Another week, and four more interesting titles appear in our gaming edition of iPhone Gems: this week’s collection starts very strong with a 3-D action platformer that’s been ported from the Nintendo DS, continues with a new ping pong game and a port of a well-known arcade sniper shooting title, and finishes with a futuristic military strategy title.
Our pick of the week is Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles from Gameloft, but all four titles are worth reading about. The details are all below.
It’s happening: full-fledged $30 Nintendo DS games are starting to appear in the App Store for less. Though Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles ($10) by Ubisoft and Gameloft technically isn’t the first such title—last year’s PuzzleQuest was earlier—the big news here is that Gameloft’s version isn’t a compromised, partial port: unlike PuzzleQuest, which originally planned to offer its $30 cartridge as three $10 games, then unexpectedly changed plans, Assassin’s Creed contains the same full game from the DS, for less. We discussed how this is economically possible in an article last month, and now it’s happening.
Bearing more than a little similarity to the earlier and popular Prince of Persia games, the iPhone and Nintendo DS version of Assassin’s Creed is essentially a light side-scrolling platform game with adventuring, jumping, and fighting elements. The characters and backdrops are rendered in 3-D, like Gameloft’s earlier Hero of Sparta, and there are points at which the namesake assassin character Altair runs into and out of the screen, backtracks backwards such that the level moves to the left, climbs up buildings in a manner that moves the camera upwards, and climbs down into sewers, bringing the camera downwards. In some situations, he uses stealth to sneak up on targets and knock them out, while in others, he runs into a crowd of armed attackers and swings a sword around to kill them. All of the main action is handled through an on-screen joypad and a collection of buttons—some appearing only in specific situations—and the game is interrupted by movies, in-game dialogue sequences, and occasional mini-games. One resembles Saturday Night Fever, requiring you to tap on time and in sequence to apply pressure to a victim to make him give up secrets. Weapons and life can be powered up, and additional abilities such as wall-running and wall-to-wall jumping can be obtained; the game provides unlimited lives to enable you to continue through the story so long as you can complete the challenges, eventually.
Though there are some mild technical issues in Assassin’s Creed—sometimes odd skips between sequences, for instance, there are so many impressive things going on here visually that they’re hard to mind. One level is set in a flaming city, with smoke, embers, and burning stacks of hay, while others are set in various populated Arabic environments that are visually interesting for different reasons: some due to the complexity of the environments, including flowing water, steps, and buildings with interiors and exteriors, while others are neat based on the sheer number of people walking around in them as you run, jump, or swing your way from rooftop to rooftop.
The only significant impediments to Assassin’s Creed being a perfect iPhone action title are the obligatory iPhone control issues and the game’s brief length: it runs for roughly six hours of gameplay, and as with all titles utilizing on-screen joypads, the running, attacking, and jumping action are at best imprecise—compensated for mostly by the unlimited lives. While you’re playing, it’s very close to a thrill ride, with the almost complete absence of in-game music serving as the only real missing link to keep the tension up; you spend more time hearing the random chatter of nearby villagers and other ambient sound effects than anything to get your heart racing. Still, as action titles go on the iPhone, this one and Hero of Sparta are about as impressively excellent as they come, and justify a comparatively premium asking price. If you like adventuring, or just want to see what the iPhone’s really capable of, we’d highly recommend this title. iLounge Rating: A-.
Ping pong was never exactly a system-selling sport, but ever since Rockstar unexpectedly released a surprisingly realistic 3-D rendition for current-generation game consoles, it’s been hard to see any other version of the sport as truly impressive. Skyworks has tried with its World Cup Ping Pong ($2), a title that offers four modes—tournament, arcade, head-to-head, or practice—which let you play either against a CPU-controlled opponent, a wall with various appearing targets, or a human opponent.
In all of the modes save for head-to-head, the screen is basically one big controller that you can touch to move your paddle in a simplified, forced-perspective 3-D space, with the game automatically adjusting your paddle’s distance from the net as you control left and right positioning, and sort of control height. This control scheme has been designed to deal with some of the challenges inherent in trying to gauge the ball’s depth within the environment at a given moment, and of course the iPhone’s unique control issues. In one-on-one mode, the view switches to a flat overhead perspective, transforming the gameplay into something closer to the classic video game Pong; all you need to worry about is staying on your side of the screen and not crossing over certain table boundary lines when returning shots.
While there isn’t much flash in World Cup Ping Pong, Skyworks does offer a few options. In each mode, you can choose from three paddles, one balanced in power and spin, and two others that are strong in one but weak in the other; tournament and practice modes also let you select from eight international teams and progress from quarter finals to semis to finals. Though there aren’t any user-adjustable difficulty levels, practice mode reveals that the teams have certain star rankings, building in difficulty as you progress from low-ranked USA up to more expert teams such as Russia and China. Keeping with Skyworks tradition, there are two upbeat synthesized music tracks to choose from, and sliders to adjust the volume levels of the music and decent accompanying sound effects.
