Category Archives: iOS

You Should Probably Play Does Not Commute

Does Not Commute

It’s pretty simple getting from point A to point B in Does Not Commute. The fun comes in when you start adding point C and point D and so on. Does Not Commute is a clever and engaging little mobile game that forces you to plan ahead while playing behind. A lot of people have been looking forward to it since seeing it at GDC and now that it’s out, you should probably play it.

Described as a “strategic driving game” by developers Mediocre, the point of Does Not Commute is to continually guide a series of different cars from their starting points to their destinations. The catch is that with each successive car you have to drive, every previous commuter persists on the map, clogging up major thoroughfares and complicating your journey.

While each map can get complex rather quickly, the foundation is quite simple. Presented in a top-down perspective, you simply tap each half of the screen to steer. That, in fact, is the only amount of instructions given outside of how to use certain power-ups as you earn them. The rest is taught through simply playing.

For example, you don’t even start off knowing what the basis of the game is. Your first task is to get one fellow from the bottom of the screen to the top. Easy peasy. But then the second task, if you try to go direct, will cause the two cars to crash. It’s a brilliant and smooth bit of integrated player education.

Vehicles will also handle drastically differently, and it’s sometimes dependent on the drive. Some are in a rush and are real speed demons, which can be a humongous problem if you’re late into a map and you need to do a lot of tight maneuvering. And then sometimes you have a bus or a dump truck, and what are those naturally other than painfully slow.

That, however, is where the power-ups fit in. By using Turbo, you can fit slower drivers into tighter openings where you’ve already (and, regrettably, unknowingly) bombarded with other cars. Or by using Traction, you can rein in the unwieldy folk. It offers a layer of strategy, but also a layer in which you can once more screw yourself, which is the best kind of tool in video games.

Does Not Commute

This especially goes for collecting more time. You see, you have a timer dictating how much time you have to get everyone simultaneously through to their end goals. While it overlaps, you burn a single second every time you reset an attempt, and that really adds up. This forces you go often go out of your way to collect little bundles of time of 10 or 20 seconds. It’s a necessity, but it will also undoubtedly and fantastically bone you so hard.

A nice little touch (other than it sounding and looking great) is that each driver comes with a little blurb of a backstory, and they all tend to weave together. The first rural setting paints a picture of an accident and an identity thief no one’s noticed yet. Then you see in the city in the next map that there’s definitely might be some Cayman Islands-fleeing type money shenanigans.

One thing to note is that while the game in its entirety is absolutely free, it’s pretty much impossible to beat it unless you pay for the premium version. Fronting the cash will unlock checkpoints, so when you inevitably run out of time or simply close the app or your battery dies, you won’t have to start over from the first map. It’s an inoffensive scheme since nothing stops you from beating it for free, but it’s quickly a nuisance if you aren’t a freaking god of gaming.

Does Not Commute

The problems can quickly compound once you have to take advantage of the floaty nature of these cars. Driving off the side of an overpass might be the only way late into the game to get over a troubling intersection of your own creation. Or launching off a ramp could be the only way to save you precious seconds, preventing failure. (Also, notice that I keep saying “vehicles” and not strictly “cars,” wink wink.)

There’s a great deal that makes Does Not Commute a good game, but in this case, the best way to convince someone is to just have them play it. And at the price point of zero dollars, there’s really no reason not to give it a whirl. (That is unless you don’t own a phone, in which case how did you escape the 1800s?) You should, without a doubt, play Does Not Commute.

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Apple’s Censored Garden

Apple's Censored Garden

“Because I said so.” That is the hefty hammer of rule wielded by many parents and suffered by many children. Why can’t you buy this book at the book fair? Because I said so. Why can’t you stay up to watch one more episode of [insert show kids watch]? Because I said so.

Sometimes it’s for genuine protection. (Like, seriously, don’t stick that fork in the toaster.) But it becomes frustrating for the kid when an explanation doesn’t follow the denial. Or worse than that, the decision turns from a faith in logic to an arbitrary admonishment, a lack of consistency. Understanding makes us tick, but it also makes us unravel.

Just yesterday, Lucas Pope experienced this firsthand as he prepares to release Papers, Please for Apple’s App Store. The iPad version will have actually already come out by the time you read this, but there is one significant change from the original PC release: there is no full nudity option. Apple’s reasoning? “Pornographic content.”

If you recall from 2013, I really enjoyed Papers, Please. Well, “enjoyed” is an odd word for it. Papers, Please is a taxing game. It forces you to push aside your humanity—your empathy, your emotions—and do your job. Follow orders and get it done. All day, every day.

The nudity that Apple refers to comes up once you start using body scanners to determine if immigrants coming through your border station are hiding dangerous items, like bombs or guns. It is also a sharp, pungent reminder of what you’re doing. You’re violating precious privacy—personal privacy, too, one of the few allowed in Arstotzka—just to shuffle more sheep through the line and get more money.

It is, in a word, necessary. While you can still play and “enjoy” the game without it (the original had the ability to partially clothe people), a substantial gut-punch is removed in the process. Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku actually has already written about this, if you want to read about it.

Papers, Please

While important, that’s not the main problem with this censorship. It is, in fact, Apple’s application of it that is the problem. Firstly by their methodologies, it is frustrating. For the longest time, Apple has been viewed as a walled garden, holding tight to restrictions regarding its and others’ content when offered through or on their platforms like the App Store and iOS devices. It certainly has benefits (e.g. guaranteed interoperability), but it is also has huge drawbacks.

The most obvious, of course, is the opaque review process. Apple has very clearly stated guidelines, but there are significant gray areas that allow for things to get muddied. 16.1 of their guidelines state the following: “Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected.” Those two words. “Excessively objectionable.” Both of those are independently dependent on perspective.

