In preaching the virtues of its 3D Touch technology, incorporated into its latest iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, Apple has emphasized its practical applications for opening menus, switching tasks, and navigating your phone. But 3D Touch, which can recognize how hard you're pushing on the screen, has another application — video games. Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade is one of the first games to utilize the tech, allowing iPhone 6S owners who download the free iOS-exclusive shooter to switch between weapons by varying the strength of their taps on their phone's screen.
Freeblade throws players into the cockpit of an Imperial Knight, a gothic take on a bipedal mech suit designed by by British company Games Workshop for its Warhammer 40,000 tabletop wargame. The Warhammer 40,000 universe is one of constant war between macho fascist Space Marines, sadistic worshippers of weird Chaos gods, rampaging space Orks, and a host of similarly violent forces. Even in that grim and dark future, Imperial Knights are some of its most fearsome residents. Fifty feet tall, wielding napalm cannons and chainsaws as long as yachts, and commanded by pilots so hardcore in their unswerving loyalty to the human Emperor that they're surgically inserted into the machine's cockpit, Knights are designed to strike fear into the hearts of their foes. I chose to call mine "Cutie."
Cutie stomps its way through the ruined cities of Freeblade by itself — my only interaction is manning the guns. A light tap fires its primary armament, a rapid-fire machine-gun by default, while a hard press launches a shell from its larger secondary weapon. Context-sensitive taps also enabled me to activate shields, to fire swarms of shoulder-mounted missiles at large concentrations of enemies, or to charge into close combat with building-sized enemy mechs. All weapons either overheat or have limited ammunition, and the challenge comes in how you'll switch between them during the short minute-long levels, using every armament to maximize your destruction and points tally.
A harder press makes a bigger boom
In reality, the 3D Touch controls don't fundamentally alter the experience of tapping tiny green monsters to make them die, but it does make the process slightly more efficient. The thought process — a harder press for a bigger boom — is quick to lay in, but most importantly Apple's technology removes the need for a screen-cluttering weapon-switching option, giving players a natural way to change their guns without them needing to search for a small icon in the middle of a firefight.
Those firefights are both quick and slick. Apple was confident enough in Freeblade's graphics and performance that it wheeled it out on stage at its "Hey, Siri" iPhone 6S event back in September, using it as a demonstration of its new A9 chip's power. The finished product remains impressive, never stuttering as I sifted through menus and waves of aliens alike. Though the explosions aren't quite up to console standard, looking more like yellow puffballs than blooms of flame and fire, the carefully detailed Knights and their towering foes are finished with a painter's eye, covered in details that'll make 40k fans want to play Freeblade on the 6S Plus' bigger screen.
Apple used Freeblade to show off its A9 chip
Players can kit their Knight with more powerful weapons, either found in crates, or forged from component elements, but the sheer number of currencies and time-gated systems — ore, coins, supply drops, patrol missions, among others — feels slightly egregious. If you're willing to wait for hours you'll be able to grind for a good set of gear, but Freeblade gives you constant reminders that you can spend real-world money to turbo-charge your walking tank. I spent the limited amount of in-game currency I was able to get in a few hours of play on paints instead, using the same selection of colors the real Games Workshop offers to daub Cutie in a fetching red-and-gold scheme.
Still, if you're willing to sit it out, Freeblade's score attack-like levels are short enough to be played in small bursts and will eventually reward you with the kind of Knight you want — if you can navigate its complex interlocking systems and menus. The game's incorporation of Apple's 3D Touch, on the other hand, is a neat touch that simplifies its shooting, and shows that 3D Touch can do more than just help you search Twitter faster from your home screen.