With the release of the iOS 4, the latest version of the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad operating system, Apple launched Game Center, a free online gaming service. It brought features similar to Xbox Live, such as friends lists, achievements, and online multiplayer to its mobile devices. Coupled with the thousands upon thousands of great quality games available on the App Store, Game Center is off to a strong start, with millions of users already signed up to the service.
Microsoft has followed suit with the launch of Windows Phone 7, bringing most of the Xbox Live experience to mobile devices. It has the advantage of having an established user base from the Xbox 360 and PC that might be eager to gain achievements and access accounts on the go. Plus, with an already loyal developer base developing for Xbox Live Arcade eager to make the jump to mobile, the company has a number of great titles available on the platform.
There's a third company currently fighting it out in the mobile space, and though it isn't as gaming focused as Apple or Microsoft, Google has attracted a number of gamers to its Android mobile platform. It lacks the central gaming hub of its competitors, but with millions of devices already sold, a strong developer following, and the news that it recently took the top spot as the number one smartphone operating system in the US, Android is a strong player in the mobile gaming space.
The question is: Which is the right platform for you? We've been toying around with all three, trying out the gaming hubs, rounding up some of our favorite games, and looking forward to the next big thing in mobile gaming. We won't be looking at each operating system in depth (for more, head over to CNET UK), but read on if you're trying to decide which mobile platform is best for gaming.
The iOS currently runs across three devices made by Apple: the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the iPad. With the exception of the iPad, there are multiple versions of these devices, though they share the same basic design that debuted with the original iPhone back in 2007. This consists of a multitouch-capable LCD display, along with a single "home" button below the screen. The original iPhone, iPhone 3G, and the first three generations of iPod Touch have been phased out, leaving just three models currently available: the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4, and the fourth-generation iPod Touch.
The iPhone 3GS is powered by a 600Hmz ARM Cortex CPU, along with 256MB RAM. It also features a 3.5 inch 480x320 pixel display. The iPhone 4 and fourth-generation iPod Touch are powered by an ARM-based Apple A4 chip, running at an undisclosed clock speed, accompanied by 512MB of RAM. They feature an accelerometer and a gyroscope as well, which can be used for controlling games. The display offers a substantially higher resolution than the iPhone 3GS, with a pixel count of 960x640 at 3.5 inches. Because the display is double the resolution of the old one, existing games and applications can simply be stretched to fill the screen without any additional work from developers.
We've been testing out games on a 16GB iPhone 4, which currently retails at £499 for a SIM-free model. If you're not interested in making phone calls, you can save a substantial amount with the iPod Touch, which lacks the 3G capabilities of the iPhone 4 but retails at £189 for the 8GB version and £249 for the 32GB version. Because Apple makes the operating system and the devices, there's little choice when it comes to hardware, which is not the case with the Android and Windows Phone 7 because their software is licensed to various manufacturers. That means you're stuck paying prices dictated by Apple, and if you don't like the design of the iPhone or iPod Touch, you're out of luck.
Game Center is Apple's take on online gaming services, such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. It brings friends lists, achievements, and online multiplayer to iOS devices. Not everyone can get in on the action, though, with the first-generation iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPhone 3G listed as incompatible. You'll also need an iTunes account or Apple ID to associate with the service.
If you do have a compatible device and are signed up for iTunes, then you'll be able to boot up Game Center as soon as you have the latest version of iOS installed. Be prepared for a shock when you do, though; Game Center is the most un-Apple-looking application we've seen for some time. Instead of simple fonts and complementary color schemes, you're presented with a garish green background and faux-wood paneling, complete with an art deco font and brightly colored ribbons. Though Apple's usual design aesthetic may be monochromatic, at least it's easy on the eyes.
