Welcome to an unusual edition of iPhone Gems. We’re continuing to work through huge numbers of apps, games, and accessories in anticipation of releasing our 2010 iPod + iPhone Buyers’ Guide, so this particular column is a mishmash of titles: four disparate games and two apps that don’t fit neatly into any other roundups we have planned for the next couple of weeks.
Our top picks of this group are Real Racing GTI and Copy Cat. Read on for all the details.
Puzzle games aren’t hard to come by in the App Store, but Mofongo Studios’ Copy Cat: A Painter’s Puzzle ($1) is in the “nice game, good value” category. Initially, the concept is a little confusing: it’s obvious that you’re given a painting to replicate with several stencil shapes and a palette with four colors to select from. As the game progresses, the stencils change, as does the complexity level of the canvas you need to replicate, both in shapes and colors.
Can you dip the stencils and fill them? No: the stencils actually block the application of color. You place them on your blank canvas, sometimes alone, other times overlapping, and still others in sequence, and watch as the canvas otherwise gets washed over with whatever color you touch. Whatever the stencil covers does not get painted. So if you need to have a mostly orange canvas with a red square in the center, you start by washing the canvas over with red, then place a square on top and wash it over with yellow. Pull the stencil up and what remains is your red square. There’s no timer; you just need to achieve an accuracy level on each of the 35 levels in order to continue. Once you figure out the play mechanic, Copy Cat is thought-provoking and compelling, saddled only with a looping audio track, a repeating background, and what some players will consider to be too few levels. For a buck, however, it’s a good game, and worth checking out if you’re a fan of art or visual puzzles. iLounge Rating: B.
Unlike some hard-core baseball fans, we have nothing against Derek Jeter, and we’ve really enjoyed most of Gameloft’s releases in 2009, so we were looking forward to Derek Jeter Real Baseball ($5). Unfortunately, the title that strains the definition of “real” to the extent that it includes zero real stadiums, zero real teams, and only one real player, Derek Jeter himself. As we’ve come to expect from Gameloft, the game features better than decent but not great 3-D models for the players and the two stadiums, with limited animations and infrequent voiceovers, plus a few predictable game modes, including quick several-inning games, a full season mode, a playoffs-only mode, and a home run derby; all work as you’d expect in any other baseball title.
But does Derek Jeter Real Baseball play well? Sort of. The batting portion of the game has been stripped down to near irrelevance, giving you control only over a full swing or a bunt, quickly tapping or holding down, respectively, with no ability to adjust the bat’s position. A swipe-based system with an on-screen surface resembling the iPhone’s slide to unlock screen is no better. It feels as if Gameloft was in such a hurry to release the game that it didn’t finish the play mechanics for this significant part of the experience. By comparison, pitching is considerably better, with ball positioning, power, and accuracy steps before you release the ball, though little sense of how your choices—other than being “perfect,” “good,” or “bad”—really change a batter’s ability to hit the ball.
Fielding is half-developed, reduced to watching the ball fly into someone’s hands, onto the field, or into the stands, with taps on a map to cover the bases. By comparison with mobile phone baseball titles, and some of the earlier, simpler games we’ve tested on Apple’s devices, Derek Jeter may feel ambitious on the iPhone and iPod touch, but it falls short of the console-quality standards of gameplay and aesthetics we know this platform’s capable of. iLounge Rating: B-.
We once thought that creating a GPS application would be really simple for any smart company that leveraged realtime access to the Internet with a decent map database, but Fullpower Technologies’ MotionX GPS Drive ($3*) demonstrated just how incorrect that assumption really was. Created around a subscription-based pricing scheme that we really do not want to support or encourage other developers to use, MotionX GPS Drive sells “30 days of Live Voice Guidance” for $3, or a year for $25, including the first 30 days of service with the purchase of the application. Assuming that you’re willing to buy in for a year of service, or that you’re only going to use it intermittently for brief stretches as you travel, GPS Drive is priced lower than any other GPS solution we’ve tested for the iPhone 3G and 3GS, a fact that has led some to call it a good value.
