Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at five titles that were either highly anticipated on their own, or unexpected sequels to well-known earlier releases—games that should be of interest to many readers. They span a wide variety of genres and range in price from $1 to $5, though there are a couple of gotchas in the bunch—iPhone/iPod touch releases that include Retina Display support, yet offer separate “HD” iPad versions for no good reason.
Our top picks in the collection are the iPhone and iPod touch versions of Angry Birds Halloween and Reckless Racing. Read on for all the details.
As there’s little doubt that Rovio Mobile’s Angry Birds has become one of the most popular App Store releases—and coveted by other game platforms—it’s no surprise that the developer has churned out a quick follow-up that doesn’t quite rise to the level of a sequel but still offers enough new content to be entertaining. Angry Birds Halloween ($1) and Angry Birds Halloween HD ($2) are the same game, one formatted for the iPhone and iPod touch with Retina Display artwork, and the other for the iPad with similarly “HD” art that is essentially the same, but displayed on the larger screen with the iPad’s different aspect ratio. As with the first Angry Birds, you use a touch-controlled slingshot to propel different types of birds at wood and concrete structures filled with evil pigs, aiming and using the birds’ one-time powers—explosions, boomeranging, dropping eggs, or splitting into multiple pieces—to topple the structures and squash the pigs inside. Each stage is a physics puzzle with a limited number of specified birds to use; you succeed if you bring down the structure before running out of them. The major difference in this version: the background artwork is Halloween-themed, pumpkins and the like have been added to some of the levels for bonus points, and the audio now consists of howling and brief, subtle ambient spooky music cues.
To be clear, we really enjoyed the first Angry Birds back when it only had 63 levels, and it has only grown in value since its initial release: it now has 195 levels and improved high-resolution artwork, both of which would merit a higher recommendation than the game received early on. We weren’t as enamored with the subsequent iPad version, which merely duplicated the same content at a higher price tag with upgraded art, and the Halloween versions have the same issue: both the iPhone/iPod touch and iPad releases contain only 45 levels, and the art’s basically the same, so there’s no good justification for two separate apps when a single universal version would have worked. Because the slingshot gameplay continues to be a lot of fun, fans of the prior Angry Birds fans will certainly enjoy the new levels—which rapidly bring different birds out to play—but going forward, a single universal application with inexpensive in-app level pack purchases would probably be a better idea. iLounge Rating: B+.
In addition to all of the new releases here, we’ve also spent a couple of weeks trying a several-month-old iOS game from TheCodingMonkeys called Carcassonne ($5)—an iPhone and iPod touch adaptation of a 10-year-old German board game. While we haven’t been able to get as excited about it as some of its biggest fans, it’s definitely a great example of how turn-based board games can be made better on touchscreen devices, so we wanted to briefly share it with you anyway. Each player is tasked with building out a game board using a collection of different tiles that are used to represent medieval terrain, including pieces of roads, fields, and cities, with the goal being to create a finished landscape—complete with “followers” you place on tiles—using 72 total tiles, dropped one per turn onto the board. A player wins by accruing the most points for the tiles and followers they’ve placed on the board, creating the greatest semblance of an early system of roads, buildings, and farmable land. Up to five human/AI players can play at once on the same device, or with local area Bluetooth/Wi-Fi, or via Wi-Fi over the Internet. A solitaire game is also available for players who don’t want to wait for opponents to take turns.
Carcassonne is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its unusual current approach to offering universal iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch support. The developers have been promising to add a true iPad update for some time now and warning of a bump in price to $10 when that happens, but in the interim, the game still has the 1X and 2X upscaling button, displaying higher-resolution artwork and text when upscaled to 2X, something that isn’t seen very often in iPhone/iPod touch releases. Because of the high-res artwork, the tiles are easy on the eyes regardless of the device they’re on, and TheCodingMonkeys have done a good job of making the placement of tiles easy—touch on an empty space to drop one, tap it to rotate, and tap another button to add a follower. Spaces you can’t occupy are automatically blocked off, and rotations of the tiles to build roads, fields, and cities are limited solely to permissible positions. As with EA’s renditions of Monopoly, Battleship, and other board games, the touch-based controls just feel so intuitive that it’s hard to even think of going back to playing with real pieces.
But what Carcassonne lacked, for us at least, was the sort of gradual introduction to the gameplay that would really have brought new players like us in. There is a tutorial, and it’s even voice-narrated—a nice addition to the game’s gentle musical score—but its pacing and visual hand-holding just weren’t enough to make us want to keep playing and developing new strategies to get higher scores. Fans of the Carcassonne board game will love what’s been done here; with additional work, the digital version could win new fans, as well. iLounge Rating: B.
As fans of one-on-one fighting games, we were interested to see what Electronic Arts would do with MMA by EA Sports ($5), a 3-D rendition of the mixed martial arts sporting events that have become popular over the last decade. Since the company has released some technically impressive boxing and fighting games on other platforms, we had high hopes for MMA, and they were partially met—interestingly more on the control side than in the artwork. This is notably an iPhone and iPod touch release that runs without high-res graphics on the iPad.
The challenge EA faced with MMA was finding a way to render the many and varied fighting styles of mixed martial arts controllable at all, let alone on a touchscreen device, and it succeeded: you tilt to move your fighter back or forward, using single taps, double taps, single-finger swipes, and double-finger swipes to execute moves. By focusing initially on single taps and swipes for punches and kicks, then challenging you to initiate or break grapples and submission holds by using double-finger swipes and taps, MMA manages to incorporate skill and timing in ways that many fighting games don’t: when you fail to bring both of your fingers up or down at the same time, or hit two tap points at the same moment, you know that it’s your fault that you didn’t execute a move properly or quickly enough. Moreover, your ability to tap or swipe with only one finger much of the time lets you enjoy a little button mashing, albeit rapidly depleting your stamina if you rely too much upon rapid slugging.
