December 16 was a huge day for the App Store, with a veritable flood of big-name titles dropped in from several big-name developers -- so there was some fierce competition for this week’s rundown of the iPhone’s best. But coming through all of them is N.O.V.A. 2, because hey, who can resist the chance to storm distant alien lands, meet interesting alien people, and blast them?
But that’s just the No. 1 slot for this week’s top five: read on to see what other games we’re digging.
N.O.V.A. 2: Near Orbital Vanguard Alliance
What do you do with the sequel to one of the leading iPhone games on the market? Over at Gameloft, you find ways to make it better -- better graphics, better controls, better multiplayer. That’s exactly what’s available in N.O.V.A. 2: Near Orbital Vanguard Alliance ($6.99). The game picks up six years after the narrative of the first game, again putting you behind the gun of a space marine in what is essentially Gameloft’s clone of the uber-popular Halo series for Xbox. Not that that’s a bad thing, because N.O.V.A. 2 does Halo even better than the first game did. When you grab this one, however, you’re going to want to take it online: the new amped-up multiplayer mode now makes it possible to put 10 players on a single map, which rivals the kind of experience you’d get on a FPS console title.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
We first saw Guardian of Light ($6.99) appear as a downloadable title for Xbox 360 and the PlayStation Network over the summer -- it was good then, it’s good now. The iOS version of the game, as far as I’ve gotten into it, is nearly identical to its console forerunner, and that’s great news. In top-down, two-stick shooter style, you guide Lara Croft through an adventure that includes a lot of fighting of monsters and bosses, solving puzzles and raiding tombs. You’ll have to circumvent traps while swinging over pits, scaling walls and blowing stuff up. Like N.O.V.A. 2 above, though, the best part comes when you involve other people. You can take on Guardian of Light with another person in the cooperative mode, which elevates the gameplay and puzzle-solving substantially as you work through rooms and have to rely on each other. Or, you can compete and try to grab as many points as possible. Seven dollars might seem like a lot, but you get a whole lot of bang for your buck here.
Real Racing 2
Probably the craziest thing about Real Racing 2 ($9.99) is the fact that it packs 10 hours of gameplay into one little app. As the title suggests, this sequel works to simulate the racing experience, down to using 30 authentic cars. It also packs some amazing graphics and supports up to 16 different cars in a single race. Developer Firemint has stepped up its game since the last Real Racing, tweaking the model here to create an iOS game that does racing really, really well, with controls that feel true to what driving is actually like, plus tough opponent artificial intelligence to keep the challenge high on every track. Real Racing 2 also takes the ability to jump into big races online, allowing for up to 16 human racers in its online multiplayer mode, which is supposed to be the most players supported in an iOS game. And, did I mention it just looks pretty, moves fast and feels very real? You may not have known you were looking for a racing game on your iPhone, but believe me, you found it.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 ($0.99) also has a PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 equivalent -- although instead of being a downloadbale game, it’s actually a full-priced, $60 first-person shooter ,and part of a triple-A franchise. So it’s great to see that Electronic Arts has ported Bad Company 2 to the iPhone and preserved much of what makes the big version a hit, but also scaled it down appropriately so that it’s fast-paced and doesn’t break the bank. You join up with Bad Company, a squad of four soldiers, at the outset of Battlefield’s 14 single-player missions, which are fun and intense but also short enough that you can put the game down when you need to -- it is on a phone, after all. The story is told through cutscenes and comedic dialogue from the group, and you’ll eventually pound through something like four hours of fighting in this one. EA also has included an online or local Wi-Fi multiplayer mode, which supports up to four players and has two maps at the moment. More maps are planned for future updates apparently, which is good because for the console version, multiplayer is the series’ big draw. The iOS version captures that spirit on a small scale, and with a little more support from EA, could be pretty engaging.
Cut the Rope: Holiday Gift
Not all the week’s best games have to cost eight bucks and include crazy 3D graphics. They can be little free diversions, like Cut the Rope: Holiday Gift, which includes 25 free levels of addictive cut-the-ropiness with a holiday twist. Sure, this free version is meant to entice you to buy the full paid version of the game (for a dollar), but if you already own Cut the Rope, then Holiday Gift is just that: new puzzles to work through, free of charge. In Holiday Gift, your job is to swipe the screen to cut ropes in order to swing a piece of candy into a little monster’s mouth. But more than that, you need to figure out how you can get the candy to hit three different stars on the screen before it gets to its final toothy destination. Things get more complicated when you have to manipulate the candy with air blowers, float it with bubbles, and keep it away from spiky walls that will destroy it. Just like the full version of Cut the Rope, you’ll find yourself whipping through these levels, trying to nab all the stars, only to look up and realize you just blew 20 minutes.