More recent iOS picks
Posted at 02:45 on 11th March 2012 - permalink

I can’t believe it’s been over six months since I’ve done one of these. I finally retired my trusty iPhone 3GS last week and upgraded to a 4S, so have revisited some more hardware-intensive games along with the more typical 2D fare. (This also means that the following brain flobs represent more rigorous real-world testing than a lot of professional iOS reviews, which often seem to assume that everyone has an iPad 2.) Anyway, without further ado:

Jetpack Joyride

48 hours of play, 995,724 coins accrued, 22 shiny badges collected, and I’m still going back to it. Jetpack Joyride is an endless running game with a (massively overloaded) single button control scheme. It’s an arcade game in the purest sense, mixing a set of dexterity-based skills to master with an element of calculated luck. In a sense it’s a lot like pinball, Defender, or (that other great iOS time sink) Bejeweled Blitz.

Your character (“Barry Steakfries”, but to fans of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe he’ll always be “Barry Shitpeas” really) runs forward, ever faster, through a tunnel stitched together from random segments. Pressing a finger on the screen activates the jetpack’s thrust. You have to dodge obstacles and collect coins and power-ups. The first genius element of the design is the inclusion of six vehicles that are randomly spawned, each of which introduces a new control scheme to master and, crucially, triggers a section of track based around testing those skills.

But what truly elevates Jetpack Joyride above all previous endless runners is the inclusion of a (now oft-imitated) mission system. The game maintains a bulletin board which at any given time lists three secondary goals that can be attempted during normal play. Completing these goals awards rank-up stars and causes new and increasingly more challenging missions to be swapped in, until the pool of missions is exhausted (and the game is ‘completed’ – until you start again from scratch). This prevents the game from getting repetitive and allows the player to focus on devising the most efficient strategy whilst exercising their skills.

The game makes your stay in addiction treadmill hell more pleasant by having very crisp visuals with meticulous attention to detail. Each jetpack has a different fancy particle effect trail (and some actually have very subtle gameplay effects). The ramshackle “Profit Bird” vehicle emits satisfying creaks and clunks with each flap, while the “Lil’ Stomper” mecha smashes the ground underfoot after a heavy landing. There are plenty of indications that Halfbrick have a genuine love of 1990s games, with obvious Treasure and Metal Slug influences (plus of course Barry’s motorcycle is pretty much identical to Alex Kidd’s).

I honestly think that Jetpack Joyride is as important both in design terms and as a blueprint for a large part of the industry to learn from as a Half-Life 2 or GTA III. Not all of the elements I’ve described above are entirely original, but in their combination and execution, Halfbrick have shown how a game can be tailored to the mobile platform, made accessible to mainstream audiences, monetised through in-app purchases and yet still retain gameplay depth and personality. There doesn’t have to be a trade-off.

Fairway Solitaire

Big Fish Games’ Fairway Solitaire is a game that I was introduced to (in downloadable PC game form) by Bill Harris’s blog maybe five years ago now. It’s a variant of solitaire based around golfing metaphors. You play through courses where each ‘hole’ is represented by a different layout of standard playing cards (with a few special cards thrown in); over the course of the game you can find ‘clubs’, which can be played to represent a card of that number. The number of cards remaining in play once the deck is exhausted represents the number of shots you’ve taken on that hole. There are loads of other rules and features as well.

I’ve been waiting for an iOS port of this game pretty much since the App Store was announced, and I’m happy to report that it’s been worth the wait. Big Fish have upgraded the game with frankly preposterous production values, with video cut-scenes, extensive (and cheesetastic) audio commentary, and a plethora of graphical options and background scenes.

The gentle casual gameplay remains intact, although the difficulty of the courses ramps up surprisingly quickly. (In all honesty there’s not that much skill involved. Beyond applying a consistent strategy and planning moves ahead where enough cards are face up do so, it’s pretty much down to the luck of the draw. The game also seems to drastically ratchet down the difficulty each time a course is failed and re-attempted.)

Fairway Solitaire is free to download, but like many of Big Fish’s games this version is essentially a demo unless you pay $1 in-game to lock the majority of the courses. You get enough of the game to be able to judge whether you enjoy it. A surprising number of people I’ve introduced the game to have already plunked down the cash. It’s definitely worth your time to try. I’m surprised they couldn’t find a voice actor who could do a convincing Scottish accent though.

Off The Leash

Following in Jetpack Joyride’s scorchmarks, Off The Leash is BigPixel Studios’ crack at the endless running genre. The player is tasked with guiding a pack of runaway dogs up the screen through suburban streets and parks (as well as bonus stages including a lumber yard and a go-karting track, where each dog gets their own kart, natch), using tilt controls. Police cars get blown up, dogs get eaten by sharks and things get increasingly hectic until the timer runs out and the stampede is abruptly stopped by a police barricade.

