Welcome to this week’s second edition of iPhone Gems—a catch-up edition to make up for last week’s iPad-heavy coverage. Today’s three games are relatively action-intense—one is a sequel to an action-platformer we’ve previously reviewed, and the other two are shooters, one a simple but effective side-scroller, and the other an overhead 3-D military-themed blaster.
Though the three titles are substantially different from one another, our top pick of the bunch is MrFungFung’s MiniSquadron. Read on for all the details.
It’s always a mystery when a really impressive, groundbreaking game is followed up by a less impressive sequel, but that’s what happened with Assassin’s Creed II Discovery ($10) by Ubisoft, the retrograded descendant of last April’s Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles. By creating plausible, visually interesting 3-D backgrounds and characters, then using largely 2-D gameplay to let you jump, climb, and fight your way through stages, the first game looked and felt like what it was—a great $10 port of a $30 Nintendo DS title But there are so many bad decisions in Assassin’s Creed II that the games feel like they were created by totally different development teams, the latter neither understanding nor properly replicating what worked for the former.
Here, you’re controlling a sword-wielding assassin named Ezio who progresses through stages that are still built from the polygonal 3-D shapes seen in Altair’s Chronicles, but are now presented from a comparatively boring flat side-scrolling perspective. Though the old world European themes remain intact, the interesting little background animation touches that gave the last game’s levels life and brilliance are gone, replaced by Metal Gear Solid-style VR effects. For instance, you train for missions in an odd virtual world, and when you fail in a mission, the background art dissolves as if everything you’re doing is taking place within a computer. It’s decidedly weird and entirely unfitting for a game with a 15th Century Spanish theme, and just one of the things that takes a player out of the experience rather than drawing him or her in.
The other major one is control. For whatever reason, Ubisoft replaced the prior game’s small corner joystick with a left and right movement slider, using multiple context-specific, changing buttons to handle jumping, rolling, fighting, and stealthy sneaking. Besides the fact that so little of the action this time around is fun, the controls feel floaty and unresponsive at times, leading you to make bad jumps, obscuring the enemies you’re supposed to be sneaking up on, and requiring you to hit the attack button again and again for relatively pointless combos. The action and levels are repetitive, and just not compelling; on the flip side, however, the music and sound effects are well above par, even if they don’t make up for the other problems—full voice acting is included for the intermission scenes, and a real soundtrack actually sounds pretty good.
To be completely fair, a broader perspective on Assassin’s Creed II Discovery would note that the game is a competent enough action platformer with nice animations, plus the vague thrill of close-up camera work when you manage to sneak up on an enemy for a quick assassination-style kill. That said, the game’s obvious problems detract so much from the experience that we wouldn’t bother with it unless you’re a real big fan of the series; Ubisoft has lost a lot of the magic that the first game borrowed from Prince of Persia, and what’s left is a somewhat confusing and lackluster assembly of parts. A premium $10 asking price demands far better than this. iLounge Rating: B-.
Capcom’s Commando series—including a sequel called Mercs—was amongst a small collection of influential overhead military-themed run-and-shoot games, placing you in control of a Rambo-like guy with a gun and a collection of bunkers to storm. Chillingo‘s new Guerrilla Bob ($3) borrows the concept from Mercs and the visual style of the 2008 follow-up Commando 3, offering a cartoony set of eight levels that place you in control of a soldier named Bob as he seeks revenge on a criminal former friend named John. You use an on-screen joypad to move Bob, a second joypad to shoot in any direction, and a set of three icons to toggle between different weapons.
Where Guerilla Bob does best is in constantly introducing new enemies: as you find and power up your weapons, so too do new threats appear, such that you gain a flamethrower and soon thereafter enemies appear with flamethrowers, while others toss bombs, fire missiles, and hand-carry exploding barrels to detonate near you. Though somewhat repetitive internally and from level to level, the stages consist of land, buildings, trees, and enemies that range from human-sized to huge turrets and oversized bosses; all are impressive in the way that, say, Crash Bandicoot was for the Sony PlayStation 15 years ago, and look good on the small iPhone and iPod touch screens. The only thing that doesn’t really work is the pacing: your weapons tend to eliminate enemies too slowly, turning what should be more of a blast fest into a more deliberate and occasionally boring endeavor—how many bullets does a guy with a barrel in his hands really need to absorb before he’s no longer a threat?
Until the App Store hosts a version of Ikari Warriors, Commando, Total Carnage, or one of the many other titles they inspired, Guerrilla Bob offers a similar enough experience to satisfy fans of the overhead military run-and-gun genre. Besides tweaking the game’s challenge level a little, our hope is that the developers fix the game’s save system, which has an unfortunate tendency to lose the player’s place under certain conditions—including when a phone call comes in—and start you back at or near the game’s beginning. In that regard, Guerrilla Bob is actually pretty old-fashioned, and all it’ll take is a little mistake to make you replay a sizable segment of the game. iLounge Rating: B.
As much as the iPod touch and iPhone may suffer from the lack of dedicated joypad-style controls, they do deserve special credit for enabling developers to tinker with play mechanics and concepts that might never have seen the light of day on other platforms. MiniSquadron ($3) from MrFungFung is a prime example of the type of innovation that can be had from a creative but unknown developer at a low price point: it’s a side-scrolling airplane shooter that relies more on the looping and turning of its cartoony planes than on its backdrops, which take a back seat to the action and could easily be forgotten.
The idea here is simple: you start each of the eight levels in a plane of your choice, and need to shoot down successive waves of enemy planes while armed only with a slow gun. You can fly up, down, left, or right, and the background will move to track your motion, yet unlike side-scrolling titles that might initially seem comparable, you’re not flying from left to right and continually shooting whatever appears on the right side of the screen. Instead, you’re inside a fixed area, and enemies can pop in from any side; they loop around, and you loop upwards and downwards in pursuit, hitting the gun button to tag them enough that they’ll fall into the ocean. Additional planes are unlocked as you play more and score better, with 56 vehicles—including UFOs and alien spacecraft—eventually becoming available, many with different weapons, handling characteristics, and armor. A free lite version of the game called MiniSquadron Lite lets you play one stage and unlock eight of the vehicles, omitting a one-on-one Wi-Fi multiplayer mode offered in the full version.
What we liked a lot in MiniSquadron was the continued evolution of the challenges—new planes continue to appear with different weapons, increasing in numbers and power as the waves go on—and the unique turning play mechanic, which does as good of a job as simulating dogfighting in 2-D as we’ve yet seen in a game of this sort. The fact that planes can stall out after reaching certain heights or taking hits introduces a little more realism and challenge, both of which we really liked. By comparison, MrFungFung’s power-up system inspired mixed feelings, as it includes a great collection of items—health boosts, invincibility, invisibility, and even temporary replacement weapons—but the colored star icons are too confusingly similar to remember, while the title’s dreamy, piano-based classical soundtrack was a disappointment, seemingly added only to fill what would otherwise have been a big sonic gap. Without a doubt, MiniSquadron has a ton to offer, and we legitimately enjoyed playing it; a little additional aesthetic polish could push it up into the A category. iLounge Rating (Both): B+.