Console-quality games used to be few and far between in the App Store, but as time has gone on, they’ve become so numerous as to transform Apple’s iOS devices into true rivals to Nintendo’s and Sony’s handheld platforms—and arguably full-fledged consoles, as well. Today, we’re looking at four recently released games, most of which have the look and feel of console titles. By contrast, the fourth title sells for a lower price and feels like an indie take on a classic arcade game.
Our top picks this week are Great Little War Game HD and Rainbow Six: Shadow Vanguard. Read on for all the details.
Nintendo’s series of Advance Wars turn-based military strategy games has been popular for decades at this point, thanks to a successful formula that emphasizes one player’s movement of different types of units—mostly soldiers, tanks, and planes—into positions against a computer-controlled army, with the objective of taking over rival bases. Rubicon Development’s Great Little War Game HD ($3) effectively brings Advance Wars to iPads, iPhone 3GS/4, and iPod touch 3G/4G devices, complete with cartoony 3-D polygonal armies and backdrops, plus just enough individual missions to justify its asking price. (A $1 non-HD version works with the same devices but has lower-resolution artwork that’s fine for pre-Retina Display devices.)
Both versions of Great Little War Game include 20 individual missions that will each take at least 15 minutes, and possibly much longer. Each mission presents you with a hexagonally-based map that’s populated automatically with a number of units on two sides—red and blue—such that you’ll control the blue forces as they try to capture red’s bases and/or destroy its army. You can tap a unit to either move or attack, and a bright green overlay will show you the unit’s allowed moves and targets for the turn. You can choose to do either your move or your attack first, and in some cases, may be able to move a second time after your first move before the unit is done for the turn. After all of your units have been used—or earlier if you want—you declare your turn “done” and watch as the computer makes its moves, a process that unfortunately plays itself out without a “skip” button.
Most of the gameplay is copied from Advance Wars, which isn’t a bad thing given that Nintendo created and subsequently perfected a formula for accessible strategy games of this type. You start out with a very small army—say, an armed grunt and a base-conquering engineer—plus an extremely limited budget that lets you buy one additional type of soldier per turn. As the missions progress, snipers, tanks, airborne vehicles, and multiple types of bases and factories will appear on the maps, each with its own movement, attack, defense, and other characteristics. You’ll also have to account for different types and elevations of terrain, which impact your individual units’ ability to move, as well as their relative offensive and defensive statistics. It doesn’t take long before the missions challenge you to think more than you might have initially expected; early on, you and the other army can both continue to create troops, so if you don’t strike harder and more quickly, you can find your troops outnumbered and your base-grabbing engineers shot down before they have a chance to act. Finding the right balance of attacking, movement, and making new units—some a lot more expensive than others—is the key to victory.
Where Great Little War Game differs the most from Advance Wars titles is in the aesthetic department. Rubicon’s art and music are entirely competent, and thanks to some nice camera movement during attack sequences, you get to watch the cartoony exchanges of gunfire—complete with repetitive but not annoying voice samples—up close, which is actually quite nice. That said, neither the graphics nor the sounds is as heavily stylized and exciting as what Nintendo has done with its most recent Wars games, which had soundtracks, intermissions, and in-game battle sequences that felt intense. While Rubicon deserves praise for not trying to copy Nintendo outright in every department, it could benefit from some extra zest; the semi-cartoony approach works, but doesn’t thrill.
Great Little War Game’s approach to expansion is also good, rather than great. The app’s included 20 maps are a solid starting point for the $3 asking price, and Rubicon is already selling an additional “All Out War” pack of 10 more missions for an extra $1. Since the company’s 3-D engine is generally so solid, we’d call the pricing unobjectionable on both counts, though Angry Birds and other games have delivered far more levels for similar prices over time. The issue here is more in the interface: for now, the app doesn’t offer a description of what you really get for your in-app purchase, and the menu-based mechanism for switching between mission packs is a little confusing. A subsequent update to the title should fix its occasional tendency to lock up and require a restart on the iPad 2; hopefully Rubicon will also update the app to make in-app purchasing and use of in-app extra maps a little more straightforward. These issues aside, Great Little War Game comes very close indeed to greatness, so if you’re a fan of Nintendo’s Advance Wars series, you’ll be impressed by what this small developer have come up with. iLounge Rating: B+.
