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Review: Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner

When I got my 3G almost two and a half years ago, I would have never have imagined I would be regularly using an iPhone as a mobile gaming device. I know that games were pretty much the first thing to take off in the infancy of the App Store, but those early versions proved to be nothing but brief diversions for me. Most of them, at least the ones I tried, had little depth and wonky controls.

I understood that it would take developers time to get a feel for what would work on the iPhone, and what wouldn’t, but I quickly lost my patience. I was traveling a lot at that time, just as I am currently, and I wanted something to keep me from twiddling my thumbs sitting around in hotel rooms every night. You know what they say about idle hands, right? My son had gotten a new Nintendo DS Lite that Christmas, so I ended up taking the plunge myself and picked up a used DS, as well.

I enjoyed my time with the DS well enough. I loved having a D-pad and physical buttons, which I sorely missed on my iPhone. I also really liked some of the stylus-based games, like Kirby Canvas Curse. As cool as the DS platform is, though, new games are expensive, and there aren’t that many great, immersive sports games that I like so much on the platform. Ultimately, I started to get bored with it.

My move away from the DS was hastened by the arrival of some iOS games that finally got me playing on my phone for extended periods of time. I really enjoyed the FIFA World Cup game, and then followed that up with X10 Soccer when it came out, which I played a ton of. It wasn’t too long until I sold off my DS and went ahead and got an iPad.

So, with iOS now my gaming platform of choice, I have constantly been on the look out for cool new games that take full advantage of my iPhone 4’s features. I got really excited when I heard about THQ’s Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner, and its unique spin on classic, first person space shooting gameplay. If you haven’t heard about this game, it is a new take on the Star Wars Arcade series, which just about any gamer between the ages of 20 and 40 has pumped quarters into at some point in their life, and brings them to the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and 4th Gen iPod Touch using gyroscopic or accelerometer control, depending on your particular device. It also works on the iPad, as well, although without one feature we will discuss in a moment. Sprinkle in achievements, Game Center support, upgrades that can be earned or purchased, and classic voice and video clips from the original Star Wars Trilogy, and this is a lot to like here. Impressive. Most Impressive.

If the features listed above were all that Falcon Gunner had going for it, it would probably be good enough for the legions of Star Wars fans out there, as well as anyone who just enjoys a fun space shooter. However, those features aren’t all the punch this title packs. The feature that generated buzz for this title well before its release was the inclusion of an Augmented Reality mode, which uses the rear camera of the iPhone 4, 3GS, or 4th Gen iPod Touch to bring a galaxy far, far away up close and personal. When I saw those first screenshots, I knew Falcon Gunner was definitely going to claim some hours of my time. Well, that is if I can ever get my iPhone back from my kids once they get their hands on Falcon Gunner.

When you first open Falcon Gunner, you hear the familiar voice of Han Solo talking about his beloved ship’s prowess making the Kessel Run during his first meeting with Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi, followed by a 360 degree panning view of a Falcon Gunner arcade console. You are then presented with the Main Menu, which is the cockpit of the very familiar Millennium Falcon, with R2-D2 occasionally popping in as your guide.

The first time you run the game, R2 encourages to go through a short tutorial that explains the controls and points out some of the game’s features.

It does a nice job of getting you familiar with what you will be doing, and the differences between normal gameplay, and the AR Mode. The tutorial can also be accessed later from the Extras menu.

The Main Menu is very straightforward and easy to get around. You can Play or Resume a previous game, go to the Settings Menu, the Extras Menu, Game Center Leaderboards, and toggle the Augmented Reality mode on or off.

When you toggle the AR Mode on, you will be using the view from your device’s rear camera and the AR Mode’s controls (which we will discuss in a moment).

When AR Mode is turned off, you will be presented with one of three backdrops from the Star Wars universe, and a somewhat different method of control.

These include the original Death Star from A New Hope, the Astroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back, and the Kessel Run that Han Solo refers to when talking of the Falcon’s “famous” speed. Each of these three Episodes contains various levels of increasing difficulty. These Levels and Episodes are set up in a progression, so you must start at the Death Star and unlock them one by one as you go. Once you have completed a Level or Episode, it is available to play whenever you wish.

Once you have started a game, you have a Resume option. Falcon Gunner only saves one game at a time, so if you hit Play to go back to another level, you are reminded that your current game will be lost.

However, once you beat a level, you can select it from the Play menu and get right back to it. I also checked, and you don’t lose any credits or medals that have been earned, either, so I’m not really sure what significance Resume has, other than taking you directly back to where you were.

Falcon Gunner’s settings are simple enough. You can turn the AR Mode on and off, just as you can from the Main Menu.

You can also turn Auto-Aim and Highlight Enemies on or off. Separate volume sliders for Music and Sound Effects and Speech are also available at the bottom of the menu. I am glad there are separate sliders, because the voice overs, while mildly nostalgic at first, get old pretty quick. The spoken lines are usually appropriate, but they are far too repetitive. I actually wouldn’t mind if they broke the voice overs out into a third slider, as I really enjoy the game’s sound effects and would rather keep them turned up.

