All posts by Caleb

Etolis Arena Review: Nothing We Haven’t Seen Before

In a genre as well represented on the App Store as dual-stick shooter games, it seems as if it’s becoming increasingly difficult for developers to find a unique twist that will make their title stand out among the pack.  Nearly each week brings a new onslaught of these titles, proliferating as relentlessly as the robot drones and mindless zombies which populate the games.  Etolis: Arena is one such title, and while it is fundamentally ok, there really is little about it which is likely to make it a unique or memorable experience.

Etolis Arena, while not a bad game per se, is about as run-of-the-mill as dual-stick shooter games come.  The premise, such as it is, is that you are a guy in a futuristic space suit who engages in armed combat against endless hordes of robots and creepy crawly thingamajigs.  Dispatch a few waves and you are given a chance to spend the ‘honor points’ you earn by killing baddies on various upgrades.  A few more waves of bad guys down, and you unlock a new map.  While this would seem to add a degree of complexity and progression to the game, in actuality it does little to offer variety.  The level designs are all fairly basic, the enemy AI is rudimentary, and the different weapon upgrades are a little unimaginative.

Likes

Competent: While I didn’t find much about Etolis: Arena to recommend it above the hundreds of other dual-stick shooters available on the App Store, I want to make it clear that I don’t want this to be a complete bash.  It’s an all right game, and it performs adequately (although not as well on my 2nd gen iPod touch as I’m sure it does on a more recent device).  I just didn’t find much of a sense of excitement, or a “hook” to the gameplay.  From the impressions of other users and reviewers that I’ve encountered online, it seems as if some people genuinely like this game, and maybe I’m just getting a little jaded from having played so many dual-stick shooters.  If you’re just getting into this type of genre and want a streamlined sci-fi shooter, then it may be exactly your cup of tea.  But, basically all I can offer is my personal opinion: While I didn’t have a bad time with this game, there really was nothing about it that kept me coming back to it over and over, or compelled me to spend a lot of time with it (which I generally see as the hallmarks of a great iPhone game).  And after I delete it off my device, I doubt I’ll be compelled to reinstall it later.

Universal App: Considering how greedy most developers are as far as splitting their app into an iPhone and iPad version, it’s refreshing that Chillingo and Facet Studios made the decision to make this a universal app.  (Although I think it’s a little strange that the App Store still makes it look as if there are two versions of the game, considering both versions say they are “designed for both iPhone and iPad.”)  So, while it’s not exactly a groundbreaking or addictively fun game in my book, I think it’s commendable that the developers show this courtesy to their customers.

Dislikes

Redundant: There really is not a lot about this game that differentiates it from the ever-growing horde of dual-stick shooters on iOS.  The graphics are nice enough, but not great (it actually looks a bit better in stills than in motion.)  The controls are ok, but not what I would describe as smooth or responsive.  And above all, the gameplay just isn’t exciting enough to make me want to play this above any of the old chestnuts I have in my collection of games like this on iOS.

If you just can’t live without some sort of sci-fi themed dual-stick shooter where you kill robots and there are different maps, it might be just the thing for you. But for my money, there are more exciting experiences available in this genre on the iOS platform.

Etolis: Arena was developed by Facet Studios and Chillingo Ltd.  I played version 1.01 on my 2nd Gen iPod Touch.  The price is $1.99.


Gameloft Adopts New Business Model with Imminent Launch of Sacred Odyssey: Rise of Ayden

To quote Gameloft’s press release, “On February 3, 2011, Sacred Odyssey: Rise of Ayden will be launched for free on the App Store. Once downloaded for free, the game will let the player take his first steps on this epic adventure. Then, if the player is prepared to take up the challenge, he will be able to unlock the full game through in-app purchase, for $6.99. This new mechanism allows Gameloft to adopt a freemium model that is becoming increasingly popular among game developers and consumers alike. Plunge into the most ambitious Action RPG ever released on iOS! Become Ayden, a young hero chosen by the god Uryah to save the kingdom of Lasgalen from the Apocalypse. Sacred Odyssey: Rise of Ayden is an amazing adventure in a majestic world that will fascinate you for countless hours.”

