There’s something strangely utilitarian about the experience of playing a mobile game. Unable to compete with the experiences offered by a PC or games console, each has to fill a specific gap in your life. Maybe it’s bus journeys or toilet trips or hidden under the table on a really bad date, but I reckon the actual game’s quality is a secondary concern to how snugly it fits into the chosen scenario. And it’s here that Super Stickman Golf 2 runs into trouble. On one hand, SSG2 is a gleeful adaptation of the good-walk-spoiling sport that suggests how a Nintendo mobile game might feel, if the Big N were ever to change its mind on that issue. The game flattens golf into a simple 2D game of aiming and charging up your shot, then adds power-ups and fantastical courses. The result bear as much resemblance to Super Mario Bros 3 as it does Tiger Woods 11.Mixed in among the usual sand traps and water hazards are sticky goo surfaces, swinging platforms and hard-to-hit shortcuts. Navigating these holes is made easier by the addition of a bag of seven power-ups. These include a rewind power that lets you take the last shot again and a whole load of balls: water-freezing ice balls, pink goo balls that cling to walls and ceilings, magnetised balls that I still don’t really understand how they work. These additions enliven golf, the mildly diverting activity I’ve dabbled in a couple of times in real life, and turn it into something more colourful, satisfying and overtly game-y. It’s a fairground-mirror adaptation of golf that gives me a little more appreciation for the sport itself, just as Wii Sports and Wonderputt have in the past. So, in one way, SSG2 is a contender for the title of best mobile game I’ve ever played. But it has one fatal flaw: You have to hold the phone sideways.That might not sound like a big deal, but SSG2 fits a very particular niche. It’s not a toilet game, it’s not a coffee break game. It’s a black hole that consumes your time and attention – in other words, a perfect public transport commuter game. And if you have ever origami’d yourself onto the Northern Line at rush hour, you’ll know that the amount of space your elbows will need to control a game with both thumbs is just not going to happen. I realise it’s my very specific set of circumstances that are causing this problem. And I know the game has to be that way – golf isn’t a particularly horizontal game, as I understand it. It’s not even a crippling enough flaw to stop me playing SSG2 even in the face of dropping my phone, as has now happened on not one but two crowded tubes. But, for better or worse, this is the strange relationship we have with mobile games. They have to fit like Tetris pieces into our lives, or they’re just no good. I’m looking for a neat L block, and SSG2 is one of those long thin bastard red ones.
I dedicated the last four posts of What I’m Playing to an attempt at figuring out what makes a good mobile game. And then the very next game I played was another mobile game which didn’t fit into the grand pattern I’d mapped out for the posts. Such are the dangers of trying to write honestly about every game you play, I suppose. Hitmango isn’t a game about the popularity of tropical fruits, sadly, but a mobile adaption of the popular games franchise about leading professional killer, baldie and hide-and-seek champion Agent 47. Before I drop in a screenshot, let’s talk about the first thing you’re going to notice about Hitmango. Namely, how uniquely gorgeous it is. A few months back, I talked about how Hearthstone went out of its way to imitate a physical card game, but Hitmango goes further still. In an attempt to distill the Hitman formula down into something that will fit on the small screen, it miniaturises the whole thing – the disguises, distractions and player-engineered deathtraps – and turns it into a board game. From the game-box loading screens to the plaque on the wooden bezel of each level, this is something you could imagine turning over in your hands. Or admiring the craftsmanship of the sculpted figurines that stand in for 47 and his targets, like a tourist gawping at one of those elaborate mechanical clocks in a German town square. Hitmango plays like a board game too. You move your piece along a set track, one marker at a time, and then your opponent – in this case, an AI-controlled squad of bodyguards – takes their move. Just like clockwork. Which is to say, smooth and well put together, but a bit stiff and mechanical too. Hitmango almost feels like it’s satirising the lack of choice offered by most games – how, for example, a lot of stealth games is just watching for the gap in a routine patrol pattern. But if taking a Bioshock-style jab at the illusion of autonomy genuinely is the intention here, the Hitman franchise is an odd place for it. The Hitman games have always thrived on giving players as much choice as possible. Do you want to put a bullet in your target from a rooftop half a mile away, or pose as a waiter