Colors aside, Game Center itself is easy to use. There are four buttons at the bottom of the screen that allow you to access different functions: Me, Friends, Games, and Requests. Me is the home screen, displaying how many friends you've got, the number of games (that are Game Center compatible) you've got, and achievements. You can also change your status, which is displayed underneath your username in your friends lists. Speaking of friends, you can check out what they're up to at any time by hitting the Friends tab. Their usernames, status, and current games are displayed in a long list. Tapping on someone's name lets you view that friend's profile, where you can see his or her friends, games, and achievements, as well as a list of games you both own. Underneath that is a list of games he or she has that you don't, and tapping one of those takes you to the App Store to buy it.
You can dive further into your friend's statistics by tapping on a game you both own. You can view his or her ranking in leaderboards, along with his or her top score. Underneath that is his or her achievement list for the game, and you can tap "show more" to view specific achievements and compare them to your own. If you find a game that supports multiplayer, you can tap the "play" button, which loads it and automatically sends a request to your friend. The Games tab works in a similar way, except it lists scores solely for your own games. It's a shame there isn't a separate leaderboard tab to give you an overview of your scores because you have to tap into each game and then tap again to access the leaderboard. That quickly becomes a chore if you're trying to keep track of your progress across several games. The final tab is Requests, which allows you to send friend requests to pals, provided you know their username or e-mail address. It also lists any pending requests you have from others.
While Game Center offers a lot of great features, some are implemented in strange ways, and there are also some glaring omissions. For instance, achievements don't add up to a final gamerscore on your account, which lessens their appeal. There's also currently a free-for-all on how many points you receive for an achievement, so one game may contain 175 points and another might contain 500. The lack of integrated chat is also a mystery. Yes, there are a number of chat apps available to download, but a system integrated into Game Center would be much more convenient. A central service would also encourage developers to include chat in their games because currently, it's entirely on them to implement it.
There are literally thousands upon thousands of games available for the iOS, with pretty much every genre included. Though some games have been ported over from other platforms, many are all-original creations from independent studios that have gone on to sell millions of copies. Here are five of our favorites.
Game Dev Story
Game Dev Story borrows heavily from such games as Theme Hospital and Theme Park. You take control of an up-and-coming game development studio, with the aim being to develop as many critically and financially successful games as possible. You can make games in any genre you like; hire staff, such as Gilly Bates and Stephen Jobson; and develop for consoles, such as the PlayStatus 2 and Game Kid. You can even develop your own console to compete with the big wigs if you get the right staff on board. Little touches, such as going to the Global Game Awards and exhibiting your wares at GameDex, make the game incredibly charming. It's also amazingly addictive and well worth the £2.39 ($3.99) asking price.
Speaking of addictive games, how about a spot of Peggle? PopCap's physics-based puzzler will have you glued to your iPhone for hours on end with gameplay that seems simple yet has tons of depth. The game is loosely based on the Japanese pastime of pachinko. You launch a ball from the top of the screen through a board full of colored pegs and bricks. The aim is to hit all of the orange objects on the board before you run out of balls. The beauty of Peggle lies in its physics system, which realistically mimics the actions of a falling ball. After playing for a while, you begin to learn how that system works, and you can pull off shots of amazing skill. With tons of levels to play through, and more available with the 59 pence expansion Peggle Nights, Peggle is hands down one of the best puzzle games on the iOS. It's on sale in the App Store for £1.79 ($2.99).
Angry Birds has become a worldwide phenomenon. At one point, it was the number one selling game in nearly every App Store across the world. Everyone from politicians to pop stars has cited Angry Birds as one of their favorite games, with its accessible gameplay making it easy to pick up and play. The aim of the game is to destroy pigs that are scattered across a map, filled with various obstacles. You're armed with a slingshot and a bunch of birds to use as ammo, which you can fling at the pigs to destroy them. As you progress, levels get increasingly difficult, with more obstacles blocking your path to the pigs. There are tons of levels to play through, and with developer Chillingo constantly releasing free level packs, Angry Birds is a great value at a mere 59 pence ($0.99).
iD's Rage HD is one of the most impressive-looking games on the iPhone. The graphics really do have to be seen to be believed, and even when you're playing, it's easy to forget that you're doing so on a mobile device. The dynamic lighting, high-resolution textures, and gory animations look amazing, and the game is also lots of fun too. Though it's a first-person on-rails shooter, you have quite a lot of freedom with your aiming, with plenty of hidden objects to collect on each level. The enemies explode in satisfying globules of blood as you blast at them with your shotgun, making Rage one of the more visceral experiences on the iOS. Rage HD is available on the App Store for £1.19 ($1.99).
