The stealth-action game that took me by surprise. Whether we like it or not, it is almost unavoidable that what we hope to get out of a game colors our opinions when playing. Call me a sucker, but the trailer for Dynamite Jack on iPad had me psyched. I saw a game that was fast-paced, challenging, and gave the appearance of allowing player creativity.
It may be because my expectations when sitting down to play Dynamite Jack were high, but I couldn’t engage with the initial stages of the game. Each stage can be ultimately reduced to the same concept- escape. At the player’s disposal are a flashlight and an infinite amount of remotely detonated bombs. Obstacles between the player and their desired escape include deadly security guards on patrol, cave trolls, locked doords, and rotating lasers.
At the outset, the game doesn’t present much challenge to the player. Solutions are obvious, progress is hardly impeded, and as the amount of obstacles increases the difficulty doesn’t necessarily ramp up. The maps are often large enough to give players enough room to easily avoid danger, and most individual rooms generally only contain a single challenge to overcome. The simplicity brings out the worst in Dynamite Jack. I started to wonder why the patrolmen can spot the player the instant light hits the player character, but these same patrolmen will step directly over a large bomb that the player has placed in their path.
In later levels, however; the level design takes a turn for the better. Maps become more dense, and the player is often deprived of either the flashlight or bombs, and sometimes both. The game takes on a certain flair- the bland nature of simpler levels is phased out by multiple guards patrolling through a corridor lit by spinning laser spiders. In other words, the more ray casting on screen at once, the better. The most engaging levels require both careful planning and rapid reaction times- especially when dealing with numerous guards and trolls. It is in these levels that the game feels less like a bland puzzle, and more like a thrilling action title.
The added need for precision does come at a cost. Controls on the iPad fall short of satisfying. The typical virtual joystick is available, as is a path drawing mechanic ala flight control. I gravitated towards the virtual joystick to avoid covering the screen with my hand, and to have more immediate control over the character. Of course, a virtual joystick isn’t the best solution. This is yet another game that would benefit greatly from physical controls, and while the iCade is supported I don’t imagine that the majority of those who purchase Dynamite Jack will have an iPad. The controls remain an issue until the player becomes fully acclimated; I eventually became used to the shortcomings of the virtual joystick but did have multiple encounters that I know I would have survived with a physical game controller.
My complaints about the lack of physical controls may not apply to iCade owners, but those without an iCade may even want to look into the game’s Steam version- which is listed as controller enabled. More capable control would certainly help navigate the more intricate level designs, and enhance the arcade-like experience.
The touch screen does come in handy when toying with the in-game level editor. Considering that the level design is paramount in Dynamite Jack, the editor provides an opportunity for the player community to bolster the content already included in the game. Players can make levels every bit as complex as those that comprise the best of the campaign mode and upload them for the community to play. Downloading levels is a snap- I found that after tapping on the name of a level in the online directory I was almost instantaneously playing.
Some levels in the online library are too complex, and the framerate began to crawl on my iPad 1. There is an object limitation in the editor, but it may need to be refined to prevent performance issues on older devices.
Interaction with the online community also includes the speedrun leaderboards for each level. I admire that Dynamite Jack doesn’t employ the typical 3 Star rating system. If I am going to restart a level, I would much rather be in pursuit of another player’s score than in additional stars on an arbitrary point scale.
In spite of its slow start, Dynamite Jack escalates to be an exciting stealth action game. While I can’t help but feel that the game could have its definitive version on the Vita with a fusion of touch and physical control options, the iPad version is certainly an easy endorsement. The included levels eventually provide an exciting experience, and the user generated content is reflective of the robust tools placed at the players’ fingertips.
Dynamite Jack is available for $2.99 on the App Store.