Welcome to the latest edition of iOS Gems! Today, we’re reviewing a collection of new games—including some that have been optimized for the third-generation iPad’s high-resolution screen—as well as three non-game apps that have been on our radar screen for some time.
Our top apps of the week are Angry Birds Space and Djay for iPhone/iPod touch, but there are quite a few other titles worthy of your attention in this roundup. Read on for all the details.
There’s no doubt that Angry Birds Space ($1) and Angry Birds Space HD ($3) are the most noteworthy titles of the week, not just because they’re bound to be incredibly popular, but also because they’re the most legitimately fresh sequels Rovio Mobile has come up with since the original “slingshot birds to knock down structures full of pigs” game Angry Birds. Borrowing graphic design and gravity-bending elements from Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy, both titles bring back the same cast of hero birds and evil pigs found in the prior Angry Birds titles—redrawn a little with comically futuristic, galactic influences—while introducing new birds, such as a purple vector-targeting bird, a cube-shaped freezing ice cube bird, and a massively destructive Space Eagle. New and somewhat confusing “Egg-steroid” bonus levels are unlocked by finding hidden objects in the main levels, and as always, additional levels are teased as “Coming Soon,” promising to give players a reason to revisit after they’ve finished the first 60. Epic cosmic music plays in the background of menus, once again giving way to similar sound effects to fill the air during gameplay.
We have nothing but praise for the way Rovio has handled the new play mechanics and level designs in Angry Birds Space. Planets pulse with gravity fields—sometimes individual, sometimes overlapping—to let you know generally where your slingshotted birds will be pulled, but there’s a certain joy in seeing a bird spiraling around a planet, taking out one target, and then continuing to hit others before rolling to a stop. Similarly cool are levels that evoke old Angry Birds stages, now with the challenge of knocking asteroids from the sky to rain down on the pigs, and new “Danger Zone” area, filled with grids of floating, sometimes gravity-free structures that would have been impossible in earlier titles. It’s only a shame, then, that Rovio has once again split a single title into separate iPad and iPhone/iPod versions, and opted to sell the Danger Zone levels as a separate $1 in-app purchase for each version, not transferrable from one to the other. While higher-resolution Retina artwork for the new iPad looks sharp, the difference in app sizes is tiny, and even the HD app is a mere 20.1MB. Apart from Rovio’s nickel and diming, this is a great follow-up for Angry Birds fans, and certainly worth any fan’s time. iLounge Rating (Both Versions): A-.
Callaway Digital has developed some really nice kids’ apps for Apple’s devices, and though its collaboration with Sesame Street—Another Monster at the End of This Book… Starring Grover & Elmo ($4)—isn’t quite as impressive or deep, it’s an example of how the new iPad’s higher-resolution screen will be used for traditional edutainment. The app is a short, 12-page book for kids, setting blue-furred Grover against the red-furred Elmo in a quest to reach or avoid the end of the story. Childlike but bold, Elmo shows no fear of continuing to move through the pages, while the older but fearful Grover erects several obstacles to try and keep you from seeing the end: paperclips that need to be removed, blocks that need to be knocked down, and even a safe-like combination lock that has to be opened. Full voice narration is provided for each set of seemingly hand-drawn pages and text, spoken by Sesame Street’s Kevin Clash and Eric Jacobson.
The three biggest issues with Another Monster are in length, depth, and interactivity. While the $4 app doesn’t feel expensive by comparison with an actual printed book, so many earlier kids’ apps offer more than just a handful of pages to move through, and Callaway in particular has brought everything from videos to 3-D rendered animations, puzzles, and drawing tools to bear on earlier titles. What’s here is just a single short, linear story with a few impediments to progress, and though kids will like what’s here, they’ll definitely want more to do, and won’t find it. Additionally, though Another Monster scores points for being universal to iOS devices, there’s nothing particularly great about the high-resolution iPad artwork, which is effectively just showing more of the rough edges that hand-sketched backgrounds and text can have on an incredible screen. Another Monster’s a good title while it lasts, and Sesame Street-loving kids will enjoy it, but it could use a little extra content to feel fully worthy of its price. iLounge Rating: B.
Released one year ago for $10—a price that wasn’t crazy given how powerful it was, but might well have been too high a hurdle for casual users to jump—Algoriddim’s Djay for iPhone/iPod touch ($1) is now the single most overachieving App Store title we’ve seen for its price. Based upon the earlier iPad version of Djay, this app enables iOS 4.2 or later users to mix, scratch, and apply distortion effects to one or two songs at once, using separate turntables and whatever audio is inside your device’s Music library.
