Welcome to this week’s second game-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems, which we’re using for brief reviews of a collection of different titles that were released or substantially updated this month. As the prior edition focused on shooters and action games, this one is a “leftovers” companion piece with a scattered collection of genres ranging from sports to puzzlers, driving games and even a couple of other shooting titles we couldn’t get to in the earlier article.
Our top picks in the collection are the updated version of Edge and the new title Wispin, but all of the games here are at least decent, with a few true sparkling gems in the crowd. Read on for all the details.
Surrounded by controversy for years solely due to its name—the subject of a brawl with a trademark troll—Mobigame’s block-rolling actioner Edge ($3, version 1.51) has remained one of the very best puzzle games in the App Store, at least when it wasn’t being pulled by Apple during the naming dispute. Not only is it back for good, but it has received a major update this month to add full iPad compatibility, enabling the game’s stylishly boxy shaded mazes to fill the 9.7” touchscreen more appropriately: you can now see more of each maze at a time, use two-finger rotation gestures to change the screen from vertical to horizontal orientation, and enjoy the previously Retina Display-enhanced art without iPad scaling pixelization. If you haven’t already grabbed Edge, now’s the time; Mobigame has really continued to push forward on improving the title for prior customers while expanding its appeal to new ones. iLounge Rating: A.
Officially titled NBA Elite 11 by EA Sports ($5, version 1.0.1), this iPhone and iPod touch sequel to Electronic Arts’ storied NBA Live franchise happens to be the only version of NBA Elite to actually release in 2010: the console versions of Elite were substantially delayed and then abruptly cancelled due to major development problems. That the iOS version—again, upscaled in low-resolution for the iPad—exists at all is somewhat of a surprise, but then, it hasn’t undergone as profound a set of changes as the console versions were supposed to, and its rough edges are more likely to be tolerated at a price tag that’s half of its predecessor’s.
What NBA Elite 11 delivers is similar to last year’s version but with more visual polish: more fluidly animated, Retina Display-ready courts and players, licensed unlockable “legend” players such as Dr. J and Scottie Pippen, and a new “corner” camera angle added to improved versions of Live 10’s Broadcast and Baseline views. A three-point shootout mode has been added, along with new commentary from ESPN’s Mike Breen, which regrettably becomes repetitive extremely quickly. Other tweaks deliver mixed but generally less positive results: the controls have been tweaked to add additional skill to dunks, which may foul up past players, and AI changes have made too many of the computerized opponents pushovers. Good players will find themselves blowing through a season by healthy point margins in every game rather quickly. The lack of competition in the true 5-on-5 basketball market for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad has allowed EA to get away with releasing somewhat half-baked titles like this; until and unless it’s updated, NBA Elite 11 will be a better than decent but less than great title with graphics as its primary selling point. iLounge Rating: B-.
EA’s Need for Speed series of 3-D driving games has continued for a couple of years on iOS devices with good rather than great titles, and November’s Need for Speed Hot Pursuit ($5, version 1.0.1) follows that trend. Essentially a police-themed reskinning of the company’s Burnout series, Hot Pursuit gives you control over an evolving array of licensed cars that have been given sirens and painted black and white, with a series of unlockable tracks that challenge you to chase down and smash up suspect cars, race against other cops, and deploy various types of weapons along the way. Like too many EA games, Hot Pursuit runs in low-resolution mode on the iPad, most likely in anticipation of a separate, differently-priced version, though the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G benefit from high-resolution Retina Display graphics that would have been well-suited to the larger device.
The issue with Hot Pursuit is primarily that the intensity level is low and the levels are just too similar to one another—takedowns feel like they’ve been watered down from the smoke and spark displays Burnout fans might have expected, and while the courses look nice on the first pass, you’ll see the same details again and again throughout races. Even unlocking a new tier of courses in a supposedly different region leads to similar track designs, which become all but sleepy as acceleration is handled automatically, leaving you to tilt for steering, swipe for nitro boosts, and either brake or hit buttons to trigger collisions or other attacks such as roadblocks, spikeboards, or EMPs on enemies. Audio is respectable, with nice voice if repetitive voice samples and typically EA-quality licensed music, but it’s not enough to drive the energy level here up to where it should be. If you’re a fan of driving games, you’ll find the UI nice and the missions enough to keep you busy for hours, but this series could really use some extra oomph and sparkle to blow away iOS gamers. iLounge Rating: B.
