After working at a brisk pace to clear out the many new games that have been released over the past month, we finally feel largely caught up on the backlog of new iPhone and iPod touch releases we’ve wanted to cover. This week’s third and final edition of iPhone Gems looks at three more titles that we’ve been playing recently: Gameloft’s Skater Nation has been sitting on the back burner for the past week, while the company’s more recent Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X airplane shooter also caught our attention, and Low Grav Racer 2 from Cobra Mobile merited a write-up, as well.
As with the last edition of iPhone Gems, each of these titles fell just below the B+ recommendation level that we use as a threshold for strongly recommending a game as worthy of every reader’s consideration, but they’re all in the zone for fans of their specific genres. Read on for all the details.
Nearly a year ago, we reviewed a Wipeout clone called Low Grav Racer, a $6 futuristic racing game from Cobra Mobile that suffered from problematic controls but had just enough interesting 3-D artwork to “legitimately impress” at the time. Now Cobra Mobile is back with Low Grav Racer 2 ($3), and there are many reasons to like it: the price is right, the controls are much better, and the aesthetics have been given an additional layer of polish. Our feelings can be neatly summed up in one sentence: LGR2 is nearly as close to a Wipeout-caliber experience as a game can come without having the class or intensity of Sony’s games.
Start with the subject of class—an area that the Wipeout games originally brought to the fore with ship, font, and other visual contributions from now-defunct design firm The Designers Republic. Low Grav Racer 2 doesn’t include the beautiful or gritty cityscapes, the believable vehicles, or the iconic power-ups—the music is also completely forgettable rather than exciting—but it still manages to offer some cool tricks: its boldly-colored 18 tracks run at fluid frame rates and include large, seriously cool background objects that suffer from less pop-up than in the original game, despite the continued presence of multiple vehicles on screen at once, each with glowing vapor trails and the occasional burst of weapon fire. Three speed classes are offered, even the most basic of which feels quite fast by iPhone racing game standards, and six ships are available to select from. We only noticed hiccups in the graphics engine when we shifted from the default behind-ship view into cockpit view mode, and then, the issues were due to some track-smacking camera problems rather than anything else.
Cobra Mobile’s assortment of weapons are once again a few steps behind Sony’s in visuals but extremely similar in functionality—lock-on single missiles, trident-style triple missiles, bombs, speed boosts, and shields are all presented as color-coded stars on the tracks, which makes them easy to spot and, with a little practice, to identify before a pick-up. Though the weapons have little of the flair that they could and should include, there are occasional exceptions, such as some polygon-based speed boost indicators that fill the screen and look pretty cool.
Intensity is the title’s other major issue: tracks range from at-least-a-little-too-wide to narrow, but suffer from a common issue in that there’s too rarely a sense of real peril in jousting with other vehicles, or in using weapons. Get hit with a missile or a bomb and you slow down and spin around, rather than bursting into flames and chunks a la Wipeout. If anything’s really missing from Low Grav Racer 2, it’s the potential for knocking out an opponent or being knocked out by one; the greatest penalty the game offers, instead, is to come in fourth, fifth, or sixth, thereby refusing to unlock the next track.
Believe it or not, that sufficed to keep us playing: the track designs were interesting enough and the game moved quickly enough that we wanted to see what was next. For a $3 asking price, that’s not bad, and those seeking something more—say, competition—can enjoy online Plus+ leaderboards in the absence of a multiplayer mode. With additional tweaking, Low Grav Racer 2 could have the powerful firefights of a Wipeout title and an online racing competition to make its levels just that much more compelling, but our guess is that the company will hold back on major tweaks in favor of another sequel. We’ll be anxious to see what it does in any case; LGR2 is a nice step forward from its predecessor and shows that a Wipeout-quality racer for the iPhone draws nearer, even if it hasn’t quite happened yet. iLounge Rating: B.
As we’ve acknowledged with Best of the Year Awards for two years in a row, Gameloft is the top game developer in the App Store—no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It came from nowhere to release games across virtually every conceivable theme, and now has games that range from competent to great in such diverse genres as action, puzzles, fighting, driving, sports, edutainment, and shooting. With the release of Skater Nation ($7) and Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X ($7), the company has added another two feathers to its cap in the form of a skating game and a military flight combat title, but this blistering expansion has had a consequence: some of the titles are starting to feel like soulless place holders—flags in the ground to stake claims to any genre that might interest someone, lacking the little extra spark of brilliance or something special that distinguishes a really good game from one that’s just sort of there.
Start with Skater Nation, which uses a modified version of the graphics engine developed for Gameloft’s Grand Theft Auto-alike Gangstar to display 10 large, open-edged skating environments set in the expected urban settings: skate parks, a construction site, city streets, and abandoned warehouse-like buildings. From a technical standpoint, these environments are impressively filled with ramps, pipes to grind on, and completely three-dimensional structures in the foreground and distance, all contributing to a plausibility rarely seen on handheld gaming devices. All that’s missing is life: no one’s walking, biking, or driving around in any of these places. The few cars you’ll see are immobile, and though you’ll sometimes come across an animated texture or two, you’re the only thing moving most of the time. This isn’t exactly a shock—other iPhone skating titles have the same issue, and skating games are frequently focused on you and your tricks—but Skater Nation feels like a sterile concoction rather than a game built by and for skaters; love them or hate them, Tony Hawk and S.K.A.T.E. console games at least feel like they have a little more soul.
