Before we dive into the full review for Gameloft’s StarFront: Collision for iOS, let’s get the most obvious question out of the way first: is it a clone of StarCraft 2. The answer would be, for the most part, yes, although that’s not entirely a bad thing. With Gameloft’s serendipitous release schedules that seem to follow soon after their major-release inspirations, it only makes sense they’d want to capitalize off Blizzard’s best-selling sequel, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. With the lack of any serious RTS game on Apple’s mobile platform, I’m surprised that it’s taken this long for any company to fill the void, and I don’t imagine that we’ll be seeing a micro-version of the game coming from Blizzard coming anytime soon. This is where Gameloft comes in, and this is what Gameloft does better than anyone.
And there’s just no getting around that fact. From the trio of races to the character design to even the individual units’ (often hilarious) dialogue, the game screams Starcraft. While the game does present a somewhat competent storyline about three competing races trying to control resources on the planet Sinistral, its nothing more than a pretense for some entertaining real-time strategic action on the go. Even the attempt to introduce main characters and ‘heroes’ into the mix falls a bit flat, but you’ll hardly notice while managing dozens of units while trying to build up – and defend – your growing empire.
While StarFront does a good job cloning StarCraft’s most important features, its actually better than Blizzard’s game in certain areas, such as the ability to play all three races across the game’s 18-level single-player campaign. Speaking of races, they include the humanoid Consortium (Terran), the insect-like Myriad (Zerg), and the robotic Warden (Protoss), although all three play suspiciously similar to one another and don’t feature the minute complexity of StarCraft’s famous trio (then again, they also don’t require you to purchase three different versions of the game for entry). As such, there’s no need to worry about tactical advantages that much here.
I also really enjoyed the simplified economy / building aspects and interface, as many of the most crucial task are largely automated in ways that suit a fast-paced mobile RTS. Resources are limited to Xenodium and Energy, which can be collected by building collection depots on top of meteor craters and pillars. Sending multiple worker drones to collect definitely makes managing resources simpler, though I wish Gameloft would have opted for a full upgrade path for some buildings (like resource depots) that spread upgraded features across all of your future buildings, but it’s a small gripe in a hierarchy that’s remarkably well thought out.
Building and managing non-resources is fairly straightforward as well, as the game follows the standard RTS pattern of progressively more powerful units (soldiers, vehicles, upgrades, etc.) by constructing the right buildings to enable better tech. While these changes most likely stems from the game’s portable nature and need for faster, speedier sessions (and Gameloft probably not wanting to duplicate Blizzard’s enormous development budget), it works well in practice. Future RTS games could definitely stand to learn from this.
You’re probably curious how Gameloft was able to translate such a complex RTS interface to the iPhone’s smaller screen, and how playable it could possibly be. Fear not, as StarFront takes full advantage of touch controls to provide the best non-PC RTS interface I’ve ever played with. Everything is controlled though a series of taps, double-taps, and the occasional two-finger drag, which simulates the mouse action of selecting specific multiple units. They also did a good job of making crucial menus and options as unobtrusive and keeping them out of the way while playing, as many of the buttons can be minimized into tabs to reduce screen clutter and reactivated later when you need them. There’s also a mini-map you can toggle on or off in a corner of the screen that lets you quickly jump around the map by tapping it, and you can even adjust your zoom in/out level with a handy slider.
Similar (onscreen) units can automatically selected with a simple double-tap, while selecting a mix of different units can be done by using two finger to ‘draw’ a selection box (hint: you can also select them by using two fingers to simultaneously select the top and bottom corners of your virtual ‘box’). Moving your troops or engaging in battles by tapping where you want them to go, and you can even preselect and save up to three squads for easy-access to them in a pinch using virtual hotkeys. You can even tell your troops to move straightforward to a battle or fight against enemies en route, though the game’s lackluster ‘retreat’ method (which requires you to tap and hold where you want to retreat to) is frustrating and almost useless in practice.
While my experience was with the iPhone version of the game (played on an iPod Touch 4), it’s possible the upcoming iPad version will expand upon – and maybe improve – on the interface that Gameloft is pioneering here.
The game looks outstanding on the iPhone’s smaller screen, with nearly everything rendered in detailed and fully polygonal 3D, including the micro-sized units and even the ever-shifting backgrounds. What’s really impressive is that even when the screen is filled with intense action and multiple units (numbering in the dozens) the frame-rate remains nearly unchanged, with fast and fluid animations and elemental effects bringing this detailed world to life. Likewise, there’s a booming and predictably epic soundtrack to really add some appreciable sizzle to the action. It’s almost good enough to make you forget the silly voiceovers, though it was nice to hear the multi-clicked one-liners from StarCraft carried over here as well. “This gun is heavy.”
Besides the campaign, there’s also a single-player Skirmish mode that lets you play solo matches against the computer with four difficulty levels, though two-on-two matches are missing for some odd reason. Then there’s multiplayer, which allows you to play with up to 4 others players across local Bluetooth or online through Gameloft Live across 5 different maps, which also keeps track of your personal achievements. As much fun as playing against others was – and it was definitely fun – the online lobby system and match-making left a lot to be desired. Maps are locked to specific 1 – 4 human player (1v1 or 2v2) matches, and while there’s options for selecting teams, you aren’t able to play against a computer opponent for practice or avoid getting rushed by more skilled players. I was impressed how Gameloft is constantly applying balancing patches, but expect to get rocked by rushing killjoys like its still 1998.
It may not be the full Battle.net experience, but its surprisingly better than you might have ever imagined a mobile RTS could be, especially one that can be played online.
Starfront: Collision might be Gameloft’s latest cloning effort (this time for Blizzard’s StarCraft), but its also their best one yet, as well as the best looking and playing mobile RTS game ever made. A streamlined resource management system and interface make playing on the smaller-screen fast and easy, and the game’s full 18-level campaign (using all three races) will definitely keep you busy. Then there’s multiplayer, which lets up to 4-players duke it out in online battles through Gameloft Live, though we hope future updates add necessary balancing and more options to the mix. By no means perfect, the game does prove that complex RTS games can run on mobile devices without embarrassment, and is easily one of the best that’s available for Apple’s platform yet.