Alongside powerful song tempo adjustments and record-like scratch tools, the app’s FX menu enables you to apply echoing, “twist” reverse-playback, and spectrum-leeching “absorb” effects to songs, completely transforming their pacing and blurring tracks into one another. You can even drag your finger on a graph to to manipulate each effect’s high/low pass and intensity settings in realtime.
That said, it’s perhaps not surprising that the small iPhone and iPod touch screens suffer somewhat in user experience by comparison with the larger iPad ones. Algoriddim enables the app to run in portrait and landscape modes, focusing on only one turntable in portrait, which may be for the best given that precisely managing both on a 3.5” display is seriously challenging. Impressively, it shifts to the second turntable as you move the bottom-of-screen mixer slider in the other direction, enabling you to focus on a second song as the first is playing, but still the developer’s attempt to declutter the main screen results in effects, song selections, and settings appearing as pop-up windows that could sometimes use a better interface for easy access. Particularly problematic is Djay’s handling of iTunes Match content: rather than offering only tracks that are actually on the device, Algoriddim first struggles to load your entire Match catalog of tracks, then brings up an on-screen error message every time you try to select something that’s not on your device. Sluggishness in app responsiveness appears to be Match-traceable, but needs to be fixed, and pronto. Little hiccups in performance take away from a highly usable, extremely fun app for manipulating music; this is otherwise a must-have app for novice and professional music fans. iLounge Rating: B+.
Widely discussed in recent days because of Zynga’s rapid acquisition of developer OMGPOP, the asynchronous word-guessing game Draw Something ($1) and its ad-supported version Draw Something Free (Free) is the heir apparent to Words With Friends, Hanging With Friends, and Scramble With Friends: here, a player chooses from three words—each valued at one, two, or three coins of difficulty—and creates a drawing that is recorded in progress, then sent to a friend or random opponent for inspection. The full drawing process is repeated for the other player, and both people get coins if the word is properly guessed based on the artwork. Coins can be used to purchase additional drawing colors, as well as bombs to switch word options or remove multiple incorrect letters at once; the former is actually a compelling reason to acquire coins, given that you’re otherwise started with so few colors that you may struggle to create identifiable images.
There’s no question whatsoever that Draw Something is an extremely compelling and fun title, when it works. Switching between four sizes of blunt pen-like drawing tips and an eraser, players can create anything from bubbly messes of color to finely detailed art, alternating between amusing, impressing, and confusing friends. OMGPOP’s system of sharing animated drawings from person to person is ingenious, and some players will enjoy just watching the drawing rather than cutting to the chase for the final image. When we first covered this game, however, the company’s servers were a complete mess. On both the free and paid versions of the app—the latter with more colors unlocked by default, 2,000 more words, and no ads—Draw Something repeatedly flunked proper Facebook authentication, showed us other users’ contacts, and had problems locating users registered in its own system. This was a temporary growing pain due to a massive influx of users; one of our editors who registered earlier with OMGPOP had no such issues, and eventually the issues were sorted out for our other accounts. As of now, there’s little doubt that Draw Something is a phenomenon, great fun with a gentle system to encourage continued play. The only remaining issues are depth-related; it has a limited number of words, which begin to repeat after a week or so of continued play against multiple people, and could benefit from additional sharing features, drawing tools, and incentives. We suspect OMGPOP will be adding a lot to it in the months and years to come. iLounge Rating: A-. (Updated March 29, 2012 with additional details and a rating.)
Released late last year and updated last month with post-NBA lockout roster changes and frame rate tweaks, 2K Sports’ NBA 2K12 for iPad ($10) is good enough to be worthy of a quick mention in iOS Gems despite some continued issues. Featuring true 5-on-5 matchups that are rendered in full 3-D, complete with nice camera work and basketball courts that look great apart from occasional closeups on scattered and ridiculously flat audience members, NBA 2K12 feels more like a console game than we’d expected: full voice play by play, very clearly individual face textures for players on all 30 NBA teams, and a complete 82-game season mode are all pretty impressive at first. The character models animate well, with plenty of detail, and from afar, the game looks and feels like it’s very close to real.
Then you begin to notice an “uncanny valley” effect with the zombie-like expressions of players, repetition of the same color commentary phrases three or four times during a single game, and control oddities; on our first game, we were dropped into a matchup without control over either team, and had to hunt through settings just to take control of players.
