Welcome to a new edition of iOS Gems! This week, we’re looking quickly at some recent, huge game and app releases. Today’s titles are very familiar—they’re mostly sequels to games we’ve previously covered, with a couple of new releases from well-established developers.
Our top picks of the week are Grand Theft Auto III and Sonic CD, but Bejeweled Blitz, Grimm’s Hansel & Gretel, and Kinectimals are also highly rated, with a couple of other flat B titles in the mix. Read on for all the details!
Developed by the same team behind the Mortal Kombat series, Warner Bros. and Netherrealm Studios’ universal iOS release Batman: Arkham City Lockdown ($6) is a simple but visually impressive fighting game that feels like a trial run for a proper 3-D iOS version of Mortal Kombat. Built with the Unreal Engine, this game uses hugely impressive Arkham Asylum escapee character models as one-on-one punching bags for Batman, who you swipe and tap to throw punches and kicks while dodging and countering attacks. The animation and detail levels are particularly striking, while the music and sound effects are fitting but overly repetitive.
While BACL provides a legitimate structure with increasingly powerful attackers, purchasable power-ups, and more challenging boss encounters, the non-boss fighting action gets tedious fairly quickly, and is interrupted only by neat little cinematics and bat gadget sequences; it says something that guiding a batarang through winding 3-D streets quickly feels like a welcome treat relative to the repetitive brawling action. Deeper fighting mechanics really would have helped this title a lot. Pretty graphics, cool bosses, and the Batman theme are the major reasons this rates as well as it does. iLounge Rating: B.
While the name’s very familiar, PopCap’s Bejeweled ($1) is actually based upon Bejeweled 3, released one year ago for the Mac and PC with a “stay tuned!” promise for iOS. The good news: Bejeweled isn’t merely a retread of the prior two Bejeweled games for iPhone and iPod touch; it adds Retina Display support, Bejeweled 3 music, a legitimately different “dig by making matches” play mode called Diamond Mine, and a Zen sound and visual effect-changing mode to the “classic” game. Bad news: it doesn’t have all of Bejeweled 3’s other modes, still (!) lacks iPad support, and barely lets you see any of the beautiful background art that was created for the real sequel. If you’re a Bejeweled fan, you’ll probably want to get it anyway for the enhanced visual effects, audio, and modest game mode additions, but what’s missing here is substantial enough to make us wonder why PopCap released it at all—hopefully post-released updates will enhance its value. iLounge Rating: B.
By contrast with Bejeweled, PopCap’s new Bejeweled Blitz (Free) is easier to recommend—it’s not only free, it’s universal for iOS devices, including both Retina Display and iPad support, although PopCap leaves a black border around the 960×640 graphics it created for Apple’s pocket devices when it displays art on the iPad. Still, Blitz has taken some steps up from its prior form as a late add-on to Bejeweled 2: you can now get your daily free slot machine spin and bonus coins directly from within this game, enjoy much-improved graphics, and purchase additional coins for power-up purposes directly from within the app. While you’re still limited to one-minute play sessions as in the prior version of Blitz, and the gameplay hasn’t evolved at all from its prior leaderboard-based competitive form, the improved art, neat music, and partial iPad support all make this worth grabbing if you’re a fan of the series. iLounge Rating: B+.
A full review of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III ($5) would require more pages than we have time to write today, and so much has already been written about the famous 10-year-old title that we needn’t rehash it all here. It suffices to say that this 3-D game effectively created the “sandbox” genre, putting you in control of a criminal lead character who has the freedom to walk, run, fight, drive vehicles, and explore a large metropolitan world, as a heist-gone-bad storyline with surprisingly compelling writing and acting provides structure for the action. The freedom part—your ability to proceed however and wherever you want at any given time, take on side missions unrelated to the main story, such as driving a taxi, or to go shopping for items that aren’t strictly necessary to completing the adventure—took the Grand Theft Auto series and numerous competitors off of the “rails” that prior games kept players on.
GTAIII for iOS is a true and virtually complete port of the prior console and computer game, including the incredible full soundtrack with licensed music on multiple radio stations, relatively stable and fluid frame rates for the respectably detailed 3-D world, and all of the action, storyline, and cinematics you’d expect. Even with iOS control compromises—plenty of virtual buttons appearing on screen—Rockstar manages to label each in a straightforward enough way that they make sense; similarly, although some of the textures feel their age, the polygonal models of cars are still quite impressive by iOS standards, and the overall quality of the port places GTAIII well ahead of even the most recent of Gameloft’s Gangstar clones. For $5, this is a no-brainer if you like sandbox games and haven’t played GTAIII yet, or if you just want a pocketable version—it’s hard to imagine anyone doing better at a more aggressive price given the source content here. iLounge Rating: A.
Like its earlier Rapunzel and Red Riding Hood titles, Ideal Binary’s Grimm’s Hansel & Gretel ($5) is based upon a Grimm Brothers fairytale, interrupting the classic brother, sister, and witch story with interactive sequences. While Hansel & Gretel doesn’t stray far from Ideal Binary’s prior formula, featuring an animated book that alternates between voice-narrated text pages and pop-open interactive sequences backed by looping music, those sequences have generally become more compelling than before thanks to new gesture-based interactions with the characters, and greater ties between some of the activities and the story.
