Welcome to this week’s first gaming edition of iPhone Gems. This has been a big week for new game releases, so we’ve split our Gems column into two pieces: this one focuses on two big new music games and a puzzler, while the other looks at new sports titles.
Though none of the games below received a B+ or higher rating, we do review Rock Band, Tap Tap Revenge 3, and BombLink below. Read on for all the details.
Better known on the iPhone and iPod touch for its Resident Evil and game show titles than anything else, Capcom recently released BombLink ($2), a new puzzle game. The concept is simple: there’s a well full of bombs in the center of the screen, and little flames that fall down left and right channels as bombs continue to stack up. You control the direction the bombs’ fuses are pointing in, and there are three places those fuses can sit: pointing towards nothing, pointing towards another bomb—creating a connection between the bombs—or pointing towards the falling flames. Your goal is to point as many of the fuses towards other bombs as possible, then point one fuse towards a falling flame to spark a chain reaction explosion; unmovable twin bombs and gas cans also appear in the stack over time. That’s it.
Thankfully, there aren’t any major gameplay problems: control of the rotating bombs is as easy as tapping them with a finger, and the game’s pacing is appropriate to let you actually rotate them. While BombLink’s graphics, sounds, and depth aren’t especially ambitious in the way that some might expect from a Capcom title—the company’s Super Puzzle Fighter II games were bigger draws for us in the past—the package here is fun enough to justify rather than surpass the expectations users will have for the low price. iLounge Rating: B.
For the past two years, Harmonix’s Rock Band has been one of the most popular rhythm-based music games on home game consoles, and its release for the iPod touch and iPhone seemed basically inevitable. Yet the company stalled for whatever reason on bringing the game to Apple’s pocket devices, leaving competitors such as Tapulous to define and conquer the market with Tap Tap Revenge and its sequels. Today, Electronic Arts finally released Rock Band ($10) into the App Store, and as might have been guessed for a number of reasons, the results are solid rather than spectacular.
Just like the Tap Tap titles, Rock Band is a four-line rhythm game that has you tap on separately colored bottom-of-screen pads every time a bar falls from the top of the line through a checkpoint near the bottom pads: your goal is to tap at the exact second a bar crosses the checkpoint, repeating this action across the four lines in a way that roughly corresponds with what you’re hearing in a licensed song. Unlike Tap Tap, but like Gameloft’s Guitar Rock Tour titles, you can choose from multiple instruments—here, guitar, bass guitar, drums, and vocals—and each of the game’s 20 included tracks is actually broken up into those four parts, each part with its own notes to hit, increasing over several levels of difficulty. If you fail to hit your notes as a guitarist, the guitar line drops out of the song; fail to tap the right bars for long enough as a vocalist and the song becomes an instrumental. Rock Band also supports multiplayer over Bluetooth, enabling multiple people to take up instruments and play on the same song at once, with a Unison bonus for good play.
Having seen the nothing short of amazing job Harmonix did with its recent Beatles version of Rock Band for game consoles, Rock Band on the iPhone is somewhat of a visual letdown—below the graphical level of Gameloft’s Guitar Rock Tour titles and barely up to the standards of the better games in the Tap Tap series. The on-screen displays differ a little for the four parts, most notably changing the orientation of the pads for the vocals, but the goal is always the same: tap or hold on the right pad for as many notes as possible in a row, shaking the device to activate a point multiplier when you’ve built up a meter with good play. In addition to watching a lot of falling green, red, yellow, and blue bars, which change into dots for the vocalist mode, triggering some modestly interesting henna-like scrolling background patterns, the top of the screen is occupied by some modestly animated, generic artwork of a band playing; this art doesn’t change for any of the included singers, so you’ll see a male vocalist performing when the Go-Gos are singing We Got The Beat.
Ultimately, the music is the primary thing that can make or break a game like Rock Band, and whether you’ll like this one will really depend on whether rock and alt-rock appeal to you. Harmonix uses real tracks from real performers—not covers, like Gameloft’s games—but the mix of included songs really didn’t do too much for us; we were bored playing drums, for instance, on George Thorogood’s otherwise great Bad To The Bone, and felt similarly nonplussed by tracks from the All-American Rejects, Pixies, Jethro Tull, and AFI. Some of the songs are unlocked as “Mystery Songs” as you play through a World Tour mode; others are available from the start in a Quick Play mode. EA lets you spend $1 to buy two-packs of songs as In-App Purchases if you’d like to find additional music to play with, but doesn’t include updated art with the songs, and often bundles tracks by two artists together. Consequently, we bought a Lenny Kravitz song, Let Love Rule, and got Funk #49 by The James Gang along with it. Great.
Different players will obviously have different reactions to Rock Band based on their individual tastes in music, but from our perspective, the biggest thing that this title has going for it right now is its name—and the prospect that Harmonix will bring better music and art into a future update. The gameplay’s solid, but nothing that iPhone and iPod touch gamers haven’t seen before in the far less expensive Tap Tap games, and to the extent that EA has filled the screen mostly with lines, bars, and control pads, there’s too little room to display the breathtaking sorts of graphics Harmonix has come up with on consoles. Rock Band is a fine start for this series in the App Store, but it’ll need to do more to stand out from the pack. Until the price drops, we’d recommend it only to serious fans of the artists whose tracks are included with the game. iLounge Rating: B-.
