11 February, 2015

Review - Midnight Star, Bringing The Combat Puzzle To Mobile

You are amongst the best humanity has to offer, pushing off into the unknown, following a hint of alien life. But of course, as with all things given such ominous names as, the ‘Artifact’, something goes horribly wrong, and the aliens being hostile isn’t the half of it.


Midnight Star


Developed by Industrial Toys, a developer consisting of some of the minds behind Halo, Midnight Star has a surprisingly strong sense of identity. Just like Destiny, the latest shooter from Bungie (Halo’s original developers), Midnight Star draws heavily from its Halo roots as well as other sci-fi series, I certainly received some Mass Effect vibes here and there. In terms of pure presentation, the geometric angles of the architecture would not seem out of place in a Forerunner installation, the music a familiar synth-heavy space orchestra. I really appreciated some of the small touches that evoked fond memories of Halo, for example; the flash of white that follows the panning shot of each new environment, transitioning the game into the player's control.



Technically, it looks and sounds fantastic, the environments and character models are detailed, something you can appreciate keenly when the ‘Dust’ aliens charge up close. The sound design is good too, both, the aforementioned music, as well as the weapon and battle sound effects. While there is not much voice acting, the medal announcer does a commendable job – a ‘celestial spree’ isn’t quite a ‘killtacular’ but I’ll take it. The environments and particularly the lighting, change pretty drastically from level to level and look excellent, they can feel quite dynamic at times too; dropships swoop in to deliver troops and barricades shoot out of the sky and unfold before you. The game's graphical prowess is made even more apparent by the number of enemies that can appear on screen and the impressive draw distance. In certain missions you will see doors open way off in the distance and a squad of enemies spill out, running to reach your firefight. It all ran completely smoothly on my iPhone 6.


In Midnight Star you step into the boots of the kind of dumb, kind of annoying Lieutenant Charlie Campbell, aboard the MSRV-17 Joplin, a human exploratory vessel. Thankfully, your shipmates; Alyssa, Cromax, and Bethenny, all introduced in the prequel graphic novel, Midnight Rising, are quick to put Charlie back in his place at the earliest hint of wisecracking. Between missions you return to the Joplin, where you visit your shipmates in the armoury, engineering and science lab respectively, to upgrade weapons, equipment, and abilities, and have graphical novel-esque conversations.

The universe and fiction of Midnight Star is much larger than it first appears, simply dropping into Midnight Star won’t necessarily allow you to appreciate it fully. Of course, if you have no interest in the narrative, that’s fine, much of the dialog is optional and out of mission anyway. As the game makes quite apparent when you begin playing, the story began in Midnight Rising, a three part interactive graphic novel available on the App Store (part one is free, parts two and three are £0.79 each). Aside from establishing the characters and the relationships between them, there is a surprising amount of lore and backstory, which is interesting in its own right, but made even more intriguing when put in the context of where the story of Midnight Star goes. Due to the risk of ruining plot elements that I thought pretty shocking, I won’t divulge anything more specific, save that it goes to lengths to justify certain design decisions and it pulls it off well. In a kind of crazy way, Destiny could learn a lot from this game.

Midnight Star is an on-rails shooter, you take on hordes of aliens called 'Dust', that come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from skittering insect-like creatures, all the way to hulking behemoths with mounted guns. While I cannot blame you for jumping to the immediate conclusion that on-rails action sounds boring, I actually found it very engaging; fast-paced and rewarding. Distilled to its most basic; you simply aim and shoot by tapping on an enemy, but by layering on just the right amount of mechanics, it avoided the formulaic shooting gallery pitfall, instead becoming a series of frantic, finger-swiping firefights. 'Zooming' in on an enemy paints a target on its head, allowing you to score a headshot; increasing damage dealt naturally and netting you a headshot medal - more on medals later. Holding two fingers on the screen projects a shield that absorbs incoming enemy fire, this drains with each hit, particularly when hit by missiles, making shooting them from the sky essential. Enemies can also charge in close and initiate melee attacks, and you can unleash hyper attacks, which levitate enemies into the air, stripping them of their cover. Enemies that are about to attack are marked with an orange symbol, those that are attacking marked red. You are usually surrounded on several sides by orange symbols, meaning you must prioritise your targets and actions swiftly. You can swipe between a pair of weapons, including; assault rifles, pistols, sniper rifles, shotguns and rocket launchers, all of which obviously need to be reloaded, which is faster done manually. This all adds up to a lot you need to deal with at any given time, and enemy variations have their own quirks to learn too. Fortunately, nothing is more than a tap, flick or swipe away, the controls are intuitive and accessible. After just a couple of rodeos it becomes second nature, freeing you up to maximise your time and score.


Which is crucial, because the game is extremely score oriented, although you can die, the penalty for death is trivial, just taking a hit is far worse. Allowing even a single shot past you shields ruins your spree, and thus your score. Sprees, headshots, and other types of kills, earn you medals that flash up on screen, accompanied by the enthused announcer, just like in Halo multiplayer. Achieving a score of three stars on a mission (on the default difficulty) unlocks two additional tiers of difficulty; Hardcore and Psychotic, which are considerably harder and more frenzied. New tougher variations of enemies will be sent your way, but rather than firing in nice manageable sequences, their aggressiveness and rate of fire increases exponentially. There are also in-game achievements and a challenge mode where players can set and accept custom objectives, public or private. The challenges are similar to those that were introduced in Halo Reach, options include; map, gametype (highscore, speed run, or headshot), difficulty factors, how long the challenge is available, the ante (buy-in cost, using the in-game currency Element), and the number of participants. These tools are robust and naturally, your score and placement feeds back into your persistent player profile.


After completing the standard difficulty missions, it quickly becomes clear your gear will need some significant improvements in order to take on the later missions on Hardcore and Psychotic difficulties, which is where the games’ free-to-play business model takes hold. You can purchase XP boosts – which I never felt compelled to do, though weapons are locked behind level requirements – and the more useful Catalysts. Catalysts can be used for literally anything in the game; if you run out of Element – I never did – used for recharging weapons (the mobile-standard energy meter) or to get more health mid-mission, you can use Catalysts. If you run out of Tech points, used to upgrade weapons and items, you can use Catalysts. They are also used to buy probes, which return random ‘loot’, disposable items such as autoshields, and expedite upgrade timers. At no point playing the game have I felt it necessary to pay real money for Catalysts. The progression systems all feel fair, when they could have so easily not been, for example; respawning mid-mission could have been restricted to the paid currency, but it’s not, it is linked to a totally abundant in-game currency. Yes, unlocking and upgrading all the weapons will be a definite grind for players who don’t pay real money, but nothing is locked or gated. I played the entire story through, albeit quite casually over the course of a couple of days, without once thinking, ‘This would be better if I paid real money.’, which I feel is a huge accomplishment for a free-to-play mobile game.

The action of Midnight Star becomes frantic and rewarding. The presentation, both visuals and sounds, are artistically inspired and technically impressive. The story and lore is intriguing. While it does indeed follow the free-to-play conventions of the mobile market, it is structured in a fair manner. There is certainly a grind to be had, and money sinks if you wish to indulge, but everything, all the missions, the story, the player driven challenges, are all available without the need to pay for anything. The higher difficulty settings would certainly be made easier by simply paying for higher level gear, but the difficultly curve feels natural. It is by no means impossible, just fantastically frantic. Midnight Star is a stellar example of a game is well aware of the limitations of the mobile platform. On one hand I can’t wait for the release of the next chapter, on the other I hope the developers take as long as they need to polish it to the same shining standard as the current game.

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