Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems! Each of the four titles we’re looking at today is designed specifically for the iPhone and iPod touch, rather than the iPad, though they all run on the iPad in 1X or 2X emulation mode. They span several different genres ranging from driving to action and puzzles, sometimes mixing multiple genres together, and for the first time in a while, none of the games merited a B+ or higher recommendation. One was such a mess that we didn’t even want to waste the time necessary to fully review it.
Our top pick of the week is the B-rated puzzle game The Package. Read on for all the details.
David Hasselhoff’s futuristic car-themed Knight Rider was one of the marquee television shows of the 1980’s—one that we really liked—and though attempts to resuscitate the series have repeatedly fallen flat, nostalgia requires that new attempts be made every five or ten years until something sticks. Hudson’s recent Knight Rider ($5, version 1.0) for the iPhone and iPod touch is such a mediocre, miserable attempt at cashing in on the brand that we didn’t even want to waste the effort required to provide a full review—we’re going to merely describe it and leave it unrated, because we just had no desire to play through what looks and feels like a 20-year-old, poorly translated mess of a game.
Knight Rider places you in control of K.I.T.T., the once-famous 1982 Pontiac Firebird with artificial intelligence and sophisticated weaponry that enabled driver Michael Knight to solve mysteries. The game provides an overhead perspective view of K.I.T.T. as it drives through 15 missions, giving you “point A to point B” objectives, an on-screen steering wheel, accelerator, and brake, and access to certain weapons from the show. Hudson’s controls don’t make the driving fun, and the game’s boring overhead view is a throwback to the days of Super NES titles, when rotating backgrounds were supposed to be enough of a draw in and of themselves to make a game worth seeing. Those days are long past.
If the character, dialogue and translation work in Knight Rider weren’t so bad, they’d almost be funny. Characters such as Michael Knight and Bonnie Barstow are shown on screen as cartoony, ugly versions of the original actors, with Knight vaguely resembling a gorilla, and their occasional out-of-car overhead versions looking like small Lego caricatures. So many things are misspelled or just plain dumb that the game quickly feels like an insult to the intelligence of the player. The highlight of the title is the display of the introductory video sequence from the TV show—do yourself a favor by watching it on YouTube, skipping this game, and keeping your fingers crossed for a reboot of the series that does justice to the original. iLounge Rating: NR.
Very few of the games we receive for review sit for weeks at a time without coverage—if this happens, it’s generally because we’ve picked the title up, tried to get into it, and found ourselves either so confused or underwhelmed that we didn’t feel right about reviewing it. Namco’s Lt. Fly Rise of the Arachnids ($2, version 1.1.0) has been in that situation for weeks, as we’ve tried repeatedly to bring ourselves to figure it out, and only recently succeeded. It’s more in need of a tutorial than virtually any other puzzle game we’ve seen in the App Store, though having played it for a while, we’re not sure that it’s worth the extra effort.
Lt. Fly merges a simple shooter with a simple puzzle game on a single iPhone/iPod touch screen. The left side is a collection of blocks that need to be matched in groups of four or more, while the right side sees you controlling a tank-based cannon that fires individual rounds of ammunition at descending spiders and other things that fall from the top of the screen downwards. Namco’s co-developer Teravision Games keeps the action on both sides tap-based: you’re shown one block that you can tap on top of one of the 25 current puzzle blocks to make a match, and you can tap in the direction of descending enemies on the right to fire rounds at them. After your tank rolls for a pre-determined length of time through enemies, and assuming you haven’t let too many of them fall on you, the level ends. Bosses appear at the end of every several levels.
After weeks of pushing ourselves to play the game, we went through stages that ranged from confusion and frustration to a grudging acceptance that there actually was a game here, but that it was executed with so little explanation and appeal that few people would even care to try it. The military spider theme feels like the product of a bad drug trip, and the game’s figure-it-out-yourself approach tosses you into the middle of a war zone that you won’t want to be fighting in. Only Lt. Fly’s decent production values—fine music and fair animation—push it out of “bad” territory, but it’s not a game we’d rush to recommend even for the $2 asking price. iLounge Rating: C-.
