We’re happy to be able to say this at the start of this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems: there’s a lot of good and interesting stuff in here. We begin with a review of Gameloft’s Gangstar—a very substantial clone of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3—and continue with shorter reviews of the side-scrolling alien shooter Inkvaders, a 3-D rendition of the classic board game Battleship called iSink U, and a highly polished new skee-ball game called Ramp Champ. The latter game is especially noteworthy in that it incorporates In-App Purchasing to let you add additional levels, a fact that has its positives and negatives, but ultimately feels justified by the title’s low asking price and extremely polished aesthetics.
Every game this week except for iSink U received our general-level recommendation. Read on for all the details.
Love, hate, or just feel indifferent about it, Grand Theft Auto 3 was a paradigm-shifting 3-D video game, combining an open environment 3-D action game with shooting, racing, and role playing elements—the “sandbox” formula, as later attempted and rarely expanded upon by any number of clones. Gameloft’s Gangstar: West Coast Hustle ($7) is an unabashed, direct GTA3 clone, substituting a simplified, actually named Los Angeles for the fictional versions of New York, Miami, L.A., and Las Vegas featured in the GTA games, while stripping down the formula to meet the reduced expectations of iPhone and iPod touch gamers.
Though a brief review of Gangstar will necessarily gloss over much of its content, it suffices to say that the game is a very competent GTA clone given the nature of the devices it’s built for, and the fact that Gameloft isn’t GTA developer Rockstar. You’re placed in control of a Latino thug who has just escaped from the police after committing a bank robbery, and needs to round up cash by performing missions in various parts of Los Angeles. Of course, you start out on foot and with bare fists as your only weapons, but quickly acquire a handgun, your choice of cars, and a variety of possible objectives to choose from: one takes you through a linear series of missions for a connected friend, while other paths present themselves if you want—steal an ambulance, a taxi, or a delivery car and you can take on the roles of their regular drivers, or step up non-mission detours and you’ll eventually raise the attention of the L.A.P.D., who will chase you in their own cars and pull you from whatever you’re driving off to a jail cell.
Across the 50 missions, Gangstar borrows largely from GTA3’s objectives, but varies a little here and there. Some will see you on foot, fighting gun battles or trying to locate map-marked objectives, while many others involve driving around the city in different cars, either arriving at a checkpoint, racing through a twisting street-based course, or doing drive-by shootings on members of a rival gang. From a control standpoint, it’s obvious that Gameloft wrestled once again with the iPhone’s various virtual control interfaces, and in the absence of settling on one great one provides a few different fair options. Foot-based control is fine, but driving takes a lot of getting used to: tilt controls are iffy, as is a steering wheel, but a slider-based stick is a little better. Camera movement is handled automatically, and with only half the skill it needs to be really good for various types of driving situations, but it’s alright; aiming to shoot is thankfully also automatic and generally pretty much where it needs to be. As with GTA3, a gun store dispenses automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles for those who want more excitement in their gunplay.
Gangstar’s real standouts are its 3-D graphics engine and considerable soundtrack, both of which are far more ambitious than virtually anything on portable game consoles save for the GTA series itself. Gameloft has crafted a functional 3-D world, complete with some buildings that can be climbed from the outside via primitive staircases, hills and ramps, a full freeway structure, and of course plenty of metropolitan L.A.-style streets and visual attractions. Draw-in isn’t too bad given the scope of the backdrops, and Gangstar populates its world with a handful of cars and people at any given time, giving you plenty to crash into or try to avoid as you drive and walk around.
From the characters to the cars and buildings, the objects are all simple but obviously identifiable, reasonably animated for a portable platform, and just lifelike enough to pass muster. Multiple radio channels spanning different genres are available via swipe gestures whenever you get into a car, and though there aren’t many in-game voices, you’ll hear them now and again, along with lots of commercials that are obviously GTA-inspired in content and humor.
