Welcome to the latest edition of iOS Gems! Once again, we’ve assembled a collection of seven noteworthy games, kids’ apps, and regular apps for your possible downloading pleasure—this time with a bunch of big names to consider. Famous franchises including Star Wars, Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Jet Set Radio, and Modern Combat are all included this week, but you may be surprised about the ones we’d recommend grabbing or passing on.
The top-rated title of the week is Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour, but several other titles merit general-level recommendations. Read on for all the details.
Without belaboring the point, Rovio’s Angry Birds spinoffs are now so numerous and similar that the new iterations barely merit individual attention—the basic “slingshot a bird into collapsible structures filled with pigs” concept has been done over and over again, charmingly but with only small adjustments. Angry Birds Star Wars ($1/iPhone, $3/iPad “HD”) is just another version of the same idea, this time with birds loosely based on Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, and others, each capable of activating a Star Wars-themed attack while they’re flying in the air. If you’re thrilled by the idea of seeing a bird use a lightsaber, blaster, or force push to slice through a block or pig before hitting another target with its body, this is the Angry Birds for you; the now expected Star Wars title crawl, flat cartoony intermissions, and Episode 4-vintage backgrounds are all there, too. Aside from the continued fleecing of consumers involved in selling separate iPad/iPhone/iPod versions of the exact same game, there’s nothing wrong with this release save for its predictability, so if you’re a serious Star Wars or Angry Birds fan, check it out. Otherwise, pass. iLounge Rating: B.
Flexibits’ Fantastical ($4) brings the popular Mac replacement calendar app to the iPhone and iPod touch. It’s notable largely for the interface, and its natural language parsing technology. The app’s default view is a page that displays five days at the top, with a list of upcoming events below. By sliding the calendar left or right, or moving the schedule up and down, you can change the scope; dragging down on the week view switches it over to a calendar of the month.
But what the Mac app is more known for, and what Fantastical really executes well here, is the language parsing. Instead of having to enter all the information about an appointment into separate fields, one can simply type—or dictate—a full sentence, and the app will pull the information into the right spots. This would be more impressive if Siri didn’t already do pretty much the same thing, solely by using your voice. While we prefer Fantastical’s interface, and note that it tends to be a little more accurate in interpreting the information, there’s no question that the $4 asking price will leave most iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch users content with what comes built into their devices. The interface is certainly nice, and if you’re really unhappy with Apple’s solution, you may find a better experience here; today, the chances of that being the case are higher on older or pre-iOS 6 devices. iLounge Rating: B-.
Over the last year, Sega’s ports of classic games to the iOS platform really turned a corner, thanks in equal parts to improvements in the company’s software and Apple’s increasingly impressive 3-D graphics hardware. Out of nowhere, titles originally developed for Sega’s ill-fated but widely respected Dreamcast console suddenly became available—fully intact—for iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches. And now there’s Jet Set Radio ($5), a skating-platforming-graffiti game that actually surpasses the original 2000-vintage title in graphics: the 3-D engine not only can utilize the 1024×768 and 1136×640 screens of Apple’s smaller devices, but goes razor-sharp on the 2048×1536 screens of the last two full-sized iPads. Because the cel-shaded artwork was largely vector-based, it here easily surpasses the clarity of the TV screens Dreamcasts used years ago, and even when the bitmapped textures aren’t quite so impressive, they’re not bad, either.
Jet Set Radio remains as compelling today as it was 12 years ago, however, the title’s sonic omissions and controls will irk contemporary players more than they originally did, the latter particularly on non-iPad devices. Following an engaging but brief introduction, you’re treated to one of the most memorable soundtracks ever crafted for a video game, which sometimes falls short only in its tendency to loop—something you’ll notice more due to in-game voice acting that’s limited by contemporary standards. Then, mandatory tutorials will remind you of the title’s “watch, then repeat” initial approach to learning the controls to make your hip skater roll, jump, and tag buildings or vehicles with spray paint, which is initially frustrating before becoming easier. Even on the iPad, iOS virtual controls don’t have the precision players would prefer for a twitch action title like this, so you’ll find yourself falling off of rails and ledges, skating beyond defined borders, and generally getting killed before being trusted to roll yourself through the more open riding, racing, and tagging levels. iPhone users will find the controls even more challenging due to the comparative lack of screen real estate. Consider grabbing this one for its unique visual style and great audio; just don’t be surprised if it takes a little while to get used to the interface and objectives. iLounge Rating: B.
Disney’s original Mickey Mouse Clubhouse app for the iPad was nothing short of stunning; akin to a free, interactive episode of the excellent kids’ TV show, it included everything from pre-rendered 3-D animation and professional voice acting to touch- and voice-controlled sequences. The new Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Mickey’s Wildlife Count Along ($3) is a completely different story: substantially stripped of 3-D animation and less impressive sonically relative to its predecessor, it’s focused on basic math lessons, with more narration and a focus on snapping photos of animals to learn counting skills. While the collection of characters and general theme are every bit as Clubhouse as the original title, there’s less to get excited about for $3 than there was in its free predecessor; fans of the first title will find this to be a decent rather than impressive title on the content side. iLounge Rating: C+.