Without context, it is certainly an app that provides images of digitized pixel nudity. With context, it is a contributing factor to the dehumanizing sensation that makes Papers, Please so affecting. Consider an image of two colors squares on top of each other. Half a tetromino, right? Now we give them names like Betty and Bob and play this music. Now it is sexual in nature and liable to be rejected from the App Store as well.

Papers, Please

What I’m trying to say is context is important. That’s the first problem with this censorship. This is a superficial rejection (or so we can assume, since we have no idea how Apple really feels about it other than “no”), but with the number of app submissions Apple gets a day. In 2012, they got 26,000 a week, and by 2013, they were adding almost that many per month. That’s too many to keep up with and subject each submission to in-depth analysis.

The next problem is the inconsistency. With that much input to go through, it’s a problem solved by throwing more bodies at it. This means a lot of different opinions of what is “excessively objectionable” get to say what gets through and what doesn’t. The end result is something saliently pointed to by The Guardian: an iOS app by very real porn star Rocco Siffredi was just released, an app that allows you to insert your face into an image of a woman being taken from behind and share it.

Apple even bothers in that article to refer to Jacobellis v. Ohio, the famous Supreme Court decision on obscenity where Justice Potter Stewart stated he could not define pornography, but rather that “I know it when I see it.” It’s hard to believe that this is not considered pornographic by Apple but this is. How can that be frustrating and defeating to everyone else but especially Lucas Pope?

Mass Effect 3

Then there’s also the whole bit about artistic expression and the value of wholly encompassing some creator’s vision. Remember the kerfuffle surrounding Mass Effect 3‘s conclusion(s)? While it shouldn’t be free from criticism, BioWare should also be free to create something as they see fit. And criticism is vastly different from censorship, let alone the absolutely absurd petition to wholly revise another creator’s product.

While we haven’t quite reached that point, it’s still telling of where both the App Store is and where it’s headed. Of course, the other end of the spectrum is Google Play where it’s like kindergarteners running around with scissors and glue and every once in a while you’ll see someone conducting business. One remedy, though, is simply to become even less opaque, a transition Apple has made even once before. Yes, they used to be more inscrutable. But I guess it’s not up to us. Why?

Because Apple said so.

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You Should Probably Play 80 Days

80 Days

On the route from literature to video games, few seem as poised for the transformation as Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. It’s a classic tale from a classic writer, and all of it points to a classic setup for an interactive interpretation. With a wager setting a hard time limit and an impetus to experience new locations in that timeframe, what better than this for inkle studios to take and turn into 80 Days.

Of course, that bit of inciting action wherein Phileas Fogg takes up a wager to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days with nothing more than his servant Jean Passepartout and a presumably stout mustache in tow isn’t nearly as important as the execution. And 80 Days executes on the premise wonderfully. By putting you in the shoes of Passepartout and removing the inessential or irrelevant parts of the objective, the game opens itself up to a much more interesting system of storytelling mechanics.

For instance, the original challenge was brought about by the trans-Indian railroad, a technological innovation that allowed travel from Bombay to Calcutta in three days. (There’s also the bit about an Indian princess and Thuggee cultists.) Impressive, but it locks the pair into a much more insular experience. Inkle saw fit, instead, to throw in a massively spidering web of possibilities to get from place to place and focuses on a decidedly different and steampunky world seen through Passepartout’s eyes.

At its core, 80 Days is about resource management. With time, money, and health all working against you as you singlehandedly attempt to arrange this worldly trip (like, get off your ass, Fogg, and help me), you have to spin several plates at once while the game actively tries to topple them. And you never know when something you do is going to make your life better or worse.

That is the crux of what makes 80 Days so interesting. At the very opening of the game, you are faced with a decision to either lie or come clean. And that’s where you are shown the fourth resource: your relationship with Fogg. Your decisions on this trip will either enhance or degrade his opinion of you, showing you as an unreliable mess or an uninteresting fool or a wholly self-sufficient and wise companion.

It rouses a similar feeling to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, but with the temporal pressure spread out over an entire journey rather than moment-to-moment, which strangely enough makes every branch that much more anxiety-ridden. With zombies and the always immediate goal of survival, choices often felt like less like a choice and more like a necessity. But with Passepartout, picking how to respond to Fogg and the strangers you meet on your travels feels infinitely more consequential.

80 Days

Instead of knowing your choice will result in someone living or dying, it’s more akin to real life. When you go about the daily world, you never know what decision will come back and bite you in the ass or simply pass off as another flowing, uninterrupted part of your contiguous life. The same goes with this game where the things you choose to say and do may or may not result in anything of note. You decision to hop a turnstile could just get you to your train on time or it may halt you for several days and land you on Fogg’s bad side.

This setup of obfuscated dominos could have easily been ominous or tedious, but 80 Days is rarely either, at least not in a bad way. If anything, the lazy dread that follows your solitary and potentially monumental decisions are exciting. Every situation could land you in a dozen other new places that you hadn’t planned on or could have even foreseen, but it’s never an inescapable fate. It only serves to broaden your adventure across the globe.

Part of it is that the responsibility is placed entirely in your hands. While some notes come up in your inventory and on timetables of where you can be to get somewhere today or how much a candle is worth in Africa, so much of the earned context of your journey is only retained in your head. With the people you encounter, you realize that taking note of names has the potential to payoff later. Or getting your hands on gear in Russia can help with your trek across the Pacific.