My understanding is that this will enable the consumer to download the game, play a small bit of it, and then buy the entire title as an in-app-purchase if they enjoy the demo.  Most Gameloft titles have a “lite” version which fulfills this same function, but this new model will make the process more streamlined.  This is interesting (if not earth-shaking) news, because it marks Gameloft’s first foray into the increasingly popular “freemium” pricing model.  With such a big name in iOS gaming adopting this pricing scheme, it isn’t far-fetched to think other companies might well follow suit, especially if Gameloft enjoys increased success with this distribution model.

‘Bug Heroes’ Review: Inventive, Addictive, and Just Plain Crazy-Fun

‘Bug Heroes,’ by Foursaken Media, quite simply deserves to be on every iGamer’s device.  Its gameplay is a wickedly fun hybridization of the dual-stick shooter and castle-defense genres, with light RPG leveling-up elements.  Admittedly dual-stick shooters and castle-defense games have been around on the App Store for what feels like forever, but ‘Bug Heroes’ combines its various gameplay elements with such a masterful touch that it seems almost in a league of its own.  If you want to stop reading this review right now and go ahead and buy the game, I would endorse that decision.  😉

‘Bug Heroes’ is a pick-up-and-play game on the surface, but there is so much depth to the gameplay that a good session in Adventure Mode might literally take an hour once you get the hang of the game.  In Adventure Mode, the player controls a trio of heroic bugs, an ant, a spider, and a beetle, and leads them in the perpetual battle to protect their stash of food against a never-ending horde of enemy bugs.  You control only one of the three bugs at a time, although you’re able to switch freely between them as much as you like and they all bring unique skills to the team.  Alternately, you can choose Coliseum Mode, where you control one of the three heroes against a never-ending horde, without having to worry about the additional complexities of defending a food stash.  When your food stash is entirely eaten by enemy bugs, or all three of your heroes are killed in battle, it’s “game over.”

Your demise is inevitable (and you never really ‘win’), but you have a wide arsenal of upgrades for your characters and to build turrets for your base, leaving you with the constant task of gathering food, dispatching wave after wave of vicious enemy bugs, and strategically upgrading your resources in order to set high scores.  Nearly every aspect of the game is highly polished, and the wide variety of skills, upgrades, and turrets rewards experimenting with new strategies.  The tone of the game is wacky and fast-paced, and between several arenas, two different game modes, three levels of difficulty, three different heroes (all with their own unique strengths and weaknesses), and many different types of enemies with their own strengths and vulnerabilities, there is a huge amount of variety to enjoy.

Likes

Two Classic Flavors that Taste Great Together: Quite frankly, before I played this game I had gotten a bit tired of both dual-stick shooter games and castle-defenders altogether.  Sure, these are styles of games which lend themselves very well to the touch-screen interface, but by now I thought there was relatively little room for innovation within these genres.  ‘Bug Heroes’ is enough to prove I might have been wrong because the developers have managed to merge these two styles into an excitingly fresh and addictive treat, much like the mad scientists who first combined peanut butter and chocolate back in days of yore.  Giving the player multiple characters to fight with and manage, as well as the food stash (the ‘castle’ that you defend in this game) provides a unique twist to the usual dual-stick action shooter formula that we’ve all become used to.  I also like how your food stash doubles as your main supply of health in the game’s main mode, Adventure Mode.  This creates an interesting dynamic, because you must protect the stash above all else, but you also have to know when to dip into it to give a much-needed health boost to your team.  All in all, the gameplay is just dynamic and fun, and I obviously get a little verbose in trying to describe just how awesome it really is.

Charmingly Detailed Graphics: This game reminds me of playing a Pixar movie in the palm of my hand.  The environments are impressive to behold, and all the character models are lovingly rendered with a huge level of personality and detail.  Even playing on a 2nd generation iPod touch, which only allows me to select the lowest level of graphical detail possible, this is a visually striking game with a lot of character and appeal.

