Welcome to another rapid-fire edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re blazing through a list of recent releases and sports titles as we move closer to the release of our 2011 Buyers’ Guide. New games from Gameloft figure heavily in the collection below, but we’ve also looked at some big-name releases from EA Sports and Taito.
Our top picks are FIFA 11 by EA Sports, Spider-Man: Total Mayhem, and Star Battalion. Read on for all the details.
Taito’s spiritual sequel to Atari’s block-breaking game Breakout arrived in arcades years ago, and console versions followed—now the iPad has its own version, Arkanoid HD ($5)—regrettably iPad-only and thereby distinct from the company’s earlier, same-priced release for iPhones and iPod touches. There’s not much to report in the surprises department here, as the chief benefit of this version is higher-resolution renditions of the redrawn background artwork and boss characters found in the smaller-screened version; an option lets you revert to art that’s more similar to the original game if you have a 16-bit fetish.
We wish the music had received the same overhaul, as the chiptune soundtrack is not amongst Taito’s best, and becomes grating during the 100 stages, forking into different paths that alternate between fun—dropping plenty of pill-shaped power-ups to give your paddle lasers, multi-balls, and power balls—and straight out boring, as when the entire screen is filled with unbreakable or multi-hit breakable blocks and you just sit there with the paddle, waiting for the level to end. Make no mistake: this is a classic game, and if you like Arkanoid, it’s one of the best versions yet released, but we’ve been more wowed on Apple’s devices by other Breakout clones, and this one doesn’t do enough to evolve over what worked 20 years ago. iLounge Rating: B..
In the battle to win over soccer fans, EA and Gameloft have rematched this year with FIFA 11 by EA Sports ($5) and Real Soccer 2011 ($5), Retina Display-ready sequels to earlier iPhone and iPod touch releases; neither company includes iPad HD support in its iPhone/iPod touch version. While both of the titles are acceptable, neither is incredible this year, and they each have little turn-offs that may incentivize players to wait.
FIFA 11 is the more impressive title of the two, as it doesn’t just support Retina Display resolutions—it also provides better animation and character models than Real Soccer 11, plus considerably more believable and articulate commentary. Though it’s impressive to see players and jerseys from hundreds of soccer clubs from around the world, complete with their endorsed logos, FIFA’s key advantages over Real Soccer aren’t just aesthetic: the game flows in a way that Real Soccer 11 doesn’t, making smooth transitions from player to player, and thoughtfully using virtual controls to allow direct tapping on pass receivers and different defensive players, plus word-labelled buttons rather than just “A,” “B,” and “run.”
What’s conspicuously missing in the game is multiplayer support, a feature that’s just grayed out as coming soon from the main menu, and backwards compatibility with older devices: in order to achieve its superior graphics, EA limits FIFA 11 solely to the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod touch 3G/4G, and iPad, the latter without high-resolution support. Frame rates also aren’t as smooth as they could be, but this is a minor quibble given the quality of the rest of what’s here. iLounge Rating: B+..
Real Soccer 11’s single biggest advantage over FIFA is its compatibility with prior-generation iPods and iPhones—a fact that will endear it to older device users but cost it some points with newer ones. While Gameloft includes Retina Display support, its character models look downright primitive on Apple’s high-resolution screens, with very limited textures and modeling that were acceptable a couple of years ago but feel behind the times now. Despite possessing more than enough extra horsepower under the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G hoods to make such a visually limited game sing in the audio department and move smoothly in gameplay, Real Soccer 11 stutters a bit on these newer devices, with AI that never really feels completely smooth as the ball moves from player to player—an issue that isn’t the same from device to device.
Similarly, commentary ticks the boxes but sounds forced and artificial: words repeat often and names sound glued-on to the rest of sentences they appear in; it’s offset by powerful, nice crowd noise and chants that provide very good ambience for the action. While the game controls respectably, EA clearly surges ahead with its tap-to-pass/switch defensive players feature and better-labeled buttons, which make better use of the touchscreen. On the other hand, Real Soccer 11 does a better job with in-game cinematics, and offers both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth multiplayer features right out of the gate. So while FIFA has the stronger overall engine and the better in-game experience, Real Soccer 11 offers superior device compatibility, multiplayer, and a few other frills that will win it some fans this year, too. iLounge Rating: B..
The one nice thing about Gameloft’s game releases is their consistent base level of quality: it’s rare to pick up a title and find that it’s bad or merely okay—whatever the company does, it does at least pretty well, if not fantastically. Fishing Kings HD ($5) is one of the pretty good ones, again solely for the iPad with a sadly separate $5 version for the iPod touch and iPhone, not going into the depth that we’ve seen in some fishing titles but still offering more than enough to keep you busy for hours. Gameloft divides the title up into 15 locations spread out across different scenic locales, amusingly ranging from the Bahamas to Lake Erie, and providing everything from spots filled with rainbows, bridges, and coral to canyon-side bass fishing. Fishing Kings switches from an overhead view of you and your boat to an underwater camera for much of the action, using 3-D artwork to represent everything.
The core of Fishing Kings is a freestyle “flick your iPad to cast a line, touch the screen with circle gestures to pull your lure and line back to the boat, then flick and tilt to snag a fish” experience, but e-mailed invitations to in-game events, a cash upgrade system for your gear, and different types of bait for select types of fish give the gameplay a nice structure. While we would have liked to see some more detailed touches in the gameplay, such as sonar assistance for fish-spotting, fun items hidden in the water to discover, or actual navigation between locations rather than just tapping on a map, Gameloft’s detailed 3-D graphics and relaxing music make up for some of the omissions; the only real visual flaw is that fish don’t look especially believable at the moment when they approach and get snared by your lures. That aside, this is a solid foundation upon which to build a bigger and better series. iLounge Rating: B..