80 Days

The laissez-faire approach to information retention in 80 Days makes each journey feel that much more personal, especially as with each replay, you find or are forced into new routes and unknown territories. Or at least that’s one possibility. A huge part of what makes the game work is the writing. It’s consistently impressive and fits entirely well within the milieu of what the art and the characters establish, but it also allows you to dictate Passepartout’s character.

Choices allow you to make him as well-traveled as you’d like, opening up the potential of him to skip intel gathering in the market and instead pursue more meaningful threads like airship procurement and automata security. As your choices actively meld right back into the written words of the story, it feels as much like you writing the story as it does you reading one that already exists. Simultaneous creation and discovery.

Without a doubt, 80 Days is a game you should definitely play. For all the aliens you’ve shot as a space marine or the cities you’ve saved jumping a car off the top of a skyscraper, this tale of two men finagling their way across the world feels more like an adventure than most of those other grandiose stories combined. Genuine fear, anxiety, excitement, eagerness, and desire, and that’s before you even board the train.

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Monument Valley Review: New Perspective

Monument Valley

Mobile games are chockfull of potential in spite of and due to their platform’s limitations. When they hunker down and focus on one or two key aspects, they have a chance to find what their peak forms can take. Ridiculous Fishing, for instance, excelled at giving the player tangible, progressive upgrades free from frustration or boredom in its schemes. Monument Valley does the same thing, honing its aesthetics and puzzle design to a delectable, masterfully fine point.

Monument Valley comes from Ustwo, a small studio in London who previously gave us Blip Blup and Whale Trail. It tells the rather obtuse yet portentous tale of a princess named Ida who is seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness for what, exactly, is slowly unveiled through the course of the game as you guide Ida through a series of increasingly complex puzzles.

Most of what you need to do is get from point A to point B, tapping the screen to get Ida where you want her to go. If a path along a single plane exists, then she’ll get there. Or rather, if a smooth path exists along a single, possibly deformed plane exists, she’ll get there. You see, much of what you’ll be traversing is essentially M. C. Escher-style structures. (There’s even a recreation of Escher’s “Waterfall” in the game.)

In the first puzzle, for instance, you have to get from one level to another without any ascending functionality. But, by lining up two walkways, they will look like they’re connecting, and that’s good enough for Ida. And you’ll soon be walking along walls and upside-down and spinning whole structures as platforms and doors come in and out of pseudo-existence.

This, however, is where Monument Valley shines. Just as Ida’s tale revolves around forgiveness, the game itself is very much about getting the idea of making mistakes out of your head. It’s certainly not easy solving all of these puzzles, but they are designed in such a way that even experimenting and seeing what something does all points you towards the solution.

Early on, it forces you for no particular puzzle-related reason to walk along a wall. It does, however, teach you that it’s something to keep in mind later on. And soon, puzzles involve rotating platforms to get you on walls and ceilings to get to a button or exit. It has a very relaxed but confident and competent sensibility of educating the player. It’s surprisingly refreshing in that way.

Monument Valley

Of course, the game’s visuals are hard to ignore. It is simply a stunning piece of digital art. There are subtleties to gradually find and add to the list of things to love. Ida, for instance, will look at where you’re touching, and as she goes up or down stairs, briefly glance down to check her footing. And her design has a real “oh how did I not notice that?!” thing going on for when you finally beat it.

But the colors are simply incredible. They’re warm in a way that makes you feel…secure, yet otherworldly. Many of the hues of off-white and faded purple are so foreign and rare in our knowledge of natural aesthetics, but they’re arranged and saturated in such a way to give the sensation of an emanated emotion. You can feel that what Ida is doing has great meaning just through the way the game looks.

The sound design is similarly impeccable. As you interact with rotating platforms and spinning staircases, a jingle of sweeping wind chimes and bells accompany your movements. It gives an aural connection for you to latch onto from you sitting on your couch or on the bus to this oddly dire yet whimsical world. And the music is pretty much spot-on. I will certainly be leaving the game running just to listen to it.

Monument Valley

By its very enigmatic nature, though, the game’s story is somewhat hazy. I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end, but it certainly felt poignant. I mean, I think I have a good idea, but it will absolutely generate discussion between others, which is pretty great when it’s just full of impossible geometry, crow people, and a princess. The world feels lived in and considerably genuine. I wish I knew more about it.

And a very quick aside: there’s a moment late in the game where there’s a, uh, thing. It matches your movement and, as far as I can tell, is the only one-off puzzle mechanic in the game. I logged it in my brain, ready to utilize the experience for later, but then I had nothing to use it on.

Which is to say that Monument Valley is quite the short game. I played it all in one sitting over the course of two-ish hours—granted, I didn’t intend on it, but it’s just so damn easy to block out the real world when you play this game—so for the price of $3.99 in the App Store, you might feel a bit hesitant on giving this one a whirl.

Monument Valley

Well don’t. Monument Valley is, despite its petite platform and heroine, a substantial game. I’m still thinking about it and I finished it days ago. It marks another notch in the belt for mobile games in showing that in focusing a studio’s attention on a few facets, it can create a masterful stroke on the industry’s overflowing canvas. Monument Valley is a beautiful, subtle, and unarguably worthwhile game. Don’t let it pass you by.

+ Looks ridiculously beautiful
+ Sounds like where childhood dreams live
+ Puzzle design is simply impeccable
+ Oddly important-feeling tale of redemption (maybe?)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Monument Valley
Release: April 3, 2014
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Ustwo Studio
Available Platforms: iOS, Android
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $3.99
Website: http://www.monumentvalleygame.com/

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Drift Mania: Street Outlaws Review: Caught in a Drift

Drift Mania: Street Outlaws

Drift Mania: Street Outlaws has a lot of problems. Some of it is actually pretty fun and, once you manage to understand how to play into it and the mobile platform’s limitations, can be rather engaging. But it suffers from an oversimplification and misalignment of its base driving mechanics. Most notably, though, it goes largely unchanged from its predecessor, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Street Outlaws is the latest in Ratrod Studio’s signature franchise. In it, you play as a street racer driving across the public infrastructure of cities worldwide. As you complete objectives within the tracks, you’ll unlock car upgrades and additional tracks and earn money. There’s a massive focus on drifting, making precision and control the paramount concern in the proceedings.

