Our flat B rating is, in a phrase, “good but not great:” an indication of a piece of software or hardware that justifies its price tag but doesn’t thrill for it. This week, for the first time since we’ve been reviewing iPhone games, all four of the titles we look at in iPhone Gems rate the same flat B—interesting despite the fact that they’re from completely different genres, have different price tags, and approach their subject matter in ways that the iPhone and iPod touch haven’t seen before.
Circuit_strike.one is a stylish and sometimes funny hacking-themed overhead shooter. Prey Invasion is a first-person walking and shooting game with Doom-styled controls and themes. Real Tennis 2009 is a cleanly presented, handheld console-like sports title. And Star Defense is a tower defense game with spherical maps. All are worth reading about, but you’ll have to make the call on whether any are worth buying; a note on our Star Defense review, discussing developer Ngmoco’s interest in selling gamers expansion packs for the already $6 title, is worth considering before you buy into the title. Read on for the details.
Take Asteroids, give it simple mission objectives and a coat of Rez-like paint, and you have Circuit_strike.one ($1) from Chillingo—a game that sells for a dollar but, with better controls, could have easily sold for more. If you strip away the sound and visuals, the game is nothing more than the classic turn, thrust, and shoot action found in Atari’s classic space shooter, but here your thrusters take you from virtual room to room in a cyberspace/hacker-themed environment, shooting at both small moving enemies and larger stationary objects. Your mission is to destroy however many shield generators are found on a level (“network”) before blowing up a larger and now unprotected data core, thus leading you to the next network to repeat the process with more things to blow up.
Circuit_strike.one is simultaneously defined and undone by its aesthetics. It occasionally pops mocking banners on the screen to let you know that you were Pwned or needed more ‘pew-pew’—bullets—and has a visual style that’s similar to the vaunted game Geometry Wars, minus the cool wave ripple effects. In attempting to create a visually interesting world for your ship to fly through, the developer lets you peek through translucent, grid-like ceilings and floors that move in parallax, making the shields and data cores confusing rather than obvious to target and destroy. Similarly, the deliberately dated modem squeal and techno music audio portion is interesting, but seems to be chugging along rather than playing smoothly, in an effort to coordinate the action with the sounds. There’s a certain lack of flow here that’s unnerving.
That extends to the controls. Developer H. Grenade offers two options, one with an obvious on-screen joypad and separate tiny buttons for thrust and shoot, but we didn’t find them easy to adapt to; a second set of advanced controls, which let you just touch zones on the screen to do the same things, was even less comfortable. As little as we like the iPhone’s dependence on touch screen controls and accelerometer functionality, we’ve played games far more complex that handled input more smoothly than this.
Having said that, Circuit_strike.one has all the elements of a very good and compelling game in place—it just needs those elements to be tied together better with better controls and a less cluttered play area. The developer clearly has the ability to do more with Circuit_strike.two or a one.five update, and we’ll be interested to see if it does so; for now, this is a good enough effort for the buck to be worth sampling. iLounge Rating: B.
When the brain behind the Doom series—and thus, most modern 3-D first-person shooters—feels content to see his best single-player game turned into an on-rails experience for the iPhone, what hope do lesser developers have of doing better? Prey Invasion ($3) by Hands-On Mobile struggles to answer that question with something positive, giving first-person shooter fans a fully 3-D graphics engine with differential elevation, twin on-screen joypads, and the ability to point at any on-screen enemy to shoot at it. The result is a game that looks fifty times better than iD Software’s Wolfenstein 3-D for iPhone, yet doesn’t have the gameplay or sounds to match its visuals.
You start Prey Invasion on a canyon pathway, emerging from a wrecked car armed only with a wrench. There’s an obvious, linear path from the car through the canyon, filled with alien creatures who need to be hit with the wrench until you come across the first of many guns found in the levels, at which point the dull gameplay improves a little. Rather than challenging you to aim and shoot with the joypads, which are only there for movement and head positioning, anything you see can be shot from afar by just tapping on it on the screen. Due to a number of factors, this isn’t especially challenging, but it works better than the obvious manual aiming alternative, and lets you progress through the game’s levels rapidly. No matter how creepy or screwy the enemies become, tap tap tap and they’re dead. It’s not console-quality FPS gameplay, but it’s close. Audio consists of intermittent sounds, voices, and music that don’t totally come together into a coherent whole, rather popping in and out of what’s otherwise silence.
Hands-On Mobile does include a few things that make Prey Invasion interesting. Rather than just killing your character every time he falls off the edge of something or gets mowed down by enemy gunfire, he’s given the opportunity to restore his health by passing into the Cherokee Indian spirit world, shooting down demons with a mystical bow and arrows. This spirit form also aids occasionally in solving puzzles in the real world, and there are points when the levels require a little backtracking and exploration, as well. There are also magnetic walls that let you walk up and down to get to surfaces that would otherwise be unreachable, shifting the visual perspective in the process, but bugs sometimes have you walk through walls to your death. Thankfully, spirit reincarnation makes this less painful than it sounds, and the game has been designed to be playable minus a map, assuming that you can remember generally where you’ve been when you get to small mazes.
