Version tested: iPhone
Shooting people in the living room is a modern institution. Shooting people on the bus, at the train station, or wedged into the bath, however, is rather less prevalent.
Handhelds have had trouble with FPS games for some time. In the days of the Game Boy Advance, it was probably mainly to do with technology: Nintendo's chunky little delight may have had 32-bit graphics, but it still struggled to bring even id's earliest titles flickering out of the past.
These days, however, it's more to do with the interface: whether you've got a stylus in your hand or a single runty little analogue nub under your thumb, portable consoles just don't seem to be equipped for headshots and strafing.
Enter the iPhone, which initially seems the least promising of any of the current handhelds for conjuring up a convincing deathmatch. That hasn't stopped people trying, however, so it's hopefully worth taking a quick look at two of the more interesting recent examples - the return of a genre standard, and a brand new IP from one of the more thoughtful publishers on the platform.
Both have their own ideas as to how to make FPSs work on Apple's oddball device. Could either of them be onto something?
- Developer: id Software
- Price: £3.99
At the time of its first release, Doom was the perfect synthesis of emerging technology and the violent fantasies of teenage boys. Computers were obviously brilliant, and while there wasn't a 12-year-old alive who didn't go weak at the knees at the prospect of conjuring a pivot table, Doom was at least twice as exciting as Productivity software.
Obviously, first-person shooters have changed a bit since then – now they often have morality systems, and stuff to collect for Achievements – but Doom has held up surprisingly well: a timeless Martian hellhole drawn in clear, easy-to-read environments, filled with a nice range of weapons, and moving at a snappy pace. id has already had a mini-hit on the App Store with the re-released Wolfenstein, so the reappearance of the company's most iconic franchise was pretty much inevitable.
Okay, that's forgetting that we've already had Doom Resurrection, a divisive if technically dazzling update that reinvents the series as an on-rails shooter while finding room to throw in the world's lamest robot sidekick – sorry Clank, second place again. But Doom Classic feels a little more convincing than that. It's more substantial, too: along with the original game's three classic episodes, you get Thy Flesh Consumed, the episode originally added for Ultimate Doom.
In fact, it's lovely nostalgic splatter all the way. The iPhone's screen presents the pixellated military installations and famous corridors in bold colours, while there are three different control schemes available, letting you handle movement and turning either with one virtual pad or two. You can even mess around with a weird – and not very likable – steering wheel set-up, which I hope nobody put too much effort into, because it's a bit rubbish.
There's four-person multiplayer as well. Granted, it's available over local Wi-Fi only, which means if you want to see whether Dennis "Thresh" Fong still has the moves, he's going to have to be your next-door neighbour, but it remains a fairly generous inclusion, allowing both co-op and competitive play.
While some players may find Doom a little too twitchy an experience for the iPhone, Classic succeeds because the basic formula is so beautifully uncomplicated: a series of rudimentary pleasures ranging from spotting something nasty, through to blowing it to pieces, and then stepping over the corpse. As such, early FPS titles like this and Wolfenstein show that shooters can work on a system with no buttons if they keep things simple. When it comes to the iPhone, it's probably wise to party like it's 1993.
- Developer: ngmoco
- Price: Free
Look past the fact that Eliminate Pro is free: someone spent a lot of money on this, and they're hoping that you will too. An early App Store experiment in the micro-transactions payment model, ngmoco's latest fairly reeks of build quality, with beautifully designed menus, lovely 3D maps, and an expensive-looking CG video that plays once you first load the game up, introducing you to the quirky details of the Eliminate world.
And at the centre of that world is Arsenal Megacorp, a weapons manufacturer that urgently needs recruits to test out its range of futuristic weaponry. What that translates into is an entirely multiplayer-focused four-player deathmatch game, with an emphasis on levelling, weapons upgrades, and character customisation.
Let's start with the good news. Not only does Eliminate look the part, its online implementation is suitably slick. Loading into ngmoco's Plus+ Network where your stats are stored is a fairly painless business, and online matches work surprisingly well over both 3G and Wi-Fi, although the matchmaking appears to be a bit of a lottery. With bots available for practice games and a nice range of brightly-coloured levels - snug enough for the low player cap but still filled with plenty of intricacies to learn - it's clear that Eliminate's designers have been staggeringly ambitious.
Sadly, they've also been staggeringly ambitious, and, after your first few hours of play you may feel they were trying too much. With movement, aiming, jumping, pausing, weapon-swapping, firing, and reloading - oh, and taunting - all struggling to find a home on a single, fairly small touch-screen, Eliminate begins as an exercise in total bafflement.
There are plenty of options for tweaking things – you can change look sensitivity, flip the controls, and select an auto-fire mode which calms things down a little bit, but in trying to provide a comprehensive modern FPS experience in such cramped conditions, a game like this was always going to struggle.
Even once you get into the groove, every now and then you still find yourself jumping into the air when you meant to let rip with a deadly volley of futuristic buckshot, or struggling to turn quickly enough when you're wedged into a corner under heavy fire. And that's before you take into account teething problems, like the fact the game often respawns you right in the middle of a pitched gun battle. Okay, it gives you temporary invulnerability, but it's still a bit of a drag to be born anew in a firestorm of bullets.
It is, to put it lightly, a game with a steep learning curve. And while that's no crime in itself, it's precisely at this point that the game runs up against its own financial model.
While it's an utter delight to get something as glitzy and complex as Eliminate for free, struggling through the first few hours is made palatable because you're earning credits as you play, and can cash these in at the in-game shop, levelling up and buying better kit (although the fact that this is what keeps you playing is perhaps something of a veiled criticism).
The problem is that there's a second economy at work, too: to earn credits, your suit has to be powered up with energy. This energy trickles away while you play, and takes hours to recharge. While you can still join games and shoot people when you've run out of energy for the day, you won't be getting any rewards for it any more – unless you top it up artificially by buying in-game power cells with real-world money.
Persevere, and the game will start to click, but it's not impossible that your early experience leads you to decide Eliminate is an elaborate lure for Plus+ Network sign-ups, or, worse, a lovely shop with a shooter attached to it. Meanwhile, the complex controls and fast pace suggest that, in trying to be a great game, Eliminate has passed up the chance to be a solid and likable one.
Perhaps then, ultimately, it's best to look at Eliminate through the lens of its own fiction. It's a work-in-progress – a patch promising "refinements" is inbound – but it's also an experiment in which the player is fulfilling two roles: tester, but also the long-term funding body.