It, as a whole, is a pretty good looking game. The textures are surprisingly high quality and the models have a fidelity that, upon first glance, inspires a fair amount of confidence. The presentation also does quite well for itself as each race begins with a fantastic fly-through sequence of the track and shows off the graphical upgrades since Drift Mania Championship 2.

The sound design also operates with ample confidence. Hearing the engines rev and the tires screech around hairpin turns sounds pretty true to life (as close as you can get from iPad speakers, that is), and with a soundtrack of unknown but incredibly appropriate artists and songs, it all comes together in a rather cohesive aural package. And the fact that you can choose to play your own songs is a nice touch.

Once you start playing the game, though, the problems begin, and they are the same problems from Championship 2. So much runs over to Street Outlaws, in fact, that the tutorial is pretty much identical with the same text and graphical breakdowns. It covers the basics of accelerating with a gradient bar on the right, initiating drifts with the handbrake on the left, and tilting to steer. It also covers maintaining drift combos and earning bonuses by going extra fast, extra stylish, and extra in-bonus-zones as well as losing points by going off-track and crashing into stuff.

The biggest problem is that steering with an analog tilt mechanic to emulate a physical act of working off the feedback of a steering wheel just doesn’t allow sufficient precision. This is entirely personal, I’m sure, but none of the steering sensitivity options worked; low was basically worthless in taking any turn and medium was half the time too squirrelly, so I can’t even imagine how the minimum and maximum options would feel.

Drift Mania: Street Outlaws

Then the drifting doesn’t really work like real drifting, an issue I really wanted to highlight in Championship 2 and want to bring to the forefront once again. Basically, drifting in real life works by countersteering, or turning the wheel in the opposite direction of the drift so that your momentum and loss of traction maintain the sliding action. In Street Outlaws, you instead gently increase or decrease your twist towards the drift, fine-tuning it as if you were directly controlling the car’s direction. In essence, it’s the complete inverse of how drifting works.

This means that if you have ever been behind the wheel of a car while it has been fishtailing (real, digital, whatever), you have to fight your intuition on how to maintain the drift. As a byproduct of this design choice, it introduces a significant learning curve to people with even the minimal understanding of how regaining control of an out-of-control car works. You’ll find yourself twisting your tablet or phone from one extreme to the other and then heading hood-first into a wall with a single, red-colored indignant thought running through your head.

Actually, holding down the handbrake the entire time seems to work best as I found myself spiraling out of control more often when I was just trying to recovering with the throttle; going in a straight line is perhaps the greatest challenge in the entire game. It makes no sense and drastically slows down the overall pace of the game.

Drift Mania: Street Outlaws

I will say, though, that the speed reduction feeds into the surrounding gameplay design focus on the drift, so if you find the squirrelly and counterintuitive nature of the steering to be acceptable, a lot of the framework surrounding scoring your racing works rather well. Precision takes precedent over speed, so if you can get your car all the way sideways before drifting into the next turn, your skill (or luck) rewards you. It’s definitely more methodical than your average gun-it-always-and-forever racing game.

Every track, though, has the same set of achievements (the same, in fact, as from Championship 2): no damage, always on-track, time limit, drift combo, and drift time. And as the tracks increased in difficulty, I found myself grinding out the achievements just to unlock the next course. No damage and always on-track in one, time limit in another, and drift combo and drift time in the last one. It didn’t necessarily ever feel like I was learning to drive better but more like I was cycling through a trio of driving methodologies.

Really, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the problems that fill Street Outlaws. But that would be essentially talking about the problems of Championship 2 because these are almost entirely identical games from the menus to the upgrade system to the controls to the HUD. The only meaningful differences are that Ratrod added custom soundtracks and high resolution textures.

Drift Mania: Street Outlaws

To use the game review cliché “if you are a fan of the series then you will blah blah blah” wouldn’t even be viable here. It’s more like if you are a fan of the series, then you are a fan of a singular game because this is nothing more than a reskinned track pack, which isn’t a problem if that’s all you are looking for. I know some people, in fact, that will be happy to race on new territory, but to hoist Drift Mania: Street Outlaws as a new game is disingenuous.

+ Excellent presentation within and before races
+ Soundtrack and sound design are appropriate and effective
– Steering is counterintuitive and imprecise when the game demands precision
– Almost wholly identical to Drift Mania Championship 2

Final score: 3 out of 10

Game Review: Drift Mania: Street Outlaws
Release: October 10, 2013
Genre: Racing
Developer: Ratrod Studio
Available Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows 8, Windows Phone
Players: 1–2
MSRP: $0.99
Website: http://en.ratrodstudio.com/games/streetoutlaws/

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Wordstop Review: Count ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

Wordstop

Wordstop is a very simple game to review because it is, in fact, a very simple game. In it, you play against an opponent and take turns trying to not make a word by playing one letter at a time. If you make a complete a real word, you lose. For example, if the current field looks like AB, then I could play any letter on either side of the two already there except for T, C, and D on the left because that would make TAB, CAB, and DAB respectively.

The twist is that the letter you play for your non-word must be part of a real word, so I couldn’t play ABW but I could play RAB because RAB is both not a real word and still part of another word (CRAB). This means you have to have a sufficient diction to force your opponent’s hand into having no choice but to complete a real word and lose.