Ultimately, Prey Invasion is an interesting but not thrilling way for fans of first-person shooters to occupy their time while developers continue to try and work their way around the iPhone’s and iPod touch’s limited controls. Those seeking a mostly linear shooting adventure with light puzzles and increasingly interesting graphics may be satisfied by what’s here; if nothing else, this game demonstrates better than most that Apple’s pre-iPhone 3GS devices are up to the task of displaying games of this genre, if not rendering them wonderful to play. iLounge Rating: B.
Having previously released the groundbreaking Real Soccer/Real Football for the iPhone, Gameloft has now released Real Tennis 2009 ($5), bringing a good game of tennis to Apple’s pocket devices. The result is a fairly typical Pong-like game presented from a fixed 3-D vantage point, with eight small but obviously detailed 3-D character models and seven similarly 3-D courts.
In singles mode, two of the characters face each other with decent computerized opponents or human-to-human wireless play as options, while in doubles, two teams of two are competing, three of the characters controlled by the iPhone and one by you. A championship mode takes you all arond the world in a series of tournaments, while a standard tournament mode pares the action down to one set of quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. By contrast with Real Soccer, there’s not a lot of depth here, but tennis is what it is.
Visually and sonically, Real Tennis is a nice enough game, but not Gameloft’s best effort on this platform. There aren’t any dramatic close-ups after great shots—just intermittent replays of missed ones—and the camera movement is mild and slight rather than flashy. Voices call the points and standard faults, advantages, and so on, with crowd noises, occasional grunts from the characters, and the frequent sound of the ball providing most of the audio here. The title benefits from a Real Soccer-like on-screen joypad and button configuration, once again requiring you to keep your fingers in one tightly defined area for movement and another for swings. There are no real surprises here, save for when your finger slides off the joypad and you miss a shot that could have been yours.
Real Tennis 2009 falls right within the range of what we’ve come to expect from Gameloft, offering a package of competent gameplay, nice graphics, and good sounds at a reasonable price. While it won’t blow away tennis fans and doesn’t rival the best that companies such as Sega have come up with on consoles, iPhone and iPod touch users looking for a fun and professionally polished tennis game now have a good option; on sale, it will be even more appealing. iLounge Rating: B.
Ngmoco has made a great name for itself since shortly after the launch of the App Store, when it began to release amazingly inexpensive, addictive mini-games to build what would ultimately be positive brand awareness for more impressive premium releases. Star Defense ($6) is the latest of those premium titles, a sci-fi themed tower defense game with one novel twist: rather than presenting the maps as flat 2-D levels, they’re wrapped around seven planets of various shapes and colors. You can zoom in on the planet, zoom out, and turn it to whatever side you prefer to see, initially mostly for fun but later for the strategic purpose of managing your defenses as they spread out further on each planet’s surface.
As with most tower defense titles, enemies are given a narrow pathway to follow towards your base, which has a limited number of shields to protect it against waves of incoming attackers. You need to populate the left and right sides of the paths with five different weapons, each capable of being powered up three times, to reduce the flow of enemies as their waves begin to flood the paths. One weapon is a cannon with bullets, another shoots flames, and another slows enemies down; two more are unlocked through continued play. Each weapon you deploy prevents others from being placed immediately nearby, so tightly packing the path early on with the right weapons will keep resilient attackers from getting too close to your base; choosing too many of the same weapon will let specific weapon-resistant enemies squeak through and deplete your base’s shields. For now, the game is primarily intended to be played in one-player campaign mode, but a less than thrilling “challenge mode” lets you send your high scores to Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail contacts to see who can defeat the most waves on a given planet.
Aesthetically, Star Defense is pretty much exactly what we’d expect from an Ngmoco title: the 3-D art is consistently good, there’s a real if somewhat sedate soundtrack and appropriate sci-fi sound effects, and what little confusion there may initially be in the controls quickly sorts itself out as you learn how to position your weapons and rotate the planet. It all works well—as well as any of the prior tower defense games we’ve tried—and the mix of colors and polygonal models makes it look unique.
Yet apart from the spherical play surfaces, the content Star Defense includes will be highly familiar to tower defense fans, and when you get right down to it, the title’s frankly not really all that amazing; graphics aside, it feels almost exactly like the version 1.0 tower defense titles that were being released many months ago for the iPhone, with the same issues of too few levels and weapons—things that their subsequent releases fixed for free. By comparison, Ngmoco plans to sell more content through iPhone OS 3.0 In-App Purchasing, expanding the game’s appeal a dollar or more at a time, which would make some sense to us if the initial $6 game felt comparatively complete. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. We’ll have to see what In-App Purchasing ultimately does to Star Defense and other titles of its kind, but if this is any indication, the answer may be to hobble iPhone game development rather than improve it. Once developers are incentivized to charge for content that should have been included in the first place, impulse-driven purchasers may well find themselves waiting for price drops rather than buying early with confidence in subsequent improvements. And we may well be amongst those who wait. iLounge Rating: B.