Will fans of the GTA series be wowed by this title? Maybe, maybe not. Those looking for the award-winning storytelling and nuance of the later GTA games will find Gangstar to be comparatively shallow, verbally muzzled for the sake of appealing to a wider audience, and apart from the violence, all but lacking in edginess: people collapse in pools of black blood when they’re killed, drug deals are described as package deliveries, and shady characters use sleazy Spanish rather than profanity in conversation. Players who expect completely smooth transitions from mission to mission, the preservation of vehicles where they were left, or latter-day GTA innovations in helicopter, motorcycle, and boat control won’t find them here, but what Gangstar lacks, it generally makes up for by providing the basic, familiar GTA3-style experiences players enjoy in a completely portable format. This is a genuinely good game with typical iPhone-related control and fine-tuning issues; we’d expect that a sequel, particularly one tuned to the graphics hardware of the iPhone 3GS and subsequent iPod touch hardware, will be comparatively mindblowing. iLounge Rating: B+.
First, iPhone and iPod touch fans of side-scrolling shooters got the stylized but simple Zombieville USA. Now Chillingo has its own alternative, Inkvaders ($2). Both games use an identical format: you control a well-armed character who marches through 2-D side-scrolling, almost identically similar backgrounds, toting guns and blowing away enemies who stand in the way of the far right hand side of each level. Borrowing the formula Zombieville used, Inkvaders lets you upgrade your weapons with money earned from killing enemies, which lets you blow away more enemies, quickly; it adds to the formula a jump button and far more on-screen items to collect. Whereas Zombieville’s stages had you duck into houses to refill your life, cash supply, and ammo, Inkvaders places boxes on the screen that can be tapped on when you walk close; it also adds the concepts of elevated cash bonuses—hovering moon rocks worth cash—and moving, higher-value bonuses that dart around the screen, forcing you to jump to accrue points.
The most obvious difference is in graphics. In Zombieville, you shot your way through hordes of zombies; in Inkvaders, it’s wave after wave of similar-looking aliens, with backgrounds that look like three planets under siege by UFOs. Developer Game Faction has taken Zombieville’s hand-drawn look one step further, adding a virtual hand that swoops in to turn pages of a notebook on which the various levels are drawn, as well as to position the character at the start of each level. Animations and those little cute touches make the game cool to look at; a futuristic, looping soundtrack does its part as well.
Inkvaders has only one issue: despite its upgrades from Zombieville, the action remains relatively shallow, and the only real challenge here is to keep on progressing through the 30 stages, upgrading your guns, and trying to stay alive—a formula that will appeal to some gamers more than others. Swapping between laser, bullet, and rocket launching weapons is fun, as is the process of upgrading them, but in the end, it’s not hugely satisfying. A more diverse array of alien behaviors, boss characters, and elevations would make Inkvaders a truly great game for the price; as-is, it’s a good budget title with better graphics and a bit more excitement than the average $2 title. iLounge Rating: B+.
We thought it would be impossible to make Battleship so complicated that it wouldn’t be fun to play, but Artificial Life has managed to do just that with iSink U ($1). Using a relatively impressive little 3-D graphics engine, iSink U recasts the classic board game as a set of two grids in the middle of various types of frigid, jungle, and urban naval warzones, with one grid full of ships you control and another empty to your naked eye, revealed only square by square as you fire rockets from your grid into the other. There are some differences between this and the board game: ships here can move around on the grid until they’ve been hit once; they have the ability to fire single or multiple-strike shots; and they have multiple actions that can be taken per turn, as indicated by a depleting bar at the top of the screen.
The problem: Artificial Life’s controls are a mess. You’re initially presented with a screen full of ships that are supposed to be placed on a 3-D grid, and basically need to figure out how to do that yourself—the game is so concerned with telling you how to manually move the camera around that it doesn’t bother to take you through the basics of ship placement, firing, or strategy. Find the tutorial screens and you can learn them, but then, they’re just too difficult: do you really need to choose the specific ship you want to use to fire a round or six into the other grid, every turn? Are you really helped by the ability to move your ships around every turn, especially with a clunky control interface that never quite handles the fact that you’re looking at everything from a 3-D perspective? And do you truly need to spend time manually re-adjusting the camera with zoom, pinch, and pan gestures for some reason? It just seems like iSink U has its 3-D priorities completely out of whack.