We disagree—at least, for now. What you trade off for the low price here are a couple of things: first, the voice guidance disappears when your subscription ends, crippling the application relative to competitors’ “buy once, it works” solutions; we really don’t like this. Second, MotionX doesn’t actually download and store a North American map database like most of the iPhone’s other GPS applications, so it depends upon Internet access to procure its information, a reason you’ll really benefit from connecting the iPhone to a car charger when it’s in active use. In our tests on the road last week, we found its database of points of interest to be woefully inadequate, missing so many local results that we couldn’t believe how few places it found. When we entered addresses in manually, we watched as it went to the Internet to grab route information, then sluggishly recomputed when we changed paths. Moreover, the voice prompting was unimpressive and lagged behind our turns. However, when we connected to a Wi-Fi network indoors and did additional searches a week later, it found many more points of interest and seemed considerably faster at grabbing information; Fullpower is using Microsoft’s Bing as its search engine and says that it will leverage up-to-date information to improve the app’s performance over time. Such are the issues and benefits that come along with depending on an Internet connection for all of your map and POI data, but at the moment, MotionX doesn’t quite seem to have the right solution—download local maps and POIs in advance, get specific directions and new POIs as needed—in place.
That having been said, there are reasons to think that MotionX will eventually become a worthwhile GPS solution. It uses a POI search engine that resembles the early map-searching utility Where To?, placing a ring of icons on the screen to help you locate nearby coffee, gas, restaurant, shopping, parking, movie, and medical locations, integrates a compass for iPhone 3GS users, and includes an on-screen music player that is easy to call up while viewing a list of turn-by-turn directions. The music played stalled out on us once and locked up the application, but otherwise seemed to work fine. There are also numerous signs that Fullpower is legitimately approaching the GPS concept with fresh eyes, trying to build its application from the ground up for the iPhone rather than just cloning pre-iPhone GPS products—a good thing in some ways, but problematic to the extent that other companies have figured out solutions to problems that MotionX GPS Drive still has. For all of its conceivable benefits, we found it less enjoyable and intuitive to use than CoPilot Live, which sells for $35 and doesn’t require additional payments to keep the application running after a month or a year. For today, MotionX GPS Drive rates below our general recommendation level, but six months from now, we suspect that it will be worth re-evaluating. iLounge Rating: C+.
As we said in the Derek Jeter review above, it’s one thing to love the work of a celebrity and a developer, and another entirely to enjoy the app or game that they put together. So while we like the rapper T-Pain, and have enjoyed previous apps from Smule, we can put aside those positive feelings to say that the recent app I Am T-Pain ($3) needs a little work. It’s simultaneously funny and a very neat use of the iPhone’s various technologies, but we didn’t really like its interface, and ultimately had to force ourselves to keep using it.
The concept is fairly brilliant: I Am T-Pain turns your iPhone into an audio recorder with the ability to modulate your voice in a direct mimic of the Antares Auto-Tune, the vocal-twisting synthesizer that T-Pain and Kanye West have used extensively in recent endeavors, evoking the scorn of fellow rapper Jay-Z (Death Of Auto-Tune). Using either no beat (“Freestyle”) or one of several integrated songs, you sing into the iPhone’s microphone, and I Am T-Pain adds robotic harmonics to your voice, either with the fixed T-Pain setting or with an A to G# scale, minor or major; four presets can be saved if you prefer.
The major issue with the app is that it tries to be simple but fails: rather than offering a quick tutorial when it loads, it just says “headphones recommended, sing into the mic,” then pops a three-second countdown timer onto the screen and starts recording. You’re given no music, no explanation, and a little flashing line that tells you it’s recording. At that point—recorder on—you need to figure out what a bunch of words and icons mean, first deactivating the recorder, then determining that whenever you actually do want to record something that you also need to use an old-fashioned floppy disk icon to save it before you can hear it, and finally, going through “Mic,” “Tun3,” “Be4ts,” “Pl4y” and “More” buttons on the bottom of the screen to change the settings, select a song, hear your recordings, or find explanations for how everything’s supposed to work. It’s a jarring initial experience, compounded by the challenge of learning to save your recordings, and really could use some streamlining.
