Released in late 2008, Gameloft’s original Hero of Sparta was incredibly ambitious by iPhone standards — a Nintendo DS- or Sony PSP-quality hack-and-slash adventure game inspired by Sony’s God of War series. Not surprisingly, the sequel Hero of Sparta II ($7) kicks almost everything up a notch: most notably, it includes high-resolution artwork that makes good use of the iPhone 4’s Retina Display, changes the control scheme to parrot the combo-friendly God of War titles, and provides a better, closer view of the action than before. But as with its predecessor, a few rough edges hold it back from complete gaming nirvana.
First is the graphics engine. The good news is that it remains polygon-based, enabling you, your enemies, and the camera to move around in full 3-D. Better yet, the new engine churns out characters and backgrounds that surpass the first game’s in detail—one look at your hero Argos, his numerous weapon-toting opponents, and Grecian settings is enough to make you appreciate all the modeling and texturing work that clearly went into making Sparta II’s world more believable than before. Particularly on the iPhone 4, but also on the OpenGL 2.0-ready iPhone 3GS and iPod touch 3G, many scenes have more impressive textures, lighting, and polygons than in Hero of Sparta; twisting staircases include individually modeled steps and fairly elaborate tile patterns, while buildings in the distance are actually polygonal rather than just flat. But the iPhone 4’s extra detail comes at the cost of a low frame rate, which rather than intermittently stuttering stays pretty sluggish throughout. An epic musical score and fine sound effects tend to distract you from the frame rate, unless you turn the audio off.
One related issue: Hero of Sparta II once again does not include iPad screen support, a disappointment given the fact that the art has already been formatted for a high-resolution display. It displays at old iPhone resolution (480×320 screenshots are above) on the iPad, and with a less than thrilling frame rate, all so Gameloft can needlessly charge for a separate “HD” iPad-only version. That particular practice should really be put to rest—selling two separate versions is just not justifiable for a game at this price.
Thankfully, Hero of Sparta II is strong enough in the gameplay department to put other iPhone and iPod touch games to shame. You’re given two joysticks, one for movement and one for horizontal and vertical sword slashing, the latter capable of juggling enemies in mid-air, being held down for charged attacks, and shattering shields depending on the direction it’s pressed. Proper use of the sword is tricky, particularly given that using it requires you to overlap several other on-screen buttons, but the feel of the game is so satisfying overall that we really didn’t mind. Occasional tappable fatalities, door-prying, and enemy-enslaving attacks vary up the gameplay, too.
Gameloft’s power-up system, however, is oddly miserly with rewards early on. For whatever reason, the game really stretches out life and magic bar upgrades, as well as the discovery of magical zodiac gems and the ability to use soul orbs you gather by hacking and killing. The tappable fatalities never seem to reward you with enough orbs to level up when you might want to, though the visual effect of watching the glowing souls enter your body never gets old. Thank God of War for that, and for the pace of the rest of the game, which alternates between attacking, exploring, jumping, and climbing at a clip that’s just right—you have the chance to enjoy and even explore the scenery without getting bored at any point wandering through it. There are 12 levels spread out across 8 worlds, impressively constructed with off-the-beaten-path nooks that hide power-up gems and orbs.
Last up is the issue of pricing. The original Hero of Sparta has fallen to a staggering $2 over the past 18 months, but it debuted at a steep $10—a price that was largely justified back in 2008 by the PSP-rivaling experience. The sequel arrives in an App Store gaming marketplace that has higher expectations in both the graphics and gameplay departments than it did back then, while compelling companies to offer their games at lower prices. Our feeling is that Gameloft’s initial price of $7 is largely justified by what’s here; the only let-downs are the frame rates on certain devices and the lack of true iPad support. Hopefully, these issues will be fixed in an update. Otherwise, given the overall production quality and gameplay, calling Hero of Sparta II merely a ‘good’ game for the iPhone and iPod touch would be unfair; this is an A game with a B frame rate, and depending on your pocketbook and the device you’re using, you may well be thrilled to buy in right away rather than waiting for price and performance tweaks.
Company and Price
Company: Gameloft S.A.
Title: Hero of Sparta II
Compatible: iPod touch, iPhone/3G/3GS, iPhone 4, iPad*