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05 February, 2015

Midnight Star Review


When the co-creator of Halo, Alex Seropian, and Industrial Toys co-founder, Tim Harris, started their Midnight Star journey, many doubted the duo's claims of reimagining the FPS for touchscreens. Fast forward a few years later, and a transmedia team of respected artists (including Hugo Award winner John Scalzi, X-Men artist Mike Choi and System of a Down’s Serj Tankian) have helped Industrial Toys deliver on their vision. This folks, is how you make a shooter for mobile devices.

Set 120 years into the future, Midnight Star follows the crew of a repurposed mining ship, the MSRV Joplin, as they respond to an alien transmission from Saturn’s moon. Early on in the game crisis strikes as the newly encountered alien race - known as The Dust - begin tampering with Earth’s sun (never good). It’s up to military graduate Charlie Campbell and the rest of the crew to explore the alien planet and harness a mysterious radioactive energy to fight back against the alien scourge and secure Earth’s place in the solar system. You’ll wage war with these amphibious/insectoid antagonists through a unique, quasi-on-rails experience, which utilises the many ways to swipe, pinch and tap your resilient touch screen glass... but more on that in a moment.

Most of the story is told through Scalzi and Choi’s free digital comic, Midnight Rises (which is totally worth it - grab it here). As a comic alone Midnight Rises is fantastic. The impressive visuals would look right at home in the Marvel universe and it’s not hard to imagine Starlord and the rest of the Guardians aboard the Joplin. It’s not going to sell the game, but it’s a neat add on, and one that Industrial Toys really wants you to experience. Because not only does Midnight Rises cover the events leading up to Midnight Star, but it’s also totally interactive, allowing the player to explore the pages and unlock an assortment of hidden goodies, such as character bios and in-game content.

It’s a good thing that it’s there, too. Once you transition over to the main game, the story takes a back seat. The small exchanges on the Joplin are more or less banter between characters masked as story progression, even though every level is pretty much the same sequence of events with varying spikes in difficulty and some boss battles peppered throughout sparingly. There are some graphically impressive cinematics, but you have to actively press a button hidden in the mission details screen to view them - something I didn’t realise until about halfway through the campaign.

But, whatever right? Midnight Rises more than satisfied my narrative needs; what I really booted up Midnight Star for was to see how it played as a mobile shooter. This is where this ambitious title really excels, swatting down the concerns of naysayers like airborne cannon fodder.

The two biggest problems shooters face engaging with the touchscreen generation are precision and mobility. Titles like Modern Combat and N.O.V.A look fantastic and both work with what they have to offer portable alternatives for Call Of Duty and Halo. But as nice as they look, they are both plagued with the unavoidable hindrance of on-screen joysticks and swipe camera controls. And this is it; this is Industrial Toys’ big pitch. What if there was a control scheme for mobile shooters that didn’t make you want to Frisbee your iPad from the highest level of your apartment building?

Rather than littering forty-percent of your screen’s real estate with transparent joysticks and action buttons, Industrial Toys has kept it minimal with four on screen buttons. Right and left buttons that allow you to check your flank, a reload button (which you also swipe at to change weapons), and the "Hyper" button, which allows you to activate an alien ability. These include levitating your enemies, essentially morphing the playing field into an intergalactic Duck Hunt. Other than that, all other actions are performed through touch gestures.

Walking is automatic, and though it is technically "on-rails," there's a lot more depth than the genre infers (thank Virtua Cop). Industrial Toys has found just the right balance with this combination. Strip away too much and the game would become over simplified and no more challenging than Fruit Ninja. But add just one superfluous button, and you’re asking the player to manipulate their digits in a way that is simply impossible for any human yet to be exposed to The Dust’s elemental morphing qualities. Managing the measly ten fingers you’ve got becomes the challenge of Midnight Star in the best way possible.

As Charlie takes over the walking duties, players are tasked with gunning down antagonists from every angle. As a level progresses, the enemies multiply, and ignoring one camper will do you no justice as they will just dog you through to the next transition. (In fact, apply that advice to your everyday life.) Ignoring immediate problems will only make future problems worse, and before you know it you’ve got plasma rockets raining down on you from every direction. Your impending doom is made foreseeable by a "threat system." Both flank buttons feature a number (the amount of enemies present at that flank), and a colour ranging from neutral to red (red, meaning you're moments away from being shot).

