Welcome to a special edition of iPhone Gems, with extra emphasis on the word “iPhone.” Unlike our regular iPhone and iPad Gems, where we tend to cover games that run on both devices and the iPod touch, today’s three major titles are solely for iPhones and iPod touches, with higher-priced but virtually identical “HD” versions either out or in the works for the iPad. It may be hard for gamers to wait: N.O.V.A. 2 and Real Racing 2 are sequels to two of the most impressive games of 2009, while Shadow Guardian is a first-generation take on the classic 3-D adventure games Tomb Raider and Uncharted. It’s hard to recall a month, let alone a week or a single day, in which so many big titles premiered at the same time.
If you have an iPhone 4 or an iPod touch 4G, you’re in particular luck with these releases, as they all support Apple’s latest Retina Displays and make better use of these devices’ 3-D capabilities than almost anything—save Infinity Blade—that came before. If these developers had followed Epic and Chair’s example with that title and offered iPad compatibility, their titles might have been equally worthy of our very highest recommendation.
As much as we really liked Gameloft’s first version of N.O.V.A. – Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance, there was no question that it was a bald-faced, no-holds-barred ripoff of Microsoft and Bungie’s first-person sci-fi shooter Halo. The armored main character, as well as his computerized aide, alien enemies, and near-future environments all looked as if they could have come straight out of the Halo series, but since there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that Halo would arrive in the App Store, most iOS gamers were willing to give Gameloft a pass on the issue of originality. Post-release updates that dropped the price and added Retina Display support only made N.O.V.A. better, while a standalone iPad version called N.O.V.A. HD actually added a little to the gameplay, as well.
Though N.O.V.A. 2 – Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance ($7) can’t help but carry on the same general look and feel of its predecessor, it quickly becomes obvious that Gameloft wanted to distinguish the sequel from Halo wherever possible. A light-hearted but intense introductory movie feels deliberately funny and over the top by comparison with the earnest tone in the Halo series, and the game’s first level feels as if it’s been stuffed with semi-new ideas to put “clone” discussions to rest. The Grunt-alike mumbling dwarf aliens and Covenant Elite wannabes have been replaced by unfamiliar flying humanoids and Robocop-style oversized mechanized attackers; similarly, there are some new gameplay elements that mightn’t be original, but weren’t purely taken from Halo this time. A currency-based weapon and armor upgrade system has been added, incentivizing you to look for glowing energy money scattered around levels, while early close-quarter shotgunning and numerous long-distance machine gunning sequences could as easily have come from Gameloft’s Modern Combat as anywhere else. Unlike the first game, which tried to mix moments of awe and reflection with shooting sequences, N.O.V.A. 2 simply strives to be action-packed, and at that, it succeeds.
But it continues to borrow from Halo on occasion, adding dual pistols, glowing plasma blasts from enemy guns, and abandoned Warthog-like vehicles—all more for the visuals than for real impacts on gameplay. Only after seeing many 4x4s scattered around do you get the chance to actually ride something, and even then, it’s a giant mechanized robot, which slows down the game’s pace rather than offering the wild speed-ups and dramatic changes of height and perspective found in Halo’s car and mini-jet sequences; after another tease, a motorbike riding and shooting sequence is included later in the game. Unfortunately, the mech walking segment turns out to be just another variation on the shooting gallery, and then, one that doesn’t feel properly playtested; two separate mis-triggers forced us to backtrack sluggishly through checkpoints that should have activated events on our first pass through. This was the first but not the last sign that N.O.V.A. 2 was a little rushed in a way that Gameloft’s Shadow Guardian (below) wasn’t, but inconsistently so, as if the game’s traditional walk-and-shoot sequences were tested well and spliced together with less polished parts later in development. Blow-the-core and defend-the-fortress sequences later in the game similarly weren’t polished properly, but as the action continues to build in intensity—and has a greater variety of things to do than did N.O.V.A. 1—you’ll be too busy shooting things to care too much.
