The state of iPad gaming, or: Joshua plays FarmVille

19 July 2010
9:56 am

Well, not FarmVille specifically, but there are certainly a number of clones.

After having an iPad for almost two months now, much to my surprise it's more or less become my dominant machine. Most of this is a result of the tweaks and changes I've made to it after jailbreaking, but when I consider the fact that I had nothing but incredulous derision for the device and expected to be returning it in a couple of days, this total reversal is surprising to me. It's certainly replaced my laptop in almost all functions save needing involved Photoshopping– almost everything else I can do on the iPad with the same workflow as I would do on a computer. Most importantly, those same things I can't really do were also the same things that I was limited on when I had my Eee; namely, Photoshop and involved applications that need serious horsepower.

I had spent so much mental energy towards treating it as a computer that for a long time I was hesitant to look into that other use case: gaming. I had played games on my iPhone, so it wasn't as if I was against the idea, but it wasn't really what I intended to use my iPad for in the first place. This past week, however, I began looking through the sales charts and review websites to check in on what games were popular and how well they ran on my device. The same staples of the iPhone are still in place on the iPad: tower defence games and turn-based strategy titles really excel on the iPad where pin-point precision and accuracy aren't needed for a great experience. What I found most surprising, however, was the level of depth on the iPad versions of titles. It has nothing to do with screen real estate, either: iPhone games give you a sense that you're really playing a short, mobile experience, while iPad games are generally much longer, more polished and have a far more epic "feel" to them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if you're looking for games to play on the iPad, here are some of the ones that caught my attention.

At the top of my list is Space Station: Frontier HD. Developed by Origin8, this company created what were some of the best tower defence games on the iPhone. Their visual aesthetic and high production values carried through for this real-time strategy game to an impressive degree and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking for something to download.

You're placed in control of an orbital space station in the midst of an asteroid field. Waves of enemies come towards you over the course of a level, trying to destroy that space station. You have to mine asteroids for crystals, using them in turn as currency to create more mining nodes or defence platforms to protect your station and its assets. It's a deceptively simple mechanic, reminding me quite a lot of Harvest: Massive Encounter for Windows and OSX, but it lends itself to an incredible amount of re-playability. There are three modes along with a full story campaign; the modes are more skirmish based, ranging from "endless survival" or "mining." In the endless mode, enemies attack you in increasingly strong waves at increasingly fast levels. The only goal is to survive as long as possible, beating your score from the last attempt. At the completion of any level you receive a number of credits that can be used in the shipyard to unlock new weapons or tools and also upgrade your station itself, like adding multiple laser cannons or increasing its health. These upgrades last across missions, so unlocking all of these perks takes a while and gives a pretty simple objective for players to come back to over and over again. Levels themselves can be generated randomly or placing asteroids in a fixed location, giving you the opportunity to refine your strategy however you like.

Like many games on the iPad and iPhone, Space Station: Frontier HD is OpenFeint enabled; this is similar to Valve's SteamWorks system, giving players leaderboard scores, friends lists and achievements. You can see what games your friends are playing and attempt to beat their scores, and other OpenFeint titles allow for various forms of multiplayer with connected friends. The system opens up gameplay tremendously and the achievements alone give you a reason to come back to a title over and over.

iTunes App Store link

BioDefense HD is another game with a similar mechanic, set in the wastelands after an outbreak of zombies have rendered the world uninhabitable. The art direction reminds me immensely of Harvest (mentioned above) and this one operates pretty similarly to Space Station: Frontier. Light and darkness is important in this game, however, as units cannot be built nor can they function without spotlights illuminating the area.

Although it doesn't have as much re-playability as Space Station: Frontier, it's still very well done and has a high variety of buildings and technology to research. The story itself is more concrete, as well, and the game runs stunningly on the iPad's touch-centric OS. In comparison to the more sci-fi title, BioDefense HD's graphics aren't quite on the same level, but still look great.

Like many other games, BioDefense HD is OpenFeint enabled, giving you access to high scoreboards and a number of achievements. My only criticism is that outside of the relentless wave modes, the game doesn't have too much diversity, but if you're interested in seeing how long you can survive then there's still a lot there to capture your interest.

iTunes App Store link

The War of Eustrath HD is something I normally wouldn't be interested in: it's a turn-based tactics RPG with a cliched story that sounds like someone took the Japanese script of Neon Genesis Evangelion and ran it through Google Translate. Mispellings and bizarre phrases are rampant, but despite the poor text the game itself is really well-done and very polished.

