Touchscreens are good for a lot of things. You can use one to swipe through news quickly and efficiently, paint a picture with your fingertips, and zoom in on a photo with a simple pinch. And as games like Monument Valley and Threes have shown, touchscreens can also be used to control some amazing games. But there's one thing that developers haven't been able to successfully pull off with a touchscreen just yet: a first-person shooter. It turns out that your fingers aren't the best control option for a fast-paced FPS.
But it's not for a lack of trying, as plenty of games have attempted to twist and mold the genre onto a smartphone, using a variety of cumbersome control methods. Some are playable, and even fun, but the genre has yet to have its breakthrough moment on mobile devices. Midnight Star, which launches on iOS today, might just be the most ambitious attempt yet. It's a big, beautiful game, and it's even made by a studio founded by Alex Seropian, one of the co-founders of Halo creators Bungie. And it can be a lot of fun, with fast, well-tuned action that's hard to put down.
Just don't go in expecting a revolutionary shooter in the mold of Halo.
Midnight Star is set in the distant future, when a soldier accidentally stumbles across an ancient artifact that wipes out much of the human race. That's bad, obviously, but the artifact also gives him superpowers that let him fight off aliens intent on wiping out all humans. The story is a little muddied and generic — though there are optional cut-scenes and a companion comic book that help flesh things out a bit — but it does at least explain why you spend the game shooting a never-ending wave of shiny aliens.
the game makes several smart uses of the touchscreen
Developer Industrial Toys calls the game "a re-imagining of the sci-fi shooter for touch devices." But in reality that's just a fancy way of saying it's a modern light gun game, one of those arcade games where you shoot zombies or future criminals using a plastic gun tethered to the cabinet (think House of the Dead and Virtua Cop). Just like those games, Midnight Star is completely on rails: you have no control over your movement, though you can change your viewpoint to tackle enemies coming at you from different sides. You shoot simply by tapping on an enemy, and the game includes a few cool special powers like a bullet-stopping shield and a levitation ability that lets you lift bad guys out from behind their hiding spots.
It can be quite fun, and the game makes several smart uses of the touchscreen. For instance, zooming in for a headshot works the same as zooming in on a photo, as you just spread your fingers on the enemy you're trying to kill. Not everything works great — melee combat has been reduced to a really boring mini-game where you have to tap the screen quickly, and its free-to-play nature means there are some annoying in-app purchases — but the action is fast and unrelenting. There are even challenging, towering boss aliens to battle against.
The game may be fun, but it lacks the depth of an FPS on PC or console. The fact that you can't strafe, or duck behind cover, or charge at enemies guns blazing, makes it a fundamentally different experience than games like Call of Duty. Halo may have proved that FPS games can work on a console, but Midnight Star doesn't do the same for mobile devices — and it doesn't need to. Over the years, developers have realized that certain genres just don't work well with touch: it's why we have an army of awesome automatic runners on mobile, but no true Super Mario-style platformer. It seems like they've finally come to that conclusion for shooters as well. BioShock on your iPhone sounds great, but in practice it's awful.
Midnight Star isn't an FPS, but it is a cleverly designed shooter that works really well on your phone or tablet: the controls are easy to pick up, and the gameplay is divided into neat little chunks that you can play on the go. It's not Halo for your phone — it's something completely different, and that's probably for the better.