Version tested: iPhone
One of the bewildering things about the explosion of App Store gaming is the sheer variety of successful approaches to it: traditional mobile puzzlers and arcade games, indie experiments, full 3D ports, and games like Metal Gear Solid Touch that take the well-travelled road of licensed mobile gaming, cutting grand concepts down to bite-size.
One of the most exciting things about it is that the unique configuration of the iPhone and iPod Touch hardware - notably, its complete lack of buttons - forces everybody to start from scratch to an extent, no matter which of these routes they're taking. The conventional is simply impossible, and you could argue that the Apple platform is seeing a more complete revolution in videogame interface than the Wii or DS have.
On the face of it, Metal Gear Solid Touch is a cheap and irrelevant knock-off from the bad old days of mobile gaming. It transposes Hideo Kojima's demented PS3 stealth epic Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots into a disposable and short-lived shooting gallery, the most basic of arcade games. But while it's certainly not substantial, it's made with care, polish, and a keen sense of the strengths of the subject matter, the platform, and the input device - your finger.
It's not finished, though. What your GBP 3.49 / EUR 4.99 buys you is twelve missions, each a matter of minutes long (if that), that take you through the sights and boss fights of the first three acts of MGS4. The final two acts will be delivered in eight more missions via a free update in the months to come. This is the downside of simple and swift online distribution - it makes a kind of corporate procrastination possible - and it's a bit disappointing, although in this case, your enjoyment of such a brief experience will at least be spread out by having to wait for half of it.
In each mission, Old Snake takes cover behind a wall in the foreground while the usual gallery of balaclava'd goons and genetically-engineered super-soldiers pop up and take pot shots at him. You guide the crosshair to them with your finger - not directly, it can be done anywhere on the screen - and tap to fire. A certain number of enemy kills or a boss kill later, the mission's over.
A ring of colour counts down clockwise around each enemy, and when it turns from yellow to red, they fire back - and they always hit. Lifting your finger from the screen ducks Snake safe back behind cover (although walls can be destroyed by some heavy weaponry) and regenerates health slowly. Naturally, it also means you can't aim. It's a beautifully logical and well-balanced scheme, and combined with some dense enemy patterns and the clarity of the clock timers, it makes target selection more overtly strategic than in most games of this type.
That's about it, although Kojima Productions has thrown in a handful of twists. There are a few friendly hostages that will deplete your health if you shoot them. If the enemy's at long range, you'll need to zoom in with a two-fingered pinch (just as you would on a webpage in Safari) which switches to Snake's wavering sniper rifle sights. Shooting certain pickups grants you health, "stealth" (actually temporary invincibility), or a rocket launcher to help take down a Gekko mech, a chopper or a boss. (The bosses are the imposing Beauty and the Beast squad of psychotic cyber-ladies, more or less exactly as you found them in MGS4.)
All of it works to unfussy, fine-tuned perfection. Working your way through harder levels - there's a not unwelcome but rather sudden difficulty hike halfway through - is a pleasing mix of reaction-test, rhythm-play and spatial awareness, as you watch the timers for a window to re-sight the crosshair to the other side of the screen, zoom in on a distant pickup, or pick off a group of enemies. The patterns vary on replays too, just to keep you on your toes.
Unlike a light-gun game, aiming takes appreciable time and must be planned for, but the touch interface means it still feels believable and tactile, and less alienating than manipulating a cursor with a stick. It's just a little like what we imagine being in an actual gunfight to be like. The more basic pattern-recognition of the boss fights is less successful, though.
It's also beautifully presented, as you'd expect from Kojima Productions. Everything's been done in 2D sprites and flat backgrounds with a loose, hand-painted look. Some gentle depth-of-field blur and impressively gritty screen overlays, and a reverential care for translating Guns of the Patriots' moody palette, make this one of the best-looking iPhone games. It sounds great too, with wholesale lifts from the PS3 game's terrific score. Doling out the plot in chunks of plain text over a bit of art seems a bit lazy though, and it's 100 per cent spoiler for anyone who hasn't played MGS4.
Metal Gear Solid Touch is a slight offering, although it's none too pricey. Completing the twelve levels unlocks a Survival mode - your health and timer last from level to level - while improving your ranking on levels in the main mode earns Drebin points, which can be exchanged with the black marketeer for pin-ups of the sexpot cast. But as slick and punchy as the game is, it just doesn't have the mechanical depth to give it reply value as a score-attack game. You won't feel that compelled to return to it after an hour or two, and there are better-value propositions all over the App Store.
Metal Gear Solid Touch is a miniature, a digest; a microscopic burst of Snake action that's over almost before you've started to notice that it's good. It's throwaway, but it's an unusually considered and craftsmanlike kind of throwaway, with novel and satisfying controls. If this is the face of the mobile gaming spin-off in 2009, then things are looking up.
6 / 10