Super Mega Worm
Remember the movie Tremors? Super Mega Worm is the 8-bit reincarnation of that classic 1990s B movie. You play as a giant worm that tunnels its way underground, trying to eat everything in its path. You can guide the worm into cows, policemen, planes, and even mothers taking their babies out for a stroll in a pram. The more the worm eats, the more resistance you encounter, with the army and air force sending in paratroopers and heavily armed helicopters to take you down. The 8-bit art style and score multipliers give the game a great retro feel, and it's a joy to listen to the chiptune soundtrack and hilarious sound effects. Super Mega Worm is also fully integrated with Game Center, so you earn achievements and view your high score on leaderboards. This is another iOS bargain at 59 pence ($0.99).
Windows Phone 7
Unlike Apple's iOS, Windows Phone 7 is available across a number of devices from different manufacturers. However, Microsoft has imposed a strict set of restrictions on its specification, meaning there's very little to differentiate among models. Each phone must feature an 800x480 pixel multitouch screen, a 1GHz or better ARM processor, a DirectX 9-capable graphics processor, 258MB of RAM, minimum 8GB of flash memory, an accelerometer, a GPS, a five-megapixel camera, and six dedicated hardware buttons.
The software must also remain the same among all phones, which means you won't have to suffer through a carrier-modified version of the operating system. Though these specifications are restrictive, it makes it much easier for users to transition between different devices. It's also a godsend for developers, who have a single unified platform to build on, which means software, such as games, should run the same on any Windows Phone 7 device.
We've been testing out the features of Windows Phone 7 on the HTC HD7, which is available on O2 in the UK, though there are numerous handsets available. These range from those with large displays, such as the 4.3-inch HD7 and 4-inch Samsung Omnia 7, to those with smaller displays, such as the 3.8-inch LG Optimus 7. There's little to choose from between handsets, other than their look and feel, as their internals are almost identical. They're priced similarly, too, with most phones ranging from £400 SIM-free to free on contract.
The heart of Windows Phone 7's gaming features is a version of Xbox Live, Microsoft's popular online gaming service on the Xbox 360. It brings over most of the features from its console counterpart, including friends lists, achievements, and online multiplayer. If you're already a member of Xbox Live, your existing achievements, friends list, and avatar carry over to your mobile. This means you can message your friends on Xbox Live, change your avatar, or earn achievements toward your gamerscore while on the move.
Xbox Live lives as a separate app tile on your home screen, sharing the same bold look as other Windows Phone 7 applications. There are four sections to the app, which you access by flicking left or right between panels: Collection, Spotlight, Xbox Live, and Requests. Collection shows games that you currently own as large icons, which you tap to take you straight into the game. Icons for other games available for sale reside underneath and take you to the Marketplace when tapped. Shopping for games is incredibly easy; you can browse by top rated, newest, free, or by genre just by flicking left or right. There's a star rating next to each game so you can see at a glance what users thought of it, and you can get more in-depth reviews and info on the game just by tapping its icon.
Spotlight is like the "What's New" section of the Xbox Live dashboard, featuring links to game guides, new games, and featured gamers. You can flick up and down the list to view more content, and tapping any listing takes you to the Marketplace or a website featuring the content. It's not the most useful of features to have, but fortunately, the Xbox Live section is far more exciting. It shows you a picture of your avatar, along with you current gamerscore and the last achievement you earned. Tapping on your avatar allows you to customize it as you would on the Xbox 360. You can select new clothes, change features, or just randomly poke it until it makes funny faces at you.