The problem is that given a sufficient diction, foreseeing the outcome of a game is rather easy. It boils down to a game of Nim, the game where players take turns removing stones from piles and the person to take the last stone wins (or loses, depending on how you play). The problem is that Nim is a mathematically solved game, so any game that is similar to it has a very inconsequential feel to it, including Wordstop.

If you envision it as a branching decision tree, you can see that the opening move determines quite a bit. It removes the other 25 children from the top layer and some on the second layer, but the second player’s turn has just as much impact. And as the turns progress, the number of possibilities very quickly dry up, so about three turns in, you can determine either the absolute outcome or the possibilities of who wins.

Of course, that is based on the assumption of perfect play with two players having incredible vocabularies, but I would say I managed to accurately predict the winner of my matches about 80% of the time after four turns. And then the game ends very suddenly. It, for some reason or another, made me feel really empty when I first lost and oddly blasé when I first won.

Everything else about the game is pretty good. The asynchronous multiplayer structure is very familiar (think Draw Something where it tracks turns in multiple games) and works well for Wordstop, and the tutorial is short and effective. I wonder, though, what made the developers Word Play Limited choose to layout the letters in a QWERTY arrangement instead of straight alphabetical. I think this works better; I’m just curious about their reasons.

Wordstop

It is 99 cents in the App Store, but there are also in-app purchases. You have stars that you can spend on bombs that eliminate letters from the keyboard that you can’t play and Word Wizard access which is a post-game analysis tool that shows you possible plays you could have made. I’m not sure what the upgrade over the free version is, but in-app purchases in an already paid app never make me feel comfortable.

Personally, I don’t think Wordstop is worth playing. I really had to force myself to keep going to see if my experience with it would change. It’s competently made and has a unique take on the already flooded genre of word games, but its base design reduces to something that is over simplistic in many situations. I feel, though, if you put yourself in the right mindset—that is, vowing to play solely by the seat of your pants—this could be fun. But I can’t stop thinking ahead, and when doing that in a strategy game ruins the whole shebang, well, there might be a problem.

+ An interesting idea
+ Simple and easy to pick up and play
– The core conceit is easily mentally modeled, removing much of the fun in the process
– In-app purchases in a paid app are still gross

Final Score: 5 out of 10

Game Review: Wordstop
Release: August 20, 2013
Genre: Word puzzle
Developer: Word Play Limited
Available Platforms: iOS
Players: 2
MSRP: $0.99
Website: https://www.facebook.com/wordstop

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Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest? Review

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

I’m normally not one for turn-based worldwide military strategy games. There’s something about the idea of smashing together numbers with a thin veneer of national might that kind of puts me off. Granted, that same complaint can be levied against some of my other preferred video game genres like RPGs and RTSs, most of which quite literally surface the numbers to the player as the computer figures out if 200 is indeed bigger than 100. Poorly designed ones actually feel a lot like the crappy casino in Vegas Vacation where you play Guess the Hand and Pick a Number.

All of this, of course, went out the window somewhere around hour two of playing Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest.

Aside from the horribly long and tiring title that I can’t imagine anyone would ever willingly say in its entirety outside of the strictures of martial law, Empires II is quite the enjoyable iOS title. It’s a sequel to the 2011 Empires: World Conquest. Both games by Fabrice Noui and both games featuring historical-but-not-quite-accurate empires and armies vying for world dominance. Played either solo, cooperatively, or competitively via pass-and-play, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or online, you pick a country of origin and begin to take over other sovereign lands.

Each turn takes place over the course of a single season in a year. In spring (and only spring), you can spend your money to buy more troops and ships and spend a tiny amount to spy on other countries to figure out what they’re currently stacked with. The other three seasons are dedicated to moving your armies and fleets around. You can freely move any number of any resource to any land you already own, but doing so to territories not under your control results in a skirmish.

At first, these fights seemed overly simplistic. In fact, a tooltip spells out for you the requirements to win: in general, have double the number of soldiers invading than those holding (quadruple if it is a fortified capital). Then a little recap comes up and spells out how many units you lost and how many they lost and if you won or lost. It’s instantaneous and is nothing more than seeing whose stack of chips is higher.

But this reduction actually facilitates the strength of Empires II, which is the locomotion of your global might. Since determining the (probable) outcome of each encounter is so easy, the focus is instead put on constantly relocating and building your forces around the world. All troops originate from one of your capital cities (or your starting capital, if that’s a rule you choose to enforce), and they can only march into adjacent land that isn’t blocked off by mountains or lakes. If they’re on a coast, though, then you can use ships to transport them to any other coast.

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

In any given movement season (i.e. summer, fall, and winter, if you’ve forgotten everything about how the world works), you can touch one of your countries and choose to move as much or as little as you want. So if you want to move 10 empty ships from Libya back to Columbia but also 50 armies in either direction, you can. You can issue as many movement commands as you want, so your response time to any invasion or failed attack feels almost immediate, even though you’ll probably still have to walk through several countries to get there.

Unless, of course, you use ships. Going from any coastline to another only takes one turn, regardless of absolute distance; moving from Cuba to Mexico takes the same amount of time as moving from Quebec to Angola. This helps play into the reactive feel of Empires II (since invading coastal countries means you must overpower both their naval and land forces, and you can’t even fight the armies without first destroying their ships), but it also contributes a hefty chaotic feel to the mid-game.

Early on, you’ll be focused on taking over your initial region (usually whatever continent you start out on) so you can get the annual monetary region bonus and really start to rack up your armies and ships. Once that begins to wind down, though, you’ll begin to scope out the other world powers. I tended to either go for the one with the most land (shown by the color bar at the bottom left) or the weakest nearby region. And then you’ll move and disperse your resources to your non-landlocked territories so other countries can’t invade and you can easily invade others.