But that’s the only major issue with the app. Besides the Auto-Tune feature, which actually works more or less as you’d expect—you do need to change the inflection of your voice rather than just speaking lyrics in order to hear harmonics applied—I Am T-Pain ventures into “wow” category by giving you downloadable, In-App Purchase ($1 each) access to a collection of his tracks, released and new, including the noteworthy Saturday Night Live/Lonely Planet song I’m On A Boat and many others, including on-screen lyrics so that you can sing along. Unfortunately, there’s no way to use the app to hear and rate other performances a la Smule’s earlier Leaf Trombone, though you can e-mail your performances or publish them to Facebook, MySpace, or Smule for public sharing via the web. Once you hear how you sound, you might not want to do so. If you’re a fan of T-Pain and want to mimic his style, this app has a lot to offer, assuming you can get past the learning curve and are willing to pay by the song to enjoy its features. iLounge Rating: B.
Capcom published a series of Pang titles under the Buster Bros. name, and now a company called Player X has released Pang Mobile ($3) for the iPhone and iPod touch—a decent rather than great rendition of the title with some new anime-style artwork. In Pang, you control a character who walks from left to right on the ground of rooms filled with bouncing bubbles. The rooms are internationally flavored, taking you on a tour of famous landmarks as you progress through 50 stages scattered throughout 17 locations.
Big bubbles bounce high, small ones bounce lower. You’re armed only with a harpoon gun that fires cables towards the top of the screen, and each cable can pop bubbles until it reaches the screen’s top, at which point it disappears and you can shoot another cable. Power-ups let you shoot two, three, or four cables at once, pop all the bubbles on the screen, stop all the bubbles in their current positions, and put up a shield that protects you against one hit. There’s also a gun power-up that shoots three streams of bullets at once, and a grappling hook cable that stays on screen until it pops a bubble; the new iPhone feature is Super, which lets you shake the iPhone or iPod once in a while to fire off a bunch of cables at once.
The major issues with Pang Mobile are in control and frame rate. Precision just isn’t there when you try to move using the dedicated swiping area on screen, or want to make sure you’re properly firing off a shot, thus you’re in a lot of trouble when little balls are bouncing on the bottom of the screen. Even on the iPhone 3GS, Pang Mobile’s frame rate feels lower than it should be, so the motion of the balls is a little jittery rather than completely smooth. This is another title that feels like it’s better-executed than what you’d get on a mobile phone standards, but not up to the levels of smoothness and control quality that we’ve seen on the iPhone and iPod touch or competing portable game systems. Fans of the Pang series may or may not be satisfied with this port; an upgrade to a smoother and better ball animation and physics system would instantly transform this title into a worthwhile purchase. iLounge Rating: B-.
Last but not least this week is Real Racing GTI (Free) from Firemint, which we’re featuring for one major reason: it’s a seriously cool idea. We’ve previously reviewed and loved the full-fledged Real Racing, and GTI is essentially a free trial version of that game supported by in-game advertising for Volkswagen’s 2010 GTI. While there’s no shortage of GTI promotion—signs cover all of the cars, which are all GTI models, and an optional movie shows off the GTI in action—Firemint has managed to keep the Volkswagen content from feeling obnoxious or banner-like; it’s just integrated smoothly into the game.
In addition to a quick play mode that lets you choose a 2-door or 4-door GTI to race on one track, there’s a three-track GTI Cup Championship mode where you try to come in first against five other GTIs in three consecutive races. The first track, VW Mayapan Beach, is full of Volkswagen banners—actually some pretty cool-looking ones—while Forino Valley and Montclair are basically ad-free and there to let you sample some of the other tracks from the full game.
Importantly, they’re a lot of fun—Real Racing’s controls, combined with its smooth frame rate and some very smart interface decisions, make each of the tracks feel manageable yet challenging, and more enjoyable than in competing racers we’ve tried. If you’ve been looking to see what all the fuss has been about with Real Racing, or if you’re a fan of Volkswagens and want to check out the interior and exterior of the new 2010 GTI, Real Racing GTI is a great place to start; it would be great to see a way to import new cars such as the GTI into the full version of the game. iLounge Rating: A-.
Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.