Memorable Protagonists & Vile Villains: I guess it’s a little dorky, but if the three insect heroes from this game were real, I would totally keep them in an extra-large Mason jar in my room just so I could hang out and watch their goofy antics.  Which is my way of saying they’re pretty cool, and I enjoy the variety that having three protagonists brings to the game.  While the beetle has the highest armor and is best at controlling swarms of less powerful enemies with a stick he uses as a club, the spider is best for one-on-one combat, since she is quick and capable of dealing out massive critical damage with the blades she wields with her four front arms.  Meanwhile, the ant is a very strategic character who not only has the only ranged attack of all three of your heroes, firing with a machine gun, but he also has a lot of team-player type skills, such as healing your team in small increments or laying mines and miniature turrets around the battlefield to control the swarms.  Managing your team and coming up with a strategy for each level is essential to doing well in this game, and there are a wide variety of tactical choices you can make.

The enemies are also a lot of fun.  There are hordes of army helmet wearing ants with pistols and fleas with knives chasing you down at every turn, and never-ending hordes of grubs who go straight after your food stash, disregarding you entirely.  Then there are the bigger, meaner baddies who range hilariously from grenade-launcher-wielding cockroaches, to lady-bugs swinging huge clubs, to queen ants (who boost all the other ants on the field to dangerous levels), to poison-spitting slugs, heavily armored snails, and finally all the way up to vicious scorpions and voracious centipedes who can wipe out your food stash in about three good bites.  There’s an impressive variety of enemies, I’m even leaving a few types out of the list.  Some levels also have a huge indestructible enemy that roams the environment, attacking you or the hostile bugs indiscriminately.  These are a toy robot in the playroom stage, and a house-cat in the back yard stage.  They can create a lot of havoc, but they’re pretty easily outmaneuvered, so you can manage to use these as additional defense with a little crafty gameplay.  Basically… it’s a lot of fun.

Room for More in Updates: Maybe this is just me being greedy, but I’d love to see the developers give us even more bang for our proverbial buck in future updates.  There is a wide range of stuff they could expand on, such as giving us more levels in either Adventure Mode or Coliseum Mode, more skills for the three protagonists, more types of turrets and base upgrades, more enemy types, and perhaps even more heroes to unlock.  (I for one, think it would be really cool if we could play as this “Bruce Flea” that they mention in one of the unlockable ‘history scrolls’ that you get from some of the side quests.  (Double parenthetical: that’s right, there’s also side quests.  Seriously, just buy this game already.  For two dollars, it’s insane.))  The game is already pretty close to perfect, but a little extra content in a free update never hurt.  So if anyone out there from Foursaken Media is listening, more please.

Dislikes

No GameCenter: My only major gripe won’t even be an issue for much longer, since the developers have already responded to user requests for GameCenter integration, and they’re promising it in a future update.  It’s really a no-brainer in a game like this, which hinges on addictive high-score action gaming elements, and I’m looking forward to it.  The developers have already shown very fast turnaround time in giving us an update that fine-tuned the controls and squashed several bugs that caused the game to crash after long extended play, and are showing themselves to be very responsive to users’ critiques.  So, even in my dislikes section, I must once again issue some well-deserved kudos.

In short, this is the first superb new iOS game of the new year.  I sincerely hope this review convinces at least a few people to head on over to the App Store and give it a download.  This is a truly creative, well-designed, highly polished, and downright enjoyable game, and I think it deserves to be a big hit.  In short, it’s what I’d call a…

Bug Heroes was developed by Foursaken Media, and I played through version 1.0.1 on my iPod touch 2G.  The price is $1.99.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 Review: Finish Him, Already!!!