But—and this is a big but—if you can get past these issues, what you’ll find in iSink U is actually a pretty cool way to play Battleship. A two-player mode lets you hand off the device to play together, and the military-themed, drum-heavy music is quite good. The varied backdrops aren’t merely there for visual reasons; there are actually multiple maps for each backdrop, along with changes to the music based on locale, and the camera’s automatic motion to show you a first-person perspective of cannons firing is actually pretty cool, revealing details and styling in the 3-D ship models that aren’t initially apparent. It’s a shame that the game doesn’t handle more of the action so thoughtfully and automatically; with a streamlined control interface and a little less aliasing in the artwork during the move-planning parts of gameplay, this would be worthy of at least a general recommendation. iLounge Rating: B-.
The last of today’s games is Ramp Champ ($2) from The Iconfactory, a visually intriguing remix of the skee-ball games we’ve previously reviewed from other companies. Ramp Champ is essentially a highly stylized interface for rolling hand-sized balls at a mix of still and moving targets at the end of a multi-tiered skee-ball machine; it differs from titles we’ve tried before in that you’re not just aiming for holes inside of concentric circle-shaped targets, but rather begin with four different skins with their own visual and audio themes.
First is Clown Town: a set of four pin-shaped still clowns, three gently swaying clowns above them, and sets of two plates and two old milk jugs on the top tier, all needing to be hit by yellow balls. Next is Breakwater Bay, with moving fish, seahorses, and crabs on three levels alongside a giant clam; here, you roll red balls. Then, there’s Space Swarm, which turns the classic Space Invaders arcade game into a three-tier set of aliens and a moving high-point UFO to be hit with green balls, and finally, there’s the Icon Garden, which lets you fling gray balls at a series of pixelated icons in a garden. You get nine balls in each game, a ticket dispenser that occupies the screen with your winnings based on how many points you’ve scored, and music that changes for each theme.
Initially, Ramp Champ seems like a weaker version of its predecessors in gameplay. You’re put up so close to the targets and given a fairly shallow ball-rolling depth and control mechanism to use to take them out; ball rolls are not always, or even often as satisfying as they were in the other games. Yet Iconfactory adds two things that occasionally take the stages to greatness: triggering targets in a certain order and with precision can open up new targets, such as a shark and black pearl in Breakwater Bar, a second wave of aliens in Space Swarm, and so on. The control doesn’t feel great, but when you unlock those new targets, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.
The Iconfactory has also implemented a feature that Apple introduced with iPhone OS 3.0—In-App Purchasing—and done so in an entirely acceptable way. Ramp Champ ships for $2 with the aforementioned four tables, and its Add-Ons page lets you download two new two-table packs for $1 each: the Adventure Pack adds Ninja Attack and Tiki Island boards, while the Challenge Pack adds Happy Place and Molar Madness.
A skewed sense of humor has Happy Place, a land of unicorns and dolphins, invaded by monsters as you hit the happy targets; Molar Madness sees you pitching balls into the teeth and eyes of a little boy, and the Ninja and Tiki levels are pretty much as one would expect from the themes. The In-App downloading process is fairly straightforward, apart from the fact that we needed to use a refresh button to complete the download process after grabbing the first of the two packs; Iconfactory has thankfully provided a simple mechanism to let users re-acquire their content in the event that there’s an issue or accidental app deletion.
To be very clear, Ramp Champ’s graphics and music are pretty close to beyond reproach. We’d have preferred to see the levels rendered in 3-D a la 9 Balls, 1 Cup, complete with some camera motions to make the tables a little bit longer, but we can live with flat 2-D artwork when it’s as elaborately detailed as it is here; the audio is actually even more impressive, with carnival-like tunes and level-specific target sound effects, sometimes mixed with the chatter of crowds on a boardwalk, a ticket dispenser doing its thing, and so on. The only part of the title that feels like somewhat of a let-down is the incentive for continued play—the prizes.
Iconfactory includes page upon page of vaguely amusing little prizes that can be won by exchanging the tickets you get from playing the games, but as the In-App Purchasing mechanism shows, there are better things to be acquired here than pictures of fuzzy dice, chattering teeth, and birds. What used to be unlockable new stages are now becoming incentives to pay more after the initial purchase, replaced by unlockables with little inherent value of their own. Ramp Champ delivers enough value for its initial asking price that—apart from controls—it’s hard to object to paying $2 for what’s here, or $1 for additional bundles of levels, but it would be great to see truly excellent play rewarded with credits to be used towards level unlocking, and everyone else charged a fee to access the content without the labor. iLounge Rating: B+.