Welcome to this week’s edition of iPhone Gems! Once again, we have three completely different games to showcase this time out, including a driving game from Electronic Arts, an overhead shooter originally released in arcades in 1999 by Psikyo, and a hack-and-slash zombie game from Bulkypix. One of the titles is much better than the others, even when its higher price is taken into consideration.
Our pick of the week is EA’s Need For Speed Shift. Read on for all the details.
“Keep playing,” we heard when we started to test Need For Speed Shift ($10) last week, “you’ll find that it gets better.” And yes, that’s true: Electronic Arts’ latest racing game for the iPhone and iPod touch does improve after you put some time into it, and more importantly, offers the sort of full 3-D driving game that actually requires a day or two of solid play to appreciate everything inside. It’s not a mindblowing release, and starts a little slow, but EA’s getting a little better with every App Store release.
If you’re familiar with the Need For Speed name only from the last iPhone title, note up front that Need For Speed Underground: Shift is a totally different game, stripped of the gritty underworld street racing elements, the DIY rice burners and the storyline. In essence, it’s EA’s alternative to Firemint’s Real Racing, complete with 20 real cars, 18 different tracks set in several international locales, plus good licensed music. You use prize money to improve your car and buy new cars, earning stars for solid racing, and thereby unlocking additional “tiers” and races. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modes are included for multiplayer simultaneous gameplay.
Though the core of the gameplay is simple—drive your car on a track against other cars or a time limit—EA tries to change things up with a few tricks: in addition to slipstream speed bonuses achieved by closely tailing your opponents and drifting points earned by powersliding through turns, tracks have suggested optimal racing lines that you’re encouraged to stay on for extra points; you can also score aggression bonuses by ramming other cars during most races. Together with a turbo button, which can be purchased early in the game, these features help races to achieve a nice mix of unpredictability and excitement, bounded by certain restrictions: there’s only one optimal line, too little chance sometimes to really push opponents off-track, and drifting doesn’t have quite the same satisfying feel of better (read: non-iPhone) Ridge Racer titles. Stages also switch up their challenges: one track will expect you to achieve a certain number of drifting points for each of first, second, or third places, while another will be a time trial or three-lap race against three other cars.
Need For Speed Shift’s single biggest asset is its graphics engine. Sharp-looking in-car and car exterior camera views are offered, along with a view that strips away the entire car to let you focus on scenery and opponents, with HUD elements bending inwards to suggest a wide, fisheye lens-assisted view of the world. EA’s renditions of Chicago, London, and Tokyo aren’t amazingly complex but use nice textures and have little pop-up; its cars are fairly sophisticated models with nice shading and some really detailed texturing. Filter effects make the world go black and white during collisions, while a radio full of music provides a better soundtrack than many of EA’s “provide the music yourself” past titles.
Controls and a couple of glitches detract from the game’s appeal. Drifts are supposed to be activated by quick twitches to the left or right when you turn, but don’t always engage reliably, which they need to do in a racing game where sharp, accurate turning is required. Additionally, the game’s braking mechanism is activated by touching the screen, but a coding bug doesn’t inhibit the iPhone or iPod touch display from going to sleep, so you’ll either need to turn off the device’s power-saving screen timer, or need to touch the screen once in a while—and brake—to avoid having that happen. We’d be surprised if this wasn’t fixed, and soon.
Ultimately, Need For Speed Shift is a good racer, with a nice variety of tracks and challenges, solid graphics and audio, and controls that could use a little fine-tuning but otherwise work pretty well to let you have fun while driving around. It didn’t make a huge splash on other platforms and, in part because of its steep $10 asking price and initially slow pacing, is equally unlikely to blow iPhone and iPod touch gamers away, but the overall experience here is worth recommending to driving fans, particularly those who want to enjoy racing real cars in realistic cities and are willing to spend a little time and extra cash for the opportunity. At a lower price point, it has the potential to shine more. iLounge Rating: B+.