Gameloft has enjoyed considerable success with most of its military-themed action games, so it’s no surprise that Rainbow Six: Shadow Vanguard ($7) is another exceptionally strong release—and a truly console-caliber title. Apart from its lack of high-resolution iPad support, this first-person team-based shooting adventure is an impressive example of what’s now possible on Apple’s pocket devices, raising the bar even further for in-game art, audio, and cinematics. It’s solely for the iPod touch 3G/4G, iPhone 3GS/4G, and iPads in low-resolution emulation mode, without support for earlier devices.
While the screenshots may suggest that Rainbow Six: Shadow Vanguard is only Modern Combat 2 under a different, licensed name, the balance of this title’s gameplay is unique. As expected, you take primary control of a single character using a virtual thumbstick for movement, invisible swipe gestures for head turning, and dedicated buttons for shooting, calling up a magnifying scope for targeting, tossing grenades, reloading, and switching weapons. By default, Rainbow Six handles elements of these things for you, assisting with targeting, auto-reloading when your clip runs out of ammo, and so on, but you can take additional control manually if you want. Much of the game can be played as a straightforward walk-and-shoot adventure, only with some extra strategy.
The “extra strategy” is where additional buttons and features come in. You also have indirect control over teammates who can be positioned using virtual icons that appear on screen at various assist points, such as flanking closed doors or hiding behind objects. Working together, you can insert snaking cameras into rooms, pick targets to take out when the doors open, and use smoke bombs to create a distraction so that a hostage isn’t shot before the bad guys are. In single-player mode, the computer handles almost everything after you’ve set your team at the door, picked targets, and given the “storm the room” commands; a multiplayer mode lets three friends play the 11 regular missions together, or fight in 5 additional maps with up to 10 total people at a time.
Without dwelling too much on all of the specific ways that Rainbow Six works well and feels really smart, it suffices to say that Gameloft is delivering an overall audiovisual and gameplay experience here that more than rivals what one would expect from a Sony PlayStation Portable title. Everything makes proper use of the Retina Display for high-resolution textures and complex polygonal characters, backgrounds, and vehicles, each of which look great. Similarly, walking through a village, house, or building feels less like you’re being transported between differently-colored rooms and more like you’re taking your choice of paths through real-world environments. The game always does a solid job of guiding you through checkpoints using virtual floating text and a spinning 3-D directional arrow, but also makes missions challenging enough that you’ll fail if you don’t follow the instructions you’ve been given. Intermissions are fully voice-narrated, mixing 2-D art with 3-D cinematic sequences where appropriate. In-game music, voices, and sound effects work really well together to keep the tension level high.
Lack of full-fledged iPad support aside, Shadow Vanguard’s only real issue for the price is in the control department, which suffers a little bit from the variety of different actions—hiding behind walls, placing your teammates, jumping over obstacles, and so on—that may be required at any given time, and might benefit from further simplification, particularly in multiplayer mode. But for $7, this title delivers so much impressive action and fun that it’s worth seeing even if you’ve already played Gameloft’s earlier Modern Combat 2 and N.O.V.A. 2 games; it stands apart due to its additional team strategy elements. iLounge Rating: A-.
While we won’t devote quite as much space or time to discussing MindTrip Studios’ new Ring Blade ($1), we wanted to briefly write this title up because it was submitted for review consideration. Viewed in the most positive light, Ring Blade is the natural iOS evolution of Space Invaders—if Taito’s famous aliens and spaceships were replaced with a series of tribal tattoos. You control a tattoo-like gunship that sits at the bottom of a mostly gray screen, moving left and right while firing rings upwards at a never-ending collection of attackers.
MindTrip deserves some credit for making the attackers interesting, and fitting given the visual theme. Expanding spore-like plants mingle with alien-looking ships to rain projectiles down on your ship, and you fire back with discs that cut through both enemies and missiles, ricocheting off the walls and ceiling. Ring Blade’s intensity level is actually fairly high from early on in the action, as you’ll quickly find yourself shooting multiple rings as quickly as you can to cut down enemies; swipe gestures control the vector of your shots, enabling you to shoot in an arc from any position. A techno track provides enough audio accompaniment to keep the game from feeling like a demo, though it loops quickly and could stand to be better.
The problems with this title are numerous. Visual clutter starts quickly as the tails of your projectile rings mingle with the floating masses of enemies, some of whom take multiple hits to vanquish, and though you have a lifebar, it’s counterintuitively indicated with a light blue arch at the top of the screen that gradually becomes white, blending further with the rest of the artwork. Numerous powerups offer the only splashes of color in the game, but create some additional confusion as your ship seems to be expanding outwards, only to be gaining a nice “hey, you’re using a powerup” display. At some point, you may forget altogether that you can swipe to move and swipe to shoot, as the overlapping art at the bottom of the screen and angles that you can fire from contribute to a sense that it doesn’t really matter whether you stay in one place or not.
