Review: Gameloft BackStab
In one critical and laudable way, the new 3-D action adventure game BackStab ($7, version 1.0.0) represents a major step forward for leading App Store game developer Gameloft: it is the first truly universal iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch game we can recall from this company, which previously sold "HD" and non-HD versions of its past games for separate devices. We are truly thrilled by the fact that BackStab works on iPhone 3GS/4s, iPod touch 3G/4Gs, and iPads at whatever their maximum resolutions are, and really does a great job of spotlighting the different devices' graphics processors and screens. BackStab isn't quite as ambitious visually as Infinity Blade, but moving away from device-specific game releases is a big step for Gameloft to have taken, and deserves praise.
Apart from its universal iOS support, though, BackStab is otherwise pretty much the definition of a “solid” game, and cut from the same sort of good rather than great cloth we’ve seen in other Gameloft titles over the past year or so. You take control of Henry Blake, a British naval officer whose seeming friendship with fellow Captain Kane is ended with a double-cross during a violent raid of a city. Blake is knocked out and imprisoned, then told that his fiancee has been killed. This narrative occurs during some of the game’s many dark-themed dialogue scenes, which at times come nearly as close as possible to R-rated language. You need to help Blake escape from prison and take vengeance on Kane, using a virtual joystick to make Blake run and climb, screen swipes to change camera angles, and virtual buttons for attacks and jumps. Costume changes are surprisingly common as your character devolves from military man to convict, then evolves from convict back to hero.
Much of the action in BackStab feels as if it was borrowed from the company’s earlier and better Shadow Guardian, albeit with 18th Century British/Caribbean wrapping paper and a more swordplay-heavy slant. Though you’re given ample and occasionally quite impressive opportunities to scale walls, jump from rooftop to rooftop in cities, and explore large environments—all handled with nearly great controls and a pretty impressive combination of intensity and directional guidance—the meat of the game is in fairly repetitive and uninspired melee fights with villains, in which you’re occasionally challenged to draw and aim a gun or hit another virtual button for a particularly deadly move. BackStab is structured with recharging health and unlimited lives, removing any sense of peril, and between infrequent camera glitches and obviously canned dialogue, you’ll soon find yourself hoping for something to actually surprise you.
Gameloft occasionally rises to that challenge, but not quite as well as it has in its best iOS titles. You’re given intermittent control over a cannon to blast at enemy ships or blow out a rock wall, constantly plied with gold pieces and tame weapon upgrades, and offered the opportunity to engage in brief sub-missions within the game’s four city maps—initially just rescuing people for cash rewards, but later moving on to the bizarre spectacles of fighting a gang, then a pack of wolves and a bear, then even zombies in an arena. Despite these little twists, which are admittedly challenging, the action isn’t incredibly compelling; rather, the game’s keeping you busy as you move through the storyline, and giving you the chance to extend the experience so that you can appreciate the levels from different angles.
It’s to the company’s credit that the colonial-era explosions, warships, and island backdrops are rendered as well as they are, and that there’s so much dialogue and a full soundtrack to keep the game sonically interesting, even if the animations and facial expressions of characters are somewhat zombie-like—regardless of whether you’re fighting zombies. Moreover, Gameloft uses a nice lighting system that naturally progresses from day to afternoon to night, illuminating scenes with realistic colors and limiting your vision as sunlight gives way to darkness.
Some of the title’s mid-game expansions of the theme work better than others. When you’re finally turned loose to start shopping for new items in a city, you begin to realize that there are more ways to slay opponents—grenade-like bombs, superior swords, and the like—than you might first have thought, but common rewards for fighting and rescuing people leave you with little cash to buy anything of great value. The opportunity to snag a horse and ride it around a city at higher speeds runs into camera issues, and a Grand Theft Auto-style use of a wanted meter with safehouses puts you in a situation where you may wonder whether Blake is really supposed to be a hero or a villain; a low point in the action actually sees Blake tasked with rounding up animals for a meal. With some additional polish and storyline, these elements might have made for a more morally intriguing adventure game, but they come across as a little unfinished, and as such, Blake sort of shoves his way through the levels from the very beginning and despite his plight, doesn’t really come across as likable.
On the whole, BackStab is an above-par adventure title that relies heavily on its aesthetics and theme to justify its $7 price tag—a game that raises some interesting questions about where Gameloft and the App Store will go from here. BackStab looks and sounds like a PlayStation 2 game, but at its core, the action feels as if it evolved upwards from the mobile gaming world rather than downwards from a console title. It remains to be seen whether this developer, which is surely one of the iPad’s, iPhone’s, and iPod touch’s very best, will aspire to make its next generation of games feel as deep as the PlayStation-caliber Shadow Guardian, or leave them in some middle state that’s better than a typical cell phone title but not quite as fully developed as a console release. BackStab would have merited a B on its overall merits, but our B+ rating includes a bump for its universal support and ambition.