and slip poison into their caviar? While Hitmango recreates these actions, it puts them quite literally on rails. Being fair, there are some choices to be made here. Each level has additional achievements, which are often mutually exclusive – kill everyone, kill no one – to encourage replaying, but this only highlights how narrow the perfect solution is. Too often, the answer is bouncing back and forth between two squares a maddening number of times, until a guard’s patrol slips out of sequence. In a way, Hitmango is more like a handsomely-furnished Threes than any of the other installments in the Hitman series, and I’ll give the same disclaimer as I did in my blog on that: maybe it’s just a failing of my brain. Here’s the thing, though. There’s a bonus pack which which adapt possibly the series’ high watermark: the Blood Money level ‘Curtains Down’. Taking down two targets in a theatre, Agent 47 switches a prop gun for a real one, then watches from the balcony as an actor accidentally executes your mark, firing the remote min he’s stuck on a chandelier at just the right moment to crush the another. It’s a moment of memorably inventive violence which Hitmango faithfully reproduces, but it doesn’t have the tool set to replicate its thrills. After all, the joy wasn’t in merely watching these assassinations play out. It was the knowledge that you could have just charged in with a sub-machine gun instead, the feeling that you’d discovered these alternatives yourself. In Hitmango, these aren’t choices. They’re mandatory checkpoints you drag your Agent 47 figurine towards. You’re not a genius professional killer earning his million-dollar bonus; you’re a competent snakes-and-ladders player. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONELEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROESMONIKERSTHREESHOPLITEOUT THEREXCOM
So far in our journey through mobile gaming, we’ve shuffled tiles with Threes, murdered demons with Hoplite and explored wordy galaxies with Out There. Throughout, I’ve been trying to work out what makes a good mobile game. What is the right balance between complexity and simplicity? What length of game works best? How important is randomisation? Should you be able to abandon a game and come back to it days later?Or does none of that actually matter? Originally a PC game, with very little changed en route, XCOM is in many ways a terrible fit for mobile. It requires your full attention, revolves around drawn-out battle sequences that are a little fiddly to control and impossible to drop and pick back up without disastrous consequences. The app annihilates battery, and if you play for too long my phone, at least, burns the tips of my fingers. One particularly heavy session left my right hand a rigid arthritic claw for days afterwards, something I haven’t experienced since my mid-teens. Luckily, while XCOM might be a bit rubbish as a mobile game, that doesn’t really matter on account of it being just a fucking great game. It’s probably my favourite of the past however-long-it’s-been-since-Spelunky-first-came-out, and in spite of all those problems, XCOM actually feels pleasantly incongruous on the tiny screen. It’s a blockbuster miniaturised and bottled like the city of Kandor. The screenshots peppered throughout this blog don’t do it justice, but in motion the game is Aliens and Independence Dayand Starship Troopers squashed down into something you can play on the bus. If you pull at XCOM‘s edges, and tease it carefully apart, you’ll find it divides into neat halves: a resource-management base building game and a turn-based strategy game. The turn-based battles are the star here. Half a dozen soldiers are dropped into an invaded city, or UFO crash site, tasked with hunting down every alien in the area and welcoming them to Earth in the fashion of a young Will Smith. You have to keep as many of them alive as possible. It’s taut, tense stuff. Especially if you plug in headphones – another way that XCOM is out of sync with most mobile games – and take in the soundtrack. Ambient birdsong and the odd chirrup of alien tech gives way to an electronic score, building agonisingly as the soldiers push back the fog of war, praying they’re not about to uncover a nest of Mutons. Occasionally, screeches suggest the position of nearby enemies, then suddenly the soundtrack explodes into action-movie techno as an entirely new species steps out of the darkness. Make it through all that, and any remaining squad members get to fly back to HQ, to treat their wounds, collect their promotions and pick out a special ability. This is the other half of XCOM and, though it might be possible to prise them apart, you soon realise that the two halves describe a perfect yin-yang, feeding endlessly into one another. Each mission gathers you resources which you can use to build equipment for the next foray into alien territory, or artefacts you can study to unlock new technology. Which can be used, in one instance, to take aliens