Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Though this edition of Gems includes some of the best games we’ve played for Apple’s iOS devices in recent months, the unusual theme tying everything together here is the value—or lack thereof—of separate iPhone and iPad versions of the exact same game, two of which we’ve previously covered in full reviews. Developers appear to finally be shifting away from this practice, which we’ve almost never found to be justified by changes made to one of the two versions, but some of the games covered below offer interesting twists on the “one or two apps” question. The best of them offers universal support at an attractive price, and really optimizes the game’s performance for the iPad 2’s new graphics hardware.
All of the titles here are worthy of your consideration, but our top pick is the exceptional Xtreme Wheels, followed closely by Block Breaker 3 Unlimited for the iPhone and iPod touch, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.
Having previously reviewed and liked Gameloft’s Breakout-alike Block Breaker Deluxe, with even stronger positive feelings about its sequel Block Breaker Deluxe 2, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we’re also big fans of the even less expensive and glammed up title Block Breaker 3 Unlimited ($1). But we weren’t as enthusiastic about the iPad-only version Block Breaker 3 Unlimited HD ($1), for unexpected reasons.
If you’ve ever played Breakout, Arkanoid, or similar games before, you know the general concept of using a bottom-of-screen paddle to make a ball ricochet through a single-screen collection of bricks until everything destructible has been cleared. Block Breaker 3 Unlimited offers all that, and incorporates the same nightclub-influenced background art and bosses we’ve mentioned in our prior Block Breaker coverage, but goes a lot further. The 100 new stages are no longer limited to a single screen each, but instead scroll upwards, to the sides, and even occasionally downwards as your ball or balls travel through passageways to different play fields. In some cases, you move from screen to screen only after clearing what’s in one area, but in others, that mightn’t be necessary, so if your paddle misses the ball, it may fall into a lower area with additional bricks to be cleared.
Between the number of play fields, the continued variety of power-ups—paddle and ball enhancers, various types of dropped items, collectable stars—and the sheer quantity of objects, bricks, and balls that are on screen at a given time, Block Breaker 3 Unlimited manages to one-up its predecessor in diversity and fun factor without resorting to the prior title’s chaos. Players are still challenged to move the paddle from left to right precisely, skillfully managing bounce-backs of balls in order to avoid being mocked by the 1990’s-hip characters, but the levels no longer feel cramped by all of the action, and the occasional fall-back of a ball into a lower play area is a welcome alternative to a previously fatal type of error. There’s not much of a soundtrack here, save for a looping track or three that to their credit sound as if they could have been background beats for Lady Gaga songs, and sound effects are relatively simple, without voice work or other frills.
There are only two major issues with Block Breaker 3 Unlimited. First is the needless separation of iPad and iPhone/iPod touch versions into two separate apps with two separate in-app purchase systems and saved game files—something we’ve noted before in Gameloft titles, but found to be particularly problematic here. This is the extremely rare case where the larger size of the screen makes the iPad version of the game considerably less fun to play than the iPhone and iPod touch version; we found it much easier to accidentally swipe outside of the iPad’s control area, and more tedious to control because of the several-inch swipe bar. (Gyroscope controls are offered as an alternative, but we don’t like using the gyroscope for games such as this.) Unfortunately, if you buy the iPad version of the game, you don’t have the option to run it on a smaller device. The other issue is the game’s heavy touting of relatively meaningless and expensive in-app purchases for power-ups. They’re ridiculous and unseemly, but you can skip them. Drop the buck for the iPod touch/iPhone version and enjoy the game; pass on the iPad version unless Gameloft updates it to include iPod/iPhone support. iLounge Ratings: A- (iPod/iPhone) / B- (iPad/HD).
Late last year, Gameloft released the iPod touch and iPhone first-person shooter N.O.V.A. 2 – Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance, which we described in a full review as “a solid but somewhat unpolished sequel” to the company’s largely successful clone of Microsoft and Bungie’s famous Xbox franchise Halo. Subsequently, the company released N.O.V.A. 2 – Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance HD ($7, version 1.2.1) as an iPad-only version, and we briefly wanted to mention it today.
The core of the iPad version is so incredibly similar to the iPhone/iPod touch and Mac versions of N.O.V.A. 2 that there’s no need to repeat what we discussed in our original review—this is a 12-chapter, fairly intense shooter with the exact same near-future themes, types of levels, and enemies you know and love from the Halo series. In addition to the 10 included multiplayer maps, which can be enjoyed with up to 10 people online or locally, there are now three additional maps sold as a $2 in-app purchase that’s waved in your face from the main menu. Gameloft takes as many opportunities as possible to try and push the additional map purchases on you, too, an annoyance when you go into multiplayer mode—and, again, unseemly given that this is a $7 purchase, or two $7 purchases if you have both an iPad and an iPhone or iPod touch.
While the iPad version of N.O.V.A. 2 is as good as the iPod touch/iPhone version that preceded it, the game hasn’t received much of an upgrade to justify a second or standalone purchase, let alone the need for separate supplemental in-app multiplayer map purchases. The single biggest difference is that the added screen real estate offers a little extra height to show off more of your gun, the ground, and the sky, as well as more space to situate the on-screen controls. Gameloft has also added motion blur effects “for more lifelike action,” though they’re nowhere near as obvious as on the Mac version of the game. If you’re only an iPad owner and have no desire to play N.O.V.A. 2 on smaller devices, it’s safe to go with the “HD” version of this game, but this is a very clear demonstration of why a universal app makes a lot more sense for most iOS game releases. iLounge Rating: B+.
