It was with a degree of resignation and apathy that I approached Gameloft’s newest entry in the N.O.V.A. series. These titles are a showcase of all the good and bad in mobile gaming. Polished and slickly produced, these games have gotten progressively better looking and more technically impressive with each iteration, and they cost far less than any mainstream console or PC title. At the same time they are often painfully derivative, straining credibility in how much they are willing to shamelessly copy big budget, mainstream titles in both appearance and content. As they exist on touch screen devices they also often have compromised control schemes that seem ill-suited to the platform, with onscreen d-pads showing us just how full of “joy” a physical joypad really is. Is N.O.V.A.3 more of the same?
Well N.O.V.A.3 is derivative. In this case it looks and plays a lot like Crysis 2 with many of the same gameplay elements and very similar visuals. It also features onscreen controls that are as unintuitive and unsatisfying as ever. What sets this game apart though is the visuals. Sure, the other N.O.V.A. games looked good, but this is something else. N.O.V.A.3 could be the best looking game on a mobile device. With a shiny retina display, N.O.V.A.3 is nothing short of breathtaking.
I’m going to take another paragraph to talk about the visuals in N.O.V.A.3. The real noticeable thing here is the increase in resolution on the textures. In mobile games there was a time when polygons and 3D graphics were a shocking new thing. Seeing Mario 64 running on the DS was a technical achievement and the fast paced visuals of Wip3out on the PSP seemed like an amazing accomplishment on a handheld device. Even when these games came out though they harked back to classic titles from the past. In the case of N.O.V.A.3 though, because the resolution is so high, and on such a comparatively small screen, the game looks better than console games and rivals a high-spec PC title. It might seem insane for Gameloft to try to make a game that is as technically impressive as Crysis 2 on a handheld tablet device, but the truth is that on iPad 3 this game looks a good deal BETTER than Crysis 2 on XBox or PS3. The comparative benefits of the insanely high-resolution retina display can be argued back and forward, but when you seen N.O.V.A.3 running in resolutions well above HD on the iPads screen you can’t help but be impressed. Visuals can’t make a good game bad, but they certainly make dull game more interesting.
Away from the visuals, N.O.V.A. 3 is a fairly standard FPS. You have recharging health, use sniper rifles, shotguns and grenades and move from tightly scripted scene to scene while military types say things like, “Section B has been overrun, you’re needed there Master Chie…. I mean Commander Kal Wardin”. Its your standard Call of Duty fare, but again the tone and setting (and visuals and story) are heavily inspired by Crysis 2. From the city setting to the weird alien enemies, this is Crysis 2 mobile in everything but name.
You can use a range of powers to defeat the enemies, the most interesting of whcih is the slow motion ability. As expected this slows time, and lets you see the beauty of the games particle system in action. Nailing headshots in this mode is great. Unfortunately using this power drains your suit and makes you more vulnerable to incoming attacks. At one point I wondered why I was dying when hit only once, and it turns out it was because I was overusing the slow motion power. In practice then its use is limited to showing off the prettiness of the game engine.
I’ve often struggled with touch screen controls (like many of you have I’m sure) and I took a while to find a comfortable set up for N.O.V.A. 3. In this case there is the additional problem of multiple onscreen controls rather than just the customary fire buttons. Buttons for powers, jumping, grenades and weapon selection take up a lot of the screen space and while they don’t obscure what’s happening in the game, they are either too far away from your fingers and hard to reach quickly or in the way when you are just trying to navigate and look around. I eventually settled on playing the game on a flat surface using two index fingers for movment and aiming and my thumb to hit the fire button. Of all the ergonomic solutions I have attempted for onscreen touch controls in FPS games, this has been the most successful and I urge you to try it.
Thankfully the awkwardness of the controls is offset by the game relative ease. Your character can soak up a lot of punishment meaning that you are often free to painstakingly target your enemies rather than attempt to dodge them. Its undoubtedly a compromise, but the most important thing is that it makes the game fun to play rather than a frustrating mess.
There are a number of other minor issues, but bringing them up seems churlish when so much provided for such a low price. The dialogue flips between hilarious bad and bad-bad, and there are a fair amount of glitches and bugs throughout, though nothing game breaking. At times these can be hilarious, like the glitch that made me float to the left throughout the level until I left the game world entirely and floated off into the void like the baby in the bubble in 2001. The multiplayer is also completely by-the-numbers and largely pointless. If you’re on the go then you can’t play well on 3G and at home you have many better options available.
So N.O.V.A. 3 is everything good and bad about mobile gaming today then? For the most part, yes it is. It sure is pretty though. Looks don’t get you everything, but in this case they certainly warrant the small price Gameloft is asking. N.O.V.A. 3 is a cheap date that may be shallow and vapid, but it sure will make your friends jealous.
7 gorgeous-but-gormless graphics out of 10