Welcome to this week’s game-focused edition of iOS Gems! Today, we’re looking at three recent App Store releases—a strategy game, a 3-D action game, and a 2-D interactive cartoon. Two of the titles have names that many gamers will recognize, while the other has an unusual and interesting backstory.
Our top picks this week are Great Big War Game and The Dark Knight Rises. Read on for all the details.
Early last year, we reviewed Great Little War Game, a fully 3-D take on Nintendo’s classic Advance Wars strategy games that was sold in separate iPhone/iPod and iPad versions. Developer Rubicon Mobile has returned with a highly similar but improved sequel called Great Big War Game ($3), which now integrates iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch support into a single title, with an enhanced graphics engine that appears to have been optimized for higher-resolution devices. Rubicon has actually released an update for Great Big War Game already to improve its compatibility with lower-memory devices such as the original iPad and current iPod touch; if history repeats, significant other post-release tweaks can be expected, as well.
Just as before, Great Big War Game is a cartoony, deliberately humorous take on overhead hexagonal map military strategy titles, placing you in control of an army that seeks to conquer multiple battlefields by completing certain objectives. On one map, you may target an enemy general and win by knocking him off, while another may challenge you to take over a specific enemy base or defend your own territory. Each game starts you with a limited number of different soldiers and vehicles, alternating between automatically supplying reinforcements and challenging you to create more of your own with on-map factories. The more money you earn by conquering oil-producing towers, finding gold chests on the map, or otherwise accruing bonus cash, the more and better soldiers you can add to your collction. Each “turn” enables you to move each of your units to a different location on the map and either attack enemy units or work towards conquering their bases; you then give your computer or human opponent a turn to do the same. Online and pass-and-play multiplayer modes are available.
From a big picture perspective, not much has changed between Great Big War Game and its predecessor in the gameplay department—this title seems largely like an effort to unify the needlessly separate prior iOS releases within a universal title with new maps, and that effort is appreciated. Most of the camera work and perspectives are the same, so you’re still viewing an isometric angle on an overhead map for most of the game, with full-screen closeups during skirmishes. Despite obvious visual similarities between the titles, the new version has respectable Retina-quality detail throughout on the third-generation iPad, and everything looks at least a little better: explosions, gunfire, and animations are tweaked to look good even on super high-res devices. On the flip side, there’s a lot of carryover in the audio: spoken phrases from the original game appear here, and the upbeat campaign music hasn’t changed much. Control remains simple and intuitive—just tap on a unit to make it move or attack—while intermissions have the same slightly juvenile humor that was found in the original game.
Rubicon’s pricing for the main game is entirely fair given its depth and quality, though there’s one small hiccup that detracts a little from the appeal. There are 50 initial single-player and 15 multiplayer maps for the $3 asking price, with three additional 15-20 multiplayer map packs sold for $2 each. True, you have the option to get a truly great, generally complete strategy game for as little as $3, but as with so many games relying upon in-app purchasing, there are some silly limitations designed to compel you to spend more: a somewhat silly $1 “customizer” purchase lets you pick your army’s color and flag, while two unit types (a Flame Tank and Medic) are locked separately inside two different map packs. You can decide for yourself whether to buy the main $3 game or the complete $10 one; we’d definitely recommend the former to strategy game fans, while the latter is largely for serious multiplayer enthusiasts, unless the prices go down. iLounge Rating: A-.
As the story behind Chillingo’s The Act ($3/$1) goes, a group of former Disney animators spent years toiling on a game designed to be more interactive than Don Bluth’s famously hand-drawn Laserdisc arcade titles Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, only to find that there wasn’t much of a market for the finished product. So now The Act has arrived as a universal iOS release, and for the current $1 asking price, it’s cute: a highly visual throwback to the classic and time-consuming animation of past Disney films, albeit with themes that are more suited to older players.
The Act places you in control of Edgar, an everyman who appears in bar, work, and hospital scenes that require him to interact with other more pointedly developed characters. He’s introduced as a flirt in a bar, trying to capture the attention of a woman named Sylvia by alternating between passive and active gestures—you swipe to the left to keep him at a distance, or to the right to move him more aggressively towards his love interest. Push too much in either direction and he’ll fail, with a video rewind animation giving him another chance to succeed by doing things differently. In the next sequence, he stands between his angry boss and sleepy window washing brother, trying to keep his boss from going ballistic and his brother from toppling over on the scaffolding. Then he begins The Act, posing as a doctor to rescue his brother from a hospital while continuing to woo Silvia, who turns out to be a nurse.
Everything’s drawn in the style of cartoons from the 1950’s and 1960’s, just as the themes could have easily come from the same era or subsequent years—the content is fairly evergreen, though clearly nodding backwards in time rather than forwards. That said, Don Bluth’s choice of fantasy and sci-fi settings imbued his titles with excitement and edginess that The Act lacks. Thanks to its cartoony takes on real world situations, this is a game that might appeal to fans of Sam and Max and similarly lighthearted adventure games, but for its comparative lack of adventuring.
