Welcome to this week’s edition of iOS Gems! Today we’re taking a look at a two new puzzle games, an Unreal Engine-powered action-RPG, a free concert app from Apple, and a new Google-developed version of the YouTube app, launched just before Apple’s earlier version is about to be removed from iOS 6.
Of this week’s titles, Illusion Labs’ Blast-A-Way, Apple’s iTunes Festival, and Google’s YouTube app merited the strongest recommendations. Read on for the details.
Blast-A-Way ($5) is the latest game from Swedish developer Illusion Labs, which was previously responsible for some visually impressive iOS titles including Touchgrind, Touchgrind BMX, and Labyrinth. This time, the company has come up with an intriguing iOS-universal physics puzzler in which you’re tasked with collecting Boxies—animated alternatives to stars or coins—by blowing up elements of abstract modernist environments, walking around, and escaping through sometimes obscured exits. As the game progresses, you unlock all sorts of additional tools that add complexity: explosive and teleporter balls, for instance, initially are as easy to use as just tapping on the places you want them to land, but you’ll soon need to bounce them off of other objects, and avoid using them in places where they can knock you or Boxies off of platforms, sometimes forcing you to restart the levels.
Blast-A-Way’s single biggest asset is Illusion Labs’ latest 3-D graphics engine, which continues the company’s pattern of making textures, models, and lighting look as close to reality is as possible. Though the backgrounds are bare, each of the levels’ objects and characters is so sharply rendered that you’ll feel like you’re looking into a toy box, with only the occasional special effect explosion interrupting the believability. Sound effects are somewhat sparing, and the looping playful audio isn’t particularly memorable, but the visuals and camera work are compelling enough that you mightn’t notice. The gameplay’s pretty impressive, too. Though Illusion stumbles a little by having camera and tap-based motion controls take place in the same regions of the screen, occasionally creating small issues, Blast-A-Way doesn’t make you race against a clock, so you have the opportunity to experiment and play the levels repeatedly without stress. You’ll want to play through, too: five different types of materials are used to theme the worlds’ 80 levels, each of which is more involved than the last. If you’re a puzzle game fan, definitely consider checking this one out. iLounge Rating: B+.
This year marks the sixth edition of Apple’s iTunes Festival, a free, month-long concert series held in London and headlined by a number of big-name musicians and bands. It’s also the second year of Apple’s accompanying iOS app, which this year has been updated and renamed to iTunes Festival London 2012 (Free). The app offers 30 days of musical performances on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, including live streaming of concerts as they’re happening, and access to previously recorded footage. Notably, Apple has also added an iTunes Festival “channel” to Apple TV, which offers the same live footage and completed performances.
iTunes Festival London 2012 is broken down into four or five categories, depending on what device you’re using. Shows and Artists are combined on the iPhone and iPod, but separate on the iPad. Both formats also have Live, News, and About tabs. At this point, the final two sections are pretty much ignorable as the blog-like News hasn’t been updated since August, and About simply lists venue information and pictures from previous festivals. The rest, however, is pretty well done. Tapping on any past date or artist who’s already performed allows you to stream the full gig, filmed and delivered with high quality video and audio. You can also enable push notifications to tell you when concerts are happening so that you may watch them live. Since it’s Apple’s app, the interface is predictably clean and simple, and the content is valuable to those who enjoy live performances but can’t make the shows. We could only really ask for two updates: the addition of previous years’ performances, and offline caching for viewing without a data connection. Otherwise iTunes Festival London 2012 is a no-brainer for music fans, and for the limited time it displays its content, worthy of a high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.
Cipher Prime Studios’ Splice : Tree of Life ($4) falls very much in line with the company’s previous titles Pulse and Fractal in that it’s an ethereal, experimental title. Built solely for the iPad 2 and third-generation iPad, Splice sports a visual style and gameplay unlike any other game we’ve yet come across: it resembles the introductory sequence of an superhero movie or forensic crime show, presenting fairly simple 2-D puzzles within a memorably gorgeous, depth-blurred 3-D interface.
With piano-heavy music playing in the background to create an atmosphere of intrigue and purpose, Splice presents you with two things: a white outline of how a multi-cellular strand should look, and a chain of mostly black cells that need to be spliced and reassembled to fit the outline. Tapping anywhere on the chain splices off the cells at that point, and the pieces you’ve cut jingle around until you release your finger elsewhere on the strand, grafting them in a different place. Two things quickly present challenges: first, you only have a very limited number of splices before you fail a level, and second, there may not be enough cells to complete the outlined strand. You’ll need to use specially marked and powered cells that can replicate or mutate in different ways in order to succeed—a process that helps the levels evolve in challenge and diversity as you continue to play.
As with Blast-A-Way, Splice’s strongest asset is its visual presentation, which is truly gorgeous and nearly cinematic by puzzle game standards—wiggling cells in the foreground are offset by blurred, gently moving menu UI elements in the background, creating a sense that you’re looking into a microscope while you’re playing. The gameplay is simpler and arguably a little less satisfying than Blast-A-Way’s, in part because you don’t receive any rewards for getting part way through a sequence, but the theme makes you feel like you’re actually accomplishing something while you play. Only the game’s brevity will limit its long-term appeal. That aside, this is a solid title, and will hopefully benefit from additional levels and themes in a future update. iLounge Rating: B.