prisoner and bring them back to base for autopsy. Which unlocks… Each long-running game of XCOM is its own clockwork construction. Appropriately, it’s also one that runs on time: in the battles, with each soldier granted two actions per turn, and also back at the base. The latest discovery might take a few days to research, building and launch a satellite a whole fortnight. This adds up to a compelling list of interlocking tasks. Three days until the new recruits arrive, five until your latest superweapon is ready. It’s here that other mobile games might take the opportunity to squeeze in buy-with-real-money gems to speed up progress, but there’s no forced grind. You can fast-forward as much as you want, racing towards that next unlock – but lean on that button too heavily and you’ll be accelerating your own demise. Every few days, there’s a new city being invaded for your soldiers to rescue – or, worse, two or three simultaneously, of which you can only attempt to save one. Constantly ticking away beneath all this is a monthly timebomb, in the form of the end-of-term reports issued by the shadowy council of nations behind the XCOM project. Fail to protect a country and it might abandon the project, taking precious income with it. Lose enough countries and it’s game over. Ignore Hamburg because London is under threat? Expect panic to spread in Germany, and a highly unfreundlichcall from Merkel. So, that satellite I mentioned? You’re going to need it to stop Germany tipping over the brink. You sell all the unusued alien tech you can on the grey market to raise funds, then realise you need to build an uplink facility in the base before you can launch it. Then, as you skip through the agonising weeks, it hits you. Council report: 10 days. Building completion date: 11 days. Auf wiedersehn. Countries and cash are big abstract resources to threaten the player with, but speeding ahead has another cost. Every squad you send out on a rescue mission is made up of a half-dozen fragile human beings. With their own speciality – there are four different classes: sniper, assault, heavy, support, plus some added psychic business later in the game. Their own rank – awarded for successful missions and kills, giving each character access to a class-specific tree of special skills. And most cruelly of all, their own name.Meet Jeff Jefferson. Nowadays, that’s Colonel Jeff Jefferson, Support Division, but he’s been with me since the very first mission, when the game automatically generated his hilarious name and Canadian origin. I have a Canadian friend called Geoff, so naturally I tweaked Jeff’s appearance to match, posted a screenshot on Facebook, laughed when he was assigned the nickname ‘Rogue’. And then I started to catch myself pulling Jefferson back from the action. To safety. Each mission is […]
Moving house and not having an internet connection has put something of a dent in my proposed fortnight month-long series of blogs. But that’s all done with now, which means we’re back on track with our look at mobile games and what makes them tick – and hopefully less of the maudlin introspection that has frequented the subtext of this blog for the past six months.Now, onward with the games blogging! Out There is, essentially, a modern update of the choose-your-own-adventure book. You know: You are an astronaut stranded out in space, alone. Through the viewscreen, you see a constellation of stars. Do you pilot your ship to the YELLOW DWARF or the distant NEUTRON STAR? The similarities are most obvious in the chunks of text the game displays when you arrive at each new star system, a sort of randomised captain’s log. Some of these provide a bit of flavour (“99 alien races and not one looks like a pretty girl. Damn you, Captain Kirk”). Or they might unexpectedly damage your ship’s hull, or dump a bounty of desperately-needed supplies in your cargo bay. Or they might hand you another decision: You encounter a giant alien pyramid. Do you FLY INTO ITS DARK HEART or FLEE LIKE A COWARD? The remaining majority of Out There is compromised of basic resource management. Each star is orbited by a handful of planets, broken down into three types: rocky planets which can mined for minerals to repair your hull or build new equipment; gas giants which can be probed to extract fuel; and, best of all, the oxygen-rich Garden Planets inhabited by alien lifeforms. Even here, though, the simple binary choices the game presents – do you go to one planet, or all of them in sequence, or just switch on the hyperdrive and continue on to the next star – and the often unexpected consequences of those decisions still retain that same choose-your-own-adventure feeling. The key difference is that when you do inevitably make a mistake, when the fuel runs out leaving you stranded orbiting a planet that you have single-handedly exhausted of its natural resources, there’s no option of cheatily flicking back to the last time things were okay and trying to work out where you