Gameloft’s Let’s Golf! series was its cartoony version of popular Camelot-developed golf games for Nintendo and Sony systems; now it has released Real Golf 2011 HD ($7) for the iPad and, unfortunately, another separate iPhone/iPod touch version at the same price. The pitch here is similar enough to Let’s Golf!, but different: here, you’re playing on 10 real golf courses with your choice of 10 real pro golfers—Annika Sorenstam, Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, and Natalie Gulbis amongst them—rather than on the stylized, more colorful greens designed for the Let’s Golf titles. Gameloft swaps a new and more challenging swipe up-and-down control scheme for the easier circular tap controller in its other series, relying more on the precision of your finger on a combined power and direction meter than wind speed or timing to determine the ball’s final resting position. Serious fans of golf will likely find the new control scheme to be more realistic in concept, but disappointing in execution, as putts all too frequently are missed due to inaccurate claims as to how much power is needed for a specific shot. The older controls are there as a backup for those who dislike the new scheme, though they’re not always as responsive or precise as they should be.
The non-trivial issues aside, Real Golf 2011 HD has a lot to offer. In addition to quick matches and challenges, the game has a full career mode complete with e-mailed challenges, prize money, and customizations for your player; there’s also a multiplayer option with online, local Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth local modes. While the courses don’t benefit as much as they should from the iPad’s polygonal horsepower—grass is flat and trees tend to get really blocky up close—there are so many of them, and the players look so detailed that it’s hard to really mind that much. Audio is respectable, with nice voice commentary and a crowd that oohs, aahs, and claps, sometimes with a little too much enthusiasm given the players’ tendency to miss putts. In the absence of an HD version of Tiger Woods Golf from EA, Gameloft has the iPad almost entirely to itself here, and for a first time out on the larger-screened platform, it’s done a good job. iLounge Rating: B..
Though Gameloft’s Spider-Man: Total Mayhem ($7) is an iPhone/iPod touch title without formal support for the iPad’s higher-resolution display, it is without question one of the best action titles yet released for Apple’s devices. Relying on a virtual joystick and buttons that stay more or less the same rather than shifting for context, Spider-Man provides a far more compelling walk, punch, and jump experience than the company’s earlier Iron Man 2, in part by honing in on the specific tricks that make this particular Marvel super hero unique. A button for Spider Sense and occasional quick time events let him slow down time to dodge attacks and shoot webbing at foes, while his punching, kicking, and jumping all feel worthy of the character’s acrobatic heritage, mixing occasionally with web-slinging, wall-climbing, and boss confrontations that require dodging or deactivation of surrounding objects.
That Spider-Man’s 12 levels are so varied and that the sux bosses aren’t merely repetitive reskins of the same but increasingly powerful mega-enemy are its biggest strengths: far too many fighting games become samey by the second stage, but as Spidey fights against everyone from the Sandman to the Rhino, Electro, and Venom, the level-filling enemies, backgrounds, and boss skills all keep evolving gently to become more challenging and interesting. The fact that stages flow smoothly from different activities, including platform jumping, winding through side-of-building mazes, and straight out fighting really helps, too. Retina Display graphics make the fairly simple character models look great on newer iPhones and iPod touches, but even when blown up on the iPad screen, the game looks quite good; voices and music are solid comic fare. We’d take this $7 game any day over the older 2-D fighting ports mustered by companies such as Sega; it’s one of Gameloft’s best-developed games, and deserves a sequel. iLounge Rating: A-..
Last but certainly not least in this roundup is Gameloft’s just-released Star Battalion ($7), another Retina Display-optimized iPhone and iPod touch game with only low-resolution iPad support. This is the company’s first dedicated sci-fi flying and shooting game, using accelerometer controls for movement and touch buttons for firing lasers and missiles at targets within open but confined 3-D stages. At times, it’s akin to Nintendo’s Starfox series, albeit with some key differences: considerably better graphics, decent to good voice acting, fine but repetitive music, and missions that are equally structured without the forced-forward gameplay. Star Battalion takes you through two missions per environment, typically breaking each mission into primary and secondary objectives that both involve locating and shooting at targets; some are semi-stationary, while others are quick-moving spaceships that need to be brought down with dogfighting skills including barrel rolls, loop-de-loops, and strategic use of limited lock-on missiles and/or unlimited lasers. This is an action game first and foremost, not a strategy game, so those looking for a different and more cerebral balance may be better served with Freeverse’s Warpgate HD.
There are many reasons to like Star Battalion for what it is. One big one is a cooperative multi-player mode that lets you use Game Center or Gameloft’s own service to team up with 1 or 2 other people to complete stages—including ones only one of the people has unlocked. In our testing, the matchmaking was somewhat unreliable, but when it worked, we had a lot of fun playing through the game together. The controls are, with the exception of swipe-to-barrel roll commands that sometimes don’t register, otherwise completely spot-on, enabling you to steer, turn, and fire weapons incredibly efficiently given the lack of an analog controller. We were also really wowed by some of the graphics, particularly in the Retina Display’s representation of certain energy special effects and debris-filled level designs, though there were other stages that were visually boring and given less impressive textures. Multiple ships in the game range from good to so-so designs, offering plenty of room for improvement in sequels, and the somewhat camp intermissions could use some work, too. But as with many other Gameloft titles, Star Battalion plants Gameloft’s flag firmly in the ground in a genre that is under-represented in the App Store, and we’re anxious to see what follows in its wake. iLounge Rating: B+.