M.U.S.E. Review

(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)

A levitating freak of nature with a really big brain has decided it’s high time he put his telekinesis to good use — like taking over a city with remote controlled soldiers. The mysterious puppetmaster is doing a downright good job of it so far, prompting the organization M.U.S.E. (Out Now, $5.99) to send Sid Tripp out the door with orders to level anything willing to point a gun back at him. No doubt they chose Sid because of his peculiar ability to feed off of explosions. There aren’t enough med packs scattered across this city to handle the bad guy’s entire army, but those are for wussies after all: Sid gets such an adrenaline rush from blowing cars and gasoline cans to kingdom come that he can enter an altered state of being where his wounds heal and he gains heightened awareness of anything that hasn’t bit the dust yet, letting him finish the job that much easier. You have to admit, this is one of the cooler superhero powers out there.

If you back up and look at M.U.S.E. from afar, it’s the perfect modern-day cover shooter to fill in the gap between Shadowgun’s metallic corridors and EPOCH’s post-apocalyptic wastelands. If the player wants to help Sid survive his mission, then his freedom of movement had better be used to make him dart from one car to the next, taking out enemies in pop-up gun duels or resorting to grenades before his own cover literally gets blown. Once-exquisite lobbies get torn up in massive battles of maneuver where Sid has to play hide-and-seek using couches and thin marble pillars. And just when the player’s confident he or she has found the perfect statue to hide behind when assaulting an enemy compound, laser-armed drones swoop in from above. Once the game kicks into high gear and enemies begin displacing intelligently, Sid has only seconds to act before he’s flanked and summarily snuffed out. Suffice it to say that M.U.S.E.’s setups are thoroughly impressive.

Sid may be outgunned but he’s certainly at no loss for resources. He picks up the expected variety of guns and their properties – clip size, reload time, shot spread, etc. – can be upgraded with performance-earned credits between levels. The game starts with a great live tutorial that introduces all of Sid’s functions. The left-hand side of the screen comes into play for movement and the right-hand side for aiming in a way that should already feel familiar to genre fans, only there are no visible virtual joysticks popping up wherever you place your thumbs. Sid will be spending the game’s most enjoyable segments in crouching stance, flipped on by a virtual button at bottom-left and which lowers his profile against handy objects; but if a big meaty enemy with a rocket launcher has a clear shot at him, it’s time to switch Sid back into standing mode and make a run for it. Gas cans and other explosive objects are particularly interesting in M.U.S.E. because they have several practical uses. Once ignited they can take out enemies that are well covered otherwise; they’ll provide tons of combo bonus points if used that way while Sid is in Adrenaline Mode; and they can save Sid’s life if they’re left sitting around to top off his adrenaline meter in a low-health emergency.

So far so good, but one problem slams M.U.S.E. incredibly hard at release. To handle the situations M.U.S.E. throws your way, you need to channel your inner Annie Oakley — but Sid’s butterfingers seem to have a mind of their own. It won’t dawn on the player while Sid’s taking out fairly robotic enemies in the game’s first stage: there’s plenty of time to get a good bead on whatever’s waiting behind the next car or concrete barrier, and Sid’s automatic pop-up whenever the player hits that fire button is perfectly suited to low, broad cover. It was only when enemy variety and AI picked up, and side cover began taking precedence in closed environments, that I felt something was terribly amiss. Enemies move faster than the average player will be able to track them, and I’m just talking about trying to do this while Sid is crouched behind cover; forget trying to strafe enemies effectively while he’s strategically displacing.

I would trace the issue to two sources. First, there’s a jerky “snap” applied to the target reticle when the player’s thumb makes an initial movement on the right-hand side of the touchscreen; this gives the player one more thing to correct for in addition to an enemy’s movement. Tuning down the game’s aim sensitivity blunts this problem but gives the player an even tougher time tracking enemies that are swiftly flanking the hero. No doubt the game’s built-in aiming aid system was designed to counter this by making the reticle spring to nearby foes, but this is where the other half of the problem lies. Once the aim aid has locked on to a target, it tracks only within a very short radius of where the player has directed Sid’s line of sight before snapping back. Moving enemies slip right out of that range just as soon as Sid locks on to them, and the barest movement on Sid’s part can also throw it off. Another quirk that bugged me is that the aim aid can give false positives on whether an enemy can be hit from Sid’s current position; an enemy might still be out of range, or the collision detection applied to side cover may thwart the player’s shots despite the visual feedback. Try as I might to calibrate the settings and just give M.U.S.E.’s controls time to sink in, I could never shake off the feeling that Sid is left at a severe disadvantage for the wrong reasons.

The difficulty I had with aiming hit home given the genre, but there is a bright side: M.U.S.E. already gets so much right that if aiming adjustments can be made in updates, it will rank among the most appealing iOS shooters. The ideal solution I hope for is permanent tracking of enemies once locked on, so the player can focus on movement and the fire button until the enemy’s down or the player taps at the aiming side of the screen again to select a new target. It’s not the initial lock-on that bothers me so much as wrestling with lock-on, lock-off, correct for reticle snap, lock-on, lock-off, correct for reticle snap, while something’s pumping lead into me all the while. A warning indicator when an enemy’s standing right behind Sid would be icing on the cake; you’ll be surprised how often that happens.

It may be easy enough for console gaming veterans to dismiss M.U.S.E.’s aesthetic achievements if they look only at the darkly lit streets and alleys that serve as the player’s first stomping grounds. But I, for one, couldn’t resist the urge to stop and just look around once the battle had taken Sid indoors. Music is peculiarly subdued, but this emphasizes standout work in the sound effects department — the electronic screeches of Sid’s enemies can only drive shivers up your spine, and they’re a nice warning that you aren’t alone even if a room looks desolate at first glance.

iFanzine Verdict: M.U.S.E. gets so much right as a cover shooter — increasingly complex environments and increasingly intelligent enemies, and earned upgrades on top of all that stuff you can blow up. Now, if an update can add a great targeting system to that list of features, it’s sure to be a standout shooter. For now, it’s best enjoyed by the dedicated genre fans who can look past how much work has to be done to keep enemies in the hero’s crosshairs.

iPod Touch 4 owners, take note: M.U.S.E. also has noticeable stability issues on your iDevice, making for the occasional random crash and choppy returns to the game if you happen to background it to check on an email. The stability issues are already on the developer’s list of intended fixes.

Addendum: Aiming system much improved; stability issues resolved.