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine has been used very successfully in iOS games thus far, so we had high expectations for Gameloft’s Wild Blood ($7)—an action title that initially appeared to be in the vein of Epic’s Infinity Blade series. Compatible with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, this game puts you in the shoes of Sir Lancelot as he battles an aggrieved King Arthur and magician Morgana over the betrayal of Queen Guinevere. As it turns out, the only similarities Wild Blood and Infinity Blade share are in their engines and medieval themes: this title turns out to be a 3-D hack-and-slash title that’s far closer in spirit to Sega’s classic Golden Axe than a one-on-one fighting game.
Given that Wild Blood uses the notoriously powerful Unreal Engine, it’s not a big surprise that the game’s environments and characters are all built with full three-dimensional graphics, along with plenty of particle, smoke, glow, and fire effects to enhance the illusion of reality. Yet those accustomed to Infinity Blade’s jaw-dropping character and building models will be somewhat less impressed by the designs here, which are far closer in apparent complexity and detail to prior Gameloft titles such as the Gangstar series, the Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Returns—all highly competent by comparison with most iOS games, but not so close to real that you’ll forget you’re playing a video game. Fluid frame rates and camera movements are perhaps the most obvious assets the Unreal Engine brings to this table; if Gameloft hadn’t disclosed that the game was powered by Epic’s technology, most people would have assumed the game was an evolution of whatever it’s used in its own prior titles. Heavy on simple sound effects and aided by a brooding but epic soundtrack, Wild Blood creates just enough ambience to check off the expected boxes.
The question of whether Wild Blood’s gameplay will impress a given player depends on what’s expected going in. If you’re hoping for a more evolved version of action-RPGs such as Gameloft’s Dungeon Hunter series, you’re in for a treat: you have a full virtual joystick and button array, access to a mix of melee and distance weapons, and the now obligatory collection of item and power upgrades that depend upon in-game currency or in-app purchases for funding. On the other hand, the action-heavy gameplay isn’t so much deep as it’s somewhat unevenly varied: you will, for instance, find yourself in a rained-out courtyard needing to fire arrows from a bow, then need to awkwardly switch off to a sword to slash your way through other enemies. Minutes later, you’ll rescue people from wooden cages, open some treasure chests with ease, and need to pick the locks of others. Each task requires a slightly different interaction with the controls, but none feels incredibly fun or exciting. They’re just things to do, aided by a run button that could really have benefitted from a jump button partner and some platforms to explore.
Although that may sound damning, the reality is that the even somewhat middling activities in Wild Blood are a step up from most iOS action games, and between their pacing and intensity—multiple enemies on screen at once, huge bosses, and varying elevations of attackers—you’ll be kept busy as you explore the game’s stages. Cinematic scenes involving other knights and wizards from Arthurian legends break up the fighting, while a multiplayer mode lets up to eight players compete in local Wi-Fi or online deathmatch or capture the flag matches. Taken as a whole, this is a good, solid game; we hope that it will be the start of a new franchise for Gameloft, including deeper and more satisfying gameplay in later installments. iLounge Rating: B.
An Apple-designed YouTube has been a part of iOS—originally iPhone OS—since day one; the company outed its inclusion via a press release only nine days before the launch of the first iPhone. Since then it’s evolved modestly, but with the fourth beta release of iOS 6, Apple removed the app, citing the end of its licensing deal with Google. Before anyone could shed a tear, Apple promised that a replacement app would be available in the App Store. Today, on the eve of Apple’s fall iPhone event, Google has officially released YouTube (Free), oddly with support for iPhones and iPod touches only.
While the baked-in YouTube app was clearly an Apple product, the new version is very much in line with Google’s design aesthetic. The interface is quite nice, with a swipe gesture revealing navigation on the left side of the screen. Here you can quickly access your account, channels, and videos within different YouTube categories. As of this version of the app, the only real loss is quick access to the Most Viewed category; everything that’s here feels snappy and responsive, even on older hardware. When you’re watching a video in portrait orientation, the interface has an overlay that includes voting, sharing, playback, and AirPlay buttons, while all the relevant information about the video, suggested videos, and comments are found below it. Turn the device or pinch outwards and the video will enter landscape mode with the same overlaid controls. The search feature includes auto-complete and accurate voice search, even on pre-Siri devices.
One benefit to this standalone title is Google can include tens of thousands of additional videos, mostly from its Vevo music video brand, as it’s now able to run ads before them. For those who listen and watch a lot of music on YouTube, this tradeoff will be wholly acceptable. Strangely, however, tapping on those ads launches the associated videos in Safari, a hint that Google still has some work left to finish in this app. Otherwise, users really come close to a full desktop experience in their hands, and it’s not only more responsive, but better laid out than the prior iOS web interface. The only thing that’s really missing—and it’s a big thing—is iPad support, which Google says is coming; given the sometimes glacial pace of its updates, we’re hoping that’s sooner than later.
Judged by what’s here, the new YouTube app merits a place on almost every iPhone and iPod touch device. Eeven without Apple’s participation, the service is too important right now to be avoided, and the experience is an extremely positive one on small-screened devices. Once iPad support is added back into the app, this will most certainly merit a high recommendation. iLounge Rating: B+.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Horwitz.