That turns out not to be true—later enemies will tear you apart if you stay still—but Ring Blade doesn’t have the sort of tight design that leads you naturally to an understanding of your ship’s strengths and weaknesses. Everything hits you in a flood of initial instruction screens and then needs to be sorted out later. Though the $1 asking price is entirely fair for a different-looking, tweaked out version of Space Invaders, a little extra polish in the aesthetics and a more gradual introduction to the nuances of gameplay would help this title to stand out a lot more, regardless. iLounge Rating: B-.
Two years ago, Electronic Arts released Tiger Woods PGA Tour for the iPhone and iPod touch, delivering a realistic alternative to Gameloft’s popular and cartoony Let’s Golf series, which it later followed with a more realistic Real Golf franchise. Now the company has returned with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 for iPad ($10), which adds additional meat to the prior title. Some of the features are compelling, while others feel like “but wait, there’s more!” bullet points; you’ll need to decide whether any are enough to buy in this time.
This year’s game contains eight different courses, up from seven before. EA now includes the fantasy-inspired Predator, complete with gaping holes and island-like platforms, plus prior real-world PGA locales such as Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Hazeltine, and Doral. Once again, you can custom-design a character with everything from skin and gender tones to specific clothing color changes, or choose from eight different PGA pros: Tiger Woods, Paula Creamer, Anthony Kim, Natalie Gulbis, Paul Casey, Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, and Camilo Villegas, while prior players Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, and Annika Sorenstam disappear from this year’s version. Another area in which Tiger Woods has clearly improved this year is in multiplayer functionality: unlike the single-player prior version, PGA Tour 12 now permits local wireless play on a full course, as well as a Facebook Connect-based Closest to the Pin Challenge with one hole per timed challenge.
As excited as we were when we first loaded it up, PGA Tour 12 wound up disappointing us quite a bit when we actually sat down to play it, with deliberately less satisfying controls explaining most of the issues. You still swing with a double-swipe gesture on a pop-up power and directional meter, but this time, between sometimes odd automated club choices and what feel like deliberate power mismarkings on the meter, we constantly found that shots we’d aced on the prior PGA Tour were falling short in this version. It was considerably harder to get the same satisfaction after a swing, regardless of whether we were playing as our own created character or Tiger Woods himself. Though there are considerable interface similarities between the two versions, it feels as if EA tried to tuned the game this time to make players learn how to take additional factors into consideration, making the typical shot more difficult in the process. Mid-air swiping gestures now affect the ball’s bounce and lay; an oddity in the physics engine also reduces the momentum of putts and other slow rolls, such that you’ll rarely see the ball inch towards the cup, and more often will see it abruptly stop short. It just didn’t feel right to us.
These issues wound up really reducing the fun we had with PGA Tour 12, despite other improvements EA has made in the package. Beyond increasing the number of courses and players as mentioned above, there are some neat camera toggles, including a putt preview feature, and much higher-resolution artwork that really makes better use of the iPad’s screen than running the last game in emulated mode. Textures are still a little too repetitive and grainy rather than soft and organic, but they look better than before. That said, EA still doesn’t offer a unified high-resolution iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch version of this game, and continues to lack the elemental and other smooth visual effects that Gameloft has used with great results in its golf titles. Rushing water and flocks of birds do make occasional appearances in PGA Tour 12, but they’re not particularly impressive, and add little of the raw energy seen in Gameloft’s titles. Similarly, pleasant music plays during menu screens, but disappears during the gameplay, leaving only sound effects and too often depressing voice commentaries to fill the air. Our favorite part of the new title, The Predator fantasy course, was nowhere near as radical of a visual departure from the other courses as we’d expected; it’s mostly just more difficult.
Overall, despite the on-paper improvements EA has made with new features—and the actual improvements some offer in course, character, and multiplayer options—Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 for iPad falls somewhat short of its predecessor due to the lower actual satisfaction we felt when playing the game. Players who are willing to learn to accommodate its tweaked control scheme may eventually come to appreciate the challenge it adds, particularly in The Predator, but golf novices may find the game to be unnecessarily frustrating at first. Hopefully EA will use this title’s better features as building blocks to come up with a sequel that’s more fun, organic, and dynamic next time, as all of the core elements are in place for a superior experience to the one that’s offered here. iLounge Rating: B-.