Welcome to this week’s second gaming edition of iOS Gems! Today, we’re looking at three recent game releases, one of which is a sequel to a classic arcade game, alongside a sequel to a well-known App Store release, and one original title that uses Epic Games’ vaunted Unreal Engine.
While none of these titles merited higher than a flat B rating—a surprise given how incredibly far each game comes from titles we were playing on iOS devices only two years ago—both the robotic dodge-and-shoot game Epoch and the Grand Theft Auto-alike Gangstar Rio are worthy of some players’ attention. Read on for all the details.
As much as it hurts to say this given the size of our retro game collection, the classic quarter-sucking arcade title Asteroids hasn’t aged particularly well as a shooter: yes, Atari had a novel idea when it originally placed a lone spaceship in the middle of a collection of rocks, challenging players to blast away until they were all gone, but the turn-thrust-shoot-shoot-shoot action quickly gets repetitive and boring for all but high score chasers. So Atari and Fluik Entertainment have teamed up to release the universal iOS game Asteroids Gunner (Free/$1), a sequel that feels as if it was expressly designed to drain dollars rather than quarters out of players’ pockets. The lure here is a free, visually updated version of the overhead shooter that starts out ad-supported, but becomes ad-free with a $1 “remove ads” purchase. At that point, Atari offers players incentives to keep spending additional money for “Space Bucks” that unlock additional stages and items. For only $100 of real currency, you too can have a million Space Bucks to use towards upgrades for your space ship—a dubious proposition if ever we’ve heard one.
Judged strictly on its merits as a $1 game, Asteroids Gunner is a nice enough update to the original title. Black backgrounds have been replaced with a parallax-scrolling, colorful star field that stays mostly the same from level to level, and all of the objects—primarily rocks, but later spacecraft as well—are 3-D modeled for an added sense of realism. Blowing up asteroids leads to both smaller rock fragments and golden ore oddly called “crystals,” the free in-game currency that can be used to both upgrade your ship’s weapons and bolster its defenses. You use dual joysticks, one to steer and turn, the other to fire in your choice of directions in a much-needed update to the classic forward-firing Asteroids concept. A limited lifebar can be replenished with health power-ups or protected with shields, but only a few hits will destroy your ship; several different types of ships can be purchased, and numerous types of weapons are available, ranging from missiles and various types of spread-shot weapons to mines and explosive charges. Dreary space music plays under plain blip and boom sound effects.
In short, Asteroids Gunner feels like last year’s previously released Asteroids-alike Space Miner: Space Ore Bust, minus the personality and intermissions, plus a fairly constant tugging at your wallet to make your ship better. Weapons tend to be consumable rather than permanent, so once you realize you can clear out bunches of rocks at once with triple or buckshot-like spread blasters, they’ve evaporated, leaving you to revisit the store and buy more. Consequently, not only do the levels wind up feeling samey, but your ship’s evolution feels somewhat stunted, as if you’re only taking steps forward for long enough to want to buy more. The balance of weapon upgrading and shopping just doesn’t feel right to us—Asteroids Gunner quickly began to look like a game wrapper around a cash machine, complete with a “store” button to keep you shopping between levels—but you can progress through the waves of rocks making modest upgrades here and there without plunking down additional real-world cash.
Is Asteroids Gunner worth checking out? Maybe, maybe not. By the standards of overhead shooters we’ve played and loved over the last ten years, it feels like a throwback to another era without enough excellence to be worth paying much for—Space Miner did a better job of justifying its initial asking price. That said, fans of the original Asteroids title will find this to be considerably deeper without losing much of the classic feel, but they’ll also be put off as soon as they realize how much of the game is locked behind “Space Bucks.” Hopefully Atari won’t follow suit by grafting ATMs onto any of its other classic games, because it would be a shame to see more of its beloved library go in this direction. iLounge Rating: B-.
Because Uppercut Games’ new universal iOS game Epoch ($6) uses Epic’s Unreal Engine, it has drawn comparisons to Infinity Blade, the truly epoch-making title that blew iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch gamers away with stunning graphics and a spare but intriguingly evolving storyline. But as simple as the gameplay in Infinity Blade may have been, Epoch is in a less impressive league, relying very heavily upon impressive post-apocalyptic artwork to pad what’s otherwise a pretty stale shooter experience with an unimpressive weapon upgrade system.
Epoch places you in control of a robot warrior who moves from similar location to similar location, targeting each of multiple robotic enemies with one tap, then alternating between dodging their weapons and firing upon them. Using swipes on the screen, you’re effectively just moving left and right between several possible firing positions, switching from exposed to covered, and trying to stay alive long enough to eliminate all of the enemies once at a time. A standard gun fires bursts of shots, while a grenade does more damage to one enemy at a time, and a multiple missile attack can rarely hit several enemies at once; each needs to be recharged at least briefly before it can be used again. Firing is automatic once you tap a target, but you need to immediately tap on a new target after the last one’s lifebar has been depleted, and during boss encounters, switch between multiple parts of the boss’s body.
