The era of Gameloft Windows Phone 8 support is in full swing. Already the prolific publisher has graced us with an amazing racer (Asphalt 7), two less amazing but still decent open world games (Amazing Spider-Man and Dark Knight Rises), and a surprisingly enjoyable physics puzzler (Shark Dash). It’s almost like they’re single-handedly keeping the Xbox brand alive on Windows Phone.
Now Gameloft follows up with Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour, the second Windows Phone title with real-time online multiplayer and the platform’s only first-person shooter so far (until N.O.V.A. 3 comes along). FPS games on the phone are new for many of us - including me. Read on to find out how well Modern Combat 4 works as both a single-player and multiplayer game!
Save the president, kill the president
I haven’t played past games in the series, but I understand that Modern Combat 4’s story builds off of its predecessors, with a handful of characters returning for this installment. Don’t worry though, as this game’s narrative (which unfolds through fully-voiced and subtitled cinema scenes) basically plays like a Hollywood blockbuster that anyone can comprehend.
Terrorists kidnap the president and plot to bring down not only the US government but the entire capitalist world; it’s up to a handful of heroic soldiers to stop them. The twist is that several levels put players in control of Page, the leader terrorist, and show the conflict from his perspective.
Left: Villain's perspective. Right: Hero's.
Now, Page is a complete jerkwad with insufferable dialogue, so I didn’t relish my time in control of him or seeing him interact with (bully) others. Gameloft should have crafted a more charismatic and tolerable villain before forcing us to spend so much time with him. Depicting a conflict from two sides is admirable, but all we get of the villains’ viewpoint is “Kill America!” without any actual explanation of their grievances.
Thrill a minute
Left: Drone driving. Right: A simple Quick-Time Event.
Story gripes aside, Modern Combat 4’s single-player campaign is actually pretty awesome. The game thrusts you into action from the get go, as the heroic military forces storm an island resort that’s been taken over by mercenaries. The graphics are undoubtedly the most detailed and beautiful seen on Windows Phone so far. Environmental explosions, realistic lighting, and believable physics (powered by Havok) all create an exciting and console-like experience from the get-go.
The campaign is broken up into 12 levels, each of which lasts about 20-30 minutes. The levels simply overflow with variety, and not just because of the perspective bouncing back and forth between good and evil. Of course there is lots of running and gunning, spread across lots of different environments like an island, city streets, office buildings, factories, and even an Antarctic base.
The developers also keep the standard first-person gameplay from getting stale by mixing in different objectives and activities every few minutes. Players will clear paths for soldiers by manning the gun on an AI-driven, ground-based drone; man the turret on a Humvee; protect a target from the air by gunning from a helicopter; chase down a very annoying character called Saunders on foot, and more.
The only activity I didn’t care for is an ill-advised stealth section later in the game. Are stealth missions in non-stealth games fun? No, and in fact there is an unwritten law that stealth sections must be terrible. At least the mission just switches to normal gameplay after the player gets discovered though.
Shooting on the go
I fancy myself an adaptive gamer; I can enjoy playing an FPS game with a controller, mouse, or keyboard. Playing Modern Combat 4 on a touch-screen is a learning experience, but I got used to it by the third level and just had fun from then on. It helps that the controls are logical and well-laid out.
You move your character with the virtual stick on the left, which stays in a fixed position, unlike Gameloft’s open-world games. Swiping anywhere on the screen looks around, which you’ll mostly do with your right thumb. I did use my left thumb to control looking whenever I manned a turret or drone though. At the bottom of the screen there are buttons for crouching/standing, sprinting, zooming the view, and shooting. Tapping the gun at the top reloads, while swiping it toggles between your secondary firearm.
Because we only have two thumbs to work all the controls (as opposed to both our thumbs and forefingers on a physical controller), shooting while both looking and moving is impossible (unless you enable the Gyroscope for looking). But you can do any two of those at once, and the mild auto-aim helps reduce the need for constantly adjusting the view. The game is designed around the controls, so you’re never put in a situation in which they can’t keep up with the challenge.