We’re not going to suggest that we played all the way through Strikers 1945 Plus ($5), WindySoft’s port of Psikyo’s popular 1999 overhead shooting game in the vein of Capcom’s 194x series and a number of others we’ve played and/or reviewed for the iPhone and iPod touch. The reason: we couldn’t. Released essentially unoptimized for Apple’s devices, Strikers 1945 Plus has stuttering graphics, blaring loud chip-quality music, and such imprecise touch controls that we found dodging bullets—the core of its gameplay—to be unpleasantly difficult, and wanted to stop playing before even completing the first level. We stuck around for three.
Strikers 1945 Plus provides a virtual D-pad and two buttons at the bottom of the screen: one shoots if the game’s auto-firing feature is turned off, and charges a powerful shot when held down. The other fires a smart bomb. Players initially choose from six airplanes, with one or two unlockable thereafter, and can conceivably explore eight stages with individual boss encounters; a mode with just boss encounters is also available after you’ve cleared all of the stages. Ten coins are provided to help you continue after you lose your initial set of three airplanes, and two difficulty levels—normal and hard—are available.
The problem is that Strikers 1945 Plus depends upon smooth controls and graphics that just aren’t anywhere to be found in this version, thanks to a low frame rate and poor use of the touchscreen as a virtual controller. Even with the auto-firing mechanism turned on, which enables you to take out the many planes that fill the screen and move in “200 dynamic and sophisticated enemy flight patterns,” the jittery visuals and controls quickly see you smashed over and over again by waves of enemy bullets. In the absence of a damage meter—in other words, a way to take multiple hits rather than dying after one—your plane loses its power ups again and again, forcing you to fly around the screen trying to recover them amidst even more enemy planes and bullets. It’s just not fun, and not worth a longer review in its current form: significant optimizations will be needed before it’s worth playing. iLounge Rating: C-.
Some games look so impressive in screenshots that art alone can overwhelm one’s rational desire to know whether they actually play well. Twin Blades: The Reaping Vanguard ($1) from Bulkypix is one of them. It’s so beautifully drawn and inexpensive that some players will be able to look past the fact that it feels like a demo of an incomplete game—akin to the earliest version of Zombieville USA—and just enjoy it for what it is. Others will pick it up and quickly feel like they’ve just thrown away a dollar.
Twin Blades places you in control of a warrior nun—yes, you read that right—who runs through stages with a sickle and a gun, killing zombies as they pop out of the ground. That’s it. The side scrolling stages loop, the zombies are all sorta similar save for their clothing and protective metal cooking utensils—yes, again—and five audio tracks alternate to provide background music for the sorta bloody slaughter. You merely press forward or backward to run, up to jump, and hit either sickle or gun buttons to attack; your standard gun has unlimited rounds and can be upgraded with points earned by killing zombies, while your sickle provides close-range attacks.
There’s only one real selling point to Twin Blades, and that’s the artwork: everything from the main character to the zombies and the backgrounds is rendered in hand-drawn Japanese manga style, and initially, it’s pretty cool: there isn’t enough animation, but what’s been drawn is actually impressive, even if it flies by pretty quickly as you’re running around. Due to the speed as which you move and the combination of gunfire and slashing action, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between the themes here and that of 3-D games such as Capcom’s PlayStation series Devil May Cry; if Capcom were to release a cartoony 2-D version of those games for the iPhone, it would probably turn out something like this.
But hopefully it would play better. Twin Blades looks nice enough in screenshots, but it doesn’t take long to discover that it’s very shallow and not very satisfying due to its simple design: keep running right and shooting on occasion just to make it out of the level. Devil May Cry at least had platforming and stylish combo elements to brag about; Twin Blades, like Zombieville USA and the similar Inkvaders, doesn’t. The biggest thrill here is in collecting enough cash to buy better weapons, which have their own nice animations, but that’s actually not really much of a thrill, and the fact that the zombies are now more diverse in appearance doesn’t save them from being boring opponents. Since Twin Blades is faster paced than Zombieville USA, you don’t have to dwell too much on any given threat: just keep running and you’ll be OK. If the art and that sort of gameplay are enough to interest you for $1, give the game a shot; our feeling is that it’s only a little better than a very attractive demo at this stage, but has the potential to become better with future updates. iLounge Rating: B-.