Visually, the sequel is a small rather than huge step up from the Retina Display-enhanced edition of N.O.V.A. released some months ago; the results are intermittent impressive moments, rather than the continuously wowing level and character designs in Shadow Guardian. While the types of backdrops are very familiar—jungle, underground and above ground military bases, a desert fortress, and so on—they’ve been enhanced with grime and other weathering details. Polygon edges are still very apparent in everything from the backdrops to the enemies on screen, but the higher-resolution iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G screens make the sharp lines less distracting. Hacking mini games have become more timing dependent than their predecessors, but remain visually plain and frankly boring distractions from the action.
Additionally, the virtual controls have been redesigned visually to blend better into the scenery than before, and default button placement has changed a little in a manner that makes accidental EMP or alternative “power” use far more common. That’s one of a few signs that N.O.V.A. 2 hasn’t been totally optimized for the latest iPhone and iPod touch in a way that yet justifies a separate iPad release; another is the ultra tiny on-screen text, which just don’t look big enough on the small screen. From an audio standpoint, N.O.V.A. 2 has plenty of Halo-lite-quality enthusiastic music coupled with so-so sound effects, most notably highly repetitive enemy voices and dull acting from your computerized assistant. If there’s anything in the title that suggests that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously, the voice work would be it.
Apart from the single-player campaign, which features 12 levels, this sequel includes an enhanced multiplayer mode that lets up to 10 people compete in 10 different multiplayer maps online or locally. Gameloft rewards N.O.V.A. 1 players with extra experience points that permit access to more powerful weapons as an incentive to purchase both games, a neat little twist that’s better than selling in-game weapon access via in-app purchases. It’s also worth noting that N.O.V.A. 2 installs on the iPad and runs in low-resolution mode, paving the way for what will most likely be a separate “HD” iPad release; whether Gameloft will change the gameplay at all for the iPad version remains a question mark.
Overall, N.O.V.A. 2 is a solid but somewhat unpolished sequel that will thrill fans of the first game with superior graphics and more varied gameplay, even though it cries out for a little extra development time to fix some of its rougher edges. By the standards of most first-person shooters in the App Store, it’s worthy of a high recommendation—it’s hard to find a game with this much content and intensity at any price, let alone the $7 Gameloft is initially asking for it—but the lackluster audio and seemingly rushed gameplay bring it precariously close to a lower rating. Given the choice between having N.O.V.A. 2 now in imperfect form or three months from now with all the polish it deserves, we’d lean towards the sooner release, but certainly hope that Gameloft will go back and finish what it started here. True iPad support without a separate download would be spectacular. iLounge Rating: A-.
Firemint’s original Real Racing was a groundbreaking mid-2009 release for the then-current iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod touch, a racing game that brought realistic car and track designs to devices that were previously believed incapable of competing with Sony’s PlayStation Portable. Using sophisticated 3-D car models and believable scenery across 12 tracks and a 57 event career mode, Firemint came from nowhere to deliver a driving experience that quickly became the App Store’s equivalent of Sony’s Gran Turismo—at one-fifth the price. The company later dropped the price to $5, updated the graphics and controls for iPhone 3GS/4 and iPod touch 3G/4G models, and added additional cars and tracks. Apart from the company’s decision to sell a separate iPad version with substantially overlapping content, Real Racing was a poster child for how to release a game and then continuously improve it after release to keep players coming back for more.
The good news in Real Racing 2 ($10) is that Firemint hasn’t rested on its past successes in coming up with this sequel: there’s even more to be impressed by this time. Now there are 30 cars, all officially licensed from major manufacturers, and 15 tracks with up to 16 cars on the track at the same time. Impressively, cars sometimes take damage during races, so you’ll actually see the bumper dangling off the back of a Volkswagen after an impact, and the backgrounds are decidedly better-looking than they were in the first Real Racing: the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G benefit from Retina Display support paired with more detailed textures and sophisticated visual effects, so polygon seams are far less visible than before. The track designs still lack for the iconic wow moments that have been found in some of history’s best racing games, but the added details are nearly enough to make the sequel as impressive today as its predecessor was last year. Nothing else in the racing genre today does as much visually, even if a few EA and Gameloft titles have used certain camera angles or special effects that could stand to inspire Real Racing, too.
