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Midnight Star is a mobile FPS that works (no, really)


From the mind that co-created the Halo universe, Midnight Star is a robust, alien-infested first-person shooter – for mobile devices. Wait, where are you going? Hang on! Just – hang on.

Midnight Star is a good mobile shooter.

The game comes from Alex Seropian, the man behind Halo, and Tim Harris, a former comic store owner and co-founder of game studio Seven Lights. Together at Industrial Toys, Seropian and Harris have been promising Midnight Star as a mobile shooter with innovative controls that make sense for the touchscreen platform, something the jaded mobile masses can believe in.

And so far, Midnight Star delivers.

Gallery: Midnight Star (E3 2014) | 7 Photos

Let's make this clear – Midnight Star is not a console shooter. In making FPS work for mobile, we have to dispel the genre's classic ingredients, while keeping the main mechanic: shooting from a first-person perspective. Midnight Star is essentially on-rails, removing the ability to walk around wherever you'd like. This is a fine first step, considering that existing attempts to enable walking in mobile games usually involve awful on-screen analog sticks.

Making the game on-rails simplifies a complex motion problem and allows the game to sing in other ways. The shooting mechanic is easy, with a twist – you tap the screen over the alien you wish to hit, holding down to deliver a spray from an assault rifle and flicking the screen with two fingers to zoom in before taking a shot with a sniper rifle. The reticle for the assault rifle is positioned just above your finger, allowing you to see where you'll spray, while the sniper reticle is directly where you tap, allowing for precision. There are other weapons in the game, but I played with the assault and sniper rifles, plus a power-up that made enemies float helplessly in the air for a few seconds and a standard shield enabled by holding two fingers on the screen.

The twist lies in the reloading mechanic, or just the fact that there is a reloading mechanic with a substantial impact on gameplay. Tap the weapon you're using in the upper right-hand corner and that gun will reload swiftly, in just milliseconds. But, if you shoot through your entire magazine and begin to dry fire, your weapon reload time increases significantly, opening your character up to reams of enemy bullets. It's a constant balance between shooting more and waiting for a moment to reload, and it adds a layer of tension to battles that are already hectic.

You're not able to control where your character walks, but again, there's a twist – when aliens begin swarming your location, they appear in front of you and to your sides, and you're able to swing the view right and left to take out enemies in the order you see fit. Indicators appear on the right and left sides of the screen denoting how many enemies are there and how badly they're hitting you: A two on a red background means two aliens are taking you down quickly, for example. Tap the indicator and your view slides to that side, with those aliens front-and-center.

Melee is twisted, too. Some enemies get bold and decide to rush in for hand-to-hand combat, and when they reach you, a quasi-rhythm-game begins. For a brief moment, the alien freezes and circles appear over it, some with one white outline and others with two. You have to tap within these circles, once for one outline and twice for two, before they disappear, or you're getting hit. You have to be fast and accurate – and good rhythm helps. During the demo, I found myself chanting "D-D-R" as I took out a double-lined circle and a single-lined one. It's not quite Dance Dance Revolution for your fingers, but it's an engaging way to do melee on touchscreen.

While many of the mechanics of Midnight Star have been streamlined or simplified, the game itself remains ridiculously dense. The enemy AI reacts to your choices and movements, and they show up in different places, at different paces, each time you start a level. The main hub offers multiplayer modes, a betting system, group chat, trophies, achievements, loadout customization and a system that tracks 300 gameplay stats, plus more features.

The narrative is rich, involving time travel, portals that stretch between galaxies, saving Earth from assured destruction, and, of course, evil aliens. Most of the story is told in cutscenes – the game itself is done in pretty 3D, but the cutscenes are extra-impressive. It's hard to believe some of this stuff is on an iPad.

You can get the whole story through the game, but there's also Midnight Rises, the tie-in comic from sci-fi author John Scalzi and DC artist Mike Choi. It's a digital graphic novel presented in a way I've never seen before – each layer and panel drops in individually, filling the screen with more action or text as you tap forward. It's a joy to read, and parts of it allow you to choose what happens – does the main character stay and help the mechanic fix part of the ship even though it's about to explode, or does he run to get a superior officer's help? Harris says the comic varies with each individual choice, but it all comes back to the same main storyline.

Every aspect of Midnight Star has been approached from a mobile perspective – each encounter with an alien group lasts a few minutes, max, and then you get a results screen that allows you to stop the game and go about your day, or you can keep playing. The team at Industrial Toys has been telling tales about innovating the mobile FPS and offering a full shooter experience on an iPad, but I didn't believe it until I saw it. If the entire game supports the mechanically manic, silky smooth sci-fi experience I felt during the demo, I'd say that by golly, they've done it.

Midnight Star and Midnight Rises are due out soon for iOS devices.

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