Alien beings called the “Gre’ath” have taken a keen interest in planet Earth and plasma bullets seem to be their preferred form of communication. That means it’s time for the Assault Squadron – a trio of little fighter craft loaded with big futuristic weaponry – to get out there and start firing their lasers on Earth’s behalf! After choosing a ship from the eponymous fleet, the player sets out on destructive excursions that alternate between vertical scrolling and sidescrolling missions. It’s a nice mashup of styles seen in earlier aircraft shoot-em-up games.
Players for whom the words R-Type, Gradius, and 1943 invoke powerful nostalgia will approach this title with great skepticism: Did Chillingo and The Binary Mill really succeed in translating this genre into something workable on the iPhone? The bedrock of a solid aircraft shoot-em-up is a control scheme that grants enough accuracy of movement to bob and weave through all the enemy aircraft and bullets that zip across the screen. With that in mind, a departure from the tried-and-true D-pad and Joystick to the touchscreen – with its possibility for finger slippage and requirement that player input obscure some of the onscreen action – is quite the leap of faith.
Thankfully Assault Squadron‘s developers cast an incredibly wide net in hopes of catching every possible control preference, and the result is decisively positive. Input options run the gamut from virtual joystick to tilt controls to “relative proportional touch” — that last one means the player picks a spot on the touchscreen to be the center of control, and any movement of one’s finger from that spot moves the player craft accordingly. Essentially a roving virtual button that takes up no real estate other than that demanded by the player’s finger, “relative proportional touch” is the input method more than a few players are likely to stick with. While it’s still not as perfect as a completely clear screen, it affords the kind of swift reaction the player needs to dodge plasma bullets and kamikaze alien vessels.
Recognizing that shoot-em-up players commonly hold one finger on the “fire” button in console and arcade games of this ilk, Assault Squadron‘s developers decided to remove that burden almost entirely: the player ship fires a constant spray of lasers and missiles automatically, though special weapons will still need a quick double-tap on the screen or pressing a stationary virtual button. This setup works well enough to prove that heavy action games can, indeed, translate well to the iPhone, and this is Assault Squadron’s most impressive achievement.
Speaking of customization, the plethora of gameplay options in Assault Squadron only begins with the control setups! Varying difficulties produce drastic differences in the number of enemies that pop up, how much fire each enemy lays down, and how many hits the player’s ship can take before invoking a Continue or the ominous Game Over. Each ship in the Assault Squadron feels unique in terms of armament and maneuverability, encouraging different gameplay styles to complement their strengths and weaknesses. A fourth player ship can even be unlocked after completing “Normal” mode. All this adds up to great replayability for a short game — one clean playthrough will take between one and two hours. Chillingo’s “Crystallized” answer to OpenFeint allows the player to keep track of achievements and compare scores with other consumers, but there’s enough meat in the game’s single player experience to keep one coming back absent such considerations.
If Assault Squadron‘s nondescript techno soundtrack underwhelms, separate control over music and sound effect volume encourages players to select something more exciting from their iTunes playlists. While FMV cutscenes accompanying each level completion in “Campaign Mode” suggest impressive production values, it’s nice to cut to the chase and avoid them completely in “Arcade Mode,” thus rounding out the game’s numerous options.
A few flaws deny Assault Squadron the much coveted mark of iPhone gaming perfection. Most glaring is lagging my iPod Touch 3G experienced occasionally while loading the Campaign Mode’s hefty FMVs, but far more pertinent is the confusion a player could easily experience between quitting the game manually from the Pause menu and refusing an option to Continue should the player ship be destroyed. Quitting from the Pause menu is what the player will want to do when he or she needs to put down his or her iPhone; progress can be picked up from the beginning of the present stage. Refusing a continue, by contrast, erases a game in progress entirely — not a mistake you’ll want to make near the end of a hard-fought playthrough. Compounding the severity of refusing a Continue is the possibility of accidentally exercising this option in the heat of the moment, a failed attempt at maneuvering in the middle of the touchscreen tripping the Continue refusal before the player realizes it’s even onscreen. Some kind of failsafe to avoid this happenstance would be great to see in an update.
While not a flaw per se, Assault Squadron‘s difficulty constricts the otherwise wide appeal it should have among fans of action and console or arcade style games. I found the “Casual” difficulty sufficiently challenging yet manageable, but “Normal” quickly pushes into the territory of Bullet Hell — that insane phenomenon in which a game of this genre can leave players literally swimming in a sea of enemy fire. True diehards will love the stark difficulty progression but it’s liable to test the enthusiasm of App Store consumers just getting into the genre. One thing’s for sure: whoever snags “Admiral” rank on Assault Squadron‘s Crystal achievement list by completing an “Expert” difficulty playthrough without getting hit deserves some serious, serious props.
iFanzine Verdict: An astounding level of user customization and replayability makes this one a standout, both on the iPhone and the shoot-em-up genre historically. Diehard fans of the genre will want to pick this one up if they haven’t already. However, the more casually interested should temper their expectations with the realization that progressing through the game’s various modes – and unlocking some of its most nifty secrets – exacts an heroic level of patience and dedication.