Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems, which we’ll describe as “the week we play catch-up” with a collection of significant new releases that appeared during vacation time this month. Five new titles are featured in Gems this week, including a first-person zombie shooter, a mostly third-person space shooter, an action puzzler, an action platformer, and a classic board game. They’re all noteworthy for one reason or another, as we’ll discuss below.
Our pick of the week is Mobigame’s budget-priced multi-touch puzzler CrossFingers. Read on for all the details.
Between the App Store’s ever-shifting prices and capacity for frequent upgrades, developers have spent the last year and a half trying to work out the right balance between charging fairly for their games and subsequently adding new features to entice additional features. Some have figured out how to do this, and others haven’t. An example of a company that hasn’t is Activision, which has just released Call of Duty: World at War: Zombies ($10), a promising first-person shooter that will be limited in initial appeal because of its high price, and then in subsequent value because of the shallowness of its gameplay.
You take control of a soldier whose building is being overrun by waves of Nazi zombies, and have the obvious task of shooting as many as possible to keep yourself alive and earning money for additional weapons and ammunition. Apart from using a familiar enough virtual joypad, virtual button, and swipe-for-head-turning control scheme to move around and shoot zombies, you find chalk weapon outlines on the walls to purchase additional guns, and need to continually reinforce wooden barricades near doors and windows to keep the attackers temporarily at bay. Wolves howl in the night, zombies let out their typical moans, and gunshots ring out as you hit the fire button. The controls manage to feel sluggish by comparison with titles such as Gameloft’s Modern Combat: Sandstorm, and apart from a less than totally smooth frame rate on pre-iPhone 3GS devices, there aren’t any major surprises in the aesthetics.
There’s only one building to defend in the $10 game – a surprise given the price – though Activision tries to stretch out its interest by forcing you to earn money to unlock its secrets, including a second floor with additional weapons and a filing cabinet scattered about; unlocking and going up to this floor essentially leaves all of the first floor’s doorways exposed so that the zombies can queue up to attack you en masse. Because of your need to replenish your ammunition, and to manage the zombie hordes coming up the staircase, you’ll either need to move between floors or accrue enough cash to buy and restock second-floor weapons. That’s it for single-player mode; three different multi-player cooperative modes are also included, but had glitches in our testing – Bluetooth supports two players but didn’t work properly, local Wi-Fi supports up to four players, and an online mode is supposed to allow multi-player networked play over Wi-Fi, but Activision hasn’t completed it yet.
Our general impression of Call of Duty is simple: rather than releasing this game with the sort of polish and depth it should have received for the asking price, Activision popped out a half-baked, pricey demo that would barely merit attention if it didn’t have the Call of Duty name going for it. In a particularly galling touch, the company has included an in-app purchasing scheme in hopes of cashing in on future updates: the game’s “Extras” section reveals that Activision plans to charge for additional levels, which might make sense in a $1 or $3 app but feels like highway robbery here. Skip Call of Duty until it drops significantly in price and fixes both its controls and multiplayer features. iLounge Rating: C-.
Having released one of the very best iPhone titles of the past year in Edge, Mobigame has finally debuted a follow-up in the very different CrossFingers ($1), a 120-level puzzler which takes considerable advantage of the platform’s multi-touch functionality. In a nutshell, you’re presented with stage after stage of two-dimensional, single-screen “move the blocks” puzzles, and need to consider both fixed and moving obstacles in the process of dragging blocks from one place on the screen to another. The fixed obstacles are walls that have deliberately been sculpted to limit the blocks’ range of motion, and the moving obstacles are barrier blocks that need to be temporarily pushed aside to solve the puzzles. You complete a stage when all of the blocks have been positioned atop black holes in the floor.
Critically, the black holes match the shapes of the blocks you’re moving, and the blocks don’t disappear until all of the blocks have been assembled atop the holes. This means that you frequently need to push the blocks together, as in tangram games we’ve previously reviewed, and create larger shapes from the individual pieces. In later stages, you also need to hold one or two barriers open while moving blocks through, a challenge that explains the “CrossFingers” name—merely getting one block through a few barriers, then repeating the task, can be a real chore.