Tapping on your username takes you into your full Xbox Live profile. From there, you can view any messages you've received on Live and reply to them. It's a great feature if you send a lot of messages because typing on the phone keyboard is a lot quicker than trying to hash out a message using the standard Xbox 360 controller. You can also view your full achievements list, including any for games played on your console at home. You dive deeper into each game by tapping its icon, which shows you specific achievement names and how many gamer points each one is worth. Your full friends list is also viewable, so you can see who's online, what games friends are playing, and even compare their achievements against your own. This is particularly useful for checking if any of your friends are online and seeing if they fancy a game without booting up your console.
The final section is Requests, which--as the name suggests--allows you to view and reply to friend requests, game invites, or turn on notifications for any turn-based game you might be playing. The way these Xbox Live features have been condensed onto a mobile platform is impressive. The service is free, including access to turn-based multiplayer games, and if you're already an Xbox Live member, you will appreciate being able to access your account info at any time.
Windows Phone 7 Games
Given the fact that the Windows Phone 7 is such a new platform, it can't currently compete with the sheer number of games available on the iOS. Many are ports from other platforms, costing significantly more than on rival devices, with the likes of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed going for £5.49, while costing a mere 59 pence on the iPhone. That said, not everything is priced so exorbitantly, and there are plenty of great games that compete with the best the iOS has to offer. We've rounded up our five of our favorites below.
Flowerz is a simple puzzle game, developed by Carbonated Games. Your task is to chain three flowers of the same color together on a grid to create lines. There are multiple levels to play through, and each gets progressively more challenging. Completing certain levels nets you achievement points, and most of them are easy to get, which makes Flowerz a great game to play if you want to beef up your gamerscore on the bus. Best of all, it's free!
Need for Speed Undercover
Need for Speed Undercover is a 3D arcade racer from EA that makes use of the phone's accelerometer to steer. There's a full campaign mode to play through, complete with live-action cutscenes and narrative. The motion controls work well, and the graphics are good, too, though they're not quite up to the same standard as the iOS version on which it's based. It's available on the marketplace for £3.99 ($4.99).
CarneyVale: Showtime is a port of the Xbox Live indie game by the same name. You assume the role of Slinky, a rag-doll acrobat, who is trying to make it to the top of the circus world. To accomplish this, you have to guide Slinky through a number of circus stunts by firing him out of a cannon and directing him through a ring of fire while trying to collect balloons along the way. The touch controls are excellent, and by tilting the phone, you can nudge Slinky while he's in the air. There's a full career mode to play through, as well as and achievements to earn, all for the princely sum of £2.99 ($2.99).
Up next is another port, and this time, it's the XBLA classic Rocket Riot. We reviewed the Xbox 360 version at an 8.0, and fortunately, the Windows Phone version is just as much fun. The game is a twin-stick shooter with an 8-bit art style that looks great. Your character wears a jetpack and is armed with a rocket launcher. The aim of each level is to simply destroy all enemies in sight while annihilating the environment. Sadly, there aren't any multiplayer options like in the XBLA version, but there are numerous power-ups and achievements to keep you amused on the go. It costs £5.49 ($6.99).
Uno is one of the unsung heroes of XBLA and often eats up a gamer's time as much as some AAA games. The Windows Phone 7 version is no different. It's incredibly addictive, and there's plenty to get stuck into with a full tournament mode. The drag-and-drop controls are simple to pick up and work well. You can also customize your game with different rules, should the standard ones not prove enough of a challenge. Uno is available on the marketplace for £3.99 ($4.99).
Google's Android takes a completely different approach to the iOS and Windows Phone 7. The operating system itself is free to use, and device manufactures can install it on any specification of handset they like. This means that you have more choice when purchasing a phone, with a number of different display sizes, processor speeds, and features available. The same applies to software, with carriers and manufacturers able to enhance it as they see fit. However, this freedom comes at a price.
