Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! This roundup includes a Mac favorite ported over to the iPad, a licensed NFL football title, two model aircraft simulators, and a take on the popular DJ Hero.
This week, we saw some truly great games; Machinarium, NFL Rivals, and Skillz for iPad all received high recommendations. Read on for all the details.
Amanita Designs’ Machinarium ($5, version 1.0) isn’t a new game, but it is new to iOS. First released in late 2009, it has been a mainstay of the Mac App Store since March of this year, often appearing in the top paid games list. This port is the rare example of a title that’s actually exclusive to the iPad 2—the fact that it was developed with Adobe Flash and Air may help explain why it is so resource-intensive. That turns out to be unfortunate for owners of the original model, as the game is truly a sight to be seen.
On the Mac, Machinarium would be described as a point-and-click puzzle/adventure game; this version naturally drops the pointing, and relies instead on tapping. You control a robot as he works his way across a city that looks simultaneously futuristic and old—it’s like a darker WALL-E. To advance, you must solve puzzles by manipulating and combining objects on the screen, both hidden and obvious. If and when you get stuck, there are two different hint systems in place to help you out. The first creates a thought bubble above your robot’s head, giving an indication of the ultimate goal. For more specific advice, you must defeat a small mini-game, after which you’ll get a comic book style illustration of the necessary steps. Unfortunately the mini-game must be beaten each time you want to view it, even if you’re still in the same level, and the game takes serious logic and puzzle-solving skills.
Even if they’re not wowed by the gameplay, what most people will notice and appreciate about Machinarium are the graphics. The rich, hand-drawn backgrounds and the intricate settings and characters are very close to stunning; then there’s a soundtrack that is almost as impressive, featuring traditional and electronic instruments. There’s no doubt that Amanita’s graphics and audio create an immersive experience, but by the same token, there’s little reason that this game should require an iPad 2 rather than working on any iPad. We could understand if the graphics somehow took advantage of the second-generation tablet’s 3-D processing power in some real way, but they don’t; it seems that the only limitation is the Adobe architecture the game was built on, which is a shame, and is probably consuming way too much processing time for no good reason. As it stands, the game merits a high recommendation to iPad 2 owners—the only thing to be disappointed about is the hardware requirement. iLounge Rating: A-.
EA Sports blew it this year with Madden NFL 12, which would have been a bigger disappointment to football fans if it wasn’t for NFL Rivals ($1, version 1.0.0), NaturalMotion’s latest “essence of football” mini-game experience. For all intents and purposes, NFL Rivals is really Backbreaker 3, a direct sequel to the company’s earlier Backbreaker Tackle Alley and Backbreaker 2: Vengeance, only with real NFL teams and a more aggressive price. If you’ve played either of those games, you know exactly what to expect from NFL Rivals—all that’s really changed are the graphics and some tweaks to the prior gameplay.
Mirroring Backbreaker 2, there are two primary modes in NFL Rivals: offense and defense. Both modes use tilt controls to “steer” a single, always-running member of an NFL team whose jersey is customized with your choice of name and number; on-screen buttons provide additional control options. The only major twist in NFL Rivals is that your various achievements as an individual are being used to tally a cumulative score for your favorite team—choose the Chicago Bears, and every “NFL” point you score in the game will be added to a leaderboard to elevate your team in Rivals’ overall rankings. Right now, the Bears lead the NFL with 2.5 million points, while the Kansas City Chiefs are in last place with 140,500 points. Even more interesting: the Bears have less than 1/3 the number of people playing the game (800) as the New England Patriots (2,800), but are still winning on points. A third play mode called Gameday follows the current NFL season, letting you play an offense game each week with your team as the season progresses.
In offense mode, you control a running back who needs to make his way from mid-field to the endzone, dodging defensemen and then showboating on your way to a touchdown. You repeat this task over and over again, with different numbers and locations of defensemen, as well as different bonus point scoring zones and obstacles, all compelling you to change directions rather than just running in a straight line. In NFL Rivals, you’re given not only left and right dodge and spin buttons, a turbo button, a showboating button, and a jump button, but also a “truck” button that lets you crouch while running. All of the offensive action feels roughly the same as in Backbreaker 2, save for needing to “truck” under obstacles, an action that gets mixed in with jumping and dodging as you progress through the season. The turbo and truck buttons transform into showboat and super showboat buttons when you reach the endzone, slowing you down while you dance around and wind the crowd up to score extra points.
In defense mode, you control a defenseman who needs to stop a running back from scoring a touchdown. Here, the running back appears with a glowing beam of light so you can see him from a distance, and additional offensive players appear as human obstacles as you progress through multiple maze-like waves constituting the NFL season. The controls are simplified here a little—you’re given turbo/truck, tackle, juke, jump, and spin buttons, but nothing for showboating since you’re not scoring points. As with offense, the game moves into a slow-motion replay mode every time there’s a tackle or you’re taken down by a rival. Just like offense, none of this action is enough to replace a full-fledged football game, but as a light action puzzler challenging you to figure out how to break offensive and defensive patterns while maximizing your score, it works.