went wrong. It’s back to page one.This might sound familiar if you’ve read my last blog on Hoplite. At its heart, Out There is another roguelike. A slightly peculiar one, admittedly, stretching that ‘like’ to its elastic limit, but built around the same two vital components: a randomly-generated word to explore and a start-the-game-all-over-again fail state. The most obvious roguelike(-like-like) comparison is FTL, which also put you in the seat of a spaceship captain, but Out There lacks that game’s focus on combat and crew. FTL evokes Star Trek or Star Wars or Firefly. Playing Out There feels more like… actually, I’m not sure there is a completely accurate film comparison for Out There, and that’s wonderful. In Out There, you come in peace. Your encounters with aliens don’t end in violence, but in conversation, in the standardised gibberish spoken by the various races spread across its universe. Each time you come across an alien, they ask a question. Whether you answer correctly or accidentally threaten genocide, this will add a new chunk of language – just one or two words – to your arsenal, so that you have a better chance of understanding and saying or doing the right thing next time. This is the game at its most brilliant. In general, games’ most successful verbs are either ‘look’ or ‘kill’ but, by approaching language as a mechanical puzzle, Out There makes ‘talk’ into a viable alternative. More, for my money, than any Bioware RPG or Lucasarts point-and-click adventure ever really managed. The writing – not always perfect, but packed with giant warships chucking moons at one another, planets baked to caramel, and other pulpy sci-fi ideas – is the tractor beam that pulls you through Out There‘s weaker parts.Those weaker parts being the actual traditional ‘game’ bits of Out There. The resource management is basic, right up until it’s frustrating. Basic because the game is built around a mindless core loop: arrive at a planet, choose a drilling intensity out of 10, use the collected resources to top up the fuel, hull and oxygen bars, and move onto the next. And it doesn’t take long to figure out that 7/10 is the correct level of drilling, producing the highest yield with little chance of breaking your equipment. Frustrating because every ship is slightly too small to hold everything you’re likely to want. ‘Inventory Tetris’ can be a greatly satisfying sub-game, but there’s no way of knowing what you’ll need or collect next, and there are too many limits on when you’re allowed to use or move around the contents to free up space without having to chuck them out into the void.So, Out There is an unusual thing for me: a game made attractive almost exclusively by the way it’s written. The stories I tend to remember from games are the ones I authored myself, out of the unexpected way two parts of a system rubbed against another or from a scattered series of incidental environmental clues. The irony of ‘choose your own adventure’ was always that you did no such thing. The reader/played followed a firmly set path, with the only real deviation in mistakes and subsequent backtracking. There is a specific story waiting for you in Out There, with set twists and turns. But that took me a few dozen plays to even uncover, and it lets you tell your own story in the margins. The strange adventures of a space captain, stranded and going slowly insane.The text vignettes that make up this side story are shuffled with each playthrough, but what makes them really special is the context. Each event takes on a new weight when you know you haven’t got the resources to repair any of the damage that giant snowball did to your […]
Part two in a promised four part series, trying to figure out why mobile games so rarely make any impact on me. Hoplite is a roguelike. Comfortable with that bit of game jargon? Then you can skip the next section. But if not, allow me to quickly explain: Named after Rogue, a 1980 game that cast the player as an adventurer pushing deeper and deeper below the crust of a fantasy world, the roguelike is a peculiar little subgenre. As in the original, movement and combat most are commonly based around tiles and turns. Heroes are upgraded by levelling up and/or collecting equipment as you descend. But most importantly: every death is permanent, whisking you back to the start of the game to face a whole new set of randomly-generated dungeons and monsters. More recently, the likes of Spelunky and FTL have distilled the genre’s spirit into something frothier, keeping the permadeath and different-every-time levels but translating them into platformers or strategy games. These game are known as roguelites.