With such a wide range of hardware and software on the market, it's much more difficult for developers to create software that will run consistently well across all of them. Phones, such as the HTC Hero, feature a 320x480 pixel resolution screen and 528MHz Qualcomm processor, while others, such as the Samsung Omnia S, feature a higher resolution 480x800 pixel screen and a much faster 1GHz ARM Cortex processor. Some phones lack multitouch, an accelerometer, or GPS, while others might run an older version of the operating system that is not easily updated, thanks to carrier modifications. This creates a large divide in terms of what each phone is capable of, and the gaming experience across Android has suffered as a result.
The flip side of this is that you can buy an Android phone for much less than its rivals. Models, such as the San Francisco on Orange, go for just £99 on pay as you go, while a range of deals means you can pick a great phone, such as the HTC Legend, for free on a £15 monthly contract. Most recent models are able to handle games well, but beware of cheaper deals on older handsets because their hardware might not be up to scratch.
Unlike the iOS and Windows Phone 7, Android doesn't feature its own gaming hub. Fortunately, a third party has stepped in to fill the gap. OpenFeint is an online gaming service that brings learderboards, multiplayer, and achievements over to Android. It's a fully open-source solution, so developers can incorporate the service into their games for free. Most of OpenFeint's services are accessed from within a game, but it has recently released an app called FeintSpotlight, which finds compatible games in the Android marketplace.
The app itself is free to download from the marketplace, or you can find it using a quick response code from the developer's website. The front page of the app presents you with a list of featured games, all of which support the OpenFeint service. Tapping on a game's icon takes you to a page with more details about it, including a brief description, screenshots, and gameplay videos. You can buy any game directly from the app using your marketplace account, though to use OpenFeint features within a game, you need to register for a separate free account.
OpenFeint is accessed by tapping on its icon from within a supported game. Once loaded, you're presented with your profile picture, along with four options: Leaderboards, Achievements, Games, and Friends. Leaderboards shows you your top score, as well the scores of others, so you can see just how you shape up against the competition. You can also view just the high scores of your friends, should you wish to brag if you're beating them. The second section is Achievements, which shows you your total achievement score, along with any you've earned for the game you're playing. You can also drill down into individual challenges and see what you have to do to unlock more.
The Games section lists any OpenFeint games you might own, along with your achievement score for them. The final section is Friends, which lets you send friends requests, see what games your friends are playing, and see their achievement scores. The OpenFeint experience is very slick, but the lack of a dedicated app is disappointing. Though you can view your account information using a Web browser, a dedicated app would be quicker to access and wouldn't require you to load a game.
Android's fractured device specifications mean that you have to be cautious when buying games. They might not work on you hardware, even if you think you meet the minimum specs. This issue came to light recently when the popular iOS title Angry Birds was released on Android, but it performed terribly on older devices, such as the HTC Hero. Even a subsequent update still hasn't managed to improve its frame rate. There also aren't anywhere near as many games available on Android as there are on the iOS, but they are priced similarly, so you won't be paying the inflated prices found on Windows Phone 7. We've rounded up five of our favorite Android games below.
If you're after a classic shoot-'em-up on Android, then look no further than Radiant, a Geometry Wars-style shooter developed by Hexage. You take control of a small ship and defeat waves of neon aliens that explode into tiny pixels when you shoot them. Your ship autofires, so all you have to worry about is moving left and right using the touch screen. There's a weapons shop where you can spend credits you've earned on items, such as laser guns and smart bombs, as well as leaderboards where you can chart your performance against others. Radiant is available now for £1.80 ($2.84)
Shoot U is a physics-based puzzler in the style of Crayon Physics. Your job is to fire rag-doll characters out of a cannon to hit a red star, avoiding obstacles along the way. Each level presents you with increasingly challenging physics-based puzzles, requiring your entire mental prowess to complete. The hand-drawn art style is great to look at, and because it uses high-contrast colors, it's easy to see when you're being bashed about on a packed tube carriage. It retails for £1.26 ($1.99)
While the iPhone might have the likes of Fieldrunners and Plants vs. Zombies in its tower defense catalog, Android has a classic of its own in the form of Robo Defense. You have to prevent waves of enemy robots from gaining access to your base by placing a variety of weapons and units in their way. There are tons of units to choose from, from basic gun turrets to huge missile towers. You can also customize units with unique attributes like slowdown, flame, or antiair specialties. Like many tower defense games, Robo Defense is incredibly addictive, and with 120 levels to play through, it's great value at £1.90 ($2.99).
