Cool FPS Nav Doesn't Rescue The Drowning's Sinking Vision
In The Drowning, you kill monsters and stumble upon new weapons, which you have to rebuild by finding parts, like a trigger assembly. Or you go to the beach to fight a wave of monsters so you can hopefully find a new gear shaft to get a motorcycle running. This part of the game isn't terrible or fantastic, but it is complicated and hampered by a revenue engine.
The Drowning by Mobage is available in the iOS App Store for free, with in-app purchases.
The Drowning is an evolutionary new first-person shooter iOS game. It boasts a graphically rich post-apocalyptic world where an ecological disaster has turned millions of people into naked-but-genderless zombie-like monsters with bald skullish heads and claw hands. They try to kill you. You try to survive by shooting them or bludgeoning them when they get too close, and you have to reload. Meanwhile, you scavenge around for weapons, parts of weapons, and survival gear.
Sounds pretty normal for a FPS monster shoot 'em up game, so what's "evolutionary" about it?
The controls. Instead of a virtual joystick and shoot "button" where you move your perspective by moving the virtual joystick and aligning the center of your screen with a monster's head, you get to do something new and far more efficient: A single tap with two fingers spread apart will send a bullet to the spot between your fingers.
It's quite good and surprisingly accurate.
The Bane of FPSes on Touchscreens
Generally, first-person shooters are a pain in the butt to play on an iPad. They require a lot of patience, and if you're the type of gamer who has a PC/Mac or Xbox/PlayStation, playing an FPS game on your iPad or iPhone is too painful to truly enjoy. Why?
Instead of moving around as if you have some sort of intent and control in the world, you're bouncing off walls, mis-swiping past enemies, and getting attacked from behind because you can't spin around fast enough. It's hard for the control experience to keep up with the expectations of your intellectual and visceral experience, which leads to frustration.
The Drowning represents a nice leap forward. It's easy to tap two fingers to shoot and hit multiple targets quickly. To navigate, you've got two new options, too: To move to a new location, you tap a spot out and about in front of you and you'll start hightailing it to that spot, automatically running around most small obstacles in your path. Nice. Works pretty well.
To see 360 degrees around you -- as well as up and down -- you swipe the screen with one finger. To keep spinning, keep swiping. Of course, when monsters are all around you, you've got to look behind you. In this case, there's a small 180-degree button at the bottom of the screen that will let you immediate spin to look behind you.
When you hear nasty visceral growling noises but can't see anything, it's best to tap this button quickly.
So How Are the New Controls?
Learning to shoot is amazing. Three shots is all it takes and you're an expert. Awesome idea and execution.
Learning to change your view while navigating to a spot was a bit harder. For me, it wasn't intuitive. Half the time I wanted to swipe somewhere, I looked in the opposite direction. Sometimes I started to swipe but got caught up shooting and ended up tapping to send my guy running someplace else. It wasn't until I went into the settings and reversed the X-axis direction of swipe control that my looking started to feel natural.
What is nice, though, is that you can tap a place to run to, then tap the 180-degree turnaround button and run backwards, letting you shoot monsters that are chasing you. Now that feels natural. And then, once you get better, you can find a far spot to run to, turn around, see what the danger is, and then run toward it and bring your fight with you. Nice.
If you don't like this new control method, you can play with a virtual joystick instead. I tried it. After playing with the new controls, the old joystick method was astoundingly hard. I fired a lot of shots into the air and it didn't take long for my vision to turn red.
What's the Control Verdict?
The controls are a major leap forward. At the same time, it didn't take me long to want two more buttons at the bottom next to the 180-degree spin: A 90-degree left and a 90-degree right. I don't know how many times I spun too far and had to swipe back to find a monster. I can easily imagine using a shorter turn for most of my target acquisition.
At the far bottom corners, I'd add a strafe mode -- walk sideways. Coupled with the single-touch tap-to-go-there function, I think I'd have a more enjoyable touchscreen shooter experience.
That's just me, of course. Others might really put in the time and make this current method brainstem-level familiar.
And the Game Play Itself?
This is where the market and abilities of first-person shooter games falter on iPads and tablets: gamer expectations. Anyone who has played PC or console games like the Halo or Call of Duty series extravaganzas appreciate large, explorable worlds with precision action available through a controller. The loss of a controller is a given right now on the iPad, and so is the lack of a large world. What we get instead is a relatively small number of places where you go -- on an island -- to attack or defend, again and again.
Along the way, you kill monsters and stumble upon new weapons, which you have to rebuild by finding parts, like a trigger assembly. Or you go to the beach to fight a wave of monsters so you can hopefully find a new gear shaft to get a motorcycle running. This part of the game isn't terrible or fantastic, but it is complicated and hampered by a revenue engine -- it all seems to be designed to teach you to acquire things to fix things to get to do things to continue forward in the game.
At the start, this is connected to say, a gas can that you have to use to go to the beach to fight a battle to find a part. If you don't use the gas, you can wait 15 minutes. I think maybe there's a special still that makes gas for you, and you have to wait for it, but the contrivance quickly gets irritating. To get past it, you can try to fight somewhere else -- or spend some in-game coinage on a new gas can. If you don't have any in-game coinage, well, of course, you can buy more in the store via an in-app purchase.
Personally, I hate this monetization method. I think it creates game play thinking designed to spark habit and addiction that will lead to the spending of money on fake money that removes your wallet and budget from the game play itself. A disingenuous business at best -- and The Drowning is about average in it.
Furthermore, I think it limits the imagination and execution of great games so that the monetization method drives the content and game play. This is how The Drowning feels -- that all these hoops aren't here for fun, excitement or the challenge -- no, they're here to provide things to do to justify the outside world of the game. For me, every bit of the game should make the world more immersive, not less.
Last of all, the constant pressure toward this sort of free-to-play game is a self-fulfilling prophecy that trains iOS users to gravitate toward free games, which in turn makes it harder for more visionary developers to offer a compelling new experience for say, $9.99 or $5.99 or even $1.99.
So where does that leave us? On the one hand, we've got a fantastic new stab at touchscreen controls, coupled with a small but graphically rich environment. On the other hand, we've got a lackluster set of repetitive hoops to jump through while we're trying to save our ass at the end of the world.
We are at once immersed in a post-apocalyptic world, while at the same time repeatedly reminded of contrived hurdles and things to acquire or buy. For people who are not easily addicted and who are reasonably aware of their budgets -- like me -- this results in a 3-star game overall, despite the superb new two-finger tap to shoot control.
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