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Sky Combat Review: Polished and Action-packed

Sky Combat is a misleading title for Chillingo’s latest shooter, only a part of which actually takes place in the sky. Your time in Sky Combat will be split between piloting an AH-64 Apache helicopter in the air, maneuvering an armored Humvee on the land, and steering a speedy gunboat at sea. Despite its inaccurate name, however, Sky Combat is a challenging and polished vertical shooter.

Sky Combat is a visually stunning game. All three protagonist crafts look great, as do the 30+ enemies you will face. Explosions are satisfying, and water effects look particularly good. The presentation is capped by a slick and responsive menu system.

Action is the order of the day in Sky Combat. Enemy waves come in droves and fill the sky with ordinance. Victorious pilots will quickly realize the importance of evasive maneuvers in dodging bullets, collisions and hard-hitting rockets.

Each mission has its own associated vehicle, and players will constantly be forced to switch between piloting the Apache, Humvee and gunboat. While this provides plenty of variety, it can also be frustrating. The Apache is by far the most maneuverable and the only vehicle capable of moving in reverse. The Humvee is curmudgeonly slow, making it difficult to avoid taking damage. In land-based stages, a good offense is the best defense, and players must learn to react quickly to incoming threats using whatever special weapons they may have at their disposal. Stages at sea play similarly to land stages, only much faster; the gunboat is fast, but has limited mobility same as the tank.

Power-ups are also available, including rockets, rocket countermeasures, gun upgrades, wingmen and airstrikes.

Likes:

Visual Presentation: Sky Combat has got the looks and the performance to go with them. The terrain, visual effects and combatants are superbly detailed. And even with the water moving, and the screen full of enemies, ordinance and explosions, the game maintains a solid framerate throughout.

Options: Sky Combat offers four control methods and three button arrangements for using special weapons and defenses, as well as gesture-based triggers for defensive abilities. Most players should be able to find a scheme that works for them. I found myself favoring the tilt controls, which is unusual for me as I tend to favor touch controls in shooters; the tilt controls are calibrated very nicely, though.

My only gripe is that the game lacks a Relative Touch control option.

Challenge: Sky Combat is big on action and a joy to play. Three difficulty options cater to players of all skill-levels, with the game being challenging but fair on Normal difficulty.

Endless Mode: Sky Combat doesn’t lose its value once you’ve completed its campaign. An Endless Mode unlocks after the fourth campaign mission, allowing you to pilot the Apache for survival and highscores! It would be nice, however, if there were also endless modes for the tank and gunboat, though …

Dislikes:

Hand-holding: Sky Combat likes to hold your hand, and will usually tell you when best to use your airstrikes and rockets by flashing prompts on-screen. While it’s ultimately the player’s decision whether to follow this advice, it is nonetheless disappointing that the game doesn’t allow the player to call their own shots, and doesn’t offer an option to disable these messages.

Likewise, the game uses power-ups to foreshadow upcoming encounters. If you pick up an airstrike, good odds you will momentarily be facing a battery of fortified turrets and calling that airstrike in to deal with them. If the game gives you countermeasures, expect to have rockets launched at you by the next wave of enemies. And if the game gives you rockets, you will likely be using them just ahead. Honestly, I would have preferred to begin the stage with a loadout of special weaponry to be strategically deployed at my own discretion, rather than having the game hand-hold me through combat by giving me exactly what I need, exactly when I need it.

Crystal, but no Game Center: Baffling, but Sky Combat supports Chillingo’s Crystal social gaming network and it does not support Game Center. I have never liked Crystal for the same reason I never liked Plus+, in that it is proprietary to games published by Chillingo (while Plus+ is proprietary to ngmoco). I’ve always favored OpenFeint in its being an open social gaming network usable by any publisher, and naturally support Game Center for the same reason. OpenFeint and Game Center play together nicely, and so I continue to support both. Now that Apple has provided a universal social gaming system in Game Center, publisher propriety services such as Crystal and Plus+ really just need to go away.

Sky Combat is easily one of my new favorite vertical shooters on the iPhone, falling behind Space Invaders Infinity Gene — which remains the app store’s definitive shooter — but ahead of titles like Assault Squadron, Icarus-X and Espgaluda 2. Not everyone is likely to agree with that assessment, but it works for me. And if we remove space shooters from the equation, I think Sky Combat is hands-down the best military-themed shooter I have played.

Great action, diverse gameplay and a superbly polished presentation make Sky Combat a winner. And the $0.99 price point makes it a steal.

Sky Combat [$0.99] is published by Chillingo. Reviewed at version 1.0 on an iPhone 4.




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