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

But the status quo can shift crazy fast, and all because of the ships. They make combat and movement so incredibly interesting, but they also drag out the mid-game so much and make it almost frustrating. If you’re evenly matched with a given empire, it’s likely that after they attack one of your countries, you’ll just take it right back. But the following turn in your rebuttal, they’ll take over neighboring countries or another coastline. And so on and so on until it becomes a war of attrition, except it’s a war of slowly chasing a mouse out of your house.

That can, however, be fun, given a certain brevity. Human opponents often realize whether a particular invasion attempt is futile or fruitful rather quickly, but only on the easiest and hardest difficulties did I find the back and forth pace to be anything resembling fun. It’s fun having those little shakeups where you have to scramble nearby armies and shuttle in new ones with your fleet to keep up defenses and drive invading hordes out. Having those little rattles protract out into annoying tinnitus, however, was almost enough to make me quit playing entirely.

I never did, though. While there are quirks here and there that highlight the singular creator aspect of the game like lack of music, inconsistent and troubling UI, and a few bugs, the very act of playing the game was quite compelling, keeping track of dozens and dozens of localized forces and naval impositions and remembering a handful of parallel tactics. And playing with a buddy actually upped the required strategy, even more so when you play against other people. (Disclosure: I only played via the pass-and-play option, which froze on me rather consistently.)

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

Given my history with the genre, I was skeptical I would find even $1.99’s worth in Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest, but I did. It controls responsively (if a bit unintuitively), it looks good, and the mechanics are actually quite interesting. They play into a design that both streamlines and adds complexity to an otherwise rote formula of global dominance. If you can get over the snail-like slump you often encounter on your way to victory, this is a mighty worthwhile game.

+ Looks quite good and handles rather well with nary a slowdown in sight
+ Puts the focus on moving and handling armies rather than the battles they fight
+ Ships add a necessary and fun wrinkle to defending and attacking coasts
– Ships also add unnecessary bloat to the mid-game process of attacking and defending coasts
– Sound design is…strange, as are some UI choices

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?
Release: August 8, 2013
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Developer: Fabrice Noui
Available Platforms: iOS
Players: 1–6
MSRP: $1.99
Website: http://www.empires-game.com/

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That Monsters Game Review: Monstrous Fungibility

That Monsters Game

There’s a certain frivolity psychologically and perhaps unfairly attributed to mobile games. The App Store and the Play Store are riddled with games that survive purely on their inconsequential mirth, the same haphazard quality that would make them a hard sell on traditional handhelds and consoles. They’re the sort of thing you would expect to find at Kongregate or Newgrounds, but the ability to just pick up the game and go at it with whatever frenetic intensity you desire is what makes those games succeed.

That, for the most part, is where That Monsters Game excels. SoftwareProdigy‘s game fits squarely within the overflowing and overly successful segment of casual match-three games and does so rather well. In it, you have one minute to match at least three similarly colored monsters by dragging your finger either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. Doing so will remove them from the board and more will come tumbling in from the top. For every 100 monsters you clear out, you go up a level, which really just means that more colors come in and thus become harder to match.

The twists to the simplified drag-your-finger mechanic are what make this work. First off, I found the minute time limit to be close to perfect. If you pull off certain qualifying moves like going up a level or hitting a massive chain, you earn a bit more time. Having the time limit come just up against where you are hitting your stride makes for a nice curve of anxiety, one that builds from “oh, I’ve got this” to “must go faster must go faster.”

There are also two systemic implements that coerce you into a more frantic pace. The faster you trace the monsters, the more points you get. And if you go really fast, you get Blast Mode, where each match you make also blasts away adjacent monsters, so getting your hand zipping around the screen really is the only way to play. It makes what is otherwise an incidental impetus to speed up against a ticking clock to an impossible-to-ignore need for speed. And when you start tracing, monsters of a different color kind of fade out, artificially enabling a feeling as if you were in “the zone.” It’s helpful while being totally manufactured and boy does it make you feel slick.

While you go zipping around, there are also four special moves you can do. If you loop around a single monster, you will make that little guy explosive, so if you tap him or include him in a chain, he’ll explode and take neighboring dudes with him. If you match together 20 or more monsters, then a swirling warp thing appears. Include that in a chain and it’ll also destroy every other monsters of that same color. Trying to keep in mind ways to easily and quickly facilitate drops to allow loops and horizontal or vertical chains adds a wrinkle to the single speed track you would otherwise mindlessly operate on. It’s cool.

There are, however, things called Boosts that enable you to more easily call on these powers. They work a bit like Call of Duty loadouts to where before each game, you can pick up to three Boosts. However, each one costs coins, currency that you’ll pick up in-game as you clear out monsters. And each one is an immediate-use action that aligns with the special moves (save for the one that simply gives you an extra 15 seconds right from the get-go). So instead of having to match an entire row or column or make a loop, you can simply trace straight up or across or double tap any monster and you get the same effect. It’s really good for getting out of a jam.

That Monsters Game

There are three different modes you can play. The first is called Blitz and is rather straightforward; you just go for a high score. The Challenger mode forces you to try to accomplish a goal while you play like get 10 chains of 10+ monsters. Then there’s the Strategy mode which does away with the time limit but forces a move limit in that certain monsters will show up with little throbbing crosshairs around them. After five moves, they will explode if you don’t get rid of them, and if three of them blow up on you, the game ends. It’s a neat mode and there were actually times I felt like the game was enabling moments of genius when I could see the consequences I desired unfold after three moves. But it also does away with the thing I love most about the game, which is its amazing drive to just go as fast as possible.

