App of the Day: Angry Birds Space

Cosmic chicken.

If familiarity breeds contempt, then Rovio's avian-flinging physics puzzler must be one of the most reviled games around. Downloaded millions of times, the series has entranced normal people the world over, yet been greeted mostly with disdain by gamers.

For the game's critics, its sins are many: gameplay that seems to favour blind luck, a scoring system that is almost impossible to decipher and a heavy reliance on DLC, turning out 10 updates for Angry Birds Seasons in just under 18 months, have all tapped into core player fears regarding the shallow, craven nature of mobile gaming. More than anything, it's the suspicion that having hit on a winning formula, Rovio is content to churn out more of the same, doing little to grow the game beneath.

So it comes as something of a surprise that Angry Birds Space is downright ambitious. It's certainly the first game bearing those green porcine faces and bulbous birds to feel like an actual sequel, an evolution rather than a quick palette swap.

As the title suggests, the game has moved to a cosmic setting and in doing so has almost completely changed the way it plays. Oh, the fundamentals remain - the catapult, the lines of trajectory, the teetering constructions containing your bacon-flavoured enemies - but the way they play out is refreshingly different.

Angry Birds Space launch trailer beams in

Levels no longer take place on a flat plane, but revolve - literally - around little planetoids. These have their own gravity, and their own atmospheres, which will warp and tug your flying feathered projectiles. Winning shots must now slingshot around parabolic arcs, often through two or more gravity zones, while the absence of gravity outside of the atmosphere means objects can drift away or crash to the ground depending on how you nudge them. For the first time, the game actually feels like a serious physics puzzle, as you extrapolate movement and use the cartoon science to your own advantage.

New bird types are less dramatic in their impact, but still offer a much-needed change in approach. An ice bird will flash-freeze chunks of scenery, another will dash to wherever you tap on-screen, while chunky green ones are veritable wrecking balls, crushing scenery with gleeful excess. On that subject, it's also worth noting that the game's environments feel much more satisfying. Gone are the sheets of glass and ice that mysteriously repel attacks, replaced with materials that crack, collapse, shatter and break in a much more predictable way.

It's more generous, too, with better-than-they-sound boss battles and 15 bonus "eggsteroid" levels hidden across the 60 stages, as well as extra scoring opportunities. Quite often, zooming out and exploring the entirety of the stage is the only way to maximise your score, and the fact you can do so with some measure of confidence suggests that the opaque calculations of old have been made more reliable. This time, at least, when you get two stars you can generally see what you missed that could have made it three.

But then it all runs dry a little too soon. The 60 stages can easily be cleared in a few hours, leaving the long-term appeal to high-score perfectionists and those keen to find all the bonus levels. Of course, the game is happy to remind you that another 30 levels can be immediately unlocked via an in-app purchase, and a further gift-wrapped planet, marked "coming soon", reminds us that not all of Rovio's bad habits have been broken just yet.

Angry Birds Space shows no small amount of growth and ambition, however, and given how easily the series could have coasted on expectations, that's something to be commended.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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