Pocket Legends

Pocket Legends’ main menu. Just like WoW with 2% of the polygons.

Over the weekend my wife and I spent a few hours playing Pocket Legends (Spacetime Studios) together. Pocket Legends is an [M]MO[RP]G for the iPad and iPhone. The “M” for massive is “bracketed” because it’s more like Guild Wars (et al) than EverQuest (et al) in that the multi-player aspect comprises “town” or instanced dungeons, where a player hosts the instance. The “RP” for “role-playing” is bracketed because there’s really no role-playing component to the game at al — no back story, no character customization, no quests. Even so, the basic framework of the game fantasy MMORPG.

Characters

You can play one of three characters types: warrior (“Ursan” melee specialist), archer (“Avian” ranged or melee dps), or enchantress (“Elven” ranged dps and healing). My wife and I are playing enchantress and warrior (respectively) so we don’t know a huge amount about archers aside from seeing them in PUGs. To our eyes, they don’t seem to be a well-thought out class. (I started out playing an archer — I loved playing a hunter in World of Warcraft — and did not like it one bit).

As they progress in level, the player can assign a character’s attribute points (five points per level, allocated among Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence) and purchase and improve skills (you get access to a new skill every other level, and one point to spend buying a new skill or improving an existing one). Thus far there’s not much variety in skills — in many cases you’ll pick similar skills just to get different cooldown timers; and the only way to reassign skill points is to pay for a respec (currently $0.99), which is pretty annoying since skills can prove to be quite useless, and you can only have four available at a given time.

Your inventory: helmet, weapon, clothes, shield.

Characters also have four item slots: helmet, weapon, armor, and shield. Loot is allocated by some arcane semi-random process and no inter-character transactions are currently possible (although this is promised in 1.1 which is under review in the app store as I write this). Items come in varying grades: from white (ordinary), through orange, green, and purple, to pink (epic).

The loot tables are fairly thoroughly broken — we’ve gotten quite a few purple and pink level 28-30 drops while playing level 12-15 characters, and on top of that you have no control over who gets what, so you’ll often see something you desperately want randomly assigned to your partner, who can’t use it and can’t give it to you. (For now.) Also, right now there’s no special benefit for killing bosses. Loot drops appear to be utterly random.

Gameplay

The gameplay in Legends is very simple. If you touch and drag you orbit the camera around your character. Pinching (sometimes) zooms the view in and out. Everything except the walk-and-kill game is menus *.

Note: * Spacetime’s website says that their game engine uses Scaleform gfx, which is a library that lets you author UIs in Flash and then performs the necessary rendering using a custom engine — which seems to me to be about as massive a violation of 3.3.1 as might exist; it’s also entertaining since Scaleform has plainly implemented a highly efficient, cross-platform, hardware-accelerated Flash-rendering engine — a feat that has escaped Adobe and Macromedia before it. I suspect that they aren’t using Scaleform on the iPad/iPhone, however.

Further note: as of the 1.1 patch shopping now requires you to visit town and touch NPCs to visit certain shops. It’s not much, but it’s something. (And it also means you can’t buy new gear while in the middle of a dungeon, although you can still top up your potions.)

Pocket Legends offers a map, which is basic but can be useful

To move you tap a destination. (A glass joystick is an option; one I switched off after about 30s. The fact I tried it says something about how solid the tap-to-move UI is right now.)

To attack the nearest enemy you touch an on-screen button, and (by default) you run into range and auto-attack until dead. While auto-attack is on your toon will try to keep an enemy in range — this can become quite treacherous because a lot of enemies with ranged weapons are quite smart about backing out of melee range, which can get warriors into deep doodoo.

To attack a specific enemy you touch it which, when it works (about 33% of the time) targets the enemy (which is indicated graphically), and the use the auto-attack button or an offensive power.

To use a power (you can have up to four available) you tap its on-screen button. Frustratingly, using an offensive power on an enemy does not, right now, switch on auto-attack.

When you die (and you will die), you can respawn at the entrance of the current dungeon (and so far no dungeons have been terribly large) or, if an enchantress is near your body you can be revived.

In practice, a warrior will simply charge into a group of enemies and beat them to death using a combination of straight melee attacks and a point-blank AoE power that knocks back enemies and has a chance to stun. Enchantresses will use a combination of single target and AoE spells, some of which snare, some knock back, and so on. Warriors can AoE “taunt” and do a pretty good job of “holding aggro”. Players can spam health and mana potions to restore their own pools. Archers can shoot enemies of comparable level pretty much to death before they can run into melee range (obviously, ranged enemies will get a few hits in).

