Taking Mobile Gaming Seriously

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I admit it. As a first generation console gamer, the closest thing to “mobile” gaming I ever got in to was the Gameboy, but I haven’t taken mobile gaming seriously. I didn’t get interested in the Nintendo DS, and with millions of units sold, perhaps I missed the boat. I then went to PC gaming because consoles didn’t have the graphics I wanted, I needed the power of the PC. I then got tired (and ran out of money) when upgrading my computer every six months became the norm, and went back to console games with the current generation. However, as I mentioned last week, I recently purchased an iPad and I’m finally getting my hands on a game I’ve heard a lot about: Infinity Blade II. It’s time to find out if gaming on the iPad is really as big of a step down as people sometimes make it sound.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Infinity Blade II is the game made by Chair & Epic Games (yes, the developers behind Gears of War and Unreal). I finally checked the game out, and even though I haven’t gotten too far in to the game, I’ve had enough time to develop a few impressions. The game is certainly beautiful. I showed it to a co-worker who thought the introduction to the game was a pre-rendered cinematic, until I had the option to take control. Infinity Blade II really makes me begin to take a second look at mobile gaming. Tablets might have more tricks up their sleeves in the coming months and years, but what was an glaringly obvious detractor from the beauty of the game was the control scheme. Let me expand on both.

When you start playing Infinity Blade II, it is easy to get wrapped up in the beauty of it. Volumetric lighting and amorphic shadows that were physics challenges that would crush a video card only a decade ago are pulled off with ease. Particle effects in the form of leaves floating on the breeze catch your eye, and sunlight poking out from behind clouds makes you want to just loaf around all day and look for animal shapes in the clouds. The environments are crafted and detailed with precision and look as though you could stroll through your locale and enjoy it. Now, as I said, I’m still fairly early in the game, but so far the game has one major down side: it’s essentially on rails! The beautiful environments are cookie cutter models which might look nice from other angles, but are only made to be seen from one.

The on rails design may alleviate the need for a complex control screen, and thus draw in more of a casual crowd who wants to view the graphical opus that Epic’s Unreal Engine hath brought to the iPad. But giving me the ability to look left and right then tap to fight my next battle doesn’t exactly give me the kind of control I was hoping to see from an Unreal engine game.

When you have Unreal’s technology behind a game, it is hard to know what to expect. It has been used for swimming-sidescrollers, like Xbox Live Arcade’s Undertow, mega hit 3rd person titles like Batman: Arkham City, and smaller indie games like Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars from Psyonix. And, when you look at Infinity Blade II, it’s easy to get swept up in the high end tricks like lighting and shadows… but the basics are lacking. The overall Polygon Count on the screen is much lower than one might think. This is accomplished by making a few features of the models on the screen a bit blockier than one might expect, and hiding the characters more personable qualities, like their faces, behind their armor. The high resolution textures make up for a lack of polygons, and the lack of polygons (since there is no need to worry about facial animations) make for very smooth performance. It is an interesting set of trade offs and design choices which give the game a slightly more polished look than you would think it should have.

Infinity Blade II is by no means a bad game. Contrary to what I’ve heard from others, this and its predecessor serve as more than just tech demos for the iPad, as well. They should really give everyone a keen sense of what can be done on the iPad, and some of the best techniques for doing so. While I still think the future of mobile gaming is going to rest on the shoulders of platforms like OnLive, I have to admit that Infinity Blade II impressed me in more ways than it let me down. This only opens the door for more possibilities and makes me turn my eyes to what will be next for tablet gaming, outside of tower destroying, string cutting, word-swapping “casual” games. We’ll find out together!