(Suggested Further Reading: my potted history of the genre for IGN.) Hoplite keeps the same quest structure as classic roguelikes: you play a chunky little Spartan warrior, tasked with the retrieval of the Fleece of Yendor. (The name is a dual reference to the McGuffins from Jason and the Argonauts and classic roguelike Hack.) The Fleece is on the sixteenth level down, protecting an ever-increasing number of enemies. Once you’ve picked it up – which took me a few dozen attempts – you can choose to port back to the surface, ending your game in victory, or push further and deeper for a better score and the simple thrill of challenge. In fact, while it feels like a roguelite, Hoplite is actually a remarkably orthodox example of the genre. As well as the permadeath and random levels, it maintains the turn-based combat: your avatar is able to move one hexagon at a time, slaughtering anyone on an adjacent hex, or take one action, then the forces of hell take their go. The big difference is that Hoplite is built from the ground up with mobile in mind, streamlining the experience to fit the small screen and fat fingers. Classic roguelikes utilised an entire keyboard’s worth of commands, even down to capital letters having a different effect to their lower-case equivalents. Hoplite does away with all that, leaving only movement and three attack commands: use shield, jump, or throw a spear. Combat feels like a puzzle, thanks partly to this limited arsenal and partly to the clean Fisher-Price presentation, which displays attack paths for any character you hover a digit over. It encourages the player to think ahead a couple of turns – if I jump over this baddie’s head, running him through with my sword, I can use this demonic demolitions-expert as cover from that archer, and next turn deflect his bomb back at them both – for my money, more than Threes ever did. You’ll need that kind of forward planning as you descend further. Each successive floor pushes up the number of enemies by one and adds new flavours of demon to the mix – the most fearsome being the sorcerer, who can shoot fireballs across almost the entire screen. Before long, each level is painted with a convoluted criss-cross of attack patterns leaving only one hex safe, and often tantalisingly out of reach. To balance this out, there are altars on every floor where your Spartan can pray – in a shouty Scottish accent, if 300 is to be believed – for one of five upgrades. It’s the levelling up process simplified to its absolute core principles, minus skill trees or item augmentation. The upgrades on offer range from prosaic (an extra healthpoint, a quicker reset on the shield bash attack) to game-altering (the ability to teleport to any hex your spear lands on), and can be expanded through the game’s achievements system. Restore your health with a single heart remaining, for example, and next game you’ll be able to pray for a pair of winged sandals which let you leap across much further distances. These upgrades, once unlocked, are available from the same altar each time. That’s useful for planning but it’s also indicative of Hoplite’s one major issue . The game in general could do with a little more randomness. Each floor always features the same number and type of enemies, with only their placement and a few scattered lava tiles to differentiate it from the last time you made it this far. Maybe that won’t matter the first few dozen times. But after your hundredth battle with the third level’s two swordsmen, one archer and one bomber, it starts to feels a little restrictive. And make no mistake, your playthrough count will reach the triple figures. It’s shocking how well the pecularities of the roguelike suit mobile. Just about any chunk of dead time can be transformed into a string of enjoyable deaths, a couple of minutes apart. In fact, once you’ve done it a couple of times, beating Hoplite – that is, picking up the Fleece and teleporting back to the surface, presumably to be carried on the shoulders of your cheering comrades and paraded through the streets as a hero, never to sleep alone again – can be done inside of ten minutes. But as the challenge of grabbing the Fleece fades, the promise of cheers and endless lovemaking for your little Spartan pales into insignificance next to the promise of a few extra points, a new level reached, a new ability unlocked. You push deeper and deeper, taking more chances, deftly avoiding the attacks that would have felled your younger self. Until you suddenly realise you have to jump off at the next stop, and abandon your hero’s epic tale, never to be finished. So what? You’ve lost maybe fifteen minutes of your time. It’s not like you would have done anything good with it in the first place. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONELEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROESMONIKERSTHREES
I’ve been moaning since 2010 that I don’t have enough time to play games anymore. With an hour-and-a-half of dead time to fill each commuting day, mobile games should be the perfect solution, but I’ve struggled to find anything I really loved. This is the first of four posts going up over the next month or so, looking at the mobile games that have been dominating my tube journeys of late, and trying to work out if there is anything that can change my mind. Even as I’m playing Threes, I don’t really understand why I’m doing it. Threes is a puzzle game where you move around tiles with multiples of three on them. If you can get two matching numbers next to each another, they can be combined into a single double-value tile. Two 3s become a 6, freeing up more space and, once the game is over and points are being counted, exponentially growing your score. The exception being 1 and 2 tiles. Firstly because, as the more eagled-eye of you may have noticed, they aren’t multiples of three. And secondly because they can’t be combined with themselves, only with the other corresponding number. Two adjacent 1s other aren’t any use to you, but a 1 and 2 can be squashed together into a 3. This is a game of mathematical speed dating, and to matchmake these tiles you have to move the whole board. Each turn you have four choices: move all free tiles up, down, left or right. Trace Three‘s family tree back a few generations, and you’ll see that it’s a direct digital descendant of those plastic sliding block puzzles found in Christmas crackers and at the bottom of 99p lucky bags. The key difference is that, being a virtual game rather than a disappointing toy, Threes is able to introduce more tiles with each turn. Move everything to the right, and a new tile will pop up on the left. This also introduces a fail state: let the screen fill up and you’re out of moves. Game over. Sat at the top of the other major branch of that family tree is Tetris, and like that mighty Russian patriarch, Threes presents you with a preview of the next tile, so you can control roughly where it will land, and make space for it to get intimate with a compatible number. In theory, you can predict what comes next, what you need to do, what the smart move is. In theory. In practice, that doesn’t happen, at least not for me. Threes should be one big balancing act. I should be massaging my chin, muttering to myself: ‘Right, if I move this, then this will squidge into this, but this will block this’. But for a puzzle game, I rarely feel like I’m solving anything. That preview of what’s coming next doesn’t make me more strategic, it just makes me reactionary. The sky is constantly falling, and I’m thoughtlessly swiping to avoid any chunks landing on me. I look for easy matches, never thinking more than one move ahead and worse, it doesn’t feel like I really need to. Once, out of curiosity, I tried to force a game over, sliding my finger around randomly, and was disheartened to find the game lasted another couple of dozen turns – probably longer than if I’d actually been trying. You might have noticed we’ve switched here from the second person ‘you’ to the first person ‘I’. I can’t escape the feeling that the fault is with me. Honestly, I can’t quite work out why I don’t like Threes more. The game removes any complexity of controls, which so often trip up mobile games, in favour of a single motion. The focus is put firmly on challenging the player’s mind rather than their aching thumb joints. Each game is randomised, meaning it’s endlessly playable. And most of all, the presentation is gorgeous. Everything has its corners rounded off like a safety-tested child’s toy – all the way down to the fonts and icons and the pastel colour scheme. Every tile has its own little face, more detailed and filled with personality for each increasing number. Here’s the thing: I’ve played a hell of a lot of Threes. But I still find it very difficult to recommend. There’s no elation when I beat my previous high score, no real feeling of defeat when that last immovable tile fills up the screen. Around the time I started playing Threes, a lot of my life was waiting for stuff to happen, stuff that was out of my control, and that’s how the game feels to me, a process of swiping and watching things fail and then press restart until the allotted time is over. The fancy big-money word that cropped to mind, then and now, is ‘anhedonia’. In my Hearthstone blog, I said that game might have been better off with its fantasy trappings removed. Playing Threes suggests I was wrong. For all its visual charm, the game lacks any real theme or flavour. It’s too abstract to give you the pleasure of filling a character’s shoes and playing out their role, or just moving around in their world. I was about to say that I can’t work out why I’ve spent so much time playing Threes – but that’s not quite true. It’s the ne plus ultra of a certain aspect of mobile games Threes is a precision-crafted time killer. A few rounds tesselate perfectly into a tube journey, or a waiting room, or an early morning trip to the loo. It’s a process for gobbling up dead time. And it’s great at making that time disappear, but it entirely fails to do anything more with it. Of course, that might just be a problem with me. I’m the guy who doesn’t like Angry Birds or Bejeweled or Tetris. Other games what I’ve been playing: NIDHOGG HEARTHSTONELEGO MARVEL SUPER HEROESMONIKERS