Over the past five or ten years, successful companies have contented themselves with the notion of “good problems”—for example, products so successful that they can’t fulfill demand. Gameloft’s new Splinter Cell Conviction ($10, version 1.0.0) is an example of good problems, a third-person action game so competently executed in all of the basics that you’ll really want to like it, and only find it wanting by reference to the console games on which it’s based. The Splinter Cell series is all about stealthy spy missions, requiring players to sneak their way through the shadows of various environments while taking out enemies and achieving objectives. On the iPhone and iPod touch, Splinter Cell Conviction loses basically all of the artificial intelligence that’s required to be that sort of game, instead devolving into a far simpler run-through-checkpoints-shooting-people exercise.
To the extent that Gameloft has equipped Splinter Cell Conviction with an impressive graphics engine, that mightn’t matter to some players. You control Sam Fisher, whose character model and enemies have far softer—more detailed—polygonal edges than in most of the games previously released for the iPhone and iPod touch, within environments that are similarly rendered with an impressive level of polygon, texture, and shading fidelity by the platform’s earlier standards. Levels have stylish floating white explanatory text running parallel to buildings, white markers for duck and cover points, and white floating icons for required interactions—door opening, ladder, pipe, and rope-grabbing, and so on. It all looks so good that you just want it to be fun, and the 11 levels will keep you busy for at least a few hours.
Yet there’s an inescapable feeling that the game’s execution is half-assed in a way that might be forgivable if this was, say, Contra, but feels beneath either a Splinter Cell title or a $10 App Store release. Enemies are so stupid that you can literally be standing right next to them without any fear of being shot, and when they do see you, they repeat the same few phrases of dialogue over and over again in a manner that’s almost instantly grating. All the pretty graphics and fast-paced music in the world don’t seem to matter much when there’s little to no fear of being stopped in your missions, and the checkpoints feel so easy to reach. So for the time being, Splinter Cell Conviction is a pretty game and a near-miss in the gameplay department; should the price drop or the action receive a post-release fine-tuning, it will be worthy of picking up. iLounge Rating: B-.
While the iPhone and iPod touch have become great devices for puzzle games, developers have rarely put in the effort necessary to really take advantage of the devices’ graphical capabilities—a fact that allows impressive-looking titles to really stand out from the pack. The Package ($3/$1, version 1.02) by Rock Pocket is one of the impressive-looking ones, designed to take advantage of the improved shader effects of the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch, and though the gameplay doesn’t quite match the work put into the visuals, it’s still worth checking out.
Each of the game’s 20 levels challenges you to move a brown box package from a starting point to a destination using puzzle pieces—a stripped down implementation of the same concept found in Pangea’s App Store launch title Enigmo. You’re shown the level, with the ability to zoom in and out using pinch gestures, and then expected to call up a second screen full of widgets that are placed within the level to move the package between the points. The need to flip screens to do this is one of The Package’s weak points, as it adds unnecessary steps to the item selection and placement process while depriving you of a real-time view of the puzzle you’re trying to solve. A clock ticks down as you mull a working solution, which optimally involves moving the package through certain glowing points, but enables you to move on even if you find a successful alternative with less complexity.
Where The Package succeeds is in its use of physics, light, and shadowing, which makes viewing and interacting with the levels intriguing—an upbeat, nice enough soundtrack plays as you try combinations of widgets to see what works and doesn’t in moving the box around the increasingly labyrinthine levels, and seeing the box fall, float with fans, roll over conveyor belts, and the like is aided by the sense that gravity both applies here and can be defied with the right combination of items. The widgets occasionally blend too much into the backgrounds, and the game’s gritty darkness isn’t always an asset, but it does look nice.
Issues are mostly traceable to the action, which has too much of a start and stop quality due to both your need to repeatedly switch screens, and fail before succeeding; the game is also arguably limited by the relatively simple positioning of the pieces, a gameplay mechanic that offers less rotational adjustment than Enigmo. By limiting your freedom to turn the pieces, The Package reduces the number of possible solutions, cutting the fun that can be had through greater experimentation. That said, the game rapidly ratchets up the difficulty level after the fourth stage, and though it could really benefit from a gentler challenge curve and some tutorial assistance, the fact that you’re given the pieces in their proper orientations and just need to figure out how to place them becomes an advantage over time. The Package is worth trying—particularly at its $1 special price point—so long as you’re looking for a real puzzle challenge. iLounge Rating: B.