There was a sense prior to the release of Microsoft and Bungie’s first-person shooter Halo that the companies had something special on their hands, and there’s little doubt that the series helped the Xbox and Xbox 360 to become the success stories they are today. Gameloft’s N.O.V.A. ($7) isn’t quite so special — it’s a highly derivative game that liberally borrows in theme and execution from Bungie’s bag of tricks, without ever quite rivaling or surpassing even the first Halo — but by handheld game standards, it’s powerful, impressive, and fun enough that Microsoft will no doubt be envious of what Gameloft has accomplished.
At some point, the explanatory dialogue in the Halo games became overbearing, and though Gameloft has come up with a storyline, it often lets you hear the details with voice samples while you’re playing, or briefly interrupts to show you a new area, rather than stopping the action for minutes at a time to advance the plot. You’re a space marine cut from the same general mold and suit of futuristic body armor as Halo’s Master Chief, sent on missions to wipe out aliens called “xenos” that have overrun a ship and planets or planetoids—near-orbital artificial satellites, the “N.O.” from the “N.O.V.A.” name. Control is handled through a virtual joypad for movement, swiping gestures for head-turning, and a set of buttons that are scattered around the screen: shoot and jump are at the bottom right, reload and grenades at the top right, plus a pulse zapper, music, and pause buttons at the top left. As with Halo, you have a “shield” lifebar that replenishes automatically when you’re not being shot at for several seconds, and an unlimited number of lives: the challenge is in advancing from checkpoint to checkpoint across 13 levels without dying. Doing so on “easy” difficulty will take perhaps eight hours; normal and hard difficulty levels are also available, and obviously more challenging.
To be clear: the portion of Halo that Gameloft has duplicated with N.O.V.A. is highly playable and could very easily have been called “Halo” with a Microsoft license. All of the walking, jumping, and shooting action has been transferred from the original Xbox game, along with highly similar environments and level designs: you’ll see the inside of a spaceship, wrecked ships littering a jungle-like world reminiscent of Halo’s first stage, trenches, fortresses, snow levels, and even a Tron-like glowing Xeno planet. There are just enough differences in the art to let N.O.V.A. stand apart in a technical sense, but there’s still a glowing blue A.I.
head talking in your ear as you fight, versions of the Grunts, Elites, and Hunters—all slightly tweaked—and similar weapons, from the stock handgun, assault rifle, and grenades to a shotgun, machine gun turret, sniper rifle, rocket launcher and plasma gun, all doled out as you progress through the stages.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the familiar, smarter elements of Halo have been left out. Vehicles, dual-firing weapons, double-handed weapons, and some of the finer shield-play elements are nowhere to be found, and there’s a tangible sense that N.O.V.A. hasn’t received the sort of micro-level fine tuning that took Halo past the “good” category into “great.” There are moments when Gameloft’s earlier, superb Modern Combat: Sandstorm feels smarter, more diverse, and more ambitious, but then, it was working from flashier source material than the original Halo, and succeeded in capturing even more of the contemporary military FPS ambience. Light puzzle elements from Halo have been preserved in N.O.V.A., but take a back seat to being guided from checkpoint to checkpoint by arrows, shooting everything that stands in your way, and collecting ammo—sometimes from locked boxes that need to be “hacked” to produce their contents.
Having acknowledged N.O.V.A.‘s omissions, there are so many ways in which it’s great that we’d be probably be better off using bullet points and a list than paragraphs. Start with the 3-D graphics, which are beyond fluid on the iPhone 3GS and smooth even on the iPhone and iPod touch—something that couldn’t be said about even the original Halo running on a more powerful Xbox console. Gameloft has accomplished this in part by cutting down the polygonal complexity of the backdrops and characters, but it made smart choices: thanks to some great textures and good animations, there are few moments when the lack of polygon detail really matters, and on occasion, N.O.V.A. includes tiny, eye-pleasing details such as neon lighting on cargo ship doors, and sparkles of floating dust reflecting overhead rays of light. While we couldn’t help but feel that the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch could surely do better, visually, Gameloft has made impressive use of Apple’s prior-generation iPod touch and iPhone hardware, and the newer devices benefit in speed. There were small glitches here and there, such as one time when we fell out of a map, and another when the map disappeared—both requiring us to quit and restart from the prior checkpoint—but for the most part, N.O.V.A. is stable and looks great.
Other facets of the design are all in the good to great category by handheld game standards. Sonically, N.O.V.A.
is strong, with an impressive quantity of voice narration that’s occasionally undone by weak, stilted acting. Sound effects are otherwise largely as expected—gunfire and alien-sounding grunts and chants that sound a little unusual coming from enemy soldiers who look a lot like you—and although the music doesn’t have quite the orchestral beauty of some of the Halo titles, it’s more than enough to provide a similar vibe. Control is generally quite good in as much as we found movement, aiming, and shooting to be easy to get a hang of within minutes of starting the game, though lining up sniper shots, using the rocket launcher, and jumping were sometimes less precise than we’d have hoped, in part because of the touch-based controls and in part because of the way the game’s maps were designed. We tried the game’s two alternate control schemes and found them to be no better—actually, worse—than the default one.
Multiplayer is off to a very good start, and if Gameloft’s past track record is any indication, it’ll become better over time. There are local Bluetooth and Wi-Fi multiplayer modes, but more exciting is the online feature, which offers deathmatches using Gameloft servers. We had no issue setting up accounts to play online four-player multiplayer games, the participants for which can change during the course of each session, with new people coming in and going out as they please. Five maps are available, based on the game’s core five environments—Cargo Ship, Jungle, Bunker, Frozen, and Void—but with areas specifically designed to spread out weapons, special life and jump power ups, and opportunities to hide or fall. There’s no voice chat, a disappointment for users who were expecting that feature to be included, but the network code was totally smooth in our test games, and players from overseas seemed as quick and capable as iLounge editors located in New York and Florida. Frame rates stayed high on both iPhone 3G and 3GS hardware, dipping only modestly on the 3G when players were joining or leaving. More maps and melee attacks would help.
Overall, N.O.V.A. is the sort of first-person shooter the iPhone and iPod touch need more of: a complete single-player game with a fluid, fun multiplayer mode, impressive graphics, solid audio, and responsive controls.