The Auto-Aim feature will help you target as you initially get used to the controls. With it turned on, the app takes over directional control of the gun, locking onto enemy fighters when they are in range.

The lock is indicated by a red box around the enemy fighter. This leaves you to focus on controlling the turret and firing the gun when locked on.

The Highlight Enemies feature will put green brackets around enemy ships and blue brackets around concussion missiles to help you pick them out as you get used to using the Radar to find your enemies on the screen.

I like that THQ added the Auto-Aim and Highlight Enemies options for those who need a little time to get their bearings with the controls and on screen movements. With both of these options turned off, Falcon Gunner definitely becomes a much bigger challenge.

The Extras Menu has links to your Upgrades and Achievements, as well as the aforementioned Tutorial.

It is rounded out by the Credits and About screens. There are five ship upgrades available from the Upgrades menu: an Enhanced Power Cycler, Quad Laser Turret, Duralloy Armor, Concussion Missle, and even a Tractor Beam.

These add-ons can be earned via credits from completed missions and achievements, or can be purchased for $.99 each if you just can’t wait to get your hands on them.

I am always in favor of developers giving users options, so I like that THQ added the in-app purchases for those who want the upgrades badly enough to pay for them. For those who don’t want to pay, going back and doing a little level grinding as you you get better at the game will provide you enough credits to keep those upgrades coming. One thing to note about the upgrades is that, while there are only 5 upgrades, you can continue to level up to increase laser power and speed, decrease laser overheats, and beef up the shields. These three upgrades can be added 3 times each before they max out.

There are 16 separate Achievements in Falcon Gunner which are tied into Apple’s Game Center along with the Leaderboards.

These range from simply logging into Game Center via the app and turning on AR Mode, all the way to completing every level and getting a Gold medallion rating on every level in the game. Some of these Achievements will take a little time to get, so they, along with the Leaderboard rankings, definitely add some replay value to Falcon Gunner.

Once you get into the game, the controls of Falcon Gunner are simple enough, but for whatever reason, they are not the same for each mode of play. There are two separate control schemes: one for the normal arcade mode and another for the AR Mode. In the normal mode, you have a fairly standard use of the gyroscope on newer devices, or the accelerometer on the 3GS or iPad to control the position of one of the gun turrets of the Millennium Falcon. You can tilt the phone up or down to control the vertical orientation of the turret, which is pretty intuitive. You then tilt your device right or left, similar to steering wheel control in most iOS racing games, for 360 degree horizontal control. This control scheme works acceptably well, but took me a few levels to get used to.

As for the guns, they are controlled with 2 on-screen thumb sticks. Your left thumb controls the position of the gun, which can be moved independently of the turret to help you more easily track enemies. The gun’s aim is indicated with a round red sight on the screen.

Your right thumb handles the firing duties. The gun will fire repeatedly any time you hold your thumb down. You have to be careful to not fire continuously for too long, however, as your gun can overheat when you do. There is a gauge that indicates the heat of the guns at the top of the screen. You will hear an alarm sound when the heat level is critical. When the gun overheats, you will be prevented from firing for several seconds, so it pays to use a little touch with the old trigger finger (or thumb, in this case). Also, there is the added irritation of Han Solo and Princess Leah constantly heckling you in the background if you overheat or struggle with accuracy. Upgrades will help to reduce the speed and frequency of overheating, but it can still get you in trouble in harder levels if you aren’t careful.

Shooting the guns is easy enough. Targeting can be a different matter, at least with Auto-Aim turned off. I found the gun controls to be accurate enough during my time with the game. If you aim directly at an enemy ship coming straight on, you won’t have much trouble taking care of them. However, that is a luxury you don’t often have in Falcon Gunner. You are usually targeting ships that are on the move, and some of them are very fast and agile. Often they are changing directions and rolling, as well, which just adds to the challenge. Some ships, especially the TIE Bombers, will tend to stay off in the distance and pound you from afar, which makes them harder to target.

Despite the initial difficulty, I didn’t find targeting to be a problem in Falcon Gunner, but rather a challenge. I was able to get substantially better at it the more I played the game. For me, this is a positive attribute of a game, because if Falcon Gunner was either no challenge or absolutely impossible, I wouldn’t want to keep playing it to the end. It is balanced enough that I wanted to put in a little time to get better. One suggestion I can offer if you are having trouble is to use Auto-Aim, even if just temporarily. While I don’t particularly like playing with the Auto-Aim feature, I did pick up some pointers watching how the automatic targeting worked, which helped me get better when I applied them myself.

As far as your ship’s defenses go, they are pretty weak at first. Without upgrades, you won’t last too long by the back half of the Episode I. The concussion missiles launched by TIE Bombers are especially hard to deal with before shield upgrades. Another thing to keep in mind is that it really pays to be a good shot, as hitting targets in quick succession will result in shield regeneration, as well as point multipliers. This strategy works especially well in the levels with lots of asteroids, as they make for ample and convenient targets.