So far, That Monsters game sounds pretty good. The problem is that it’s under a microtransactions model. The app itself is free, but each play expends one heart (of which you can store up to three). And every 15 minutes, you earn back one of those hearts. Given that on a really good run, a game will come up against two or so minutes, that leaves a lot of downtime. It was enough to where after I played away my three hearts, I didn’t really ever feel like picking the game up again if I wasn’t reviewing it. It was downright maddening. Still riding the high of finding my monster-tracing groove and the game itself tells you “you know what? That’s enough for now.”

That is unless you want to pay money. You can either buy hearts individually or by the bundle (same goes for coins and gems for boosts and extended game time à la Temple Run 2) or get unlimited play for $8.99. That is nine dollars for a match-three game. Oh, and a Game Center achievement. There is simply no way I could recommend this game as a purchase for $8.99 because that is ludicrous. I understand this predicament of microtransactions and being free-to-play isn’t wholly unique to That Monsters Game (Bejeweled Blitz, a crowning achievement in mobile match-three gaming, has a package that costs $19.99 after all), this alone almost soured the entire game for me.

That Monsters Game

And it’s not the business model that bothers me (I mean, it does in principle, but that’s for another time). It’s that without spending money, you can only play this game once every 15 minutes. And I like this game. Or at least I want to like it, but stopping every minute and waiting 14 more is enough to totally kill my desire to play or even think about this game. Sure there are little bugs here and there like how the power description for the Monster Warp Boost has a “labkit.boost.monsterWarp” object identifier hanging around from Unity and the lock icons don’t go away from the Challenger and Strategy mode buttons until you completely restart the app and the Boost selection process is confusing simply because things will randomly gray out, but those are small potatoes.

(Actually, the Boost selection is also problematic for other reasons. For example, the costs of adding and removing Boosts causes your coin count to slowly tick up or down, never giving you an accurate total in a timely fashion.)

Those are minor quibbles never broke the core experience for me. The music is reasonably not annoying and the sounds the monsters and alarms make are rather charming, just as is Professor Marty and the non sequiturs some disembodied announcer will throw out there, like yelling FATALITY and other such classic kill-related gaming catchphrases. But it’s not compelling enough for me to pay money for or wait around 15 minutes at a time to play again. That Monsters Game holds within it an alluring frivolity, but its monetization crushes it and hides it. You see peeks of it and random glimmers of hope shining through the overbearing weight, but it’s never enough to matter.

That Monsters Game

UPDATE: a day-one patch fixed some of the bugs, including the Boost selection process.

+ Wrinkles to the simple match-three formula make for fast and loose gameplay
+ The Strategy mode actually requires strategy and is a nice change of pace
– Without paying money, you end up playing the game for one single minute every 15 minutes

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Game Review: That Monsters Game
Release: July 18, 2013
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Software Prodigy
Available Platforms: iOS
Players: 1
MSRP: Free (with in-app purchases)
Website: http://thatmonstersgame.com/

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A Mobile Price Barrier

A Mobile Price Barrier

Think back. Think all the way back to the heady days of October 2012. Just months before, we’d been previewing XCOM: Enemy Unknown and now it would finally be coming out. The question we all had on our minds was would the final product be any good, or is this a game that works only in small doses? There are plenty of games like that where once you get the grand view, the holistic valuation, the cracks begin to show and shine through like a candle in the dark. SimCity from March of this year was one such game where the one-hour beta was perfect to show its potential but not its faults in city limits and region dependencies.

But XCOM: Enemy Unknown came out and—whew—it was good. In fact, it was more than good as it topped some Game of the Year lists. It did, yes, work in small doses, but not only. Missions themselves may take a while, but the individual actions required little time at all, or rather didn’t require sequential amounts of time. You could do a turn, go put in the roast, come back, and finish up the round. You could manage your base and labs at your leisure. It was perfect, it seemed, for something smaller in scale, something like an iPad.

Lo and behold, just a few weeks ago, XCOM: Enemy Unknown came out for iOS devices, and it mostly worked. On iPhones, reading text was a bit of a chore and the natural problem of a minuscule screen size (relative to an iPad, anyways) cropped up more often than you’d like when it came to position soldiers, but it was an entirely faithful port of the original and seemed to recapture a lot of what made people love it in the first place. The problem, though, was the price.

It was set at $19.99 in the App Store. Now, the problem wasn’t actually the price itself since twenty bucks for what is otherwise a full and exceedingly excellent retail product that once went for $60 is really quite the steal. No, it’s actually about the fact that it’s $20 on a mobile device. When we buy something for our tablets or phones, we buy it because either the utility is of moderate worth (e.g. Facebook, Foursquare, etc.) or because it looks like fun. But we hang on to it because its utility is of great worth (e.g. Twitter, Gmail, etc.) or because its data stores are inconsequential.

This means that either it is of so small a size that keeping it around it commensurate to taking a couple of extra pictures or that all of its relevant data can be easily replicated. To-do list apps, for example, hang around because they’re usually only a couple of megabytes and because to-do lists are generally short term things meant to be ephemeral, so when the app and its data goes away, it’s not that big of a deal. You’re more likely to buy a song for 99 cents than a journaling app for the same price because the song is merely a license for you to download it and listen to it at any time while the app’s storage of your thoughts and feelings can vanish with the long-press of a digital button.

That is where XCOM: Enemy Unknown and other high-priced games on mobile platforms fail, and it’s mostly out of their hands; it’s more about the psychology of potential loss than anything. You’ve spent $20 on a game that you could possibly put in dozens and dozens (maybe hundreds) of hours into and it could all go away in a flash. And when it works in concert with the fact that it is 1.86 GB that expands out to somewhere around 3 GB, you have a lot of resources that go into playing this game.

