Wow, don’t they grow up fast! Only a year and a half into the life of the AppStore and it looks like we’ve finally arrived. Gameloft unleash their piece de resistance, the much hyped and highly anticipated N.O.V.A.
First lets get one thing out of the way. It’s been stated many times, on this site and others, the similarities that this game has with HALO. It’s pretty obvious from the get go that Gameloft are not trying to re-invent the wheel here. There are many space themed first person shooters, but none are as epic or successful as Bungie’s. So it makes sense that if you are going to bring that kind of experience to iPhone and iPod Touch that you take HALO’s blueprint and run with it. Afterall, as of writing this HALO isn’t available on the platform, so Gameloft are simply satisfying a gap in the market.
Yes, NOVA’s graphics have a HALO look to them, from icey wastes, jungle vistas and purple alien motherships. The three main types of enemy bear an uncanny resemblance too, particularly the elite style troopers, and the larger axe wielding brutes. Oh, and dId I mention there is even a parasitic lifeform that takes control of it’s human host? If there is one main element that does come across as blatant rip off, it’s the music. About mid-way into the game and that HALO-esque choir kicked in. I almost cried!
You take the lead role as Kal Wardin, a retired space marine who is forced to take one more assignment against his will. After a quick tutorial level to get your bearings (and a chance to learn the controls) you are under attack from a violent race of aliens.
You take them out, hop into your ship, and with a holographic female as a guide…. err, I won’t say it!…. you are off to kick some alien tail.
There are 12 levels in all (not including the tutorial level). And these span across six themed sections. Starting out onboard a deserted colonial vessel, visiting the jungle, an underground facility, traversing an icey land, and finally a showdown on the aliens’ homeworld. Each lasts around 20-30 minutes, more if you set the game to hard difficulty (which I highly recommend), so if you are a regular FPS player then you can expect upto 6 hours playtime for the single player campaign. Considering HALO:ODST is around the same length, and far more expensive than NOVA’s $6.99, then that’s a pretty good deal for a handheld game.
Most levels are ‘get from point A to B’ affairs. These are broken up into sections of environment that require you to engage the enemy and defeat them in order to progress. This plays much like the Metroid games on Gamecube and Wii, where a doorway or section will be only accessible after defeating all the enemies. In NOVA these play out as exciting set pieces, mostly involving the three main types of enemy.
There are the Fiends. These are unarmed four-legged drone like creatures that jump at you. A few blasts of your shotgun will usually do the trick, but be careful as they usually travel in threes. Then there are the Grunts. While they are not the biggest enemy, they are the smartest from an AI point of view, taking cover to avoid your fire, and shooting you from long distances. Prolonged fire from your Assault rifle is the best bet here, as well as the shotgun at close quarters. Many sections of level will have these Grunts materialise out of thin air, so watch your back.
The third main creatures are the brute-like enemies. Big gorilla looking guys that come in two flavours. One called Imps typically stand their ground and attack you with bursts of one or more fireballs. Despite their size they can be taken down with a few close shots from your shotgun, or heavy fire from your assualt rifle. On hard difficulty they seem to fire more frequently and at a faster rate. The other brute is the Red Demon, he likes to run at you and grab you buy the neck, activating a great scene that sees you popping caps of your pistol into his head until he drops you and dies. Once again, he’ll fall like a ton of bricks after a few shotgun shots, but look out for him throwing his clubs at you, particularly if you are engaging multiple foes. Both these brutes will pick up nearby boxes and crates which will leave a nasty gash in your head!
Much later in the game you will encounter two other enemies, but not to the frequency of the main three. One of these is a super brute called a Heavy Demon, these are like mini-bosses of sorts and tend to be placed near the end of a level or a section of particular importance. They take many shots of any weapon to take them down, but if you have the plasma rifle and/or rocket launcher then you should be ok. Look out for their plasma balls (ed: ‘he said balls!’) they pack a big punch and send out a shock wave on impact so stay on your toes.
The second of these is the Corrupted Marine. These are marines like yourself but have been infected by an unexplained alien virus, and bow to the will of the enemy. A bit like the Grunts, these are smarter in fire fights, and are also the hardest to take out. In large open areas though, like the ice levels, you can take them out with a few well placed shots to the head with the sniper rifle.
Most firefights feature variations of these enemies, usually in more and more numbers. Ranging from small, close quarter battles aboard the space ship, to large open areas in the jungle and snow. These give you a welcome change of pace, and a chance to try out all the weapons at your disposal, instead of simply ploughing through with your favourite firearm. Another area that gives you a break from the intense action are puzzle elements in the form of computer consoles. Much like the Pipemania inspired mine games in Bioshock used to open doors and hack machines, these require you to place objects on a grid to complete a circuit.Most of these are pretty straight forward, but they are fun non-the-less and some will require a couple of goes before success.