Every year for the past several years, Gameloft has effectively redefined the state of iOS first-person shooters with its latest Modern Combat title—a series that conceptually overlaps Activision’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare franchise, yet isn’t saddled with the need to replicate that high-end computer and console title’s characters, scenarios, or aesthetics. Instead, Modern Combats have effectively said “this is the military FPS your iOS device is capable of,” and that’s been more than enough to thrill players: each game has been so fun, impressively detailed, and well-acted for its time that the asking prices have always seemed justified.
Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour ($7) continues the trend, loading its levels with the same basic features we’ve seen before—realistic characters and backdrops, plenty of coarse but professionally recorded audio, and cool special effects—all while upping the ante in intensity. Thanks to a post-nuclear attack theme, stages now overflow with smoke trails, current and near-future military vehicles, and explosions that tear buildings apart; even on the prior-generation iPad 2 and iPad mini hardware, the game takes a marked step up from its predecessor visually in all regards. On the Retina-equipped iPads, though, the detail levels are even more impressive, letting you clearly see improvements in building and character models that might be lost on other devices: here, Zero Hour lives up fully to Gameloft’s claims of console-quality art. And it’s no surprise that the gameplay has evolved, too. Even within the first 15 minutes of single-player campaign mode, you’ll switch from first- to third-person views to control a drone, fight off an unexpected stabbing attempt, and run through village and building backdrops that go well beyond earlier Modern Combat titles in interactivity and sophistication. The realism is enhanced by improved serpentine running enemies, and staged but realtime events such as melee fisticuffs between non-player characters. If there’s any gripe about this title, it’s in the controls, which include tiny monochromatic buttons on the iPad that you’ll need to look at and learn to use by location, rather than color or clear iconography. That aside, if you like first-person shooters, you owe it to yourself to see Zero Hour, right away. iLounge Rating: A-.
Although it doesn’t have the most thrilling user interface—and lacks proper iPad support—MindTrip Studios’ My Mosaic ($1) is a single-feature photographic app with real value: the ability to create one huge image from a collection of smaller photos. Open the app, take or choose the single image you want as your final result, point the app towards a stored library of pictures to use as source materials, and wait a few minutes; you can save anything from a mobile-sharable image to a 30” x 30” poster-sized, printable image. While My Mosaic generally does what it promises, we experienced serious app hangs and crashes, most often during saving of large images, and felt that a smoother, more thoughtful preview interface for adjusting the mosaic parameters would let users better understand their results before wasting rendering time. In its current state, this is an okay $1 app, but it really needs an update to improve stability and usability. iLounge Rating: C+.
The world of boxing video games can be reductively summarized as “Punch-Out!!,” “Fight Night,” and “everything else,” thanks to the strong influence that Nintendo and Electronic Arts have had upon digital pugilism. Vivid Games’ Real Boxing ($5) is far closer to the Fight Night category, trading on amazingly realistic Unreal Engine 3-based graphics to inspire thrills, rather than Punch-Out’s classic formula of rhythmic punching and weakness spotting. Taps and swipes on the left and right sides of the screen let you jab, cross, and uppercut your opponents through individual or very simple tournament modes, with blocking and dodging buttons when you need them; the action is as straightforward as would be expected from a Fight Night title, minus the bone-shattering close-ups and excellent play by play. While the voice work and other audio here are merely okay, the character models and venues look pretty close to superb on iOS devices, with nearly flawless animations, blurring effects, and textures that are second to none on this platform. More thoughtful gameplay would make this highly recommendable, but what’s here is good enough to keep boxing fans entertained until an update or sequel comes along. iLounge Rating: B+.
With a unique visual style that departs from the most common, soft-edged renditions of the characters, Disney’s new universal app Winnie the Pooh Wonder and Wander (Free) is a collection of mini-activities featuring Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and the gang. Designed for young children and disappointing only in its inclusion of In-App purchasing and web-active screens that will be unreadable by most of the app’s target audience, Wonder and Wander lets kids color black-and-white art, play concentration-style matching games, make music, and assemble puzzles within nicely animated 2-D screens as happy music and sound effects play in the background. Companies struggling to figure out whether to charge $1 for all of an app or go free with an in-app purchase should use this as a clear reason to just get the payment made up front: content as compellingly illustrated, animated, and musically accompanied as this is worth buying on its own merits, and unlocking “more content” with an in-app purchase shouldn’t be necessary—it actually detracts from the experience. iLounge Rating: B+.
Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here. This iOS Gems column includes content from Nick Guy.