We’ve had mixed feelings about Tapulous’s previous Tap Tap titles, but there have been decided high points in the series, including new graphics introduced in Tap Tap Dance and the impressive musicians it has partnered with for titles such as Tap Tap Coldplay. For the developer, however, the star of the series has been Tap Tap Revenge—one of the App Store’s most popular games—and its sequel, Tap Tap Revenge 2. Now there’s Tap Tap Revenge 3 ($1), a sequel that once again ups the ante without incorporating all of the visual or gameplay breakthroughs from the company’s earlier titles, instead focusing on a new and currently buggy back-end to sell and give away additional content. At the moment, TTR3 feels like a beta release rather than a finished, polished product, but it zooms far beyond Rock Band in terms of ambition, if not always in execution.
As with most but not all of the series’ prior games, you’re tapping to the beats of songs by following balls down on-screen lines, scoring points by hitting the beats properly over and over again. This differs from Rock Band in a few ways: there are three places to tap rather than four, you can’t choose multiple instruments, and there aren’t several layers of separated audio in each track, so when you fail, the song’s varied elements don’t slip away—you just lose points. Tapulous has historically made up for some of its omissions relative to Rock Band by providing tons of tracks, including some that are included with the game, and an amazing number of free downloadable tracks; TTR3 includes three tracks by D.J. Tiesto, Stroke 9, and LMFAO, providing you with the ability to grab many more songs individually or in packs based on their difficulty.
One major change to TTR3 is that there’s an added incentive for continued good play. Tapulous rewards you after each track with coins to use towards customizing an in-game avatar who represents you during online games and leaderboards. There are numerous different avatar outfits at various prices, as well as jewelry, instruments, and more—all neat little touches. Thankfully, nothing in the avatar store, at least for now, is purchasable with cash.
Though this isn’t as exciting as it would have been to earn points that could be used towards additional music purchases, Tapulous’s music store is many times better than Electronic Arts’ for Rock Band, which as of today includes a sad collection of only 10 songs sold in mandatory two-song bundles—all music only, without new artwork. By comparison, TTR3’s store already has hundreds of tracks, including lots of free ones—albeit mostly from artists we’d never heard of—and the songs include artist-specific background artwork that ranges from okay to pretty good. We’re not crazy about the idea of re-purchasing music we already own just to play it in the TTR series, but the added art, the same-artist bundles, and the pricing here strike us as closer to reasonable than in Rock Band. Additionally, Tapulous is in the process of merging its prior, separate Dance, Coldplay, Lady Gaga and other standalone games directly into this one at no additional charge—a largely praiseworthy move. We were able to re-download the 13 Gaga tracks into TTR3 using the in-app downloading system, albeit apparently without the four-line boss encounters from the standalone app, a mode we’d love to see return.
Unfortunately, the problems with TTR3 undermine our ability to recommend it as highly as we otherwise might. Downloading tracks from the company’s in-app store has been a complete mess since the game launched, with sluggish and aborted downloads, such that Tapulous’s App Store pages are now telling users with problems that they should turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to get their songs or play online. Even using the workarounds, which let us succeed in grabbing the aforementioned Lady Gaga tracks, we had problems getting one of the two Gwen Stefani tracks we purchased for 99 cents to properly download and install at all. Ultimately, deleting the app and re-downloading all of the content over a 3G network was necessary—a waste of time and bandwidth, but it eventually worked.
There’s also the fact that Tapulous has really not taken the necessary steps to evolve the core gameplay or visual experience of TTR3 past its predecessors, even though it has shown in certain prior titles that it knows how to do so. The biggest additions to this title are the artist-specific but still generally static backgrounds, which concern us to the extent that they suggest that Tapulous is going to continue developing most of its future updates around the limited, three-line system of prior TTR games rather than the four-line system found in certain prior games’ boss encounters; the only other noteworthy change is the conspicuous presence of meters on screen to gauge your overall tapping accuracy and show the current point multiplier level. Not exactly wow-worthy stuff.
Though it’s unquestionably an improvement on its predecessors, Tap Tap Revenge 3 feels like it was more about bringing a store online and artists into the store en masse than really improving the gameplay experience for fans of the series. Similarly, while it’s surely a better value at $1 than Rock Band is at $10—a fact that would normally lead us to issue a higher rating—TTR3’s buggy downloading mechanism really needs some additional work, and it remains to be seen whether this title fully subsumes the prior, separate Tap Tap titles or merely brings in one background per artist. We hope that Tapulous makes the right choices to incorporate the gameplay and graphics innovations that its prior standalone titles have offered, as they would go a long way towards making TTR3 a truly great platform for additional artists to sign on for. iLounge Rating: B.