of gameplay-inhibiting bars on the sides of the screen as cops close in, and a little roughness in judging jumps and movement—that take away a little bit from the title. But for the asking price, there’s enough to do and see here that most people will be impressed; hopefully future updates will smooth out some of the rough edges and make Cops & Robbers even more of a steal. iLounge Rating: B+.
There’s no question that Pandemonium is the more ambitious of these titles in concept, but as a PlayStation port, it’s also less impressively executed. Here, you control either a male jester or a female wizard as they run through 18 multi-stage levels filled with floors, hovering platforms, and bounce pads to interact with, treasures to collect, and enemies to either squash or avoid. There are multiple paths through some of the levels, lots of things to kill and be killed by, and a slower but otherwise Sonic the Hedgehog-like approach to gameplay: keep collecting items and moving to the right and you’ll eventually complete the level. Boss characters emerge every six stages, as well.
Unlike Cops & Robbers, which fixes its camera on straight lines, Pandemonium delights in running its camera on curves, then pivoting it onto interestingly forced perspectives. Its worlds, objects, and paths look rounded—often like viewing things through a wideangle lens—and pretty well-textured, all things considered. The single best part of the game is seeing what the designers came up with for the various worlds, and how they’ve presented them. There’s also a fairly streamlined control system to interact with everything: forward, back, and down buttons, plus a camera zoom in or out toggle, and either two or three control buttons depending on which character you select. The jester has only a single jump but two attacks—a projectile and a spin move—while the wizard has a double jump that lets her reach greater heights and more of the alternate paths.
Though we were huge fans of the original developer Crystal Dynamics back when this game was released, and really respected what it accomplished with the graphics engine, the problem with Pandemonium is that we never found it to be fun—that hasn’t changed here. Yes, there are large levels to explore, and yes, there are occasional moments where they’re impressive, but between the bland sound effects and music, the floaty and less than completely responsive controls, and the somewhat weird theme, Pandemonium doesn’t really engage or excite so much as it ticks off the boxes. That’s how it was back on the PlayStation years ago, and it’s only because of the lack of great 3-D platformers on the iPhone OS that it is even worth considering for some people today. That having been said, when the $5 price and its longevity are taken into account, it’s not a bad game: fans of the platform genre looking for something to keep them engaged for 10 hours may want to consider it anyway. iLounge Rating: B-.
We were genuinely impressed back in March by the $1 overhead shooting game Sky Force Reloaded, and though Gameloft’s new $6 title Siberian Strike is more expensive, it’s also an impressively well-executed upgrade on many levels. Taking inspiration from Capcom’s classic 1942 series, which placed you in control of a lone airplane flying through stage after stage of enemy warplanes, tanks, and aircraft carriers, Siberian Strike adds 3-D graphics, a little humor, and a surprising two-player simultaneous Wi-Fi mode to the mix—a combination of features that justify the higher asking price.
We quickly warmed to Strike’s opening, which uses World War II-style film footage to hook you into a deliberately bizarre explanation of how you’re facing off against the army of Stalinbot, a genetically engineered cross-breed between Soviet leader “Stalin and the future Mir Space Station;” cut scenes throughout the game offer cartoony still images and dialogue that’s in a similar vein. They break up two types of gameplay, consisting primarily of stages where you try to shoot down waves of vintage airplanes and land-based targets with a gun that always shoots straight and can be powered up for wider firing, or temporarily switched into electricity, flamethrower, energy wave, or triple plane modes to expand its capabilities. Boss encounters await after almost every one of these stages. In a second mode, the game places you in a 3-D third-person perspective to maneuver the plane through canyons and enemy bases, dodging fixed and collapsing obstacles while occasionally firing off missiles at locked-on targets. This mode is challenging but not as fun as the overhead shooting, which requires constant movement, shooting, and icon-grabbing to keep your three lifebar plane from crashing and burning. Both modes and the cut-scenes make great use of the 3-D plane and background art Gameloft has developed for the title—and there’s a lot of it spread across the various stages—while the music and sound effects are entirely appropriate, though not memorable.
Having played Siberian Strike from start to end, we really don’t have any major complaints about the title save for the control, which isn’t all that bad. You can swipe your plane to move it around, and as long as your finger’s on the screen, you’re shooting; putting a second finger on the screen charges up a powerful shot, and tapping on one of the limited number of smart bombs in the bottom left corner of the screen results in a powerful but not too powerful screen-filling explosion. Unlike many games of this type, two of these bombs won’t take out an entire boss, and there are times when they barely even seem to make a dent. Our complaint about the control is simply that the game’s targets are so numerous and overwhelming that the charged shot is almost impossible to really use throughout the game while you’re moving around and dodging enemies, at least in single player mode. In multiplayer Wi-Fi mode, one person can clear many of the planes while the other concentrates on powerful shots, or due to the frequently two- or three-screen width of the play area, both people can fly at the same time without even seeing each other. This is a very fun, engaging title for five or so hours of continuous single-player time, with additional longevity to be squeezed out from higher difficulty levels and multiplayer. It’s highly recommended. iLounge Rating: A-.
Unrated for the time being is iFighter Lite (Free) from EpicForce, which could be easily described as Siberian Strike without any of the 3-D artwork. Again, the theme is you-versus-World War II vintage aircraft from an overhead perspective, starting your plane with a very limited peashooter and bringing it up in width, then auxiliary support from assisting planes. What we really like about iFighter Lite is the utter smoothness of the visual action, which thanks to its simpler 2-D engine focuses on special effects and fluid motion of the aircrafts; by default, you control your auto-firing plane through tilts of the iPhone and have a similar smart bomb feature. As with Siberian Strike, you can switch control schemes if you prefer on-screen touching, instead.