There are two more enemies that I have kept from you, but I really don’t want to ruin the surprise too much, as they are great additions to the gameplay. Much like the end of level bosses in Zelda and Metroid games, you will need to take them out by learning their weaknesses. The final one being particularly challenging in Hard difficulty.
Between battles, and apart from enjoying the marvelous scenery the game has to offer, you will be drip fed parts of the story. This is done through hologram-style pop ups. The story line good is pretty cheesy and the usual sci-fi nonsense. It is entertaining though and certainly no worse than what typical bigger budget games have to offer, which is usually no more engaging than your run-of-the-mill B-movie.
On my first hands-on with the game, the story was shown in text only, but in the final release they have added voice over work. Unfortunately apart from a character that appears later in the game, the voice work is pretty terrible. But then, since when has video game acting ever been good? It’s expensive business getting good voice over actors, and it looks like Gameloft has opted to put that money to better use, which is evident in this case with the rest of the production, and the substantial credits at the end of the game. Even still is it too much to ask for a lead character that doesn’t come across as a total toss-pot!
So, what happens when the story is over? Well, you can play it again in hard difficulty, which I recommend. But the main element that will keep you coming back for more is the Multiplayer. I could go on to mention that game beginning with H which the multiplayer also borrows heavily off… but to be fair, that game and others before it have all borrowed the fundamental deathmatch experience from both Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena. What I can tell you is that you will have a blast (no pun intended) playing online deathmatches. Those expecting a full on matchmaking experience like Eliminate Pro may be disappointed, as you can’t invite friends (yet), or play over 3G as it’s online WiFi only. But if playing strangers doesn’t bother you then once in a game it’s a smooth and intense experience. The six arenas are larger than Eliminate’s, and an aspect I like over that game is that you are all evenly matched, much like Quake 3 Arena, where you must pick up weapons and powerups littered around the play area. Most levels are multilayered, with jump-pads and warp-gates taking you to otherwise unreachable areas… usually great for you nasty sniper-lovers out there. Overall a thoroughly entertaining addition, to an already great single player experience.
Finally onto the two elements that instantly outshine the few negatives I have outlined with the game, and that’s the controls and the visuals.
Gameloft were the first to really get the whole dual FPS controls down on the iPhone and iPod Touch, first will Brothers in Arms and most recently with Modern Combat. The controls in NOVA are very much like Modern Combat’s, but to me feel a little more responsive. This may be down to the faster on foot movement of the the main character, but general firefights feel better to me. A great option is the ability to fully customise placement of all the onscreen controls, something more devs’ should apply to their games. For me though the default is perfectly suited to the single player campaign. However, for multiplayer you may want to tweak the sensitivity and turn on quick 180 turns in the options. Some may find sniping a little over-sensitive, but strangely I prefer it like that as it gives balance to it’s use (stopping power vs control), and will hopefully deter gamers to constantly deliver death-from-above, instead of getting down in the thick of it with a shotgun like the rest of us.
NOVA is easily one of the best looking games on the platform. Sure, it’s not pushing console-like polygons, but wrapped in some great texture work, with great animation and running super smooth (on a 3GS) it looks stunning. It really stands up on the small screen with the big boys like Metroid Prime and Halo 1 on Xbox, from lush green jungles to techno-punk motherships. All this is bathed in some great lighting and particle effects. Whether these are realtime effects or pre-baked onto the textures I don’t know, but they add great depth and detail to the game-world. It could be sunbeams through the trees, or steam jutting from conduits – all these details combined offer a truly immersive world.
NOVA is proof-positive that a console experience can work on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Gameloft have obviously sunk a lot of time and effort into this, and it shows. Great graphics, superb controls, and – though it does contain some cheesy voice work, an un-original but great musical score, and a storyline that borrows from a whole host of games of yore – when these elements all come together they offer what can only be described as pure fun! Gameloft have set the benchmark for FPS’s on the system… roll on 2010!
Second opinion: Matt Dunn
While NOVA is by far the best in it’s genre on the iPhone, it is also another example of Gameloft’s affinity for releasing pretty games that lack heart or originality. The game controls well, but I grew very tired of the constant swiping that is required to look around and aim. I’m amazed that FPS games on the iPhone haven’t all adopted the WaW: Zombies style of controls by now. There is a new AI system where enemies spawn and then react to the situation, much like the Halo games. This was impressive, and very different than the cookie-cutter enemies in Modern Combat. Unfortunately, the plot is jumbled and uninteresting, and the voice acting is literally laughable. The campaign mode is still enjoyable though, and the addition of a good (but light on features) multiplayer mode really adds up to make NOVA an impressive game for just $6.99. I really hope that Gameloft focuses on their story-telling weaknesses for future titles, but if buyers don’t care about the overall gaming experience, and would rather drool over good graphics and shooting things, it might be a long time before that happens.