Back in March, we reviewed and loved Capybara Games’ iPad-only retro-styled adventure game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP ($5, iLounge Rating: A-), and subsequently promised some additional thoughts when the company updated the title with iPhone and iPod touch support. Today, Capybara is selling two versions of the game: the universal iPad/iPhone/iPod touch-updated EP at the same price, and an iPhone/iPod touch-only version called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery Micro for $3.
Having played Sword & Sworcery on the iPad and then again on the iPhone, there’s no huge difference other than a modest change in screen aspect ratios to report—though there are two elements of the prior experience that actually do work better on the smaller-screened devices than on the iPad. First is the musical score, which gamers are probably more likely to experience through the iPad’s speaker than headphones, while headphones seem more appropriate on the iPod touch and iPhone. Listening to this game’s soundtrack and audio through headphones only deepens one’s appreciation for musician Jim Guthrie’s craftsmanship; it is a truly excellent backdrop to the pixel art and questing action.
Second is the game’s somewhat controversial screen rotation concept, which requires you to turn the device from its regular landscape adventuring position to portrait orientation for sword fighting. On the iPad, this felt pointless and uncomfortable. But on the iPhone and iPod touch, which are smaller and much easier to physically turn as necessary, the turn of device feels almost intuitive and logical, like the unsheathing of a sword.
You can decide for yourself whether to spend the $5 for the full universal version of the game, a price that’s justified in light of the added iPhone/iPod touch support, or $3 for the iPad-less version. Either price strikes us as reasonable for what’s here—the amusing storyline and writing, the interesting obstacles, and the challenging boss-like battle scenes. As we said in our prior full review, the only buyers who will be disappointed by this game will be those “who place a premium on modern aesthetics or non-linear gaming;” it is a charming, unique little adventure title that dares to be different, and succeeds. iLounge Rating: A-.
There’s a very odd sort of genius at play in Bravo Game Studios’ newest release Xtreme Wheels ($4), an impressive 3-D update to Nintendo’s classic motocross title Excitebike. Most of the time, gamers aren’t supposed to enjoy repeatedly failing at a task, particularly when the consequence is the injury of a human on-screen avatar. But somehow, with a combination of gentle camera closeups, slow motion, 3-D ragdoll physics and groaning sound effects, Bravo turns every one of your motorcycler’s many crashes into an amusingly brutal display—enough to make for almost sick, repeated enjoyment no matter how many times they happen. Even after mangling that would make Jackass fans wince, you’ll want to keep coming back to try and solve each of the game’s puzzle-like levels.
Putting its 1990’s-styled “extreme!” name aside, Xtreme Wheels is as up to date as App Store games get—a fully universal app with iPod touch and iPhone 4 Retina Display support, plus even better graphics on the iPad 2, where there’s even more screen real estate to let the detailed 3-D models and textures really shine. The game runs at a fine frame rate on the small devices, including menus that look too detailed to be realtime 3-D but are, and becomes nearly silky on the iPad 2, where you get to really enjoy objects, environments, and lighting effects that would have been unimaginable on portable devices 10 years ago. A fitting instrumental rock soundtrack plays in the background, well-matched with sufficiently punchy sound effects and the growling bike engine.
You take control of a BMX-style motorcycle that rides through a series of 20 different courses spread across five gritty environments, using acceleration and brake buttons with a very simple slider that adjusts the bike’s forward or backward tilt. Over time, you’ll learn that you’re not just tilting the bike, but also interacting with the rider, whose body position actually influences everything from obstacle climbing to jumping.
At first, Xtreme Wheels seems pretty simple, merely challenging you to race and jump across a bumpy, vaguely dangerous course without smashing your bike or head into high or low obstacles. But with each new level, Bravo seems to take perverse delight in adding one or more challenges that will lead to a small splash of blood and a low, slo-mo “ugggggghh” from the on-screen racer: loop-de-loops, backwards ramps, explosive barrels, and velocity-dependent jumps all force you to reconsider how you’re supposed to control your biker, and how to switch from one style of biking—fast and relaxed, slow and easy, or twitch- and tilt-conscious—to another as the challenges mount.
For the $4 asking price, Xtreme Wheels is nearly a no-brainer purchase for iOS fans. In our view, the mark of a truly great game is its ability to thrill people who normally wouldn’t be interested in the genre, and Bravo has done that here: between the aesthetics, the controls, and the challenging levels, it offers action, motorsport and puzzle fans an excellent overall package for the price, and wound up becoming one of our most played games over the last couple of weeks. That it offers universal support for iPod touches, iPhones, and iPads with OpenGL 2.0 capabilities is another great reason to widely recommend it to just about anyone. Though it’s not perfect, and could stand to see its engine performance tweaked a little for earlier iOS devices, iPad 2 players will be particularly impressed by Xtreme Wheels. It’s worthy of our rare flat A rating and high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A.