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Review: Gameloft’s NOVA [iPhone App Reviews]

jaib reviews NOVA
Oh, Halo there, and welcome to this review of NOVA: the first good, complete first-person shooter for the iPhone.
You’ve definitely seen gameplay like this before, but never on a touchscreen device without any hardware buttons to take over some of the controls. However, I think the biggest point to take away from all of this is that NOVA is just the start of more epic, more console-like gaming.

This is a game with a good 4+ hour campaign, local and online multiplayer modes, running on the same device that you use to send text messages and check the weather. NOVA may not have a unique premise, but it’s running and gunning proof that you don’t need to lower your expectations of a game just because it’s running on a mobile platform.

Full control of the action
Gameloft had to work from the ground up to create an environment that was suitable for a single player game with different weapons, enemies, and encounters. The groundwork is all solid in NOVA. What I’m especially impressed by are the controls: provided you can adjust to the lack of a real analog stick, Gameloft has provided some seriously flexible and customizable controls for your non-Master Chief (err, the protagonist). You can choose from three different default layouts and aiming setups, but if those don’t work, you can always create your own by dragging and dropping elements where you please. If the analog stick is too far up, you can move it up. If you use a lot of grenades, you can put them right beside the fire button for easy access. It’s an ingenious setup that’s only possible on a touch screen, and I consider this to be one of the best parts of the game. And yes, the game can easily rotate 180-degrees if you want to play it the other way around.

Full Campaign
I didn’t expect any deep characterization, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of personality Gameloft packed into NOVA. The protagonist, Kal Wardin, is full of sarcastic one-liners, and even his robotic guide might throw an unexpected chuckle or two your way.

The atmosphere in NOVA can be quite immersive, and the levels are a real accomplishment. They’re absolutely enormous, especially considering the fact that the 3GS takes under 10 seconds to load one up. The game must do a lot of loading in the background as you play, but I never noticed. The soundtrack is just one monk shy of Halo’s, and it worked well enough to pump me up for battle. It can be a lot more fun to throw your own music tracks on while you play, though, and NOVA makes this easy to do.

The campaign takes quite a while to pick up, but second half of the game is worth the wait. At first, you’ll be facing a maximum of three enemies at any one time, and the game just feels a little too slow. My trigger finger felt itchy, and I wanted an experience that would really challenge me and put the great control scheme to the test. However, by the end of the game, there were just waves upon waves of enemies teleporting in (Doom style), and I only took a break from shooting to put more bullets in my gun so I could do it all over again.

Most levels are just about shooting through Dangerous Area A (thereby converting it to Empty Area A), and then doing the same thing to Dangerous Area B. There are a few switches to throw, on-rails vehicle sequences to shoot through, and voice-acted conversations thrown in for good measure, but nothing that’s more engaging than the core gameplay. The landscapes themselves actually make up the most interesting portion of the campaign, and NOVA can be a real visual treat – showing things you didn’t even know the iPhone game engine could handle.

One awkward portion of the campaign are all of the little hacking sequences to activate switches and open boxes. The puzzles themselves are never that complicated, but they just don’t feel quite rewarding enough. The mini-game involves using mirrors to re-direct a beam of light to specific portions of a grid just isn’t that much fun for me, and the reward for completing this is always a door opening to the next area (mandatory) or a little bit of extra ammo for your weapon (meh). It would have been more work, but some sort of upgrade system for weaponry would have been a much better incentive to stop at every little hacking box. Otherwise, why would I want to hack for little bits of ammo when I can shoot things in the face? The pistol never runs out of ammo 🙂

Gun fights are generally fast and satisfying. Enemies reel when hit, and they all fall over properly when you knock them down with rockets, sniper rifle rounds, and point-blank shotgun blasts. Most of your opponents are pretty silly and aren’t a challenge one on one, but their sheer numbers can whittle your regenerating HP down if you’re not careful. The enemies are pretty standard fare: snipers, clawed crawlers that scamper right toward you, and jetpacked enemies with energy rifles (that you can’t use).  There isn’t actually all that much variety, although you’ll eventually meet variations of certain enemies, recognizable by the different colour of their armour and their extra resistance to your bullets.

*Semi-spoiler alert – skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know about what weapons you’ll get during the campaign*

The weapon selection is also a little mundane: pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, and an alien energy weapon. The shotgun and assault rifle are probably my favourites, since they’re nice and simple, and you can almost feel the kick behind them. The alien weapon is also very entertaining, but it’s only available closer to the end. These are slowly made available to you over the course of the campaign, but they’re all present in the multiplayer mode.

I’m not a huge fan of multiplayer FPSes on the iPhone, but I did play two great NOVA matches. The game supports deathmatches over Bluetooth, local wi-fi, and over Gameloft Live (global multiplayer!).
My first match was a seamless experience with Bluetooth. My friend and I were going to see Avatar, but had an hour to kill before the movie started. We simply turned BT on, had him host the game, and were playing within a minute or two.
My second test match involved online multiplayer over Gameloft Live. I first had to create a free Gameloft ID and then pressed the join button to join one of the five games I saw (a little surprised I didn’t see more, although it was the middle of the afternoon). There was virtually no difference between the online match and the one held over Bluetooth, and I mean that in the good way. They were both fast to set up and the connections were flawless.

Like a console booting up for the versy first time (uhh, Conclusion)
There’s a line drawn in the silicone. On one side are a set of next-gen machines that can provide amazing, immersive experiences on HDTV’s or on PC’s. On the other side lies a set of “mobile” consoles, where the word “mobile” connotates the ability to take a game anywhere, but also that the experience is somehow shrunken in scale, where playability is compromised for the sake of mobility. NOVA is the closest game I’ve seen to crossing that line.

The game could still use some inspiration when it comes to the variety of enemies and weapons, but all of the basic framework to make a fantastic FPS  is in place: the levels are big and beautiful, the controls are comfortable and customizable, and the action is silky smooth. The premise may not be terribly unique, but the way that Gameloft has executed NOVA on the iPhone is an amazing new accomplishment, and well worth the $6.99 if you’re a fan of shooting things from a first-person perspective.

NOVA is available for $6.99 on the App Store.

NOVA was bought by JAiB for review on the site. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

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