Though it’s a very small and simple game—and frankly not really worthy of a $5 asking price, the reason its rating is lower than it could have been—NoriTown Studio’s Penguin Rocks ($11/$5, version 1.0.0) is nonetheless a surprisingly compelling little board game. Combining cute penguin and eskimo art with a curling-inspired theme, Penguin Rocks has you swipe a limited number of circular penguin tiles to knock all of your opponent’s tiles off of the board, made challenging both by a sophisticated AI opponent and the trickiness of mastering the gestures to precisely blast one or more targets off of the surface at a time. Cheery music, clean though very simple 2-D graphics, and the appeal of pass-and-play multiplayer and Facebook Connect modes are all plusses, but it’s hard to imagine anyone spending more than $1 or $2 for this title. That it’s going for $5 in a “60% off” sale suggests that its developers need to spend a little more time studying pricing models in the App Store. iLounge Rating: C+.
We were impressed by Venan Entertainment’s Space Miner: Space Ore Bust, an evolution of the classic arcade game Asteroids into a shooting and role playing game; now the developer has returned with Space Miner Blast (Free/$1-$2, version 1.0.1), using the same basic concepts in a more action-intense version of the title. You’re still in control of a rotating, thrusting, tractor beaming and blasting ship that flies through asteroid fields and tries to grab ore to use for upgraded weapons and defensive capabilities, but now the focus on country-themed music and dialogue has been dropped, and the intensity of the action has been upgraded. In game ads and timed post-level delays, however, are there to deliberately drag down the pace; if you buy one new ship for $1 or a full pack of ships for $2, the ads and timers disappear.
The blasting action here is fun, but not hugely different than what was in Space Ore Bust; this is really more of an experiment in trying to see how the same basic gameplay elements would work with less character development and a streamlined upgrade system. If Space Miner Blast has any major issues, they would be the lack of true iPad support and the fact that its spacier techno soundtrack is better suited to the type of game it should be—a more dynamic, fast-paced shooter—than what it actually is, namely a modestly more intense hunt and peck take on Asteroids with a better upgrade system. Our impression is that the developer will learn some solid lessons from this release that will make for a better sequel next year. iLounge Rating: B.
Ugh. That’s not a word we normally associate with Star Wars—well, prior to the release of the prequels—but it’s unfortunately common enough where Star Wars games are concerned. THQ’s new Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner ($5, version 1.0) takes in vain the name of two classic arcade titles, both the original Star Wars vector shooter by Atari and a subsequent Sega polygonal title, doing justice to neither while employing considerably more detailed artwork and voice samples. By “more detailed,” we mean only for the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G Retina Displays, as the iPad is left to do low-resolution upscaling; the voice samples are done seemingly by new actors in the style of original Star Wars movie dialogue.
As with the earlier titles, Falcon Gunner is essentially a game about destroying TIE Fighters, though even the original 1983 Atari game did a better job of breaking the repetitive action up into interesting missions. Here, you control one of the rotating gyro-cannons of the Millennium Falcon as it attempts to shoot down wave after wave of TIEs, which become increasingly powerful with the addition of different weapons, as well as asteroids that somehow wind up immediately next to the Death Star. A third series of missions is based on the Millennium Falcon’s Kessel Run, alluded to by Han Solo in the movies and during the introduction of this game. Don’t expect trench scenes or widely varying backgrounds, as the game’s missions largely overlap each other visually.
Oddly, the controls in this title are also the worst in the series: in addition to using an on-screen joystick to move a targeting reticule, you also need to tilt the iPhone or iPod touch in order to point in the right general direction, radically overcomplicating what would otherwise have been a fairly straightforward point and shoot exercise. This appears to have been done precisely for that reason: there’s not much else to do besides point the Falcon’s quad cannon at enemies and continue to fire until they’re gone, a task that the controls make frustratingly imprecise unless you activate an auto-aim feature. THQ’s single gimmick here, the addition of an Augmented Reality mode, merely overlays a starfield, enemies, and Star Wars music atop whatever the iPhone’s rear camera is seeing. It’s not enough to save what is fundamentally a boring, repetitive game. iLounge Rating: C.
Last up in this collection is Wispin ($2, version 1.0.1) from Grumpyface Studios, a charming little puzzler that challenges you to quickly change the color of your cartoony character to match and safely eliminate the enemies he touches when floating around a playfield. A joystick controls up, down, left, and right movement, a three-way button toggles your color from blue to red and green, and both the enemies and backgrounds evolve over the course of multiple levels—assuming you continue to survive the waves of initially small targets.
The challenge here is simple: don’t make mistakes. If you touch a red target—a “blooper”—when you’re green, you lose one of your three life bars, so you need to touch bloopers only when you’re matching their color. You also need to be the right color to touch power-ups that appear on screen, including bombs, arrows, and cheese lures, so constantly but accurately shifting from color to color becomes increasingly important as the waves of enemies continue. With pleasant music, simple but good graphics, and smart building of a plain gameplay concept into something intuitively more sophisticated, Wispin has a winning strategy—and a game that’s worthy of its asking price. iLounge Rating: B+.