Retro in theme, the art looks really good and the touch interface is perfect for this type of game. You can breeze through the story if you want, but the gameplay itself is great: levels consist of defeating enemies over a checkerboard grid through the use of mechanical exoskeletons called GEARS. The game itself is long, surprisingly so for a "mobile" platform, but meaty. GEARS themselves have a degree of customisation through items you pick up on the battlefield and this really feels like any Playstation 1/2 RPG.

If you enjoy tactics games and epic storylines, this title is likely to provide a few hours of entertainment as long as you can get past the accidentally-humorous translation.

iTunes App Store link

And then: the FarmVille clones. It's no secret that Zynga's Facebook app has thrown wrenches into the plans of many game developers as they try to figure out why something so simple (and depending on your point of view, so stupid) has managed to make more money than Jesus Christ. While Zynga was long in developing a native iPhone port of their title, and no version exists at all for the iPad (unless you want to upscale the iPhone version), other developers moved fast to fill the void. The "freemium" model was already highly popular with iOS apps, but there's certainly not an absence of clones if you're looking for your farming fix.

I'm not a fan of FarmVille and feel that most of the games trying to emulate it are similarly superficial and more focused on microtransactions than anything interesting. One game that did grab my attention (and also much of my time in the process) is CastleCraft. Developed by Freeverse (who had created a number of Windows and OSX games before being bought by ngmoco:) ), it reminds me more of an old free-to-play browser based game called Archmage than FarmVille. There are so many similarities to Archmage, in fact, that I wonder if Freeverse took a page from it when they developed their concept.

In CastleCraft you're put in control of a kingdom, surrounded by other cities and numerous enemies. Time is the biggest resource in the game as you build up your city and your forces to strike out and capture mountains and forests for vital minerals. CastleCraft is a free game and its business model is based on microtransactions, but in comparison to games like We Rule that nickel and dime you for anything and remind you fervently that you're a second class citizen to them unless you're paying, in CastleCraft (other than cosmetic items) the only thing you can buy are Dragon Crystals. These are their own rare resource and in the game the only benefit they provide is side-stepping the time limit for a lot of actions from unit training to building construction. If you drop cash you can speed things up, but you're still limited by your own resources to build and train other things. Furthermore, Dragon Crystals can also be obtained within the normal game world, so there isn't a whole lot of pressure to pull out your credit card if you don't want to.

While the focus of games like FarmVille are casual, CastleCraft is based on war and from the moment you get started outside pressures and attacks against your kingdom will manifest. The long timeframes everything takes to get done on keep sessions quick and simple, but there's a lot to do as you take over enemy cities or repel attacks against you.

My only problem is that the game itself is really buggy. I routinely have connection issues and there's a considerable lag after every action. It's lucky that the game isn't high on real-time action or this would be detrimental, so the only frustration is when I can't sign in at all, but I can only hope Freeverse is able to ramp up their servers to account for the title's popularity.

Still, it's maddeningly addictive in the same way I got hooked to Archmage years ago, and the visual aesthetics of the title are a big improvement to what is an otherwise simple concept.

iTunes App Store link

As I said, this is by no means comprehensive. I would also suggest interested parties look into games like the iPad update of Galcon Fusion, which is pretty noteworthy in that it allows you to play multiplayer not just between yourself and other iDevices but also the Windows and OSX versions as well, opening up the number of players you can compete against at any time. Osmos HD is also a beautiful port of the desktop game, and Warpgate HD is a pretty decent Freelancer knock-off. If you're a fan of Torchlight or Diablo, Dungeon Hunter HD makes a good attempt at flattering the concept of those games. N.O.V.A is the closest the iPad has to a Halo clone– although in contrast to FPSes on the iPhone which I found were passable if tricky to get the hang of, I had a really difficult time with the controls for N.O.V.A. Despite this, it has a great storyline and is definitely worth the price. You might just want to tone the difficulty down before you get started.

2 Responses to \'The state of iPad gaming, or: Joshua plays FarmVille\'

    😡 😈 🙁 should effectively sum up how I feel.

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