Review: Gameloft Starfront: Collision
Starfront: Collision ($7) represents Gameloft's most recent entry into the genre of real-time strategy gaming on the iOS platform, with a theme and user interface that fans of mainstream real-time strategy (RTS) games such as Starcraft 2 will find very familiar. Using mechanics and strategy that are typical of any RTS game, the player takes on the role of one of three factions vying for control of rare Xenodium crystals on the planet Sinistral. Players build facilities to mine resources and energy as in-game "currency" to build additional structures, train units, and research improvements to structures and units; combat units are trained and deployed to defend the players' own base, and wage attacks against the enemy factions.
Following in the steps of freemium titles from other companies, Starfront: Collision is available as a free download from the App Store in a ‘lite’ introductory version that includes a tutorial and one initial campaign mission to give players a feel for the game. The full version can then be unlocked as a $7 in-app purchase to provide access to the full set of 18 campaign missions, single-player skirmish mode, and a local or online multiplayer mode for up to four players.
The Campaign mode consists of seventeen missions, during which players take on the role of each of the three major factions fighting for control of Sinistral. You begin as the Consortium, a human conglomerate that has recently begun Xenodium mining operations on Sinistral. After a series of eight Consortium missions, you then take on the role of the Myriad, an indigenous alien race fighting to prevent the Consortium from plundering the resources on their home world, and finally play as the Wardens, a sentient robot race trying to turn the war in its own favor. Beyond the initial four tutorial missions, the Campaign mode includes a total of seventeen different scenarios: eight as the Consortium, five as the Myriad and four as the Wardens. Each faction has unique buildings, units and abilities, providing for a varied game play experience as players move through the campaign.
The game also provides a quick Skirmish mode where players can choose from one of seven different game maps and choose which of the three races to play as and play against, with the objective of simply taking out the opposing faction. Multiplayer modes follow a similar vein, with up to four players competing online or locally on the same Wi-Fi network, and five different multiplayer maps to choose from. It’s worth noting that Starfront: Collision does not provide any integration with Apple’s Game Center, instead leveraging Gameloft’s own “Gameloft Live” service for multiplayer online gaming and achievement tracking.
Starfront provides relatively intuitive control options and a quick set of tutorial missions to get players started. In the default mode, players pan the in-game view by tapping and dragging, and use a pinch gesture to select multiple units. The second control mode simply reverses this behavior, with a single-finger gesture to draw a unit selection rectangle and a two-finger gesture required to pan the screen. In either mode, units are selected and given movement orders simply by tapping on a unit and on its destination, with single-tap and tap-and-hold gestures differentiating simple movement orders from attack orders. On-screen sidebars and menu buttons provide access to building orders and unit groupings, as well as a slider for zooming the on-screen view. The controls worked very well and were easy to figure out, with the only confusing issue being building placement—when selecting a building for construction, a silhouette must be placed on the map, oddly reversing the panning controls from their usual orientation as the player is dragging the building silhouette as opposed to the screen itself. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gameloft fix this after release.
While the RTS formula in Starfront: Collision is nothing new—some players have accused the game of directly cloning Starcraft 2—what helps distinguish it from other RTS games on the iOS platform is the high-quality presentation and attention to detail. The game takes full advantage of the Retina Display and graphics acceleration capabilities of modern iPhone and iPod touch devices, presenting a series of stunning 3-D-rendered environments, and incredibly smooth graphic performance. If anything, in some cases the screen includes too much information for a 3.5” display, cluttering the screen—particularly in larger battles where a lot of units are involved. Like Starcraft 2, Starfront: Collision includes an epic orchestral soundtrack and voice narration, plus responses from units geared to each faction and playing environment.
Coming in at a whopping installed size of 1.2GB, Starfront: Collision is one of the largest games for the iPhone and iPod touch platform, only slightly larger than Rage HD and N.O.V.A. 2 HD for the iPad. This is compounded somewhat by the fact that it relies on an in-app purchase, which some users feared would require a repurchase after reinstallation. It’s worth mentioning that one-time in-app purchases work in much the same manner as a normal application—users can “re-purchase” an IAP under the same App Store account without being charged again; the only inconvenience is in having to make a one-time server connection to handle the unlocking.
Rating Starfront: Collision is challenging. On one hand, it’s quite possibly the most advanced and impressive real-time strategy game we have seen on the iOS platform thus far, easily rivalling similar console and PC games in gameplay experience and graphic quality and performance. Serious fans of the RTS genre should find Starfront: Collision to be an engaging game experience, with an engaging campaign mode storyline and good re-playability through the skirmish and multiplayer game modes. It also provides the sort of intuitive controls and straightforward gameplay that would enable it to easily appeal to casual RTS gamers as well.
On the other hand, though Starfront: Collision obviously evokes instant comparisons to Starcraft II, it is an inherently scaled-down experience from a PC or console game—it has fewer missions and units available, and feels constrained compared to similar RTS games on PC and console platforms; it is further somewhat debatable whether advanced RTS games are well-suited to a 3.5” screen, even the high-quality Retina Display. Our hope is that Gameloft expands the available content in the future through version updates or in-app purchases, which could take this very good title into “great” territory by broadening its scope. Finding smart ways to reduce the screen clutter further would make for an even better user experience.