There’s too little precision in dunking or stealing, and less of a feeling of direct involvement in much of the defensive action than there should be. While 2K Sports has also grabbed the license for Michael Jordan, and brings 10 of his “most memorable moments” to a special Jordan Challenge mode, we’d like to see this title updated with control and UI improvements, better audio, and third-generation iPad-ready art. As is, there’s a lot to love in here, but also quite a bit to fix. iLounge Rating: B-.
We first started playing Asher Vollmer’s universal iOS game Puzzlejuice ($2) some time ago, and it’s a cool though highly derivative puzzle game: effectively Tetris plus Boggle. You’re given Tetris-style blocks to deposit into a well that’s 10 cubes across, transforming each completed row of cubes into letters rather than watching them automatically disappear. In order to clear blocks, you need to swipe across cardinal or diagonally connectable letters to make words, which disappear and take adjacent blocks with them. Powerups are dispensed to clear more blocks. Upbeat chiptune-style music plays in the background, along with chippy bloops and bleeps, as you complete rows and match words; in the event that you have too few letters to make a word with, you can tap any collection of three or more contiguous same-colored blocks to transform them into letters.
While Puzzlejuice rocks a cool attitude—it “will punch your brain in the face,” claims the tagline—and the game does a fine job of blending two types of puzzle games into a single title, it’s let down by like-it-or-not aesthetics and a somewhat confusing tension between managing dropping blocks and word-matching. Tetris makes sense immediately. Boggle does, too. But mixing them together and trying to achieve the right balance of both building and destruction leads to a certain murkiness in the middle, a feeling that there’s a constant challenge, but not an entirely satisfying one. Some players will enjoy the juxtaposition of concepts and the retro presentation; we see this as a good game that, like so many others in the App Store, could become great with extra coats of polish. iLounge Rating: B.
Revealed during Apple’s third-generation iPad special event, Namco’s Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy ($5) is, in short, another disappointment from the once-great maker of bleeding-edge flying and racing gams. Like the earlier iOS release of Sky Gamblers: Rise of Glory, a game that looked nice but we found so unpleasant to play that we skipped reviewing it entirely, this new title has been released as a demonstration of a new Apple device’s power: the biplane-themed Rise of Glory was made to show off the iPhone 4S, and now the more modern Air Supremacy includes high-resolution Retina artwork for the iPad, while offering universal support for iOS 5-ready devices. This doesn’t stop it from being a seriously uneven, initially confusing mess of a flying game—the sort that actually defaults to a virtual stick that’s upside down relative to standard flight controls, so you’ll begin by crashing the plane you just piloted through a take off.
If there’s any highlight to Air Supremacy, it’s the smooth frame rate of the graphics engine, which places more than 40 polygonal jets inside semi-believable 3-D environments filled with ground- and air-based targets to shoot down. Missiles and machine guns enable you to lock onto or just strafe the targets, and as has been the case since the days of Sega’s Afterburner and G-LOC, the sight of multiple lock-on targets to hit at once is as exciting as ever; Namco includes just enough HUD and vapor/haze effects to keep the action looking interesting if you fly towards the waypoints it provides for each level. But given the company’s heritage with Ace Combat—a flying series that pushed the edge of arcade and console gaming with hyper-realistic environments, dialogue, and storylines—Air Supremacy’s so-so, PlayStation 2-esque stages, completely forgettable music, and comic book panel-style storylines are really uninspiring; the game starts out on the wrong foot and expects you to continue playing long enough to let it recover. If you want to have a multiplayer experience with friends, or have relatively low standards for your single-player flying experience, consider checking it out, but it’s hard for us to see this game as worthy of the Namco name. iLounge Rating: C+.
We’ve previously looked at UpNext HD Maps (Free) from UpNext when it was in two forms: back in 2009 as the original iPhone app UpNext 3D NYC, and in late 2010 as UpNext 3D Cities, then featuring iPad support and eight different cities. The latest app is separate, iPad-only, and dramatically expanded from the earlier versions: UpNext HD Maps claims to have 3-D maps for 50 different cities, though only 23 are selectable from a drop-down “3D Cities” menu.
The 23 options are ones that happen to have enhanced “richer detail” renderings: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, Honolulu, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Paul, and Washington DC; you may be able to discover 3-D maps for other cities, though their building accuracy may be sketchy.