After an exclusive home on the Xperia Play, Gameloft’s action adventure finally hits iOS…
Gameloft have the reputation now as being cloners, even to the point where they’ll happily hold up their hands and admit it. In an article entitled ‘Love and theft’ in issue 229 of EDGE magazine, the CEO of Gameloft, Michel Guillemot said, “The videogame industry has always played around a limited number of themes. There is maybe one new idea a year.”
BackStab is no different. On first play, it is obvious that the game doths its cap to the Assassins Creed series. This is apparent in fighting, stealth kills and the free running… even down to the way our hero Blake interacts with people on the streets, nudging into them or pushing them out of the way.
Having said that, soon it seems that the game suffers a crisis of identity. It doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Starting out as a Assassins Creed style actioner, then a horseback RPG, and at one point goes all Resident Evil on us, only to then morph into a little Tomb Raider or Uncharted for good measure.
It soon becomes clear that this title was developed with the sole purpose to show off what Gameloft are capable of and start out on the new Xperia play with a bang. While Gameloft should be commended for being ambitious, it unfortunately has the ill effect of diluting the core experience. As the old saying goes it’s a ‘jack of trades and a master of none.’
It’s a shame too because BackStab has the potential to be a great game. The story of a British Navy Captain in the 16th century, set up for something he didn’t do, stripped of his rank and cast out as an outlaw. To make matters worse his fiancé has been kidnapped by his best friend, the very man who stabbed him in the back. Cue then an epic journey as he must travel great distances to unravel the location of his enemy and rescue the one he loves.
Gameloft’s excellent control system makes a welcome return and results in controlling Blake – be it on foot, in combat or traversing the many rooftops – an absolute joy. They really are the best at virtual controls for touch-screens. The presentation too, perhaps their most ambitious, shows they have a talented art department and are not afraid to push their graphics engine to its limits. Sure, there are limitations to their engine, and more on that later, but the environments are realised well, with great detail, a sense of scale and an authentic look and feel for each environment. The music too is a particular standout, it is not original by any means, but it supports the look and feel with both emotion and atmosphere, giving the gaming a close to filmic quality.
The gameplay itself even has some good moments. The platforming feels natural and fluid, allowing you to climb, or run up, most objects. This is most apparent in the town/city areas where you can free-run almost everywhere. Combat is solid too. It’s limited to button mashing, and I’d prefer a more refined combat system like Hero of Sparta 2′s directional attack stick, but it makes up for it in the stealth attacks and range of secondary weapons.
So with all this optimism for many elements of the game, what makes it so run-of-the-mill? Well, unfortunately too many of Gameloft’s bad habits rear their ugly head.
Like so many Gameloft adventures, the game constantly holds your hand, telling you exactly where to go, and what to do. It makes you wonder why there are any missions at all when all the fun in exploration is removed. Sacred Odyssey had this problem, and was the reason I scored it low.
I’ll give you a few examples of what I mean. About mid way through the game, when a villager tells you to go ask a man called Dirk for the answer to a question, you need only look towards the green arrow to find him. To make matters worse, in this case he was literally standing behind me, only a few short steps away.
Near the end of the game you must infiltrate a fort. As you approach it Blake says to himself something along the lines of “I must lure the guards away from the entrance”. The camera then shows the solution, along with Blake muttering the words “time for a bonfire”. This gives you no challenge in finding the solution yourself (in this case lighting the guard tower on fire to distract the guards and enter the fort undetected) and shows that Gameloft do not have the confidence in their audience nor their own gameplay.
The majority of missions and side quest are like this, and so instead of needing any exploration, or the questioning of other people to find what you’re looking for, your path is always mapped out for you. This makes these quests seem like filler to pad out the game.
This hand-holding also hampers the enjoyment of the platforming elements. When you need to find your way around an enemy obstruction, the solution is presented to you, with every ledge or wall you need to climb highlighted in a plume of light. Once again removing the need to explore.
Some areas are a little more open plan such as the opening town, where you can leap from building to building freely. And there are a few bonus quests such as deliveries and arena battles that add a welcome change of pace, with the latter offering up a bevy of men, animals and even an army of the undead to fight. However, its not long before you are guided back on the path of the main story arc.
While the premise is set up well, the main story itself is handled messily. There are many filler stories for Blake to encounter first with missions to complete, before being told of what seems to be pretty obvious information, and then moving on. Many characters come and go, and it’s not always clear of their importance to Blake’s journey, their link to the story, or why he (we) should care. Once again it’s ambitious, but could have been handled simpler and more effectively.
The conclusion to the story, ending in a showdown battle is an anti climax, particularly as it comes after the best platforming section of the game. To finish off we are treated to nothing more than the end credits, instead of a nicely pre-rendered cutscene like the one that opened the game. And we end up coming away with more questions of the enemy motivation, than answers.
Earlier I mentioned some of the limitations of the graphics engine. It’s clear that the engine is showing its age, as is apparent by Gameloft’s future use the the Unreal Engine. While I was impressed with the art and it’s high quality, the same can’t be said for it’s delivery.
The animation is pretty clunky for the most part, and doesn’t always match with the dialogue. This isn’t helped by the lack of lip-syncing, resulting in the characters looking like puppets and not real people. This disconnect is worsened by the limited amount of character models. Regardless of where you are in game world, you will come across the same looking people. For example, this is very off putting when you are talking to a lead character with a british voice, only to bump into the exact same looking character who is now a street urchin with a Jamaican accent!
I also ran into many environment bugs. During one level I turned 90 degrees to find that I was now floating among the clouds. Enemy soldiers were fighting me, but I couldn’t see them. The only way to fix this was to restart that section of the game from scratch. There were also many examples of people and animals getting stuck on the environment. If their movement is essential to your quest then you must again restart the level.
I really wanted to enjoy BackStab. It does have its fun moments, particularly the fighting and the climbing elements. However, it’s not just a case of fixing a few graphical bugs… I wish it was. Fundamentally Gameloft need to focus more on the story delivery, pacing, and most importantly remove the shackles of the helping hand, to give gamers more exploration and a feeling of achievement. Perhaps if BackStab focussed more on being an action oriented swashbuckling adventure it would have faired better. Instead it comes off as an ambitious mess. You can throw all manner of ingredients into a cake… but it does’t mean it will taste sweet!
Backstab is out now as a UNiversal app for Iphone. iPod Touch and ipad for $6.99. Get it now on the