The action is viewed from behind the robot’s back, a dramatic 3-D angle that provides you with a great view of what are essentially very simplistic shooting galleries, elaborately decorated with fantastically textured realtime-rendered destroyed buildings; your robot opponents are similarly well-designed though overly similar to each other, apart from increasingly powerful and sometimes beautiful-looking weapons. You can alternate between destroying robots and bonus objects in an effort to gather credits for power-ups, most notably including limited-use weapons that range from upgraded guns, grenades, and missiles to holographic clones that distract your enemies, and other defensive tools. Over the stages, the robots become increasingly dangerous, tossing grenades at you, using landscape-searing lasers, and hitting you at once with multiple attacks, forcing you to more quickly and often dodge, with the occasional swipe upwards to jump into the air over a laser blast. Explosion and weaponry sounds sit atop a good enough synthesizer soundtrack, becoming
It’s unfortunate that the gameplay here is as repetitive as it is, and that the power-up system feels underdeveloped, as overly vast pricing tiers separate some weapons from others, and too little differentiates almost peer-priced options; a more sophisticated and fun system of earning credits before using meaningfully different guns might have made Epoch a lot cooler. A vaguely Terminator: Salvation-esque storyline that’s designed to be optional is also presented with so little panache that Epic and Chair’s Infinity Blade comes across as downright Shakespearean by comparison; Uppercut could have gone full-bore Terminator with both the plot and the robots to make the experience more compelling there, too. That said, the game’s visual presentation is so strong that you’ll want to actually play through all of the 10 levels at least once—a two- or three-hour experience—before making another run through them with better weapons. For the price, this is just a good enough game to barely merit our general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B.
If you’ve been reading our Gems columns for a while, you already know the basic story behind Gameloft’s Gangstar series, which started with the obvious Grand Theft Auto 3 clone West Coast Hustle and continued with Miami Vindication. Never known to miss an opportunity to revisit a successful past franchise, Gameloft has just released the universal iOS game Gangstar Rio: City of Saints ($7), which it refers to as “the first sandbox game to take place in Rio de Janeiro”—quite possibly the only original part of what’s otherwise a highly derivative Grand Theft Auto wannabe. Filled with consistently profane dialogue and some legitimately bad voice acting, Gangstar Rio is pretty much everything one would expect from a Portuguese-tilted variation on Rockstar’s most popular series… and although it’s not going to get much respect as a result, GTA fans will lap it up nonetheless.
What Gangstar Rio offers is effectively a reskinned take on the prior titles, using similar missions and objectives to keep players entertained as they explore a virtual city—now complete with surprisingly complex building interiors, residential alleys, businesses to patronize, and distractions to enjoy. The primary story follows the life of a flashy gangster who seems to be marked for death from the very start of the action, and is soon seriously injured, stripped of his expensive toys, and returned to the streets with a new name (“Angel”) and face. Just as with the GTA games, you have the ability to follow the main plotline by taking on a sequence of 60 missions with their own spoken dialogue and animated intermission sequences, or go off on detours by hijacking taxis, delivery trucks, and the like on the streets.
While we could spend endless paragraphs discussing all of the things that you can do in this game, the summary is fairly simple: you’ll likely spend half of the time driving in vehicles, and the other half walking around injuring people with your fists and guns. Gameloft’s vehicle collection includes cars, trucks, motorcycles and ATVs, as well as tanks, helicopters, and planes; we found the tilt-based steering of vehicles to be a huge pain and major detractor from the fun we’d otherwise have been having in Rio. On foot and in vehicles, you can tote around all sorts of weapons—the standard handguns, rifles, and bazookas, plus a sniper rifle and “explosive football”—generally using your ammo or hands to off gang members or other criminally-minded people. The gunplay and fighting aren’t particularly sophisticated, but they’re fun, and your character is a lot easier to control on foot than in a vehicle thanks to a straightforward virtual joystick. Once you start exploring alleyways and climbing rooftops, you’ll actually be impressed by how much Angel can do, and though his on-foot actions are more limited than what Gameloft accomplished in, say, Shadow Guardian, time’s been invested in making car jumps and flips more fun.
Gangstar Rio has taken steps beyond its predecessors in the audiovisual department, as well. The city’s five neighborhoods are impressively detailed, and though there are limitations in both up-close texture quality and distant object draw-in, both vehicles and characters take advantage of neat shading techniques that make them look smoother and more realistic than before. Time-of-day changes do a beautiful job of playing with light sources, including the sun, moon, and even car headlights, and little effects like animated sparkling ocean are actually worth stopping to take in. Better yet, this version of Gangstar runs equally well on iPads, recent iPhones, and recent iPod touches, and there are plenty of moments when the game actually looks at least PlayStation 2 or Sony PSP-caliber on Apple’s devices. Employing the same radio station tricks as the GTA games, Gameloft includes a handful of licensed tracks, plus original music, and phony commercials that occasionally stretch the game’s supposedly 12+ rating well beyond what we’d normally expect to be acceptable for pre-teen audiences.
In sum, Gangstar Rio isn’t a great game, and it’s only modestly original, but as GTA clones go, it’s relatively ambitious and competent. Don’t expect to be impressed by the acting or story, and prepare to spend some time calibrating the driving controls, but you can feel confident that the graphics, overall pacing, and on-foot, gun-toting action will be as close to the Grand Theft Auto series as anyone’s likely to come besides Rockstar itself. It’s good enough to justify the $7 asking price, but we’d love to see Gameloft really polish up the controls and dialogue in future titles; if it does so, it could have a chance of coming out from GTA’s shadow and standing on its own feet as a great franchise. iLounge Rating: B.