Ah, Mortal Kombat…  What gamer of my generation doesn’t have some fond memories of this franchise?  I still recall the excitement and mystery it generated when a Mortal Kombat cabinet appeared one day next to Street Fighter II in the local arcade.  It quickly became the one game that always had a line in front of it, with scruffy older kids who probably smoked cigarettes ferociously gloating over their opponents and discussing how to perform Fatalities in conspiratorial whispers.  Mortal Kombat was a brand that embodied my nine-year-old’s version of “extreme,” and I was immediately hooked.  The year I got Mortal Kombat 1 for Game Gear, I faked being sick the next day so I could stay home and play it.  (And I took school pretty seriously.  This game was just that important.)  The franchise was a big part of my early adolescence.  So when Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 for iOS came out, imagine my delight!  However, now that I’ve played it, I can hardly begin to describe my disappointment.

I think I should be upfront:  Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 (“UMK3” from hereon, for the sake of brevity), as it exists in its current form, is one of the most unsatisfying games I’ve played for iOS to date.  This is partly because it displays enough potential that one can see that it could have been a really good game with a little more work.  Although it displays some good potential, and with the right updates UMK3 could become a top-notch game on iOS, right now it plays like a beta version.  There are a few commendable areas: Overall, the gameplay looks fairly good, and the animations are smooth.  Each character feels relatively complete, since they each retain most of their special moves, fatalities, babalities, animalities, and all the usual repertoire of Mortal Kombat malarkey that you have come to expect.

And, literally, that’s where my flattery ends.  If I didn’t have a journalistic obligation to uphold, I hardly would have even played this title for thirty minutes before deleting it from my device.  I can’t help but speculate UMK3 was the product of a very rushed attempt to get something onto the App Store before Apple’s holiday-season game approval deadline.  They probably should have just gritted their teeth and finished debugging it.

Likes

Graphics: Groan-inducingly enough, one of the few things I can list as a positive aspect of this game has already been a point of contention in how people have received it.  Instead of using digitized sprites for the character models, the designers have opted to go for three-dimensional animated character models. Personally, they don’t really bother me and from what I understand this was a necessary concession to keep the game running at a good frame-per-second rate.  However, response has been mixed, and I think there are some Mortal Kombat purists out there who consider anything besides a strict two-dimensional layout and digitized-sprite character models to be an unforgivable deviation from the formula.

Ambitiousness: Although the actuality of UMK3 as it exists currently is rather disappointing, I admire the scope of what the developers were trying for.  The gameplay doesn’t really work 100%, but to the extent that it does, it’s pretty reminiscent of the original Mortal Kombat 3, which was a good iteration of the series.  The characters all have a wide variety of finishing moves, unique special moves, and the usual generic Mortal Kombat arsenal of punches and kicks.  There is a good variety of arenas, many of which have arena-specific fatalities, and the general presentation of the game is fairly well-done.  It just seems as if for whatever reason, the game was rushed into Apple’s approval process before it was really ready to be released.  Which is a shame, because it feels like it could have easily been a much better game than it is.

Dislikes

The Kontrols are Krap: Really, there is just no way to make a good 1-on-1 fighting game without making sure it has adequate controls.  And whatever there is good about UMK3, of which there is some, gets completely undermined by the fact that the controls don’t work well enough to actually let the user derive any enjoyment from playing the game.

I would have a lot more sympathy for UMK3 if games like Blades of Fury and Street Fighter IV hadn’t already been out for this platform for quite some time now, proving that fighting games are possible on iOS (and in the case of Street Fighter, very good.)  However, especially in comparison to its old rival, the Street Fighter franchise, this version of Mortal Kombat suffers miserably when it comes to the controls.  Street Fighter is able to survive the translation to iOS still feeling much like the same game, by limiting the punches and kicks to one button each, as opposed to three for each.  Whereas Street Fighter IV for iOS accommodates itself to the limitations of the iPhone’s touch screen by significantly paring down the basic attacks available to each character, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 includes its full repertoire of basic attacks.  While this would be a bonus if the controls were sensitive enough, in short, they’re not.  The virtual joystick is painfully small and unreceptive (even for someone like myself whose thumbs are definitely not oversized).

