Review: Ngmoco Eliminate: CO-OP
We love first-person shooters, and used to be huge fans of video arcades -- places where quarters bought three- or five-minute sessions on the latest and greatest game hardware, housed in wooden cabinets. But as home consoles caught up with arcade machines, game developers and players shifted their attention to games that could be bought once and enjoyed without quarters. Yet certain companies have tried to find ways to revive the pay-as-you-play arcade pricing model at home, and the "Freemium" system used for Ngmoco's Eliminate: CO-OP (Free*) is as close as we've yet seen on the iPhone. It's a first-person shooter that costs nothing to download, but provides very heavy incentives to keep shoveling money into iTunes to improve your performance -- a concept that just hasn't felt right to us from the day it was first demonstrated. As a consequence of its pricing scheme, Eliminate has focused too much on commerce rather than on advancing the FPS genre forward in any other way.
To be clear, Eliminate could have had it all—a truly great shooting experience and a brilliant microtransaction system—but it’s not quite there; in fact, by first-person shooter standards, it’s an extremely shallow game with art that feels inspired by Rare’s Perfect Dark series. Instead of a full-fledged shooting adventure a la Gameloft’s N.O.V.A. and Modern Combat: Sandstorm, Eliminate is a deathmatch-focused title made for repeated skirmishes against online human or offline computer opponents. You jump by tapping the bottom of the screen, move by swiping the left, turn your head by swiping the right, and shoot by tapping the right; you can also optionally zoom in by pressing a reticule in the center of the screen, and swap weapons by tapping in the upper right corner. These controls don’t feel quite as responsive as in Gameloft’s titles, largely because Ngmoco is trying to leave the screen looking uncluttered by not showing you the buttons you can press.
In addition to dodging and returning gunfire with one or three other people who may be in one of the game’s 10 arenas with you, you try to snag powerups that temporarily restore health, increase speed, cloak you in invisibility, give you a simple jetpack, or improve strength. No weapons are found in the arenas, and given the pace at which you’re generally being shot at—the arenas are designed for offense, not for hiding—you’ll barely have time to switch between guns. Eliminate is all about entering each arena with whatever your best gear is, earning credits by taking down the same few enemies over and over, then leaving with as much energy as possible to continue playing more before having to pay to do so.
It’s obvious that Eliminate started out with greater ambitions. It was originally demonstrated under the name LiveFire at an Apple Event on March 17, 2009, at that point including cooperative human play, a voice chat mode, and controversially, a feature that let a weak player buy a powerful rocket launcher weapon for $1 to have a better chance against experienced players. The former two features were dropped when the game was initially released last November as Eliminate Pro, but the latter feature—the first hint of the game’s eventual pricing structure—was dramatically expanded, and ultimately came to define the entire title. Just released, Eliminate: CO-OP adds back the cooperative human play mode, albeit only as a matchmaking feature before you start a match.
Eliminate uses a semi-funny video to explain its play and pricing structure. You’re supposed to be testing armaments for a weapons company, and either practicing—playing without the ability to earn or lose anything—or active, using up energy while earning credits to buy stuff. Energy and credits are the game’s commerce system, respectively depleting and growing as you play against other human opponents on Ngmoco’s servers. If you don’t have energy, you can only practice. So although entering one of the game’s arenas for an active gunfight causes you to lose energy, you’ll also most likely earn credits that can be used either to buy more equipment or more energy. It’s through this system and a novel trick—free energy recharges every 30 minutes—that Ngmoco deftly avoids accusations of pure arcade-style quarter sucking. If you play well enough to earn credits for energy, or are just willing to sit around waiting for your free recharge, you can keep playing online against human opponents and friends without coughing up cash. Moreover, if you’re willing to just play in practice mode, stuck with whatever gear you already have, you needn’t worry about energy or credits at all. It’s a smart but far from wholesome payment system.
We say that because Eliminate is heavily slanted towards people who are willing to spend money on items: following in the footsteps of games such as Mafia Wars, Ngmoco uses In-App Purchasing to sell energy at various price levels—“packs of 45 power cells” for $2 or “crates of 1150 power cells” for $33—with an initial in-game exchange rate of 15 power cells for 100 credits. You can use the energy to keep playing online—handy if you’re playing with friends and don’t want to tell them to wait 30 minutes for your next recharge—or to buy more interesting weapons than the boring gun and armor you begin with. Unfortunately, at the standard exchange rate, the 450-credit Rocket Launcher initially demonstrated as a $1 purchase in LiveFire actually costs you more than $3 unless you’re willing to play many online games to “earn” it, and again, you won’t find weapons sitting around in any of the arenas, which means that everything from armor to guns to color-swapping character customizations needs to be bought in some way rather than found. To keep the game from being completely dominated by people with more money than sense and skill, Ngmoco only unlocks certain items for purchase after you’ve achieved certain simple “ranks” through playing the game, and offers other items or credits as gifts if you recruit your contacts to download the game.
From Ngmoco’s perspective, apparently, Eliminate is already a success in that these post-download transactions are making the game profitable, but apart from its considerable backend work, we’re frankly not impressed by what it offers. Putting aside that backend, which near-seamlessly handles matchmaking, the microtransactions, and additional downloadable content that can enhance the game—each very impressive, though with occasional bugs that prevent people from pairing up or promised credit bonuses from coming through—the front facing game needs work. Its core is a sub-Nintendo 64-quality 3-D engine that fails to rise to the level of N.O.V.A. and other top iPhone titles except in its frame rate, which is solid enough to accommodate four players at once, presenting their actions without obvious in-game lag. Sonically, Eliminate is a disappointment, offering no in-game music, and sound effects that are simultaneously too simple and extremely repetitive. It feels like it was built with the expectation of background voice chat, a feature that ultimately was either too difficult to accommodate with bandwidth, or too problematic in terms of content.
Rather than populating the game’s 3-D engine with challenging or huge single-player maps, Ngmoco’s multi-player arenas are only decent—each with one interesting twist, such as a big central elevator, an underground waste pit to slog through, or a set of trap doors—and depend almost entirely on the constant exchange of gunfire between human and computerized opponents to keep from feeling stale. Eliminate CO-OP improves on this only to the extent that you can play both cooperatively and competitively with a friend, including 3-minute team-ups against waves of robot drones, but even then, the only way you know you’re playing with a friend rather than a random person or computerized opponent is if you identify their clothing or see their name appear when they die. Cooperative play doesn’t feel satisfying yet, but perhaps Ngmoco has another update in store that will improve it.
Ultimately, Ngmoco deserves partial credit for Eliminate CO-OP: it has laid the ground work for a solid first-person shooter, and has created a backend that makes multi-player deathmatching simple and largely seamless. But unlike its earlier “premium” games such as Rolando, which largely justified their atypically high price tags, Eliminate feels like it was structured to make relaxed, play-at-your-chosen pace gameplay impossible unless you’re willing to keep doing In-App transactions or uncomfortably shifting between “practice” and active play sessions on the game’s timer. This business model may work for Ngmoco, and some players may be willing to embrace it by buying in; all we can say at this point is that we’re unenthusiastic about the concept, and unlike Rolando and its sequel, wouldn’t pay anything to support it in its current form. A deeper, better game on top of an optional In-App purchasing model might be a different story.