Blue Defense: Second Wave! Review: Brilliant!

When John Kooistra proposed to create a real-time strategy title for the iPhone, I wondered why he should waste his time. I thought, “If EA cannot — with all its infinite resources — create an RTS that works on the iPhone, who does this guy think he is?” And yet he went on to create Red Conquest, one of the best RTS titles on the device. When Kooistra told me he was working on an Action RPG in which the only enemies were squares, I thought, “That can’t possibly be fun. Kooistra has lost his mind.” And yet, FASTAR! is brilliantly entertaining. And when Kooistra told me he was working on a sequel to Blue Defense — his early app store classic, and a game that was already perfect — I thought, “What’s the point? How could he possibly make a game better than the original?” Having played that sequel, however, I stand corrected.

John Kooistra is a rare developer, the sort who constantly challenges and confounds my expectations for iPhone gaming and then consistently delivers upon all of his grand promises and seemingly impossible ideas. And with Blue Defense: Second Wave! he has done so again.

A bit of history: The original Blue Defense! was released mere months after the app store’s inaugural launch and became an instant classic. At that time, few independent releases could claim such polish or vision, and fewer still were so deftly executed. While most developers were struggling with the concept of a gaming device without physical buttons, attempting to shoehorn archaic control methods into a device ill-suited to joysticks, d-pads and action buttons, Kooistra embraced the iPhone’s unique input methods — the touch-screen and the accelerometer — and produced a shooter unlike any other that had come before it. Blue Defense! was an early standard-bearer for iPhone gaming, one of the first and best embodiments of the new gaming ideologies the device would come to represent. A few months later, the 2.0 update made it all even better. Blue Defense! was — and after nearly two years still is — perfect. In truth, few of the app store’s early games have weathered so well.

And now fast-forward to present day: Enter Blue Defense: Second Wave, the more perfect sequel to a game that was already perfect to begin with. Despite there having been nothing broken or wrong with the first game, Second Wave takes all of its predecessor’s successes and improves upon them anyway.

The basic premise remains the same. The blue planet and its six-billion-plus inhabitants are under genocidal attack by alien invaders. It is your job to defend the planet against overwhelming odds by tilting your device to aim the planet’s orbital defense turret. The turret fires a continuous stream of projectiles straight up, “up” being relative to the position of your device. In the first game, that was all you could do and it was enough. For Second Wave, however, the blue planet has re-upped its defenses.

As in Blue Defense, the game perspective shifts and zooms to reveal incoming waves of invaders from all sides of your planet, and players must still juggle their devices to aim the turret at targets. In addition to your primary defense turret, however, Second Wave introduces multi-touch turrets allowing you to split your bullet stream to deploy up to ten additional turrets to target multiple invaders. The catch is that the turrets all draw from the same shared pool of energy. While a single stream fires at devastating full strength, the power of each stream is divided by the total number of turrets deployed. Therefore, two turrets will fire at half power; ten turrets will fire at one-tenth the strength of a single, consolidated bullet stream. In defending the blue planet on all sides, players must constantly be wary of spreading themselves too thin. Additional turrets may be deployed simply by dragging fingers around the screen; double-tap to lock a turret in position, and tap a locked firing reticle again to clear it.

Also new is the planetary cannon, a limited use weapon capable of ruinous attacks against the enemy. To fire the planetary cannon, touch the blue planet and drag outward in the direction you wish to fire. Players begin the game with three charges. Additional charges are awarded during the course of play, but not so frequently that players can abuse them. The planetary cannon should be used sparingly and only in times of dire need, lest the planet be left defenseless when it needs the cannon most.

Blue Defense: Second Wave also boasts more content than its predecessor; nearly four times by Kooistra’s reckoning, including 24 enemy types, 64 levels, over 200 medals to earn and four separate game modes.

Classic mode offers infinite play, always beginning with the same three levels to ease players in, then scaling in difficulty as subsequent attack waves are randomly thrown at the planet. Quick Start is another infinite play mode, but allows players to immediately jump into heavy combat by selecting their beginning wave; in this mode players can build high scores more quickly. Gauntlet mode challenges players to survive against ordered waves, and Level Select allows players to jump into individual levels to earn medals for achievements or to play their favorite waves infinitely for high scores.

Those having followed the Blue vs. Red conflict — comprising the games Blue Defense, Blue Attack and Red Conquest — will be familiar with the longstanding conflict between these races. In Second Wave, however, the forces of green also enter the fray, joining the red armada in an effort to crush the blue world. The red and green armies are distinct in their attack patterns and tactics, with red favoring all-out assault and overwhelming odds, while the green armada generally attempts to divide your attention in order to flank you, or to block your attacks while allowing attack units to slip through their defensive front-line. In other words, Red is all about brute force, while Green is all about tactics, and you — dear Blue — will be frantic trying to fend off their onslaught, constantly adjusting your defenses to deal with the ever changing threat.

As a bottom-line, Blue Defense: Second Wave is all action, all of the time. It’s a game entirely unique, without peer on the app store nor anywhere else. It’s a game genius in execution, and perfectly suited to the device on which it resides. And with so much aping occurring on the app store, it’s something of an anomaly in that it is the perfect iPhone shooter, and yet has produced no notable copycat titles; if you’re not playing Blue Defense, then you’re not playing anything even remotely similar.

As a sequel, Blue Defense: Second Wave captures everything that was great about the first game, refines it, builds upon it, ups the ante manifold. As good a game as was the first, it will be hard to go back after playing Second Wave. And as for the competition, there’s nothing out there worth a glance. If you own an iPhone, you owe it to yourself to buy this game.

Blue Defense: Second Wave! is now available in the US iTunes store for $0.99.

Blue Defense: Second Wave! is developed by John Kooistra and Cat In A Box Games. Reviewed at version 1.0 on an iPhone 4.

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