NaturalMotion didn’t have a lot to do to make NFL Rivals work as a sequel to its prior games, as the earlier Retina Display graphics, stunningly detailed stadiums, entirely believable animations, dynamic 3-D camera motions and sound effects were all spot-on in Backbreaker 2—the menus, in-menu music, and in-game NFL tweaks are the only obvious changes here. On the other hand, the gameplay is so highly familiar and relatively straightforward that Rivals doesn’t feel as if it has advanced much over either of the two prior games, and it’s surprising that the developer couldn’t find a way to add the iPad support that last year’s version lacked. Between the lowered asking price and the addition of the rivalry content, NFL Rivals is easier to swallow than last year’s version. If you’re a NFL fan and liked either of the prior games, you’ll definitely want to check it out. iLounge Rating: A-.
Although they’re two separate titles, Frozen Pepper’s RC Heli 2 ($1, version 1.2) and RC Plane 2 ($1, version 1.1) are very similar games. They’re two of the surprisingly few entries in the flight simulator category for iOS devices. As their names imply, each puts the player in the pilot seat of a different aircraft; model helicopters and model airplanes, respectively. Both titles are universal across Apple’s iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch devices.
RC Heli 2 is set in a three-level house and allows for full exploration in free play mode. For the $1 asking price, you get a race with seven different courses and three helicopters to choose from—fair for the buck. To unlock more aspects of the game such as combat gameplay or additional vehicles, you must buy them as in-app purchases that range from $1 to $4, which means that the complete game, if you choose to pay for it, adds up to a surprisingly high price of $16. The controls aren’t easy to master, but neither are those of real world models, so it takes some practice to learn how to maneuver around. Multiple control schemes allow for different styles of flying, but everything is controlled from two on-screen thumb sticks. Although the game allows for the addition of accelerometer-based controls, they did not work properly for us.
The world of play is expanded pretty significantly in RC Plane 2. Rather than being stuffed inside one house, you fly around outside in two different settings: Tuscany and Seaside. There are still free flight and race modes as standard options, but firefighter, aircraft carrier, and bird catcher modes must be purchased. The same is true with airplanes; there are some to start, but more to buy. As with RC Heli 2, we had issues with the accelerometer controls in this game, so we recommend sticking with the thumb sticks for both titles. Just like real model flying, neither game is going to satisfy arcade-style flight fans; getting to the point of actually being good at flying is going to take some time and practice. One feature that is unique to this game is multiplayer support, over both a local network and Game Center.
Both games have the same graphics and animation style, which seems outdated by a few years. The 3-D environments are nicely designed and detailed by mobile phone standards, but many developers are creating realistic looking graphics that really show off the power of the iPhone and iPad these days, and the RC titles come across as more cartoony. There’s music in-between actual flights, but only the sound of the aircraft—and any crashes you may cause—during them. The biggest issue from our perspective is that so much of the content is locked and cumulatively expensive, but for $1 each, the basic games will satisfy both enthusiasts and those who may just be curious about the hobby. After all, it’s better to crash a virtual flyer than a real model. Because of its multiplayer mode and additional locale, we offer RC Plane 2 a general recommendation, while RC Heli 2 earns a slightly lower limited recommendation. iLounge Rating: RC Plane 2 – B, RC Heli 2 – B-.
If Playpen Studios’ Skillz for iPad ($6, version 1.0) looks familiar, that’s because it’s pretty darn similar to Activision’s console title DJ Hero. The story goes that two DJs founded the indie studio back in 2005, won a Microsoft game design competition, and after several years of development released this as their first independent title. We had to ask about the backstory before penning this review; the game looks so good that we wouldn’t have been surprised if it had actually come from Activision itself. A free lite version is also available.
The game is spread over five venues, ranging from an abandoned power plant to an underwater super club, all playable right from the beginning. Each has four tracks, playable at Easy, Normal, or Hard difficulties that can be played individually, or strung together as a megamix. The songs are actually remixes from real artists, including Kid Cudi, creating an impressive soundtrack. There are currently three more songs that can be downloaded to add to your collection; one is free, and the others are $1 in-app purchases. You start with your choice of two avatars, and four more can be unlocked as you progress. They all look like they could be members of Gorillaz, an obvious but welcome stylistic choice.
A few different actions need to be mastered that you may not figure out on your own. We definitely recommend that you go through the tutorial to get a good handle on the controls, which are overlaid on top of dancing crowds and your DJ on the stage. You have to tap blocks to trigger samples, slide the crossfader back and forth, and scratch the vinyl on the sides of the track—the same general concept as many rhythm games, just with a few extras thrown in. Hitting the beats correctly scores you points, and they link together to form a multiplier effect. The controls are as good as they can be for being on a touch screen, although the lack of physical feedback does take away from the overall experience a bit. DJ Hero uses a hardware turntable accessory for controls, providing physical buttons, a slider, and even a record to scratch. Even with the limitations of the touchscreen, Skillz is a lot of fun, but we’d like to see accessory compatibility with devices such as Numark’s iDJ Live in the future.
We were particularly impressed by the graphics in Skillz: they’re truly impressive and comparable to those found on a console. We really liked the 3-D characters and environments; even the menus look great, and it’s clear that the team has some talented designers. The music is clearly the big selling point, and that’s a success as well. With so many songs at progressive difficulty levels, we can easily see players sinking hours into this game. It may have taken Playpen Studios five years to finish this title, but there’s no doubt that it did this one right. We hope that the developer continues to support the game with new tracks, which will only add to the replay value. It’s highly recommendable as it is right now. iLounge Rating: A-.