If you need that 3 GB back, you can delete the game but you also delete all your progress and saves. It’s almost a negation of the money you spent to acquire the game in the first place. That purchase was not only a license to play the game but also to the experience you gained through it, and when you delete it, the culmination and potential from that experience is gone, and so is half of the value you put money into.

Of course, this is easily rebuffed with the fact that such experiences are quite literally boundless as long as you have 3 GB to spare, but human psychology isn’t always rational or logical. That is a little bit of digital goodness that represents hours and hours of knowledge, experience, and tragedy that found its way from the screen and into you. And when it all goes away, there’s nothing left, no vestige in which to seek solace, that can accurately represent your hardships and endeavors.

It’s the same reason why people buy souvenirs when they’re on vacation or take pictures when they travel; it’s because they want something that can mentally or physically manifest their memories of those experiences. Deleting all of that data that goes along with something like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, though, is like throwing all those postcards and scrapbooks into a fire and saying sayonara. There’s no simple way around it, but it is a problem that most people encounter when considering purchasing large (file size-wise) games on mobile devices. Money, time, storage space, and the potential for loss are all considerations that go through the average consumer’s mind, and it’s usually enough to discourage them.

Too bad Sectoids don’t carry around cameras.

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A Travel Medium

A Travel Medium

To the left of you is a woman. She’s lithe and seems quite nice. She has a quick but wholly charming interaction with a child who runs by and drops a toy. You don’t know her name, but you know she is perfect.

To the right of you is a man. Well, he’s less of a man and more of a blob. Even with modern science and doctors willing and able to cut and reroute blood flood in his double-wide corpse taken into consideration, his continued existence is somewhat of a miracle. You already know his name: pain.

And strewn about in an aluminum tube that shuttles through the upper atmosphere at 600 miles per hour is an endless sea of fish between and at these extremes. You sit firmly in the between camp in that you will always be between two shapeless entities that make a compelling argument for compulsory physical fitness and that space is as flexible and relative as time.

Your solace, however, is what’s in front of you, sitting on a visibly clean but tangibly sticky pull-down tray. You’ve just taken off for a four-hour flight and someone behind you is already coughing up a third or fourth lung, but this thing—an iPad, a PlayStation Vita, whatever—is going to comfort you in ways you thought only a fresh batch of your mom’s oven-baked macaroni and cheese was capable of. The question, though, is what to play.

Some games, of course, don’t sit well being played in such an environment. Crowded and cramped, games that require movement won’t fly (badum, chssh) here. Need for Speed: Most Wanted for iOS is plenty of fun but swinging your arms and body around trying to make quick turns isn’t going to earn you any friends. At best, you’ll narrowly avoid being restrained by an air marshal after giving your neighbor a black eye. No, motion-based games are out of the question.

Longevity is another concern. Quality is a given (required) but what of its average play session? You need something more substantial, heartier than a one-and-done deal. Infinity Blade is a game that is fantastically simple and playable on a mobile platform and doesn’t require drastic physical movement unless you are too emphatic about swiping bonuses, but it is overly redundant. After the initial love affair is over, play sessions lasting over 10 minutes is rare. No, a little more meat on the bone would be nice.

Have you considered what will happen when Blob 2 has to get up to go wreck the bathroom? Or what about when the flight attendant comes by to over beverages? The level of intrigue and required unbroken concentration is of utmost importance. Your game needs to be easily paused or, at the very least, put down without harming or negating your progress. Year Walk, as much as it is a damn near perfect mobile adventure game, really isn’t suited to random interruptions. When you are hunkered down, trying to listen to matching tones as you aimlessly wander through an increasingly confusing forest, looking away and disengaging is basically a guarantee to start over. No, you need easily compartmentalized.

And speaking of which, forget about playing something that requires audio. From the hum of the engines to the din of dying souls all around you, the ability to discern rhythms and tones and harmonies is next to impossible.

After taking part in well over thirty flights last year and looking forward to even more this year, I’ve come up with some ideal templates for workable in-flight games. Consider The Room, a puzzle game with a nice narrative and atmospheric veneer. It progresses well in that it can engage you for long stretches of time but doesn’t require constant attention. In fact, putting it down to address other, more pressing and fleshy matters may actually help you think.

Or Scribblenauts Remix. An already fantastic game is made more fantastic by the fact that it’s perfect for planes. You can look away at just about any time and not be any worse for it. Even if you are forced to look away as you accidentally put an angry vampire too close to you, it’s quick and easy enough to start over and get back to that point. That’s almost what the game’s entire puzzle-solving premise is based on. And it’s nice that you get little ministories within each level. They’re totally disjointed and sometimes nonsensical, but it’s nice.

Bastion, surprisingly, is a fairly good plane game. You might think that it, being an action adventure game, would require too much of your undivided attention and that the aural component is vital to the experience, but actual playing of it is quite open to disruptions. Rarely are you engaged in such heated battles that you can’t hit the pause button and allot proper cognitive resources to maintain that state in your head as it is maintained on your device. And somehow, hearing Darren Korb’s ethereal, exotic beats trying to compete with the deafening roar of airplane nonsense is almost a completely new experience. Just don’t expect to hear everything the narrator says, sadly.

You will never get the seat next to the perfect travel companion. You will never get an entire empty row to yourself. The person in front of you will never not lean back and never remember to not be an asshole. But the perfect game, the perfect airplane game, will always be there for you. Just like these two oversized marshmallow men that smell like onions and French beaches will always be by your side.

What are your ideal video games for flights?

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