On the other hand, the game refuses to install on the iPad at all, a major disappointment given the $10 price tag, and the frame rate isn’t as spectacular as the level of detail. With no other cars on the track, Real Racing 2 runs at a less than totally smooth frame rate, and the addition of more vehicles tends to slow the frame rate down further. It never becomes a slideshow, and the fact that there can be so many cars on screen at once is impressive in concept, but further optimization or a reduction in number of simultaneous cars would make the experience more believable.
For the most part, Firemint impresses in the gameplay department—the result of bringing everything it learned from Real Racing into the sequel. If you’re a fan of arcade style, high-intensity racing with plenty of collisions, flipped over vehicles, or turbo boosts, this isn’t the game for you; Real Racing 2 is more about mastering sharp and gentle turns on realistic race tracks, without the need to worry about the minutia that games like Sony’s Gran Turismo and Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport have become obsessed with. This game arrives with its virtual controls perfectly tuned, so that steering sensitivity feels just right, acceleration is handled automatically by default, and turning assists are turned on for players who want them. You have the ability to make the game as challenging as you want by turning various forms of assistance off, and also by tweaking your car with parts that change its top speed, acceleration, and handling. A full tuning system with part purchases funded by race winnings is coupled with a career mode, unlocking additional tracks, challenges, and eventually cars to use as you continue to play through.
Where Real Racing 2 most disappointed us was in the forced structure of its career system. While we can understand what Firemint was trying to do, very deliberately pacing the career mode in a manner that forces you to buy a car, learn how tuning works, and unlock everything piece by piece, track by track, and vehicle by vehicle, there’s too little choice up front to make the game as fun as it could be. You’re forced into buying a cheap, low-end car after browsing through virtual showrooms packed with more exciting vehicles, then pushed to make minor statistical upgrades for thousands of dollars with a very limited budget solely so that you can enter more tournaments. While many other racing games play the same tricks to stretch out the longevity of their content, Real Racing 2 teases you with the promise of lots of content and doesn’t even let you sample most of it in the Quick Race mode. If you don’t want to follow the career path and its restrictions, you’ll have to wait for a more permissive update.
We’ll be waiting on such an update for different reasons. For reasons unknown, Real Racing 2 claimed in the middle of our testing session that our Game Center account had changed, and lost all of our progress in career mode—deliberately so, with an on-screen warning that implied that the action was punitive. That was the point at which we stopped testing the game. We’d call it a bug based on the assumption that every player will want to be signed in to a Game Center account at all times while playing, but it was really annoying, and we don’t want to go back through the game unlocking races and vehicles only to lose them later. Having more unlocked content in Quick Race mode would have made the sting less painful.
In sum, Real Racing 2 is a strong sequel to the first title, but like several other games that have been shoehorned into the final weeks of December, it feels a little rushed in ways that detract from what would otherwise be a great gaming experience. If it follows in its predecessor’s footsteps, we’d expect to see it improve and decrease in price over the course of the next year—potentially in ways that may merit revisiting its current rating—but the single biggest improvement we’d hope for, full iPad support, may well be held back in favor of a separate release. Thankfully, everything Real Racing 2 needs is within Firemint’s ability to remedy, and easily at that; whether it does so or not is an open question. iLounge Rating: B+.
Unlike N.O.V.A. 2 and Real Racing 2, Gameloft’s Shadow Guardian ($7) isn’t a sequel to a prior App Store release—it’s a “new” 3-D action-platforming franchise, though its DNA was clearly borrowed from the multiplatform Eidos classic Tomb Raider and Sony’s more recent Uncharted series for PlayStation consoles. It’s worth noting at this point that the actual Tomb Raider series only showed up on iOS devices for the first time this week, and even then, only as a dumbed-down isometric perspective reduction of the original title. Shadow Guardian is, effectively, these games without compromise: it uses advanced textures, shading, and polygonal models that surpass the ones seen in the original Tomb Raider, and more closely approximate what Sony has done in the Uncharted series. Consequently, it runs only on the iPhone 4, iPod touch 4G, iPhone 3GS, and iPod touch 3G; the graphics just wouldn’t be possible on Apple’s earlier devices. iPad installation is possible, however, Gameloft is selling a separate $10 “HD” version for that device.
