App review: Infinity Blade (iPhone)

Aww, would you look at that, the iPhone's trying to play big boy games! Following in the well received footsteps of Rage HD, today marks the debut of Infinity Blade, the second in what's hopefully a wave of gorgeous-looking iOS games boasting advanced 3D graphics, if not 3D gameplay. Epic Games has put aside the chainsaw-equipped projectile weaponry of its wildly successful Gears of War console series to deliver the first mobile game built around its Unreal Engine 3. You won't be surprised to hear that it's utterly delicious to look at, and the visuals certainly helped transport us to this alien realm of swords, axes, shields, and magical rings -- where body armor is optional, but helmets apparently are not. Jump past the break to see this visual feast in motion and to soak up some more of our impressions.

You'll be doing yourself a disservice, it must be said, if you play Infinity Blade with just your iPhone's underpowered loudspeaker for company. What you'll want to do is plug in a pair of headphones or some external speakers, so as to truly appreciate the immersive nature of the audio-visual one-two punch before you. For such a relatively clichéd game in terms of storyline, Infinity Blade managed to suck us in and we feel like the quality of the presentation had a lot to do with it.

Things do take a little while to ramp up, as your first few encounters with bad dudes will be an introduction to the control scheme more than actual life-or-death situations, but once you level up and your enemies stop telegraphing their attacks a week in advance, you'll find yourself legitimately challenged and there's an appositely rewarding feeling as you overcome each successively musclier foe. It's worth noting that your basic gameplay mechanic boils down to a series of one-on-ones, however there's plenty of (frankly surprising) variety and depth to the controls you have on offer and the intelligence of higher-level enemies certainly contributes to diversifying the experience so it never feels like a repetitive grind.

You have the ability to dodge, block, or parry attacks, while your own strokes of furious vengeance can be delivered via either your trusty metallic weapon of choice -- whether it be sword-shaped or more reminiscent of an axe, your protagonist will wield it in the same way -- or a spot of magical destruction, depending on your tastes. Mixed up together, the virtual buttons and gesture-based slashing represent your classic case of a control scheme that's easy to get the hang of quickly, but challenging and deep enough to require an investment of time to master fully. The most important thing is that it can be sickeningly satisfying, particularly because your blade cuts swathes through the enemies that directly correspond to the angles of your finger swipes. It just makes it that extra bit more personal.

Epic bills this as an action-RPG title and the role-playing aspect comes in immediately following each battle, where you're studiously assessed on how stylishly you destroyed your opponent. Experience points are then distributed in a somewhat quirky way, whereby each item of your kit collects a portion of the score until it is mastered, at which point its share of the XP loot starts to be wasted. Since mastery of each item is rewarded, you'll want to achieve it, but because you lose points after mastering an item, you're encouraged to keep moving on to other swords, other helmets, and other sets of armor, which then tend to subtly alter the basic gameplay. This, in turn, helps to variegate the game's experience. Another important aspect of RPGs, the storyline, is almost entirely neglected here, but that's to be expected -- we are, after all, talking about gaming on a smartphone.

It's also extremely encouraging to hear that Epic plans to expand the already rich inventory of trinkets for your warrior with even more options, all of them free, and a multiplayer element is also promised at some point down the line. Game Center integration is already present and achievements get tallied up -- yes, they do make the game more fun -- but we can't wait to start dishing out some trash talk with our super-duper combos.

The one major downer to this game, the fact that it's basically a one-on-one dojo sparring session under all the glitz and glamor, goes out of the window when you're playing against your best buddy or colleague. The unpredictability of human opponents is the thing that's kept so many first-person shooters going far past their sell-by date (or even real-time strategy titles like StarCraft), so we can only imagine how crazed this game's followers will become once it lets you slash up your boss with something called the Sword of Storms.

In terms of its relationship with your iPhone, Epic's Infinity Blade has a predictably ruinous effect on battery life. We managed to halve a fully charged iPhone's juice with a three-hour session of on-and-off gaming, but backgrounding this app has also shown to be energy-intensive. In our limited experience, we saw our iPhone 4 chew through an atypically large chunk of its energy reserves while we had Blade in the background, meaning that you'll want to shut it down completely when you're done with it.

Otherwise, it performed perfectly respectably for us. Some drops in frame rate were apparent, but given the visual treasures on offer, that's neither a surprise nor an intolerable flaw. There is a touch of lag in responding to our swipes as well, but that's mostly evident when battles really heat up and is again a relative non-issue.

There's no denying that, as a game, Blade Infinity is limited. The storyline can be recited in a single sentence and the basic gameplay mechanic is one and the same throughout. However, it never feels like a trudge because of some spectacular presentation, RPG elements that have been woven in intelligently rather than thrown in as an afterthought, and increasingly sophisticated enemy AI as you progress through the game. So, is it worth your $5.99? Hell yes. And even if it wasn't, you'd still want to buy it just so you could tell your grandkids that you were there when 3D games went mobile.

N.B. -- Infinity Blade was reviewed on an iPhone 4. The game is also compatible with the iPad, iPhone 3GS, and iPod touch fourth generation and third generation (16GB and above).