There are two configurations of settings for the virtual buttons.  The first is the classic six-button arcade configuration, with high kick, low kick, high punch, low punch, block, and run.  The other configuration is a five-button setup with one punch, one kick, block, run, and a button to assist the player to pull off special moves more quickly and easily.  While this sounds all well and good, each configuration presents unique problems.  With the classic six-button approach, some special moves and nearly each and every Fatality can be maddeningly difficult to pull off, thanks in part to the muddy responsiveness of the virtual joystick.  However, with the five-button approach, you limit your ability to perform each character’s “cheese combos,” which are already really difficult to pull off anyways but deal so much damage as to be implicitly enticing.

To make matters worse, of course, the AI opponents have no trouble inflicting these massive combos on you.  Times are tough in The Outworld, apparently.

Load Times: There’s just a little too much loading between matches for my tastes.  This gets to be especially frustrating when you’re playing against Shao Kahn, because it can feel like you spend about ten seconds waiting to select your character, then about ten seconds waiting to fight, and then you lose the match in about twenty-five seconds.  Rinse, repeat.  It’s not too terrible, and honestly the other problems this game has far overshadow the load times.  But it’s a little extra irksomeness on top of all the annoyance that’s already there to be experienced.

Character Selection: Hopefully we can look forward to more characters in future updates (although fix the controls first or don’t even bother.)  But for now, the roster feels a little anemic.  We’re missing such fan-favorites as Raiden, Johnny Cage, Baraka, Kabal, Kano, etc.  Not to mention that some of the characters they’ve chosen to include seem like odd choices which could have been someone cooler.  Sheeva and Nightwolf?  Really??

Buggier than an Alabama Screen Door in July: As I’ve already mentioned, this game pretty much feels like a beta version.  The AI is extremely imbalanced and easily exploited.  For example, I’ve found I can effectively spam a computer opponent by running up to them and throwing them ad nauseam for the entire match.  On the other hand, if you should try to fight fair, you’ll most likely get that ass whupped on all but the easiest difficulty setting.  Again, this is largely because the CPU can, for example, freeze you and then effortlessly perform that six-hit combo that it takes you ten attempts to pull off correctly.

Speaking of buggy AI, fighting the bosses in this game is an excruciating annoyance. Motaro incessantly teleports from one side of the screen to another, in a way that feels less like the AI’s strategy and much more like a programming glitch.  Also, he frequently performs his next hit on you when you’re in the middle of your standing-up animation from his last one.  Shao Kahn on the other hand, just won’t let you get a hit in edgewise.  The only real way I’ve found to beat him so far are really cheaty-faced techniques, like getting a little damage on him and then spamming him with Stryker’s ‘takedown slide’ move.  If you just keep performing the move over and over, the clock will run out without him being able to hit you…  And that’s not exactly what I call ‘fun.’  But hey, I felt I had an obligation to at least finish the game, mind-numbingly frustrating as the experience became.

In short, I couldn’t recommend this game to anyone right now in good conscience.  It really could be terrific if the developers take the time to go back and meticulously fix the controls, and offer us a solid update.  I would love to see UMK3 stand tall as a worthy contender among the scarce amount of arcade-style fighting games on the App Store.  If we get controls that work, the next thing I would like to see would be more characters added to the roster.  But right now, all that is a mighty big if. As it currently stands, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 for iOS gets low marks indeed, because it doesn’t feel quite ‘finished’ and the sheer frustration of trying to work with the controls precludes any real chance of having fun.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was developed by EA Mobile, and I played through version 1.0.4 on my iPod touch 2G.  The price is $6.99.


Run Like Hell Review: A Frantic Run-and-Jumper

“Run Like Hell” is a game with a pretty simple premise:  You’re a treasure hunter, stranded on an island and being chased by hungry cannibals.  Your goal, naturally, is to run away from them and end up with some loot rather than in the stew.  It’s a game of roughly the same ilk as “Mirror’s Edge” or “Robot Unicorn Attack,” meaning that the gameplay consists basically of sprinting from left to right while evading obstacles by jumping and sliding.  “Run Like Hell” features both a story mode and an endless, score attack type of mode.  While it’s not exactly a genre of games that personally gets me jumping out of my chair with excitement, I found this to be a well executed title, with a few minor flaws holding it back from excellence.

