While Apple's bold proclamation that the iPod Touch is the "number one gaming platform in the world" may be a bit of a stretch--particularly as not everyone who buys an iPod Touch plays games on it--there's no denying that it's becoming more popular for gaming. At Apple's recent September iPod event, the electronics maker unveiled updates to its entire iPod range as well as iOS 4.1, the latest version of its mobile operating system that runs across iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Part of iOS 4.1 is Game Center, an Xbox Live-esque online platform that brings with it friends lists, integrated online multiplayer, and achievements. We've been playing around with the service on the brand-new iPod Touch to see if it can compete with the gaming elite.
iPod Touch 4G
On the face of things, little has changed on the latest iPod Touch. It still sports the same black glass facia, 3.5-inch multi-touch display, and home button that were introduced with the original iPhone back in 2007. However, a front-facing VGA camera has been added just above the screen for use with Apple's Face Time video calling system. There are also other changes on the device; the screen's resolution has been upped to 960x640 pixels (matching that of the iPhone 4), a rear-facing camera has been added for 720p video recording, and the device has been slimmed down by 15 percent to a waiflike 7.2mm.
Internally, the iPod Touch now sports the same Apple A4 processor used in the iPhone 4 and iPad. However, it features only 256MB of RAM--half that of the iPhone. The A4 chip makes the device noticeably faster, particularly if you're used to using a first-generation touch or iPhone 3G. Games load more quickly and play more smoothly, a boon to those struggling with frame rate issues on the older devices. And then there's the retina display; with 326 pixels per inch of resolution, it's one of the best mobile device screens out there. It's virtually impossible to distinguish individual pixels when looking at it, which makes reading text a joy. Colours are vibrant without being oversaturated, and it's capable of being incredibly bright, making it very usable outdoors. Games that have been updated with high-resolution assets look absolutely fantastic, and even older games look great, though the lower-resolution artwork can look a little pixelated.
While the iPod Touch lacks dedicated hardware buttons for gaming, its multi-touch display is very sensitive. Combined with the built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, the device provides more than enough input options for most gaming situations. Certain titles fare better than others, though. For example, racing games such as Real Racing that use the accelerometer and gyroscope generally work well, along with puzzle and strategy games like Enigmo and Peggle that don't require fast input. However, games that rely on a virtual D pad and buttons can be tricky to play. Some implementations work better than others, but on the whole it's difficult to avoid sliding off the virtual buttons to another part of the screen, due to the lack of physical feedback.
Game Center is Apple's take on the likes of online gaming services such as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, bringing friends lists, achievements, and online multiplayer to iOS. It's essentially a replacement for Open Feint, a similar and popular service developed by Aurora Feint. Not everyone is able to 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, though strangely, Game Center doesn't tie in to Apple's own Ping, so you essentially have two separate accounts and usernames if you're a user of both services.
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 iOS 4.1 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 colour schemes, you're presented with a garish green background and faux-wood paneling, complete with an art deco font and brightly coloured ribbons. Say what you will about Apple's usual monochromatic design aesthetic, but at least it's easy on the eyes.
Colours aside, Game Center itself is easy to use. There are four buttons at the bottom of the screen, which 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 friends lists. Speaking of friends, you can check out what they're up to at any time by hitting the friends tab. Their username, status, and the current game are displayed in a long list. Tapping on someone's name lets you view that friend's profile, where you can see their friends, games, and achievements, as well as a list of games you both own. Underneath that is a list of games they have 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 their ranking in leaderboards, along with their top score. Underneath that is their 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 game 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, as 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.
Of course, what Game Center really hinges on is the games available for it. While there are a massive number of great titles available on App Store, currently only a small number of them are actually compatible with the service, though we expect that to change rapidly as developers add support. Strangely, games you already own that are compatible don't automatically show up in Game Center--we found we had to run the compatible game at least once after installing iOS 4.1 before it appeared. Once we were in a game, multiplayer mostly worked well, and we were challenging friends to quick matches of our favourite puzzler Field Fencer without hassle. However, we did run into the odd connection issue, which required a restart of our device before we could connect.
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 for gamers. A central service would also encourage developers to include chat in their games, as currently it's entirely on them to implement it.
As a first attempt at a mobile online gaming service, Game Center is impressive. Most of the core components such as friends lists, achievements, and multiplayer are already in place, and with a few tweaks and additional features, it could really become something special. Ultimately, there's not much else like Game Center or the App Store in the mobile space. Sure there have been some attempts in the past (N-Gage anyone?), and Google's Android is rapidly gaining in popularity, but Apple's solution is certainly the best on the market. While Nintendo may have an ace up its sleeve with the 3DS to keep users from defecting, Sony with its tech-savvy PlayStation Portable user base has a lot more to worry about. The integration of games, apps, and Web browsing, as well as 3G connectivity on the iPhone, is a massive draw, and with the graphical fidelity of the iOS devices now surpassing the PSP with the likes of Epic's Citadel, the future is looking immensely bright for Apple in the world of gaming.