Version Reviewed: 1.0.7
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"Wow" was simply the only word I could utter when I began playing Gameloft's masterpiece of a first person shooter. Though my excitement for the graphics has been somewhat diminished by uneven gameplay, Sandstorm remains an indisputable landmark for iPhone games.
It's easy to imagine the premise and basic gameplay of Sandstorm. In fact, I can describe it in two words: COD 4. For those not so savvy with Call of Duty, here's a quick rundown: in Sandstorm, you play as the chief of squad of U.S. soldiers who embark on the mission Sandstorm, a mission to stop Middle Eastern people of indeterminate origin from conducting some type of terrorist plans. Sound like a generic storyline? That's because it is. The characterization is poor as well; nothing is really learned about characters and every member of your squad seems to be a blatant character stereotype. Story matters little, however, if the game delivers in terms of action. Sandstorm is an FPS, so basically you move through missions shooting people and running where you're told. If you take too much damage, you die, and restart from the last checkpoint. Unfortunately and aggravatingly, if you are interrupted by a call or have to quit the game for any reason, you start at the beginning of the mission, not the last checkpoint.
The game utilizes modern weaponry, and the range of guns is decent enough, with flash and normal grenades also available. Unfortunately, the mission structure is simply too linear. No only is the map very narrow with little choice of movement, but blatant green arrows also guide you through, preventing any hope of exploration. Though it is perhaps unfair to compare Sandstorm's AI to that of a console FPS, the AI is simply lacking. Sure, the AI will do basic things like move towards you or move away from you, but their range of movement is tiny, and their intelligence, especially when it comes to grenades, is dubious, making Sandstorm feel like a bit of a shooting gallery in some places.
Sandstorm has 10 missions (the first one is training), and each will last you 15-20 minutes. The time for one play through is certainly not great, but at the same time, it's decent compared to other iPhone games, and considering the game is a paltry $6.99, not much more could be expected. There are three difficulty levels, and it's actually pretty enjoyable to play through on different difficulties. Unfortunately, there is no multiplayer, even bluetooth, at this time, so the replay value is severely limited.
We have seen countless FPS's with great potential fail on the iPhone, and for one common reason: controls. Thankfully, Gameloft absolutely nails the controls with three great options. In the default control scheme, a fixed analog stick is used for movement, a fixed firing button is used for shooting, and you can drag anywhere on the screen to change your view and aim. The second, option, my favorite, divides the screen into two sides. Touching anywhere on the left side causes an analog stick to appear and from there you can control your movement. Touching on the right side of the screen and dragging aims, and simply touching on the right side shoots. This is better than the default option because you can change your aim while you shoot, but unfortunately, sometimes touching to shoot doesn't register correctly. The third option consists of analog sticks on either side of the screen, one on the left to move and one on the right to aim. Touching anywhere on the screen shoots your weapon. This is by far the toughest control option, and it's difficulty of use makes me fear for ngmoco's upcoming FPS Eliminate, which apparently utilizes a similar system. To make up for the inaccuracy of virtual controls, there is a generous and very welcome aim assist, though you can disable this if you want more of a challenge. You can also adjust the sensitivity of all the controls to your liking, and there is even an option to invert controls. With all the control systems, there are some common buttons. Tapping a gun display once reloads, and tapping twice swaps weapons, and the grenade system is the similar: tap the grenade icon once to throw a grenade, twice to switch to flash grenades. In the lower corners of the screens there are buttons for crouching and looking through your scope. Throughout the game, contextual buttons will also appear for things like jumping over obstacles, planting C4, and picking up new weapons. If a better overall control system exists for a FPS on the iPhone, I would be shocked.
Modern Combat features the most impressive 3D graphics on the iPhone. Not "some" of the best graphics, but the best, period. Textures are surprisingly detailed, character models are great, and there is no annoying pop-up like in Gangstar. There are great visual details as well: the animation for a baddie being killed by a close-range shotgun blast is much different is much different than that of a baddie taking a sniper bullet in the head. Sound effects are very good, and Gameloft even goes the extra mile by including extensive voiceovers. Unfortunately these voiceovers are not great and often play into the character stereotypes, but it's better than no voiceovers at all.
If you show Modern Combat to your friends, I would expect a lot of jaw-dropping. The gameplay isn't quite up to snuff, but the idea of having a fantastic looking FPS with great controls on your mobile phone is worth the asking price of $6.99 alone. If Gameloft ever comes through with their promise of online multiplayer, this technical marvel might just become my most-played iPhone game.