We’re not quite sure, however, how the full version of iFighter will turn out. In Lite, there’s no in-game music—just a tune that plays when you’ve finished the single included stage—and while the enemies move around, there’s not much happening in the backgrounds safe for shadow effects and explosions. For now, this is a nice enough free title to try out, but we’re going to hold off on rating it until we can see how well it represents the final version of the game. iLounge Rating: NR.
Last of these titles this week is Galaktagon ($1) from Digital Pocket, a deliberately retro overhead shooter that we would normally have included in the Weird and Small Apps column but for the presence of the other two shooters above. The basic idea here is that the developer has heavily pushed the concept of a “retro” shooter, to the point of developing a completely black and white game with deliberately chunky, ugly sprites and a very simple starfield backdrop. You control a ship that can be moved anywhere on the screen with touch controls, attempting to grab shields and an auto-fire weapon that each last for 10 seconds. You fire on waves of enemies, which moves you on to the next stage where there’s more of the same, and ultimately a boss encounter against a bigger, chunkier enemy. Old-fashioned chip-style music with voice samples plays in the background as you’re shooting.
Though there’s a vocal crowd of retro gamers out there that’s willing to embrace and in some cases even celebrate titles like this one, we found Galaktagon really hard to like. There’s something inherently dissatisfying about both the touch interface and the gameplay, the former never providing as precise a sense of control as you need when moving horizontally, and the latter constantly depriving you of the autofiring you’ll enjoy as an alternative to the otherwise required repeated tapping on the screen for firing. Similarly, the purely black and white art does little more than demonstrate why colors—even greyscales—are comparatively useful for indicating everything from power-up icons to explosions. Here, everything melds together in a mess of white pixels, making it hard to just intuitively sweep over to a floating power up or know whether you’re dodging a dangerous alien ship or its broken up debris. As nice as retro games can sometimes be, Galaktagon just makes us glad for how far we’ve come, and how much better there is on this platform even for a dollar. iLounge Rating: D.
Having tried a number of different shooting games for the iPhone, and hundreds on other platforms, it’s pretty obvious at this point what differentiates a good sniper game from a bad one. Despite a very smart initial idea—release a prologue game in the form of Shadowland: The Sniper (Free), then a full version in Shadowland: Shades of Black ($1)—R-U-ON has managed to come up with two sniper titles that we actively wanted to put down and never play again.
Both titles put you in control of a sniper rifle sight that lets you see thin crosshairs and a partial view of a photorealistic scene. You use the iPhone’s accelerometer to tilt the rifle up, down, left, and right to point at targets, and then put your finger at the top of an on-screen trigger, swiping to squeeze off each shot. Kickback from the rifle forces you to re-acquire your next target manually after each shot, and audio feedback from a radio-based narrator gives you hints as to where you should be looking on each of the seven maps—one in the prologue, six in the full game.
We could go into the issues here at length, but they come down to three major things: control, bland presentation, and lack of frills. The accelerometer’s calibration was really sketchy in our testing, and we constantly found ourselves having to tilt the iPhone onto odd angles to try and reach the edges of the map, worse yet having to hold it perfectly steady in unusual positions to keep the pixel-sized crosshair steady for shots. Squeezing the trigger isn’t fun, either, and seeing targets pop in out of nowhere without real animation recalled some of the earlier, crappy sniper games we tried and disliked months ago. This is compounded by other annoyances—you die instantly if you’re shot, which happens frequently, as audio cues suggest you need to figure out which target to shoot first to avoid being taken out too quickly. That’s supposed to be determined from tiny, poor-looking targets who can’t be zoomed in on or in many cases discerned from the backdrops. While the audio portion’s actually pretty good, and the developer obviously knows how to come up with a smart way to link its free and paid versions, both versions of Shadowland need better controls and more impressive targets before they’ll be more than interesting tech demos. iLounge Ratings (Both): D+.
The last of this week’s titles is an update to Konami’s Metal Gear Solid Touch ($8), which we previously reviewed in its 1.0 incarnation. While we’re not fully re-reviewing this title, we wanted to spotlight it and modestly bump its rating based on the very significant changes that were made to its 2.0 release: Konami has added an additional eight stages to the original 12, bringing the total up to 20, and has made tweaks to both the gameplay and the extras included in the title. Version 2.1 added additional wallpaper artwork to the title, as well.
As noted in our prior review, Metal Gear Solid Touch is a relatively simple shooting gallery title that places your character, Snake, behind semi-protective objects inside of non-moving widescreen stages. You can hide somewhat behind those objects to preserve your lifebar, but need to pop up to fire your gun, and most of the time, you need to be exposed and shooting. You use a pinch gesture to alternate between moving a cursor and tapping to take out targets anywhere on the screen, and a sniper mode where you move a limited-screen sight and taps to take out distant targets in specific areas of the screen. Colorful animal icons pop up to let you regain health or change to a more powerful weapon; you shoot them to receive an instant upgrade. Points you rack up can be used to unlock the aforementioned wallpaper artwork.
While Metal Gear Solid Touch remains a very simple and somewhat unfulfilling shooting title given its $8 price, it’s buoyed somewhat by the number of stages and the increasing challenge they bring, including new later stages where simple tap shooting isn’t enough. From our perspective, Konami has added enough art content to the core game at this point; what it really needs to address is the lack of point-and-shoot immediacy and the shallowness of the gameplay, which are both entirely different from the acclaimed Metal Gear series that preceded this title. The assets are in place to make Metal Gear Solid Touch a truly great game, but it would really benefit from more responsive controls and additional weaponry. iLounge Rating: B.
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