The Act stumbles primarily because it chose the wrong standard to beat: only classic animators would aspire to trump Bluth arcade machines that weren’t particularly good or deep games even when they were released nearly 30 years ago. However, people who felt daunted by the overly sensitive joystick and button taps required to play the Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace machines will appreciate the softer gameplay engineering here. The developers have created plenty of additional transitional and alternative animations so players have more than a split second to consider their decisions, while the swipe-based “lean this way, then that” flow of the scenarios manages to feel less abrupt and polar than Bluth’s “move or die” sequences. Moreover, the retro scenarios and accompanying music will charm adults who are looking to interact with a classic cartoon. But the game’s brevity and simplicity are direct results of the manual labor consumed by detailed traditional animation of this sort without a massive team of gameplay engineers; players should expect less than an hour of time between starting and finishing The Act. If it had been released long ago, this might have made a major dent in the video game world; today, it’s merely an interesting footnote to better-known titles. iLounge Rating: B-.
Having established itself as capable of creating strong iOS games across any genre—many with elements borrowed from earlier console titles—Gameloft quickly became the go-to developer for big-name movie and comic licenses, most notably releasing several increasingly impressive Spider-Man games. Now the company has taken on Batman with The Dark Knight Rises ($7), a 3-D action title that bears some similarities to Gameloft’s recently-released Amazing Spider-Man and Warner Bros.’ independently-developed hit Arkham series of console/computer games, while following the events of the just-released movie.
The Dark Knight Rises is so generally well-executed in all regards that its few omissions stand out like sore thumbs. Just as in The Amazing Spider-Man, Batman is dropped into an open city map that allows him to roam between locations fighting bad guys, climbing buildings, and witnessing cut-scenes, with missions that take him inside specific buildings and the subway system. Unlike Spidey’s bright, sunlit Manhattan, Batman’s dark Gotham is often illuminated only by searchlights, signs, and interior building lights, and between cool lighting effects, the film’s original soundtrack, and deft camera work in the cinematics, you’ll feel as much a part of the movie’s universe as is currently possible on iOS devices. Only two things—the lack of much human or vehicular activity on the streets, and sometimes stilted cinematic animations for key characters—take away from the presentation, which otherwise benefits from outstanding textures, respectable polygon counts, and acceptable camera performance. Gameloft’s Batman character looks particularly fantastic throughout, with some of the best armor and cape animation you’ll find outside of the Arkham games. His voice, and most others, sound so close to the original actors’ that you’ll really notice the one (Lucius Fox) that doesn’t, though as with the graphics, far more is done right than wrong here.
On balance, the gameplay is more richly developed than in Amazing Spider-Man—there’s a little more detective work and computer hacking action, plus an even more staggering variety of character upgrades, as well as opportunities to pilot the flying Bat and Bat-Pod motorcycle. However, there are strong similarities between the activities in the two games, which both feature the same basic combination of running around, punching out groups of nearly mindless foes, and swinging from rooftop to rooftop to move between objectives. Here, of course, Batman uses a grappling hook and Batarangs rather than shooting webbing, and he has his own over-the-top punches and kicks that look quite unlike Spider-Man’s, but they’re so conceptually similar that one character could be swapped for the other. An overused slow motion effect in The Dark Knight Rises changes the pace of the action here, less objectionably because it tends to actually show off Batman’s impressive cape and body animations, while gliding, flying, and driving sequences also break up the fighting, though sometimes with less than ideal controls.
Is The Dark Knight Rises a great game? By the current iOS platform’s 3-D action game standards, yes. Detractors might note that there’s certainly borrowed Arkham material—gargoyle perching, detective-like considerations, and so on—but what’s here feels more directly inspired by the Batman movies and comics than anything else. Moreover, Gameloft has achieved a strong balance between storytelling and gameplay, nicely integrating key characters such as Selina Kyle, Bane, Alfred, and Lucius into the game’s narrative without reducing the sense of urgency action game fans would expect. At some points, the story continues while you play rather than stopping for in-game cinematics, a major plus for those who feel licensed titles are too often like videos rather than video games. Perhaps the single biggest objection players will have to this title is the fact that it’s premium priced while still offering an in-app purchase system packed with almost comically expensive upgrade coins, and Gameloft actively promotes the purchase of experience point and coin drop upgrades early on. Like the game’s other issues, this begging-for-dollars approach isn’t fatal to a high recommendation, but remains a sign that Gameloft doesn’t mind rattling its hat for extra spare change, even when it’s charging full price for a blockbuster licensed title. iLounge Rating: A-.
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