Tuesday 12 November 2019

Apple Arcade review: How Apple finally took games seriously


Skate City is available only on Apple Arcade, and can played on iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV
Skate City is available only on Apple Arcade, and can played on iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

Somebody at Apple finally “gets” games. Steve Jobs didn’t. And for a long time it appeared successor Tim Cook couldn’t be much bothered either.

Despite the lack of love, games nonetheless prospered on the App Store, filling up its aisles with hundreds of thousands of experiences ranging from the bland (all those endless clickers, for instance) to the brilliant (such as puzzler Gorogoa) to the mercenary (they lure you in with their free price tag and then hit you constantly for in-app purchases).

But with this bonanza of gaming came the problem of discoverability. With so much quantity and such variable quality, players have been swamped by choice, left unmoored and adrift in a foggy sea where finding good titles is pot-luck.

Apple’s redesign of the App Store took some steps last year to address the quandary, surfacing and promoting high-quality games and apps with useful chunks of editorial. But the launch last month of subscription service Apple Arcade takes a giant leap forward in identifying and endorsing superior gaming experiences.

The parallels with Netflix are obvious. You pay Apple €5 a month (the first month is free) for all-you-can-play access to a catalogue of 100+ top-notch titles. Apple Arcade differs from Netflix and Amazon Prime Video by virtue of its tightly curated, all-new collection. Remember all the guff with which Netflix padded out its lists when it first launched its streaming service in Ireland? There’s nothing like that here. Not every single one is a gem, some are Marmite but there are no complete duds here, based on my experience trying dozens of them.

Apple has partnered with some of the most respected mobile-focused studios and publishers – the likes of Annapurna (which midwifed Gorogoa), Simogo (Year Walk) and UsTwo (Monument Valley), along with household names from the console world including Sega, Konami and Capcom. In some cases, Apple has part-funded the games, in others it is merely a conduit. In all cases, it now stands over a highly respectable library of games that can be played on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and the Mac (not all seem to be available on Mac) for the one subscription. Up to five members of your family can use the same subscription.

Even better, none of the games feature microtransactions, something that has become the unpalatable hallmark of the mobile world. Neither do they require a constant internet connection, so you’re good to go on a plane or out of mobile coverage.

Tim Cook isn’t in it for the altruism, obviously – he cares most about selling his expensive hardware. Yet services such as Arcade are a burgeoning part of his revenue. But it’s striking how uniformly excellent the range is, not to mention the lack of in-app purchases or ads. Tim Cook noted that future updates – such as extra levels, etc – would not cost anything either, but it remains to be seen whether many developers actually commit to adding anything significant to the game as released.

Ann Thai, marketing manager for the App Store, unveiling Apple Arcade on stage in September
Ann Thai, marketing manager for the App Store, unveiling Apple Arcade on stage in September

Most of the games hew to the “arty” side of the house – there’s nothing like Call of Duty here, nor anything too edgy in terms of sex and violence. However, now that iOS13 supports PS4 and Xbox controllers, there’s every chance Arcade will embrace even more complex titles beyond the simple touch-based interaction that dominates most titles.

The downside of Arcade is that like all such subscription services (PS Plus, Xbox Game Pass, etc), stop paying and you’re locked out of everything – your saves and all. Unlike those other services, you can’t buy outright a title you really enjoy. So you might end up paying €60 a year for something might have traditionally cost, say, €5.

Apple seems to have exclusivity for all titles on mobile – no Android versions, obviously, even though Google is launching its own competitor to Arcade – called Google Play Pass, available so far only in the US.

But a few of the games (such as the wonderful Sayonara Wild Hearts, from Simogo) are also available on consoles such as the PS4, PC and Switch. How long that exclusivity lasts is anyone’s guess. Apple has committed to adding regularly to the Arcade line-up but presumably some games will drop out too over time.

Few could argue that Arcade represents stunning value in its current state if you have more than passing interest in gaming. The only question mark that hangs over it is whether Apple and its partners can sustain the level of fresh titles as the months roll by.


THREE TO PLAY

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Sayonara Wild Hearts


Sayonara Wild Hearts

Playfully dubbed a “pop album video game” by its creator Simogo, SWH almost defies categorisation but it’s part rhythm action, part interactive music video.

Powered by searing neon visuals and gameplay that’s a bit Subway Surfers and partly Elite Beat Agents, SWH most importantly features a killer original pop soundtrack.

It’s also available on PS4 and Switch.


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Assemble With Care


Assemble with Care

From the people who brought us the delightful Escher-like puzzler Monument Valley. This gentle piece of interactive fiction puts you in the hands of a very capable repairwoman who fixes a townspeople’s damaged household objects (camera, Game Boy, watch, etc) – and in the process mends their hearts. Probably.

Anyway, Assemble with Care is a relaxing and tactile fix-em-up in which you rotate, prod and poke at the broken bits until you have disassembled, repaired and rebuilt them.


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Cardpocalypse


Cardpocalypse

Dublin developer Colm Larkin impressed with his 2015 turn-based dungeon crawler Guild of Dungeoneering and Cardocalypse riffs on some of the same themes with humour and a heart-tugging story. A card-battler featuring a wheelchair-bound schoolkid is certainly a gutsy move but Larkin pulls it off, at least partly because the card game at its heart is strong.

Colourful and funny, Cardpocalypse is also available on the Epic Game Store for PC.

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