The aim is to prioritise each threat accordingly, but that’s not the only challenge. Guns such as the Wild Bill pistol and the old reliable assault rifle have peculiarly short magazines, and letting the clip run dry extends your reload time dramatically, leaving you open to attacks. As a result, Midnight Star ends up playing much like a rhythm-based tapper. As you begin to get the feel for your gun, you instinctively reload in sync with the beats of the rifle’s clatter. It’s a simple system, but one that is remarkably thrilling. There’s also a short melee quick-time event that's initiated when a brash enemy decides they'd prefer to beat you over the head rather than shoot from a distance.

This core gameplay loop translates beautifully into the multiplayer leaderboard feature. Being the kind of on-rails experience it is, it would be impossible for any kind of deathmatch skirmish. But Industrial Toys know that FPS games go hand-in-hand with player competitiveness. So they have introduced a leaderboard system, which is much more exhilarating than the word "leaderboard" suggests. Players start a map with four online opponents - you rack up points by chaining combos, pulling off headshots and utilising your Hyper (as in the single player campaign). The twist is, at each checkpoint, when you’re given a second to breathe, the game lets you know how you’re shaping up against your opponents. This ignited my competitive spirit in a way I’ve never felt in a mobile title before and pushed me to master the game’s mechanics.

The multiplayer challenge was, for me, Midnight Star’s most engaging feature. Though, like all great things, unless you’re willing to fork out the cash, you’re destined to slum it with the bulk standard - this leads me to my biggest gripe with what is otherwise a magnificent addition to the App Store. Although there is a catalogue of interesting weapons in the armory, and a lot of flashy tech in the engineering bay, I finished the main campaign over a couple of days with the starting weapons, the pistol and the assault rifle, and one regrettable purchase with my hard earned in-game currency, the shotgun. And it’s all to do with the two biggest downers of F2P gaming, in-app purchases and timers.

When I was but a wee boy, my pals and I stayed up late one night to obtain the mythical Mewtwo in Super Smash Bros Melee. Fuelled by potato gems and an assortment of questionably-processed chicken, we were finally rewarded with a match against the legendary Pokémon. The battle was tense and long, but eventually Mewtwo succumbed to a well-timed smash and we won. Immediately after, my friend's father walked into the room, stirred by the commotion, and unplugged the GameCube from the wall. I spent the night, wide-eyed, imagining how exciting tomorrow would be. The next morning I packed my GameCube and headed home, and somewhere along the way, the magic had been lost. I played with Mewtwo for a short while, and feeling a bit deflated, I powered down the console and went about my day.

It was only the other night when I was playing Midnight Star that I felt that same feeling again. I had just defeated a particularly difficult mission, and a pop-up alerted me that I had scraped together enough tech points for a neat new gun. My excitement was quickly doused when the game then asked for "catalyst" to expedite the gun’s manufacture. "Catalyst," you will find, is code for cold hard cash. So, unless I wanted to fork out "catalyst" from my already dismal savings account, I would have to wait at least 24 hours for the gun to be made. My point is, F2P games are just like my friend’s Dad, pulling the plug just as the fun starts to kick off - and the momentum towards joy goes with it.

With its debut game, Industrial Toys has achieved what it set out to do. It's created a mobile shooter that not only works, but one that offers an enjoyable challenge, a fleshed out comic book infused sci-fi universe, and enough player rivalry to keep you coming back for more. There is a vast world to be explored here with Midnight Star, and I look forward to future instalments. And although this fantastic shooter will be tarnished with the unattractive elements that the free-to-play model brings with it, I’ll undoubtedly be plugging away on the leaderboards with my standard issue arsenal for some time to come.

Grab the game here.

Brodie Fogg

For more, read our world exclusive "making of" feature on Midnight Star in Episode 7 of Grab It. You will also find our Top 10 FPS Games on iPad in Episode 2 of Grab It.

    - Midnight Star
    - Midnight Rises
    - Modern Combat 5: Blackout
    - N.O.V.A 3
    - Fruit Ninja
    - Grab It Episode 7

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