Fruit Ninja is a port of the iOS game by the same name that sees you taking on the role of a fruit-hating ninja. Fruit is randomly tossed onto the screen, which you have to chop in half by swiping your finger across the display. If you accidentally swipe a fruit bomb or miss three in a row, the game ends. Though it's not the deepest of games, it's great for a quick game when you're out and about. It's also fully integrated with OpenFeint, so you can chase high scores on the leaderboards. Fruit Ninja is available on the Marketplace for 63 pence ($0.99).
Sometimes the simplest of ideas makes the greatest games. That's the case with Pocket Racing, a top-down racing game with a great multiplayer feature. Instead of racing against players in real time, you can download their ghost data from a track and race against that by attempting to beat their time. The controls are incredibly simple, with accelerating and braking handled for you. All you have to do is steer by tapping left or right on the screen. The cars handle well, and though the visuals are a little simple, they don't detract from the racing in any way. Pocket Racing goes for the princely sum of £1.99 ($3.14) on the Marketplace.
Which Is Right for You?
Each of the mobile platforms has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses, with one not necessarily better than the other. Choosing which is right for you all depends on your needs. Of the three, the iOS is has the strongest offering. If you can deal with paying more for the hardware and don't mind the iPhone's design, you'll get access to the largest library of mobile games currently available, many of which are of a fantastic quality. The sheer number of classic games that have emerged from the iPhone since the introduction of the App Store in 2008 is impressive. The likes of Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Rolando, Game Dev Story, Doodle Jump, and Flight Control all debuted on the iOS. Though the hardware choices are limited, keeping essentially the same spec across devices has ensured developers have a singular platform to work with and that the quality of games is high.
If you're an Xbox Live fiend, then Windows Phone 7 is a great choice. Being able to earn achievements on the go is a great feature, and all of your favorite Live features, such as friends lists, messages, and avatar functions, are easily accessed. Because Windows Phone 7 is such a new platform, there aren't as many titles available as on the iOS, but the quality of them is generally high. You also have more choice when it comes to hardware, and though the core spec of each phone is the same, there are a variety of form factors and prices from which to choose. The biggest downer for the platform is the price of the games themselves, which is significantly higher than their iOS and Android counterparts, though it could be argued that the premium covers the ability to earn achievements.
Android is the weakest offering of the three, thanks to the somewhat segmented hardware choices. Without a central hardware specification to work with, developers have to make games for a variety of different devices, which sometimes means performance isn't great. That said, you have the biggest choice of hardware with Android, with much cheaper devices available. The lack of a centralized gaming hub is disappointing, but OpenFeint does a great job of making up for its omission. There are great games to play on the platform and pricing is generally on par with the iOS, so you don't pay high prices like on Windows Phone 7.
While these three platforms are the biggest offerings on the market right now, a fourth contender could soon be entering the fray. Sony is rumored to be releasing a PlayStation phone in conjunction with Ericsson that could see popular PlayStation Portable titles making their way to the device. Recent videos showing the phone in action have further fueled the rumors, and it's looking like it's just a matter of time until it's revealed. It's also impossible to rule out Nokia, who is still the world's largest mobile phone manufacturer. Though its previous attempts to enter the mobile gaming market with NGage were met with a muted reception, its Ovi store still serves up games to millions of Nokia devices. And with its Linux-based Meego platform in development, the competition for control of the mobile gaming space is only just heating up.