When you shift gears to the Augmented Reality mode, the gun and vertical turret controls, as well as the targeting and defenses of the Falcon are the same, but the horizontal controls actually change dramatically. Instead of the “steering wheel” mechanic of the arcade mode, you actually have to move your iPhone or iPod Touch around a full 360 range to get to all of the enemies on the radar. You have to have a little room to pull off this control method, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using it in public unless you want people around you to think you are completely insane, but it is just SO MUCH FUN!

In the screenshot above, you can see the Imperial assault on the Starbucks in Clarksville, TN.

Here you can see a glimpse of the Battle for Goldie, our loveable, lazy mutt. I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.

The levels and enemies are the same as in the arcade mode, but thanks to the altered controls, Falcon Gunner becomes a completely different experience in AR Mode. Standing up and getting your whole body involved in moving your turret adds a whole new dimension to the game. A swiveling chair also works very well, if you don’t feel like standing while you play.

The engaging controls combined with the immersive effect of AR and seeing the action happen right before your “virtual eyes” is just really cool. I was honestly never that interested in the concept of Augmented Reality in gaming before playing Falcon Gunner, but now I am definitely intrigued to see how THQ and other developers incorporate it in the future.

On the one hand, I can understand THQ going with two different control schemes for Falcon Gunner. As previously stated, you can’t exactly use the AR Mode controls just anywhere. I also understand why the normal controls don’t work with the camera backdrop. What’s the point of using the camera view, which drains the battery more quickly, without the immersive control mechanic? Also, you can’t really pull off a 360 degree background effect when the camera isn’t actually moving. However, the same reasoning doesn’t apply to the normal arcade mode. Why aren’t the 360 degree horizontal controls available for it? Maybe it was too much of a challenge trying to map the phone’s movements against a fixed panoramic background. I’m not sure, but in a game that is pretty strong overall, this is one of my few complaints.

There are a few other minor concerns and suggestions I have for Falcon Gunner. First, it would be nice to see THQ add some options to get the repetitive dialogue in check. As I said before, the clips aren’t necessarily out of place. They are just way too frequent and repeated far too often.

Also, I had some issues with Falcon Gunner being able to save state mid-level when interrupted by a phone call or when I had to turn the game off for some reason. Falcon Gunner did a good job of handling push notifications, always going to a menu screen from which I could easily resume right back to where I was. Unfortunately, performance after any other interruption was very mixed. Sometimes I was able to resume where I was, but often Falcon Gunner just shut down and had to be completely restarted. I could select Resume, but I would be taken back to the beginning of the level, thus losing all of my previous progress. Hopefully this can be addressed in a future update.

Another minor issue with Falcon Gunner is the lack of material. The three Episodes that are included are well designed and thought out. The levels and progression between them fit the backdrops and story, and the graphic themselves are quite good, as well. I really liked the boss battle levels, as you are able to face off against Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced x1, Boba Fett’s Slave 1, and even a Star Destroyer.

Unfortunately, as good as this content is, it leaves you wanting more. I have been able to get most of the ship upgrades and get to the final level in the game within a week, and I am not what you would call a hard core gamer. I will still go back and replay levels to get achievements and medals, but it would be nice if there was more content. As many great backdrops as there are in the vast Star Wars universe, it would be nice to see some additional Episodes, even if they come at a price as an in-app purchase.

When thinking about suggestions for Falcon Gunner, I am reminded of a clip from A New Hope that is shown in the game before you start the first level.

It’s the one that shows Han Solo and Luke climbing into the turrets getting ready to fend off some TIE Fighters and escape the Death Star. Han and Luke worked together to get out of a jam. Why can’t we? I can understand why global multiplayer would be difficult to pull off, but how about local multiplayer? With two devices, you wouldn’t have to worry about split screens like playing multiplayer on a console game. Being able to work together with someone to clear a level from the Falcon’s high and low turrets would definitely add more replay value to Falcon Gunner.

Despite the separation of control schemes and a few minor issues and suggestions, Falcon Gunner is definitely a game to get your hands on. Whether you are a big Star Wars fan, love a good space shooter, or are just looking for a unique app to show off your iPhone or iPod Touch’s unique capabilities, Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner is very unique, has plenty of depth for a relatively simple game, and is just a lot of fun to play. The Force is definitely strong with this one and in my humble opinion, it is definitely worth the $4.99 price tag. Search your feelings….you KNOW it to be true.

Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner version 1.0 is available for $4.99 in the App Store here.

THQ provided a free copy of this app to iSource.com for review. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

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  • Sixstring

    Wow, really Great review!
    I just purchased this game and was surprised how fluid playing the game is.
    I was wondering abou the levels that I will unlock, I too would like to see more from this game….