Again, collecting coins plays a major role, with better dogs, longer-lasting power-ups and whistles (basically one-use-per-game continues) as well as an assortment of silly hats available in the game shop. And again, there’s a mission system, although unlike Jetpack’s mixture of moderate skill challenges and endurance tests, rather a lot of OTL’s missions act as barriers that can only be cleared with excessive grinding or paying real money. Also, the implementation of dynamically stitched together levels here leans a bit too far into arbitrarily screwing the player out of their power-ups and bonus gauge.

Off The Leash commits another common sin among freemium arcade games (which we witnessed earlier in Forever Drive): the stats of the dog you’re given at the start of the game are too severely nerfed. The game only becomes reasonably controllable (and enjoyable) once the second dog is unlocked, forcing players to endure a few hours of tedium or to pay real money immediately.

It’s baffling that this error keeps creeping in, especially as Xenon II Megablast showed us over 20 years ago that giving the player all the power-ups in the game for ten seconds is a far better incentive than asking players to put blind faith in fun being just around the corner.

If you’ve completely rinsed Jetpack Joyride (or like me you’re a fan of BigPixel’s distinctive art style anyway), you could do worse than give Off The Leash a try. A word of warning though – it struggles alarmingly on older iOS devices. Most of my play sessions on my (admittedly knackered) 3GS were abruptly ended after a few minutes by the device powering down, presumably as a result of overheating.

Super Crate Box

Super Crate Box is Dutch microstudio Vlambeer’s signature game, an ultra-hardcore fusion of (pre-Super) Mario Bros, Bubble Bobble and Quake 3 Arena. Your tiny pixel man jumps around a 2D platform arena, collecting crates. Crates are your score. Crates also contain weapons. Some weapons are devastating, some are puny, some are unwieldy and annoying. A constant stream of mutant monsters drops into the arena from holes in the roof. Kill, kill, kill, jump, jump, jump, get crate, slice head off with circular saw blade because you were still pressing ‘fire’, repeat.

On PC (or arcade cabinet), Super Crate Box is relentless and punishing, but feels scrupulously fair. It’s incredibly satisfying to get into ‘the zone’, anticipating where your enemies are going to be and pinging off crates in a blur without intervention from your conscious mind.

This experience is still kind of possible in the iOS port. The problem is that the game is designed to be played with physical buttons or keys. As anyone who has played a few iOS games knows, ‘virtual joypads’ simply don’t cut it.

As a result, Super Crate Box iOS is essentially reduced to an endurance test. In the vast majority of cases death is caused by the player’s finger slipping of the desired button, a touch not being registered, or a frame-rate hitch. For the controls to function correctly, the player must be able to ‘mime’ buttons in thin air (as the thumbs can’t be rested on the screen) holding the positions rigidly for minutes at a time.

Even when the controls are working as intended, it is extremely difficult to control the jump and fire buttons simultaneously, leading to awkward, stilted play where moves have to be planned in advance. (Most commonly, having to repeatedly jump and fire to hit groups of enemies on a higher platform, where on traditional controls, the player could simply hold down the jump button and hammer the fire button).

In addition to this the port isn’t actually that good or accurate. (Again, something reviews have largely failed to mention. The concept of a bad port simply doesn’t exist for many iOS reviewers – iOS is the future! Why would you ever want to play on another platform under any circumstances?)

The following thing are currently ‘off’ in Super Crate Box iOS (playing on iPhone 3GS):

1. Revolver shots can sometimes kill two things at once.
2. Grenade launcher sometimes doesn’t fire a projectile (try pointing it at a wall).
3. Enemy spawning can get ‘choked’, leading to weirdly spaced blobs of enemies.
4. Frame rate is extremely fragile* (admittedly much less of an issue on iPhone 4S – as you’d expect)
5. The player sometimes gets ‘snagged’ on the edge of platforms.

*firing the flamethrower or minigun for more than a second or allowing more than about half a dozen enemies to accumulate causes it to drop dramatically – this is a 320×240, 2D game on a device that runs Cave’s games, Sonic Racing, Infinity Blade, etc. with no performance problems.

Maybe I am being too harsh on Halfbot (the developers who ported the game), but then again they included Jim Sterling as a playable character in The Blocks Cometh, so they’re getting off lightly compared to the invective I could spew about that.

Anyway. For stretches of time SCB’s controls work as they should, but then they fail and you’re jolted out of the moment. If I had a physical controller peripheral things might be different, but like most people I don’t carry around controller peripherals for my phone. If you have an iPad and/or iCade, give it a shot perhaps, but really, sometimes the easiest option is just to opt for the best version, which is still clearly the PC version.

Grand Theft Auto III

The fact that you can play GTA III on your telephone only ten years after it originally came out for the PS2 and PC is a pretty impressive bit of technological progress.

This port is extremely faithful to the original, with perhaps a little bit more pop-up than the PC version at max settings (although this could just be rose-tinted specs). The controls have been adapted surprisingly well to the touch screen. Yes, it uses the dreaded virtual stick and buttons, but for most of the game you only need to steer, accelerate and brake, or run in a specific direction on foot, so it’s just about manageable. There’s a rudimentary autoaim system for on-foot combat, and swiping can be used to freelook (although this obviously requires taking one hand off the controls, making it much more unwieldy than using a mouse).

