It’s Starcraft for your iPhone! Oh wait… it’s not.
Despite the painfully obvious fact that Gameloft’s Starfront: Collision was “inspired by” (aka, ripped from) Blizzard’s beloved Starcraft series, I’m going to do my best to draw as few comparisons as possible during this review. Very few RTS games live up to the quality and balance that Blizzard has put forth in both of the Starcraft titles, and it would be unfair to compare it to almost any other RTS, much less one for mobile devices. Yes, similarities are there, but I believe Gameloft does enough things differently to forgive that fact.
The Starfront campaign is split into 3 sections; one for each race. You start as the Consortium, which is a collection of (assumingly) human mining/military folk. These guys are all about the Xenodium, which is one of two primary resources in the game. The second is “power”, collected from glowing artifacts. You move on to controlling the insectoid Myriad race, which most will instantly compare to Starcraft’s Zerg race. While there may be
some visual similarities, I can say that the mechanics of the race are nothing like the Zerg, and many of the units reminded me of the Necromorphs from Dead Space more than anything else. Finally, you get a brief stint with the Wardens, a technologically advanced race of machines that supposedly uses time as their weapon. At least, this is what the intro movie would have you believe. I didn’t see any use of these abilities in the game. Such a shame, as I was looking forward to creating pink time distortion fields around my enemies. Oh well.
For the most part, all three races are run the same way, have the same similar units, and have the same types of buildings. For instance, with every race you sacrifice a worker unit to build a structure, rather than being able to build it and move on. The tech trees for the races are almost exactly the same. In fact the only real exception to the similarities is the Myriad race, which uses giant beetles to mine Xenodium. They mine out more quickly, and can be moved to a fresh ore location. Each race also has it’s “hero” unit that can be built at the top of the tier. Only one of these are allowed on the map at a time, and each one has unique abilities. The Consortium has a heavy tank, the Myriad has a battle-converted mining beetle, and the Wardens have a slow-flying mothership-type unit that can blast lightning to the ground to kill units underneath it. Yeah… ahem. I suppose on one hand, making the races so similar has it’s advantages in keeping the multiplayer mode balanced. I’m assuming this was done due to development time constraints. Blizzard has spent countless years balancing Starcraft, and will spend countless more continuing to do so. The development time for mobile games is obviously much less, and as a shortcut, making the three races very similar will help keep things balanced online in the long run. I should note that before jumping into my first online game, I downloaded a small “balance patch”, so it looks like Gameloft will be keeping up with some minor updates for at least a short while.
Despite their similarities, units have different abilities and attacks, and can be upgraded with new abilities that either buff their current attacks, or create new ones. While the likeness of the races makes the single player campaign pretty bland, there was a decent amount of mission variety to keep me going until the final mission. A fun (and easy) defense mission brought me back to the old UMS days of Starcraft custom maps, while an escort mission reminded me why I hate escort missions so much – but in a good way. In fact the escort mission was probably the most challenging for me. I was able to
get through the entire campaign to beat the game in around 4 hours, and was presented with a very short and confusing ending cinematic… if one would call it that. I was disappointed that the final missions with the Wardens felt rather shoe-horned in, and weren’t very involved at all compared to the previous races. Save for a few missions in the game, the majority of them follow the same strategy: build resources, max out units, attack and win. I never had to use any special abilities, and I rarely had to build more than a couple unit types throughout each mission. There are the occasional missions that require to control just a few units instead of building a base, but those were also not much of a challenge.
What was a challenge, and what impressed me most about Starfront was it’s surprisingly rich multiplayer options. The game offers up to 4 players via wifi, bluetooth, or online matches. There are custom matches for 1v1, 2v2, and free for all, and a ranked playlist that let’s you compete for the top of the leaderboards. I really liked that the leaderboard displays flags from the player’s home country, and was even more happy to see USA on top! I was also surprised, knowing full well of Korea’s RTS prowess. I’m sure they’ll find their way to the top soon enough, as those Korean flags weren’t far behind. The multiplayer also offers the ability to save your replay and play it back at varying speeds afterwards. I really wasn’t expecting this feature, and it rounded out an already solid multiplayer feature. I knew I was playing a real RTS when, in my first match, I got “cannon rushed” by my opponent in the first 2 minutes of the game. Ah yes, cheese (using cheap tactics to win) will never leave the online RTS scene, even on the iPhone! From my experiences, the online, wifi, and bluetooth matches were smooth, with just minor lag when selecting and giving commands.
Selecting and giving commands; the bane of the mobile phone RTS.
Maximizing the screen real estate to allow the player perform even the most basic command functions can be hell for developers, and frustrating for players. Luckily, Gameloft nailed it. Starfront: Collision has the most tight and responsive touch controls I’ve ever seen in a mobile RTS game – and I’ve
played quite a few. Sure, there will always be moments when a unit is accidently selected, or you tap one place meaning to tap another, but that’s the same in PC RTS games as well, and should be expected. Gameloft made excellent use of touch gestures and collapsible on-screen menus to create a control system they can really be proud of. There are three groups available to form clusters of different units, a pop-out menu that puts the special abilities of all your units in a group at your finger tips at once, and even the ability to force move (rather than auto attack) by press and holding your finger on a location. At the moment I’m trying to think of a command or feature with the controls that wasn’t easily accessible to me during my playthrough, and I can’t think of one.
Starfront: Collision is a step in the right direction for Gameloft. It’s proof that, despite making a bad name for themselves from creating cloned games, they can also create good games. The similarities between Starfront and Starcraft quickly faded when I dove into the competitive multiplayer scene. The strategies needed to defeat my opponents weren’t Starcraft strategies, they were RTS strategies. Sure, gameplay may not provide the most innovative or exciting experience, and the race design and units leave something to be desired, but it’s the most solid RTS game I’ve played on my iPhone, and one that’s actually fun to play online! If you’re in the minority of people who play RTS games for the story, you will want to stay far away from Starfront, but if you’re someone who plays RTS games for the glory of smashing your human opponent with a well-timed attack online, Starfront will satisfy you, and probably leave you wanting more.
Starfront HD (iPad Update)
With the long development time between the iPhone and iPad release of Starfront, I expected a fully optimized and improved version to be released. The iPad has increased screen real estate, coupled with the incredible power of the iPad 2. Unfortunately, it seems that the iPad version of Starfront is merely a sloppy port of the commendable iPhone/iPod version.
AI pathing is all over the place, touch detection is very sketchy at determining whether you are giving a command our trying to move around the map, and background textures are abysmal. Not much more can be said about the main textures either. The gameplay in the iPad version simply feels inaccurate and muddled compared to the generally tight controls of the original. If you already bought the iPhone version, don’t bother with Starfront HD, but if you were waiting for Starfront on the iPad due to the larger screen, you may want to wait until some of the kinks are worked out before picking it up.
Starfront: Collision – $6.99 via in-app purchase. (Free to download and try.)
NOTE: A lot of people are complaining about Gameloft offering the game “for free”, then charging for it via in-app purchase. I don’t see how this is such an issue. The purchase is linked to your iTunes account so you can unlock it on other devices, and it provides a way to try the game without downloading it twice. Just my two cents!