Where CrossFingers goes right is in its straightforward gameplay: levels are discrete, bite-sized tasks that can be completed with a little thought and practice in several-minute chunks. It’s let down by later level designs that sometimes err more on the side of busywork—hence the prior reference to “chore”—than fun, and many early levels that are too simple for words. With no music, simple graphics, and barely anything in the sound effects department, Mobigame never manages to reach the heights of style here that its prior game Edge accomplished within minutes of initial loading, but for the low price, CrossFingers is a neat little game, and worth checking out if the idea strikes you as interesting. iLounge Rating: B+.
We’re huge fans of Capcom’s various Ghosts’n Goblins and Ghouls’n Ghosts games—brutally challenging, stylish action-platform titles that helped to define game consoles such as the Sega Genesis, Super NES, and NEC SuperGrafx before hitting rougher waters in the 32-bit consoles, then resurging on the PlayStation Portable when its famed designer Tokuro Fujiwara returned for an updated outing. Unfortunately, the new iPhone and iPod touch game Ghosts’n Goblins Gold Knights ($3) is something close to an embarrassment to the series, and for whatever reason was pulled from the App Store after only a brief period of release. We review it here for reference, but we’re hoping that it’s getting fixed.
Virtually all of the games in this series have starred a knight named Arthur on a quest to rescue a princess, and progressed in a linear fashion through 2-D stages as Arthur runs, jumps, and pitches projectile weapons at various storybook monsters who fill dark and gloomy levels. The hallmarks of Ghosts’n Goblins titles have been secret treasure chests, many activated only by jumping in the correct place, and their contents: different weapons or evil magicians who transform you into an animal if they’re not shot or dodged quickly. Later games added double-jumps, multiple types of powered armor and special attacks, and the ability to fire weapons upwards rather than just left or right. Boss encounters were always dramatic, with huge menaces that needed to be hit in specific weak spots multiple times, and the quests generally started in graveyard-like settings before ending in hell-like flame stages and castles.
On a positive note, Ghosts’n Goblins Gold Knights has all of these features, and more. There’s now a second knight named Lancelot who adds the ability to kill some enemies by jumping on their heads like Super Mario, and unlike the sometimes evil levels of prior games, the stages here are extremely manageable, and aided by both multiple lives and multiple hit points before you lose your armor or upgraded gold armor. Familiar weapons from prior SNES- and post-SNES-era titles appear here, as do their powered-up forms that bring lightning strikes and other screen-blasting effects into play. You can decide for yourself whether the game’s easing of past, sometimes impenetrable difficulty levels is a good or bad thing; we’d argue that it’s right for this platform, given the iPhone’s target audience.
Unfortunately, just about everything else with Gold Knights is a mess. Even on the iPhone 3GS, the frame rate is sluggish, the graphics are otherwise sub-par, and the virtual controls are just not responsive enough, removing the precision and finesse that marked virtually every other title in the series. Rather than going with the beautifully detailed 2-D artwork that inspired almost slavish translation work on 16-bit consoles, Capcom here uses poorly textured 3-D art that looks as if it was generated for a pre-iPhone device, falling well short of the Sony PSP’s standards. Music and sound effects by comparison are entirely competent but uninspired, similar enough to older games in the series but without much punch. All of the aesthetic issues might be tolerable given the asking price if the gameplay felt right, but unlike the prior games, which punished poor play, Gold Knights feels as if the developers tried to compensate for obviously unresponsive virtual controls by bulking up your lifebar; astonishingly, they offer $1 in-app purchases of various types of invulnerability, in essence charging for access to Konami code-like benefits. At best, this is a decent attempt to resurrect a once beloved action series, but true fans will see this for what it is: another somewhat sloppy, mobile phone-quality rendition of a classic Capcom arcade game. iLounge Rating: C.
