Ironfall Invasion review
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I keep going back to Ironfall Invasion. Not, sadly, because its a compelling and rich game that constantly lures me back, but because it's so bland and characterless that I find simple details bounce off my brain like acorns off a tortoise shell.
It's a third person shooter that's only real selling point is - OMG - it's a third person shooter on the 3DS. You play as a beefy military hero who has absolutely no defining personality traits. His armour is beige. His name, I now know, is apparently Jim? He's fighting against aliens who have taken over the world. They're called Dyxides, and I still can't think of a way to pronounce that without sounding obscene. Then again, the developer is called VD-Dev, so maybe the whole thing is an elaborate allegory for male sexual health.
These are the sort of random diversions I found my brain taking as I tried my hardest to become invested in the handsome but tepid Ironfall Invasion experience.
One of the most interesting things about it is the way it's being distributed. You can download the game for free from the Nintendo eShop, which gives you access to a small portion of the campaign and multiplayer modes. The full version of each of those is available as DLC, or you can unlock them both together for the complete package. It's a throwback to the old shareware demo approach taken by first-person shooters on the PC in the mid-1990s, and as a method of allowing players to try before they buy it's commendable.
Trouble is, trying the game is unlikely to impress anyone but the most shallow graphics junkie. There's no denying that Ironfall represents an impressive technical achievement for the 3DS. It's a fully 3D third-person cover-based shooter, and it runs at 60fps with the 3D turned off. As a technical demo - which is how it was first introduced to the world back in 2013 - it certainly deserves praise.
As a game in its own right, not so much. While it has managed to recreate the appearance of an action game from the bigger consoles, the 3DS can't match their controllers. This is a game where you absolutely need the Circle Pad Pro, or - as Nintendo would clearly prefer given the timing of this release and the sudden rarity of that peripheral - a shiny New 3DS with its built-in C-stick would also fit the bill very nicely.
But if you're playing on a standard 3DS, like a common peasant, then you need to control the camera using the stylus and touchscreen. This leaves your left hand to manage both movement and shooting, using the left shoulder bumper. It's a set-up that echoes similar 3D action game efforts in the past, and it's no more comfortable today. It's too slow to feel like mouse-aiming, and the cramped dimensions of even the 3DS XL mean that laboriously dragging the camera around is a chore. Accurately lining up a shot is fussy, when it needs to be instinctive and immediate.
Let's assume you've got the means to control the camera using the second control nub, either on the Pro Pad extension or New 3DS. Problem solved, right? Sadly, wrong. Because while the game undoubtedly controls better with the right hardware, albeit with slightly slippery aiming, it never plays better, because the design is forever hogtied to the earliest, simplest incarnation of the 3DS.
That means that game never builds up the momentum or sense of danger that a cover shooter needs. Enemies approach slowly, and offer lots of opportunities to taken them down. They rarely appear in numbers that might put pressure on the player, and when they do they're usually nicely spaced out so you can concentrate on them one at a time.
There's very little nuance to the gunplay, despite the expected range of weaponry available to the player. Headshots don't seem to do any more damage than hits to the body, so there's no need for efficient or precision play. Just spray bullets at an enemy and they'll explode in short order. Later variations have shields, which simply absorb more bullet fire before expiring rather than forcing you into flanking positions, or they simply soak up more damage before exploding. Every downed enemy drops ammo, so running dry is unlikely.
The cover system is workable but unsophisticated. Tapping the relevant button - or touchscreen icon - drops you into cover, but your aim is still limited by the camera view, not by what your character sees. This means that taking cover next to a door leaves a massive blindspot where you can see an enemy, but can't actually hit them because the game insists on shooting the door frame rather than into the room.
Basically, anywhere that tactical play might intrude, the execution is compromised by the need to cater to players who have been forced by the spasmodic evolution of the 3DS into playing with one hand on the stylus, slowly scrolling their crosshairs around. In order to keep the game playable and fair for them, the true potential is left untouched.
The technical aspects of the presentation are solid enough, but the actual design is as lifeless as the gameplay. Generic corridors give way to generic canyons, your hero looks like a 3D model template rather than an actual character and the robot foes slip past your eyeballs without making an impression. As before, the game's tech demo origins are nakedly visible. It's functional, but never anything more.
Multiplayer is a redeeming feature, though only slightly. Those playing with a stylus might as well ignore this side of the game however, since going up against players with much faster aiming is a recipe for repeated death. For everyone else, the six-player deathmatches on offer are - as with the rest of the game - solid but unremarkable. Maps are typical but never surprise or inspire, and the same chugging subtlety-free gunplay means that while everything works nicely at a mechanical level, it's always going to be a meat and potatoes experience.
In other words, Ironfall Invasion is a game whose key selling point is the fact that it is on the 3DS, not an Xbox or PlayStation. This sort of action game can work on Nintendo's handheld, as Resident Evil: Revelations proved, but it needs to embrace the curious boundaries of the core 3DS hardware, invent clever ways to incorporate them, not just march through them. Yet even without that particular caveat, Ironfall Invasion is one of those games that is neither particularly good or egregiously bad. It's a game defined by the other games it wants to remind you of, and as such leaves no impression of its own.