The only continued weakness in these titles is the occasional appearance of completely text-filled book pages, which now stand so starkly against partially illustrated and fully animated content as to seem dull to young users; breaking up the story with more art would really help. That aside, this is a nice step forward from Red Riding Hood, and worth sharing with kids aged 3 and up. iLounge Rating: B+.
To say that Microsoft shocked us by releasing an iOS version of Kinectimals ($3) would be an understatement—out of nowhere, the company ported last year’s most noteworthy Kinect motion-sensing title to the App Store with a crazy low price, and didn’t skimp much on the features: just as with the Xbox 360 title, you’re given the ability to interact with a collection of furry feline cubs who love to do tricks and receive attentive rubs from young players. The major changes are in scope and controls: there’s no story here, and rather than waving your arms in front of your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch’s screen, you use swipes and taps to interact with each animal. Microsoft offers a modest tutorial system to show you how you can play with the cubs, and enables you to unlock new animals if you link the iOS app to the Xbox 360 title.
On a positive note, Kinectimals looks and sounds great; the animation is truly awesome, the furry characters have been replicated about as competently as possible given the need to accommodate multiple generations of iOS devices, and between the peaceful music and little growling/purring sound effects, the overall play environment is relaxing and charming. Once you learn how to make your cub do tricks, and when you revisit the title to do feedings, the action begins to feel more complex and engaging. Unfortunately, Kinectimals hasn’t been structured to guide young players quickly and automatically through the sorts of activities they can do, leaving them to fumble around the interface without adult assistance. With a little more hand-holding, Kinectimals for iOS could be a viable tool to sell copies of the Xbox 360 version; as it is, it’s a good little $3 title with enough content to justify the low price. iLounge Rating: B+.
Sega’s Sonic CD ($2/$5) isn’t the most advanced title in today’s collection, and if you judged it solely from the screenshots or Sega’s last ten years of Sonic the Hedgehog releases, you mightn’t understand why we’re so excited about it. But Sonic CD is a winner. A huge winner. As a proper port of one of the best Sonic titles ever released—albeit one of the more obscure due to its reliance on the ill-fated and expensive Sega CD peripheral—Sonic CD has the best soundtrack in the series, tight virtual controls, and all of the speed you’d expect from a properly developed title in this family. It is an action-platformer with unusual features and depth, namely a purely optional time travel mechanism that enables you to visit “past,” “present,” and alternating “future” versions of its stages, turning “bad” futures into “good” ones by destroying robotic machines in the past. Years ago, Sega controversially replaced the Japanese soundtrack with a Spencer Nilsen-developed version for Western releases, an arguably huge error corrected here by offering both soundtracks to satisfy all possible fans.
Sonic CD’s chief strength is in delivering the full standard Sonic experience players would expect, namely a fast, fluid running and jumping game with all of the traditional power ups, loop-de-loops, bonus stages, and lightweight but evolving boss encounters, then offering twists that players may or may not recognize from other titles in the series. Needing to keep Sonic at a constant or increasing speed to activate time travel was an inspired play mechanic, and little frills such as a perspective shifting loop-de-loop and the outrageously awesome Japanese soundtrack were well ahead of their time years ago. Lovingly ported with outstanding engine stability and attention to detail—plus the addition of an unlockable Tails—that has not been shown in any prior Sega iOS release, Sonic CD’s sole flaw is that the time travel elements aren’t just optional; they’re sort of confusing and seemingly pointless unless you played the original title or otherwise take the time to learn how they work and trigger a different ending to the game. This is a minor tick on an otherwise great game, which we’d strongly encourage fans of the series and platformers in general to grab and enjoy right away. iLounge Rating: A.
Last and least this week is Electronic Arts’ re-release of Tetris ($1), a game that has been done again and again in the App Store—generally for good reasons. With this version, the justification is somewhat shakier: in an effort to create an ultra-simplified touch interface for Tetris, EA has added a “one-touch” mode that transforms the classic spin, position, and drop controls into a dumbed-down “here are your options, just tap one before the timer runs out” alternative. This signature mode of the new Tetris is balanced by a Marathon mode with swipe and tap controls akin to the prior release, and a level-based Galaxy puzzle-like mode with one-touch controls and elimination of existing lines of planetary core—just uniformly colored dirt—as the gameplay twist.
We sympathize somewhat with EA’s plight, if you can call it that, in evolving Tetris as the App Store continues to develop. Like all developers with classic properties, EA is being challenged to either update its prior titles for free with new features, or release new versions at their own price points, and for a huge developer, the choice of which path to follow isn’t always obvious. Yet this version of Tetris doesn’t seem so much like an evolution or an improvement as it does “yet another thing for a Tetris fan to spend money on,” and even then, not a particularly compelling bundle of features. Years ago, the Tetris Company and third-party developers evolved Tetris with all sorts of interesting new versions such as Bombliss and Tetrisphere, radically transforming the gameplay of the classic title in new and addictive ways. Even the earlier iOS Tetris games added novel touch-based gameplay elements to break up the original action, with some success. By contrast, this just seems like a warmed-over version of earlier Tetris games, with a lightweight futuristic interface and the not particularly appealing one-touch interface to justify its standalone existence; EA hasn’t even included an iPad UI for this iPod touch/iPhone release. Marketed to kids, it would make some sense, but as a new version of Tetris proper, it falls flat. iLounge Rating: B-.