Thankfully, Gameloft gives you some choice of how you’ll look and what you’ll ride. You can choose from a variety of different skaters, male and female, as well as several skateboards, each with individually selectable wheels and trucks; of course, you unlock additional skaters and decks as the game goes on. A career mode takes you through competitions, and a free ride mode lets you practice in any of the game’s areas at your own pace, with a nice teleport feature to take you from area to area without extended skating. Decent enough rock music from unknown artists plays from a virtual jukebox with its own forward and reverse track buttons, accessed via a musical note icon in the upper right corner of the screen.
So from a check-the-box standpoint, Skater Nation checks all the boxes. It relies on a functional virtual joystick and two buttons for almost all of the control, save for a wonky device-tilting feature for balancing tricks; fifteen minutes of playing around is enough time to generally get the hang of combining the joystick with button presses to jump, grind, and execute more complex tricks. But, like the environments, the skating action here feels lifeless: the character models may have the tattoos and grungy clothes of edgy skaters, but they perform tricks as if they’re going through the motions, and though there are quite a few areas to explore, they blur into and overlap each other enough to feel samey. Even the brief thrill of finding a helicopter that takes you up a tall hill and street, allowing you to enjoy the rush of skating down, is less than entirely satisfying: you enter the copter and emerge at the top of the hill, without any opportunity to enjoy the ride.
Given that other skating titles on the iPhone and iPod touch have all had their own issues—TouchGrind a forced, toy-like perspective, and Vans SK8 too few environments—the fact that Skater Nation includes any mission structure at all, multiple characters, and fine controls will be enough to make it appeal to some users: it is in that regard a validation of Gameloft’s apparent strategy to stake its claim, even imperfectly, in under-served genres. But it’s surely missing the special touches that would make it more than a fair placeholder, and truly worthy of its $7 asking price given that its competitors are both less expensive. Consider it worth checking out as soon as it drops below $5 or receives a significant update. iLounge Rating: B-.
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X might be an entirely different game, but the story’s mostly the same: once again, Gameloft has a solid 3-D engine, fine music, and good enough gameplay on its side, but nothing quite rises to the level of actual impressiveness—particularly after the release of Namco’s way-too-short but technically thrilling Ace Combat Xi last week. In typical Gameloft fashion, you’re offered the initial choice of several different planes—all actually licensed—with the ability to unlock more as the game goes on, and you’re taken through 13 missions that require you to fly, adjust speeds, select targets, and destroy them with missiles, as well as using flares to scuttle locked-on enemy weapons.
Though Ace Combat Xi is pretty close to peerless in terms of its ability to create realistic 3-D environments for military flying missions, H.A.W.X does a good enough job until you fly really close to the ground—at that point, which comes fairly often, you’ll see that buildings, enemy vehicles, and terrain are rendered with relatively few polygons. Between the Tom Clancy license and a surprisingly robust but not fantastic collection of voice samples, Gameloft fills the missions with so much on- and off-topic narrative that you can get distracted a little from the omissions in the artwork and the substantial absence of music; H.A.W.X is clearly a game for people who think that flying shooters too often lack for plot, and don’t mind their storylines falling into sub-Top Gun-caliber writing and acting.
Aesthetics aside, the single biggest issue with H.A.W.X is control: Namco made accelerometer-based flying surprisingly precise and fun in Ace Combat Xi, but Gameloft’s planes—perhaps more realistically, but less enjoyably—always seem to feel like their turning radiuses are just a little too wide, no matter what throttle speed you’re at, and even if that’s the way a plane is supposed to handle, the results feel off: you might do barrel roll after barrel roll, circle six times around a helicopter before being able to line it up in your sights, or find yourself flying at dangerously low elevations rather than striking ground targets with precision from the sky. Gameloft does include a virtual stick-based control alternative, and the game isn’t exactly punishing in difficulty—even when enemies have a lock on you—but H.A.W.X doesn’t feel great; it’s just passable.
The redemption here, and the reason it merits a general-level recommendation despite its flaws, is its breadth: Gameloft sells H.A.W.X for less than Ace Combat Xi and includes two and a half times as many missions, which individually last at least a little longer, plus local Wi-Fi and Bluetooth multiplayer modes for up to four-player dogfighting—death match or team death match modes are offered. Had Namco populated Ace Combat with an appropriate number of missions and not tried to nickel and dime players with In-App Purchases, there mightn’t be any need for discussion of its competitors, but by simply showing up and delivering a full game for its asking price, Gameloft feels like the turtle who beat the hare. Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X doesn’t have much sparkle, but at the end of the day, it delivers enough entertainment value to be worth considering for fans of the genre; as with Skater Nation, it’ll be even more compelling if and when its price drops below $5. iLounge Rating: B.