In short summary of the simple plot, you control adventurer Jason Call, whose relic-hunting story is told out of sequence through a series of taunting interrogations by the game’s villain—each major step of Call’s quest is discussed, flashing you back to extended play sequences that typically start and end in new geographic territories. A virtual joystick, swipe-controlled camera, and virtual buttons are used to let you see and move your character through fully 3-D environments, including Uncharted-style shootouts with mercenary armies and Tomb Raider-like exploration of cavernous Egyptian environments, complete with simple puzzles. Ammunition is limited but dispensed as you dispatch each mercenary, and new guns appear now and again to switch the shooting up between pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and rarer sniping sequences. When necessary, jump, duck-for-cover, or roll buttons appear, their presence most often giving you the clue (“hey, it’s time to duck”) that the game might otherwise provide as on-screen assistive text.
There’s no doubt that the single most impressive part of Shadow Guardian is its graphics engine, which surpasses anything on iOS devices—in some ways rivaling even Epic’s Infinity Blade. Rather than contenting itself to create characters with the simple facial details and shading found in earlier titles, Gameloft obviously used the comparatively ambitious and decidedly more challenging Uncharted as its benchmark: character faces have soft noses, cheeks, and mouths that really push the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G in ways that even Infinity Blade doesn’t attempt. Animation is at least solid at all times, and sometimes downright impressive; Jason Call’s spelunking, behind-cover machinegunning, and occasional melee flips of guards all are smoother than we’ve come to expect from iOS games. Even though Shadow Guardian borrows a lot from earlier games, it succeeds at replicating them on a level that smaller developers couldn’t approach.
While the backgrounds tend to use repeating textures and fewer polygons than they would on a PlayStation 3—no shock, obviously—they’re still so detailed, at least on the small iPhone and iPod screens, that you’ll occasionally marvel at just how complex and interesting the environments look. A single Egyptian room includes streaming light from a pierced roof, roaring flames, and gritty, uneven rock textures alongside hieroglyphics, chains, and wooden structures, and everything moves fluidly in 3-D as the camera shifts perspectives. The global scope of Call’s adventure and the size of the levels both give Gameloft a lot of virtual space to fill, and in each case, the areas are bigger and better than anything we’ve seen in the company’s prior titles. For the most part, the frame rate is smoother than in Infinity Blade or N.O.V.A. 2, as well, and there’s no shortage of nice shadowing and lighting effects on display. That having been said, Infinity Blade’s fewer environments tend to be even more polished, with reflection, wind, and other effects that are left out here to emphasize other things. Audio consists of lots of jump- and climb-induced grunts, melted with light ambient music, gunfire, and occasional voice work—all competent, none memorable.
To the extent that Shadow Guardian has any major failing, it’s the degree to which the title constantly holds your hand and turns the entire adventure into a Disney ride: given the fact that you start your adventure knowing that you’ve survived all of the quests that lead to your interrogation, the game doesn’t try very hard to distract you from the fait accompli. Everything from major to minor objectives is so clearly telegraphed with markers, camera pans, and on-screen explanatory text that anyone could figure out what to do next. This guided tour approach is perfect for casual gamers looking to just sit back and enjoy a mildly bumpy ride, and there are occasionally situations where Gameloft obviously reduced potentially tedious sections through pre-release playtesting, but ideally, Shadow Guardian would offer more tension and nuance. A near-term sequel could conceivably use the same graphics engine with smarter puzzles and merit an additional purchase.
Overall, however, Shadow Guardian is a major success story for Gameloft—with this title, the company has accomplished what Eidos and Sony have failed to do with portable versions of Tomb Raider and Uncharted, namely bringing a console-caliber 3-D adventure game to a pocket-sized device. That the game’s biggest failing is its desire to make the adventure accessible to more gamers is telling, as a title with such sophisticated graphics and gameplay offers hundreds of potential development pitfalls, none of which befell this title. Just like Jason Call himself, this game’s success seems preordained from the first few minutes spent in this adventure; the only question remaining is whether the inevitable sequel will make the smart improvements it needs to evolve an extremely impressive formula. iLounge Rating: A-.