Review: Gameloft S.A. Terminator Salvation
In a theater, the upcoming movie Terminator Salvation runs for 130 minutes. By comparison, Gameloft's new iPhone and iPod touch video game version of Terminator Salvation ($10) took us only 90 minutes to complete. If you don't have all the information you need right now to make a decision as to whether to give this new licensed title a try, read on; even as fans of the Terminator series, our view is that this far too brief game really needed more work to be worthy of its premium asking price.
Though fans of the Terminator series have argued for years over which of the films is the best, and whether subsequent directors Jonathan Mostow (T3: Rise of the Machines) or McG (Terminator Salvation) were up to the challenge of continuing James Cameron’s original story, we’ll say this: we love the Terminator movies, enjoyed T3, and as admirers of both McG’s and Christian Bale’s prior work, can’t wait to see Salvation. Some might scoff at the content of these films—namely, the apocalyptic menace of a self-aware global computer network called Skynet and its human-killing, time-traveling robots—but we’ve found them to be extremely entertaining. So have video game makers: Acclaim, Midway, Atari, and others have for years made games focusing on the “future war” between surviving humans and the robots, despite the modest presence of actual footage of this war in the films.
Armed with an actual movie that focuses on this war, Gameloft has vaguely traced the path of hero John Conner through a number of events in the film: sieges of the human survivors in burnt-out cities, attempts by the resistance to destroy Skynet human-harvesting robots, and eventually a full-out assault on Skynet’s main base. You’re also briefly placed in the role of Marcus Wright, a cyborg created from the skin and mind of a human prisoner, though neither his backstory nor most of the film’s finer points are discussed in any detail within the eight-level game. For better or worse, there’s no film footage to be watched—including at the extremely anti-climactic end of the game—and the cutscenes are mostly cinematic pans through the 3-D levels you’re about to enter, overlaid with on-screen text. Voices are extremely sparing, with no obvious voice samples from the movie’s stars.
Other than the game’s brevity, these are the only major issues with what’s otherwise a pretty impressive third-person running and shooting title. You’re given an on-screen joypad and single firing button to use in controlling Connor or Wright as they run from checkpoint to checkpoint in the stages, and need to swipe the screen to turn your head and feet in different directions. Borrowed from Gameloft’s earlier Brothers in Arms, this control scheme and the surrounding graphics engine work quite well together, though you’re given less to do in Terminator: you still can and must duck for cover behind barriers when you’re under attack, but you’re limited to four primary weapons throughout the game—machine and shotguns, a grenade launcher, and an electrical surge cannon—with no hand-held grenades to toss, sniper rifles, or bazooka rounds to worry about. Once in a while, you’ll come across a stationary cannon mounted at the edge of a building or in a battlefield, but the play mechanic remains identical: just point and shoot at targets without changing perspectives or firing arcs. In later levels, you need to avoid ground-based proximity mines and flickering laser beams mounted on walls and ceilings, as well.
To Gameloft’s considerable credit, aiming and overall game control here are so straightforward that the only room for frustration is in your own infrequently poor performance. Accommodating the iPhone’s inherent control limitations, Terminator Salvation has a smart lock-on targeting system that lets you point generally in the right direction and take out robots rather than having to achieve pixel-perfect aim with the touchscreen. Where appropriate, it glides from one truly nearby target to the next, but it does make you adjust for other targets, of which there are always plenty. Between spider-like explosive robots, walking terminators of various types, and flying Hunter-Killer-like crafts, there’s never a shortage of things to shoot, and two levels place you in control of a jeep and a motorcycle to keep things interesting. While the jeep level is pretty well done, the motorcycle stage is a quickly beaten mess of targeting and scenery, and feels as if it wasn’t quite finished before the game was released.
Perhaps the single most impressive element of Terminator Salvation is the performance of its graphics engine. Though the game does have frame rate hiccups, which often correlate with iPhone background tasks, it almost always presents truly great 3-D worlds and at least acceptable characters to populate them. Gameloft’s renditions of varied apocalyptic backdrops are surprisingly rounded and detailed rather than jaggy or sparse, colored with deliberate and movie-like bleak tones, and populated with smoke clouds, flames, and enough robot hiding places that you’ll feel on the edge while you’re playing. Apart from the absence of voice acting, the cinematic music and slightly spine-chilling sound effects really work well together, too. These are really well-developed levels, at least, aesthetically.
But unlike some of the other $10 iPhone titles we’ve played recently, Terminator Salvation has very little lasting power—too little to justify a price of this sort. Levels are merely based on simple move from place to place and shoot objectives, with only modestly more depth than Midway’s simple but awesome 1991 Terminator 2 arcade game. As noted in the introduction, we beat Salvation on its normal difficulty level in an hour and a half, finding that the “rewards” were the option to replay the game on a higher difficulty mode or with the body of a terminator, albeit with unchanged dialog, and to replay the game’s very simplistic “hacking” mini-game. These aren’t especially compelling options; we would have been much more satisfied had the game’s levels been considerably more dense and populated with more varied challenges.
While it’s obvious that a lot of development effort went into this title, it’s equally apparent that designing a game that can be whipped through so quickly isn’t the best use of the considerable visual and sonic assets that were brought to bear here. iPhone game developers hoping to charge premium prices for their titles would be well-served to learn a lesson from Terminator Salvation: no matter how impressive the license, the engine, and the level designs, if there’s not enough to do, the only people you’ll satisfy are hard core fans with extra cash to burn. And then, even as fans, we wouldn’t spend $10 for a game as short as this. If it falls considerably in price, and you’re willing to buy something with only a couple of hours of play time, you might want to give it a look.