Going back to this version of Liberty City after such an extended absence was an unusual experience. Without all the layers of features and gimmicks piled on by each subsequent entry in the franchise, GTA III feels surprisingly barren. Outside of the story missions there’s not a lot to do except get into police chases. (Yes, there are stunts, hidden packages, taxi/police/firetruck missions, etc., but not the level of scope to completely forget the missions and explore a vast and varied world like the later games offered.)

There are loads of story missions, though (there are typically four or five mission threads running at a time, which makes most modern ‘open world’ games look miserly by comparison), and some of them even feel like they’ve been play-tested more than once. A new feature in this version is the ability to instantly retry failed missions without having to manually return to the quest giver, although there are still annoying ‘in world’ cut-scenes within some missions, which can’t be skipped and have to be waited out on every subsequent attempt.

Not being able to bounce the camera around during play (perhaps coupled with the small iPhone screen) actually has a surprising impact on the feel of the game. Without being able to (even subconsciously) survey the horizon and look up to the sky and the vertical extent of buildings, Liberty City feels much flatter and more enclosed. (More so even than in Chinatown Wars, where the fixed-angle camera was at least zoomed out quite a long way.) The mayhem that you can cause feels less cinematic when the camera is usually locked tight on the trunk of your vehicle.

While I’m not going to bore you going through every aspect of a game most of you will already be intimately familiar with, I will just say that the radio stations (particularly Lazlow Jones’s Chatterbox FM) remain a triumph. It’s a testament to the writing and performing that lines that the player will hear hundreds of times somehow keep being funny, and the satire (while a bit broad and ‘studenty’ in hindsight) is still quite near the knuckle, with child labour, consumerism, political corruption and litigation culture being constant targets.

Summing up, GTA III mobile is worth a look (assuming you have a high end device – it supports a load of Android kit as well), and way better than the iOS port of Chinatown Wars, but not quite as good as the Nintendo DS version of that game, which is basically all the best bits of the franchise with controls and minigames built to suit the hardware. (I’ve not played any of the PSP GTAs for comparison.)

Triple Town

I was expecting great things from Triple Town, as I’d generally heard it mentioned with reference to how insanely addictive it is on Facebook. I have to say I’m pretty disappointed with it so far.

The central puzzle mechanic is intriguing, but the graphical style makes the game difficult to read. (Match 3 games and their near relatives typically use brightly coloured, roughly similarly sized pieces for a reason, and it’s not because the developers are unimaginative.) It feels like you should be able to plan ahead and set up satisfying chain reactions, but in practice the board is too cramped, the pieces you’re given too random and the movement of the ‘nuisance’ objects (bears and ninjas) too distracting to make this possible, or at least for my simian brain.

The game is monetised through an energy mechanic which is jarringly unsuitable for a game of this type and just serves to irritate. The upgrade cost to turn off this ‘crippleware’ limitation is overpriced. I’m not paying $3.99/£2.49 for any puzzle game on iOS unless it’s mind-blowingly good, especially when some of the best puzzle games ever made are already on there for $0.99. Just let me pay a fair price.

The presentation of the iOS version is a bit rough around the edges – bland and oddly scaled and positioned UI elements and unintuitive behaviours (why do I have to tap an icon to get to the pause menu but then a tiny ‘done’ button to close it again, when the original icon is still right there?), and bizarrely no way to cancel a game in progress short of selecting to rewatch the tutorial, which is probably done for some tremendously logical and data-driven design reason I don’t care about.

While I’m sure some people can overlook these niggles, for me Triple Town mainly serves as a warning that even the best game design can be cancelled out by poorly judged decisions in the surrounding implementation.

Enscripted

Enscripted is a fine example of another genre (aside from arcade score attacks and puzzles) that shines on mobile: the simple daily word puzzle. Every day, Enscripted presents a quote from a film (and the film’s title), scrambled with a character replacement cipher. All you have to do is swap letters in the cipher until the quote is unscrambled.

When put like that, it hardly seems like a game at all. In practice, it can be surprisingly challenging. Because reading is something the brain has no conscious control over, false positives and even the starting letters of words make it hard to conjure alternatives. Luckily there are usually a couple of telltale hints from which the solution can be bootstrapped. (For instance, a string of one capital letter is usually going to be “I” or “A”, and a repeated suffix is often “ed” or “ing”.)

My only real criticism of it is that one puzzle per day doesn’t seem like enough, but maybe I’m just too good.

The ones that got away

There are of course loads more iOS games I could have included this time around such as Greedy Bankers, These Robotic Hearts of Mine, Gridrunner, LadyAURORA, FlickPig, Ninja Ponk and King Cashing. Which I would rate as get, get, worth a punt but still not as good as Minotaur Rescue, get, kind of disappointing but wow Prope are making loads of iPhone games huh?, get, and try the lite version but be warned it’s horribly addictive, respectively.

If you hate plagiarism, you should also make sure to download, submit a one-star review, and delete Zynga’s Dream Heights, of course.

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