Price aside, we were excited when Electronic Arts released Monopoly Here & Now: The World Edition early this year, and between a price drop on that game and the newly-released title Monopoly ($3), fans of the classic real estate board game have a lot to love at this point. For those few people who are unfamiliar with the concept, Monopoly sees players roll dice to move a certain number of spaces on the perimeter of a square board, using money to purchase properties, create “monopolies” on same-colored properties, and develop buildings on them. Land on an opponent’s property and you’ll need to pay him fees; if he lands on your property, he’ll need to pay you. Whoever runs out of money first loses.
The new version of Monopoly is, in truth, the old version of Monopoly: it tosses aside the international properties, higher dollar amounts, and updated player pieces of the Here & Now version in favor of the classic board, prices, and rules—with small exceptions. By default, properties go up for auction if the first person to land on them doesn’t buy them outright, and EA includes other changeable house rules that can boost your initial cash, Pass Go salary, and initial slate of properties. There’s also a sophisticated property trading system that lets you aggressively swap cash and multiple properties with fellow players, negotiate alternatives, or decline bids. Wi-Fi and “pass ‘n play” multiplayer is available for up to four people, with two-player Bluetooth as a new option; three difficulty levels are available for those who want more aggressive single-player challenges.
Monopoly’s draw is simple: it’s a very competent rendition of the classic board game. But it feels as if it’s an aesthetically stripped-down version of the Here & Now release, downgraded with the old board, cards, and player pieces rather than given any additional gloss to make up for the muted colors. To the extent that both games can be had for the same price—and less than the $8 EA was originally asking for the first release—we’d pick Here & Now first any day of the week. But if you like the classic graphics or need Bluetooth as a multiplayer option, this version of Monopoly is a very solid release, and a good value. iLounge Rating: B.
There have been exceptions, and notable ones, but as a rule, console and portable Star Wars games have seen more mediocre cash-in attempts than truly excellent releases. It’s no surprise, then, that Star Wars Trench Run ($5) from THQ Wireless is somewhat of a joke: an entire game built around the X-Wing attack on the Death Star from the original Star Wars movie, artificially segmented into five boring stages. But not for its aesthetics, which are a marked improvement on the aged vector arcade game but not on the myriad Factor 5-developed shooters, Trench Run would be a complete throwaway for this platform.
Trench Run’s five missions include “Dog Fight,” “Cannons,” “Obstacles,” “Darth Vader,” and “Exhaust Port,” which are essentially the phases that see your X-Wing fighter approach the Death Star and TIE Fighters, then the cannons and half-walls in its trench, then the trench with Darth Vader in pursuit, and of course, the all-but-secret exhaust port that’s vulnerable to torpedos. You steer the X-Wing primarily from a third-person behind-ship perspective, tilting the iPhone or iPod touch to line up TIE and cannon targets, hitting a square zone on the screen to fire lasers, and sometimes hitting another zone to slow down the action when necessary. THQ provides no calibration option, so the game is generally played on uncomfortable viewing angles with less than ideal tilting angles for steering; you can switch to an in-cockpit view which is flat and basically unremarkable. The game’s action consists of shooting enough targets to move on, dodging Darth Vader when he’s behind you, and avoiding smashing into walls or cannons.
What THQ gets mostly right, not surprisingly, is the art and audio. Voice samples are clear and plentiful, while little video clips and in-game textures predictably draw from the movie well enough to evoke the right classic moments from Star Wars: the triggering of the Death Star’s planet-destroying beam, the walls and cannons in the trench, and the explosions of the TIE Fighters all look as they should. None of these elements is particularly exciting—there’s not a moment when you’re going to be wowed by the realism of Trench Run if you’ve seen any of the console releases of the past 10 years—but they’re all true to the film. Unfortunately, the game is shallow, with only 15 minutes of linear gameplay to offer, and the controls are just plain unsatisfying. Even for serious Star Wars fans, this hardly seems worthy of a $5 asking price; it’s yet another footnote in the history of the once widely-respected movie series, and really needs some improvements in order to justify players’ dollars or attention. iLounge Rating: C-.