Review: Gameloft Modern Combat: Sandstorm
While we're not going to say that Gameloft's Modern Combat: Sandstorm ($7) is the perfect first-person iPhone and iPod touch shooter, we will say this: it is so remarkably well-developed that you won't believe that you're playing an iPhone game. In a year that has seen Gameloft turn out any number of titles that might qualify as potential "Game of the Year" award recipients, Modern Combat is thus far its best effort -- a title that combines its best 3-D graphics engine and controls with a compelling, handheld console-quality 10-stage army-themed shooting adventure. Substantially better than its earlier Brothers in Arms, it shows that the company learns from its prior mistakes, and far more quickly than its rivals. We don't say this kind of thing often, but if you're a fan of first-person shooters and don't play this game, you're going to be missing out.
For the most part, Modern Combat places you on foot in the middle of Persian Gulf-style battlegrounds, intuitively using on-screen swipes to turn your head, a bottom-left joystick to move your body, and a reasonably designed auto-aiming system to help you target the many enemy soldiers who appear around you. As indicated by a targeting reticule that changes from yellow to red in color, auto-aim enables you to target and hit whomever you’re generally pointing at, but Gameloft uses a more complex scheme to determine the strength of hits based on how precisely you’re pointed at a given target: if you’re straight on, and have taken the time to either target a head or use your bottom-right scope to take your shot, you can drop someone with one or two bullets, but if you don’t, four, five, or even more shots may be necessary depending on their distance and your straight-on or off-angle position. All of this discussion may seem technical and unnecessary, but it’s the key to making Modern Combat work: even on Novice level difficulty, your enemies aren’t paper targets or pushovers—except during an initial tutorial level—and when you’re in the middle of a firefight, you’re actually forced to use as much precision as you can muster under the circumstances.
Then, Gameloft changes everything up. Initially, you switch off easily between a submachine gun, shotgun, grenade, and melee weapon, taking out individual mid- and distant targets with the first, nearby targets with the second, clusters of distant targets with the third, and smacking people right up close with your rifle; each weapon is given an opportunity to shine by the end of the second level. Soon thereafter, you find yourself wielding a rocket propelled grenade launcher, a sniper rifle, or a machine gun mounted either in a sandbagged position or on a vehicle. Suddenly, you’re mowing down enemies en masse, shooting with greater precision at targets on the other side of a large room, or trying to keep up with the twists and turns of a moving armored vehicle as it’s surrounded by waves of dangerous people. If there’s anything missing from the formula, it’s the presence of boss-like characters, but there’s enough else to do that you most likely won’t mind.
Visually, Modern Combat is unquestionably one of the strongest titles ever seen on the iPhone and iPod touch, doing nearly as much for the first-person shooting genre as Real Racing did for driving. Besides the fact that Gameloft has modeled everything from cities to sewers and subterranean lairs with a far superior level of detail to what virtually any other developer has accomplished on the platform—only Gameloft’s own prior titles such as Assassin’s Creed and Terminator Salvation come to mind as rivals—it has gifted this title with a bobbing, off-angled camera that occasionally comes into play during brief cinematic pans and cut scenes, presenting the levels from perspectives that show them off and draw you in. Enemies look similar to each other, but vary enough not to matter, and the special effects keep the levels interesting. Grenades produce smoke clouds, flash grenades bursts of light, and the occasional presence of an overflying helicopter or rumbling tank breaks up the visuals, too. Later stages include some cool lights and textures, making the early levels seem comparatively forgettable, which is saying something given how well-designed they are.
Gameloft also deserves added praise for Modern Combat’s audio. The game isn’t sparing in its use of voice samples, which dot the stages and fill the intermissions, nor in its inclusion of music, sound effects, and audio tricks. Under heavy fire, speech slows down as time slows down, giving you the chance to hear the warning “rocket propelled grenade” in a drawl right before someone launches one at you. Music, though a little repetitive, plays almost continuously in the game to keep the excitement level up, rather than leaving you in silence during the action. There are moments when the sound isn’t completely fantastic, but there are far more when it’s way, way above par for the iPhone and iPod touch.
Normally, we like to use a part of each full review to note things that haven’t been done well and need to be fixed, but in all honesty, Modern Combat doesn’t have many. Its controls are spot-on, there were no significant experience-impacting bugs during our play sessions, and everything that was attempted was done well. The single most serious issue we had with the game was that its levels are designed with mid-level checkpoints that serve only as continue points while the app remains open; Gameloft starts you again at the beginning of the level whenever the app is quit and reopened. There are surely reasons for this, perhaps to extend the game’s longevity or to avoid some bugs resulting from mid-level resumes, but the impact was that we’d put the game down during a level, come back, and then had to replay it completely from scratch. Consequently, it’s hard to recommend Modern Combat to people who can play only in five-minute stretches; rather, this is a game for those with 15-20-minute blocks of time to fully complete levels, and then, you should expect to need around 10 of those blocks—three or four hours—in order to complete the game the first time.
That modest longevity would normally be something that would concern us, however, Modern Combat’s price and additional difficulty levels provide what we consider to be reasonable incentives not to care. Having actually replayed the same level a few times, we can say that it’s fun to do so, as you begin to improve your skills and learn how to really maximize your performance in a given stage. Gameloft could have made the levels a little more open, or packed them with secret unlockable rooms to incentivize exploration, but given the game’s shooting-heavy focus, this wasn’t strictly necessary. It would help in a sequel; for now, the promise of an added multiplayer mode for this game—currently unrealized but apparently forthcoming in an update—is genuinely tantalizing. As-is, the game presents you with teammates who start out fairly useless (“you go on up ahead, we’ll be right behind you”), but later evolve into somewhat more worthwhile companions. It would be great to see other players controlling them in a cooperative mode, and stages cordoned off for competitive modes, as well.
Overall, Modern Combat is one of the most important iPhone and iPod touch games of 2009: a title that serves as an end-to-end showcase of the platform’s sonic and 3-D graphics capabilities, virtual controls, and value for the dollar; there’s no $7 title we’ve yet seen that compares with the overall quality of experience Gameloft has delivered here. While you shouldn’t expect the storyline, nuances, or mind-blowing special effects of a full console-quality Call of Duty 4, what you will find here is a first-person shooting experience that handily surpasses any prior genre release in the App Store, and leaves you hungry for more. Fans of military-themed shooters shouldn’t hesitate on this one; it’s very highly recommended, and we can’t wait to see what Gameloft does with future installments in the series.