Unfortunately, the great control scheme is undercut by other, less than completely developed elements in the game. The entire lightweight circuit is a joke in challenge, rapidly becoming repetitive due both to weak AI and voiceover work that repeats so completely from fight to fight that one wonders whether EA actually tried playing through several fights in a row. MMA’s graphics engine uses well-animated but somewhat chunky polygonal character models that could really have stood to be more detailed—or to have Fight Night-style slow-mo, sweat, and blood effects—along with backgrounds that largely look the same from fight to fight until you change weight classes. Character customization is offered, but extremely limited, resulting in fighters who look samey and plain—arguably realistic in that the game is based on a real sport and includes 20 real MMA fighters, but less than thrilling nonetheless. What’s here is a good start towards making a great MMA game, but it’s only one of the most compelling fighting games for the iPhone and iPod touch because there is so little competition right now. Hopefully EA will use this as the starting point for an even better series. iLounge Rating: B-.
Originally titled Deliverace and revealed many months before its release this past week, Reckless Racing ($3) by Electronic Arts/Pixelbite is without question one of the most impressive looking racing games released for the iPhone and iPod touch; a $5 version called Reckless Racing HD is being sold separately for the iPad. While there’s no justification for the separate iPad version, we otherwise have only good things to say about both of these titles—a surprise given that the overhead racing genre has never been amongst our favorites.
Because the graphics processors on mobile devices rarely have extra polygons or pixels to spare, most racing games on portable devices feel overly clean—you might see smoke or tire tracks coming off of cars, but you rarely see environments that feel gritty or realistic. In a bold move that’s made possible by its zoomed-out overhead perspective, Reckless Racing takes the complete opposite approach, focusing not on creating detailed cars, but rather on making its stages as interestingly interactive and dirty as possible, using whatever special effects it needs to do so. Using “Southern trashiness” as a theme, Pixelbite has created country-ish courses that let the drivers—Cletus, Otis, Bubba, Lurlene, Floyd, and Hank—kick up dirt, smoke, and small obstacles for fun while banjo music plays. On the iPhone and iPod touch, some of the obstacles are so tiny that you’ll just barely know that you’re seeing roadside cones getting kicked up in the air, but this contributes to a sense that you’re looking at a world that’s real: far more detailed and interesting than what’s been seen in any other overhead racer on these platforms.
Reckless Racing’s gameplay just works, too. While you can take individual button-based control over acceleration, braking/reverse, and left and right turns, the game felt best to us in “tank” mode, which auto-accelerates to let you focus entirely on steering with the only occasional need to stop or back up. Races are all about coming in first amongst the six vehicles, taking dirt-splashing drifts and sharp hairpin turns into consideration across multi-lap courses, and the action’s just plain fun; you can use ramps on occasion to vault over other cars or parts of courses, or just stick to the main track and try to win by just making the fewest mistakes. Some tracks let you fall off of cliffs, while others are confined to industrial or mud pit settings; the courses are varied, challenging, and interesting. A delivery mode that pushes you from point to point picking up items is fun, as well. While Reckless Racing could have used a more sophisticated soundtrack on the iPod touch and iPhone, it’s otherwise a great game for the $3 asking price; the iPad version rates lower because it adds little and really should have been incorporated into the other version. iLounge Ratings: A- (iPhone/iPod touch) / B+ (iPad).
The last game in today’s roundup is Samurai II: Vengeance ($3) by Madfinger Games, a walk-and-slash action game with feudal Japanese-themed artwork and characters. It’s notably a sequel of sorts to the separate Samurai: Way of the Warrior and Samurai HD releases we reviewed earlier this year—“of sorts” because the new game is virtually identical to the prior version, only with a collection of small but welcome changes. Most notable is Samurai II’s universal support for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad within one application, reasonably priced between the $2 and $5 levels of its predecessor, a choice we were thrilled to see Madfinger make this time.
In Samurai, you took control of a lone samurai warrior with a single katana from an isometric overhead perspective; the game presented everything in portrait rather than landscape mode, which offered an easy view of what was up the roads you travelled. Samurai II shifts to landscape orientation, letting you see more of what’s off to your left and right instead. As it turns out, this shift doesn’t change the game much at all: you are still largely focused on slashing up waves of very similar enemies using your katana, hitting two buttons for different types of slashing attacks, and a third for rolling dodges, while moving around using a virtual joypad. There are occasional opportunities to interact with elements of the scenery, such as flipping switches or destroying barrels, but most of the game is about carving up attackers and accruing points for combos—successive hits without interruption.
Samurai II really excels visually, more on the latest iPhone and iPod touch Retina Displays than anywhere else. While the game looks largely identical to the first version, swapping in some new background artwork and intermissions, the level of detail on the 3.5” screens is very close to beautiful—the natural result of bringing the former iPad art down to the smaller devices. It’s not shabby on the iPad, either, but seeing the same high-resolution art on such small screens is even more impressive. Madfinger also includes a very nice ambient soundtrack, with haunting, traditional-sounding Japanese instrumentation and a rousing drum beat, along with plenty of slashing and groaning sounds that pair well with the action. Once again, however, the game falls short in the gameplay department, with far too little depth, relying too heavily upon the quickly declining thrill of seeing opponents occasionally sliced in half or beheaded with a modest close-up. The purely 1980’s and 1990’s hack-and-slash action is just solid enough to be worthy of the $3 asking price, but we can’t help but feel that this title could have been so much more with some additional gameplay twists. Perhaps we’ll see them in Samurai III. iLounge Rating: B.