Left: Single-player upgrades. Right: Multiplayer upgrades.
As you kill enemies and complete objectives during the campaign, you’ll earn credits that can be spent on upgrades, gun attachments, and items in the shop. Permanent upgrades do handy stuff like increase your health or decrease reloading time, while gun attachments improve your firepower.
Players also earn credits from kills and other objectives in multiplayer games, but the credits aren’t shared between the two modes. Multiplayer credits can only be spent on multiplayer upgrades and vice-versa. You’ll want to save up for a decent multiplayer gun ASAP, as the starting gun’s magazine size is so small that you’re bound to get killed while reloading quite often. Tying guns to credits instead of spawning them on the map makes for a rather unbalanced experience.
A lot of effort has gone into Modern Combat 4’s multiplayer mode, and yet so few of us will get to properly enjoy it. A healthy multiplayer game needs a large community. Asphalt 7 had a great community at launch thanks to its low price. Modern Combat 4 costs much more, so less players are bound to pick it up.
Only phones with 1 GB of RAM can even run the game, so scratch 512 MB devices off the list of potential players. Then the game requires a minimum of 5 Gigabytes of storage space (unless you successfully cue the download through the Windows Phone Store website), so many gamers just plain won’t be able to fit it onto their devices no matter what. These factors combine to put a huge cap on the potential community size.
Some of those things are out of Gameloft’s hands, but bad matchmaking also makes it harder to find games. Yes, you can invite your Xbox Live friends now and party up (much like an Xbox 360 game) to jump between games as a group. So far so good.
But there is no quick match option to find random Ranked games (the only ones eligible for earning XP, credits, or Achievements). Instead, you select from eight different Ranked game types and then sit in a lobby until someone joins. There’s no way to tell who’s playing what game type, so I imagine a lot of players will just sit in empty lobbies for a few minutes and then give up. The Windows Phone version has no way to communicate with other players, either.
Multiplayer can still be fun if you get a few friends together (which you’ll need to coordinate outside of the game, of course). It’s just a shame that the matchmaking system is built for a game with a massive community instead of one with a tiny community, as all real-time phone games will invariably possess. Also note that the maps are designed for up to 12 players, so even if you get a game of 2-4 players going, you’ll be doing lots of roaming around the map in search of your opponents.
Modern Combat 4 lacks an Achievement for beating the campaign, which is always a drag. There are a few fun single-player Achievements though, such as killing an enemy with a ricocheted throwing knife. The most time-consuming single-player Achievement is for scoring 1000 headshots, which will probably require several playthroughs to earn.
Single-player also has one apparently broken Achievement for completing a mission without taking damage. No one has been able to figure it out so far, and given Gameloft’s track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s impossible.
Unfortunately, there are also at least six multiplayer Achievements. I say unfortunately because it’s hard enough to get multiplayer games going, and experienced players will have better gear than new players, making it difficult to win matches naturally. Plus the Achievement for winning a 10-player game basically has to be boosted. Getting 10 players together all at once is not a fun prospect, and then you have to make sure everybody gets a win, too. Not very well thought out at all.
Some folks complain that FPS games don’t work well on touch-screen devices, but many of those destractors don’t seem to have actually played any such games (and certainly not the Modern Combat series). If you take that attitude without trying Modern Combat 4, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Playing a game of this scope and graphical fidelity on Windows Phone is so much more exciting than throwing another bird at a tower for the millionth time. It takes a little getting used to, but the reward is a beautiful and action-packed campaign that actually outdoes some console games.
MC4's multiplayer doesn’t fare as well as single-player thanks to poor matchmaking, too-large maps, and the imbalanced upgrade system. And the difficulty of earning that 10-player Achievement, not to mention the probably broken ‘Elusive Target’ also bring things down a notch. But for many gamers, the top-notch story mode will make up for those shortcomings. If you want a real console-style experience on your phone, look no further.
Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour for Windows Phone 8 costs $6.99 and there is a free trial. Get it here from the Windows Phone Store.