Likes

Fast-Paced: This is a fairly simple style of game, so I appreciated Run Like Hell’s speedy gameplay.  Your character really moves like he’s running for his life, which gives things a sense of urgency and makes the gameplay reward finesse.  There are a goodly number of different levels to play through in the story mode, and a significant amount of variety therein, but the levels themselves only take a minute or two to complete.  This gives the game fun, fast-paced gameplay that makes it perfect for quick pick-up-and-play sessions.

Sense of Variety: Although this is basically a game that consists of doing one thing, the level design cleverly adds some variety to the proceedings.  The story mode takes you through jungles, beaches, caverns, ancient ruins, and cannibal villages.  Each set of levels has a distinct look and presents you with unique obstacles to avoid, and once you move on to a new environment the one you just completed is unlocked in endless mode.  The endless mode is really where the game’s replay value comes from in my opinion, and the game does a very impressive job of randomly generating infinite maps in the various environments.  It’s exactly the same gameplay as the story mode, but rather than reaching the end of the level, you run as long as you can before being inevitably captured.  High scores are integrated with both Game Center and OpenFeint, which is a nice touch.  It’s nice to see that the developers made intelligent, creative decisions to mix things up, because this genre of games is simplistic enough in terms of gameplay that I think run-and-jump titles such as these risk becoming quickly repetitive.  But it’s a good thing that Mass Creation has taken steps to avoid this pitfall.

Power-Ups: Another thing I enjoyed that I haven’t gotten around to mentioning until now is the power-ups.  Basically, they come in two varieties:  there is adrenaline, and there are a few types of power-ups which zap your pursuers and make them stagger a little further behind you.  Adrenaline fills up a gauge, and you can use it to run faster and jump higher.  Adrenaline can become very important in some stages, allowing you to get over obstacles more easily or jump a little higher to grab another power-up.  Thankfully, you can juke a little extra speed even when your adrenaline gauge is empty by quickly tapping the button.  I’m not sure if this was an intentional decision on the developer’s part, but it makes it almost unnecessary to go for the risky jumps sometimes required to grab an adrenaline power-up, and I thought I’d share the tip with our readers.

Dislikes

Repetitive: So, how can I simultaneously praise a game’s sense of variety and pan it for being repetitive?  Well, basically it’s not inherently the game’s fault, because Mass Creation have clearly thought about how to squeeze out a good bit of variety from a simple premise.  It’s just an inherent thing about this genre of games, in my opinion.  Those that are way into this type of game are really looking for the smooth execution of a simple premise over an enormous sense of variety or progression anyways, and this game delivers on its basic idea.  However, part of me can’t help but feel that this genre is less of the meat-and-potatoes of gaming, and more like the little candy you grab from a dish and consume in less than a minute.

No Personal Music Support: I think  it’s a little absurd, honestly, that there are still games released on the App Store that don’t allow the user to listen to their own music while they are playing.  This was a bit of a problem for me with Run Like Hell in particular, because the music is not the game’s strongest point.  Each set of environments only has one musical track, which doesn’t take all that long to loop over if you’re playing on endless mode.  I was annoyed to discover that I couldn’t play my own music while playing Run Like Hell, and I can guarantee this game doesn’t demand so much processing power that it would be impossible for the i-Device to do this.

Insensitive?: While all of my friends who I’ve asked (which is not that many because I feel a little lame bringing it up) assure me that this is a non-issue on their political corectness radar, I can’t help but think it’s a little weird that it’s 2010 and we still have video games where the protagonist is a white guy being chased by cannibalistic Pacific Islanders (after having stolen their treasure).  But whatever, I guess…

…Overall, I had a good time with Run Like Hell, and despite my quibbles I could recommend it to fans of the genre.  Don’t necessarily expect anything new, but this is a smoothly animated, fast-paced game with controls that work well.  If this is your type of game, I’d look into it for sure.

Run Like Hell was developed by Mass Creation, and I played through version 1.0 on my iPod touch 2G.  The price is $0.99.