While serious ping pong players won’t find World Cup Ping Pong to be a super-realistic rendition of the sport, with relatively plain backdrops and simple action, Skyworks has once again come up with a title that’s fun to play in small doses at a low price. By adding in the arcade mode, which gives players a chance to practice shots at differing elevation levels and angles, as well as the simultaneous two-player mode, the company has gone beyond the bare expectations we might have had for such a game, and come up with a title that has extra replay value and appeal. Networked play, more backgrounds, and a true 3-D engine would make for an even better ping pong experience. iLounge Rating: B.
Konami’s release of Metal Gear Solid Touch may have disappointed players who were expecting more than just a simple shooting gallery title with high-resolution pre-rendered artwork, but it did bring to mind the company’s earlier, successful arcade shooters Lethal Enforcers and Silent Scope: games that placed you in the middle of active gunfire and forced you to quickly take out hundreds of digitized 2-D and 3-D targets. Now Silent Scope has appeared as an iPhone OS title for $6, and though it has some serious rough edges, it is an interesting attempt to bring some of the old arcade action home.
Unlike MGS Touch and Lethal Enforcers, which were basically widescreen target shooting games, the arcade game Silent Scope was a sniper title that uniquely equipped players with both a widescreen TV monitor and a second, miniature monitor inside the scope of a sniper rifle. You’d use the larger screen to locate targets on a big, zoomed-out view of an urban environment, then peer into the scope and take out targets seen in detail on the smaller screen. It was ingenious, but not easy to duplicate on home game consoles, because there weren’t similarly-equipped video sniper rifles; instead, home players got to use their TVs and move around a zoomed-in circle to take out targets. Reviews of the home versions were generally middling to negative, noting that the revised visual scheme turned Silent Scope into a mediocre shooting game.
The iPhone version is even worse. Rather than offering a small, zoomed-in on-screen shooting window, Konami here zooms the entire screen inwards at once, letting you tap twice to flip between full-map or zoomed-in views, then swipe and tap to pick and shoot targets. This turns out to be a pretty moronic way to implement what’s otherwise a fine port of the arcade game, as the zoomed-in view is completely unsuitable for targeting fast-moving boss characters, such as an airplane that zips around skyscrapers and needs to be shot in the cockpit, or a subsequent truck that barrels towards you with a driver who needs to be taken out. During regular stages, the action is okay—repetitive and less interesting than in Metal Gear Solid Touch, save for the presence of true 3-D artwork which runs at a somewhat sluggish frame rate—but the boss fights at the end of each stage are essentially ruined by the poor camera design.
This is simply a shame. Silent Scope’s terrorist theme, once-awesome 3-D graphics, and tension-building voices and synthesized music remain compelling even today, assuming that they’re presented appropriately; given that even a Game Boy version did as much back in 2002, it would have been extremely easy for Konami to churn out an iPhone OS rendition of this game with a zoomed-in sight. In its current form, this title isn’t worth a purchase, but should Konami go back in and clean it up, it could easily have one of the App Store’s best shooters on its hands. iLounge Rating: C+.
Last but not least this week is a turn-based strategy game from Xpressed/JavaGround called UniWar (normally $8, on sale for $3), which offers players over 50 different, hexagon-based futuristic military strategy maps to play solo, against another local player, or online. You choose from one of three armies—“sapiens,” “titans,” or “khraleans,” in order of human- to alien-like characteristics—and try to take control of all neutral and enemy bases located on the current, scrollable map. There’s a campaign mode that also serves as a mission-based tutorial, and a solo mode that lets you unlock the game’s maps one at a time. Battles are one-on-one, which is to say that you face one human or computer opponent at a time.
What UniWar offers isn’t outstanding art or audio, but rather depth. The hexagonal maps are populated with varying forms of terrain that limit or impede the movement of different types of soldiers and machines that you control, such that foot soldiers may be able to move three or five spaces away on standard terrain, but only one in mountainous terrain, while gaining defensive or offensive capabilities based on the type of ground they’re on. More interesting are little tricks that make certain soldiers, such as reprogrammable robots, flip sides or get short-circuited with electromagnetic pulses, and a variety of turn-based choices that different classes of warriors are given. Even the simplest, smallest maps in the game—populated by the weakest classes of soldiers and vehicles—can turn out to be major challenges that consume a half hour or more of time; online games are given running 72-hour clocks. This isn’t some short, simple strategy game, and fans of the genre will be thrilled by the depth and longevity it offers; some will also be impressed to find that even early maps aren’t capable of being blown through, unlike Nintendo’s more accessible, gently progressing Advance Wars titles.
That said, it’s hard to be impressed by the artwork or audio that JavaGrounds has put into this title: other than the opening screen, the in-game art is all primitive and flat, only modestly animated, and does virtually nothing to take advantage of the iPhone’s 2-D or 3-D capabilities. There’s very little in-game music, and audio effects range from decent to grating. By old mobile phone standards, UniWar might have been aesthetically acceptable, but on this platform—or most other non-phone handheld consoles released in the last ten years—it’s well below par in all ways save for its gameplay.
Overall, UniWar is the type of turn-based military strategy game that will appeal to and satisfy fans of the genre, particularly harder-core players, but it won’t win over first-time players or those seeking audiovisual excitement. Because of its genre, which has traditionally depended far more on depth and longevity than flash, it’s still worthy of a general recommendation, but we’re hoping for something that makes better use of Apple’s sophisticated hardware. iLounge Rating: B.
Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.