One very nice feature of the game is that different characters’ abilities can create combos. E.g. if the enchantress snares a bunch of enemies with her AoE frost spell and then the warrior uses his stomp in the same area (AoE damage, pushback, and chance of stun) affected enemies are “shattered” (i.e. take lots of damage), which is fun and gratifying.

From what I can tell, when it first came out, archers were extremely overpowered (in particular, they were very strong in melee) and warriors were complete gimps (hmm, sounds a lot like World of Warcraft). As far as my wife and I can tell right now, warrior and enchantress is a very solid combination; we suspect archers are the best soloing class.

What’s Missing?

Almost everything: quests, non-dungeon areas, back-story, variety, customization, etc. — but nothing that can’t easily be added later.

As of the 1.1 Patch, going to town now actually serves a purpose. Instead of being able to do all your shopping from the game menu, you now need to visit vendors in town to buy most things (and access your stash).

In essence, Legends is a game skeleton. It obviously has a huge amount of potential, but right now it’s a very basic Diablo clone (albeit with auto-attack, thank goodness). The content is incredibly repetitive (e.g. I think we’ve seen a total of seven kinds of monster and two kinds of terrain having bought two content packs) and, for what you get, not especially cheap ($1.99 for dungeon packs spanning five levels, which amount to perhaps two hours of gameplay, $0.99 for individual spiffy items like swords and breastplates, $1.99 for item “sets”, and $0.99 for miscellaneous things such as respecs, which are virtually compulsory given the way the skill system works).

That said, what’s there works pretty well and looks pretty good. Yes, variety and depth are lacking, but the same can be said for the $60, rave-reviewed X-Box 360 game Borderlands (which I’ve played quite a bit). As Yahtzee puts it — “shooting the same four or five guys in the face fifty thousands times”.

Business Model

It’s fairly clear once you download the free base game that Spacetime’s business model is “let’s try charging for absolutely everything and see what sticks”. Judging from their forums, what people want is more content, and what they’re willing to pay for is more content. Aside from content, the only thing we’ve bought is a new robe for my wife’s enchantress so she doesn’t look (exactly) like every other enchantress. I’d say the results there are mixed.

Playing the game is free, except that content beyond level 10 costs $1.99 per five levels worth*. (And, as far as we can tell, you’ll have to repeat that content quite a bit to advance five levels.) Playing as a duo, we’re able to handle content three-to-five levels tougher than par. Because this is the iPhone/iPad world, you only need to buy content once per account, which means we’ve paid $5 (roughly) for two expansion packs and a robe, and both of us can access the expansion packs. When you consider that World of Warcraft costs two people $30/month just in subscription fees, it’s quite a bargain.

Note: * it’s now “10 plat” where 5 plat costs $0.99, but buying more gets you increasing discounts, up to 800 plat for $49.99. Similarly, content is now available in discounted bundles.

Some iPad Apps

ArtStudio

If you want to draw on the iPad it’s hard to miss Brushes ($9.99) or Autodesk Sketchbook Pro ($7.99), but it’s rather easy to overlook ArtStudio ($0.99). I’m quoting prices from memory (and they’re liable to change as well) so don’t shoot me if I’m not exactly right.

I think Sketchbook Pro has a better “feel” than ArtStudio (I can’t comment on Brushes because I paid $4.99 for the iPhone app and refuse to give the developer any more money until I see significant UI improvements) but ArtStudio wins big on user interface. First off, Sketchbook reduces its UI to a single dot which lets you tweak your current brush, and access the rest of the UI. ArtStudio puts hidden undo and redo in corners of the screen, and has a better located “show me the UI” button. As a result, ArtStudio is my go-to app for doodling, while Sketchbook Pro looks pretty and sits in the corner.

ArtStudio does have some UI blemishes — its more advanced function buttons are just ugly — but it gives quicker access to common functions (complete with press and hold to grab colors from your image). I love it.

If I had to pick one, I’d definitely pick ArtStudio over Sketchbook Pro right now — and at one dollar it’s an absolute steal right now, although I know the latter is very popular among digital artists, and I expect the program to improve over time.

Freeform

The other day I needed a drawing program badly, and the first one that occurred to me was Omnigraffle — for which I have a license somewhere. Then I remembered that Omni is porting everything to the iPad and searched for it. $49.99. Um, OK. Look, I love you guys but that’s absurd. (And the reviews are pretty damning too.)

Eventually I found Freeform ($2.99 I think) which is a really good UI looking for a bit more functionality. All this program needs is some (better? any?) way to delete stuff, text blocks, rotate objects, snap to grid, precise beziers, gradient fill, arrows, and slightly better palette management (it’s quite good already) and it would be pretty much perfect.

Kindle

Amazon’s Kindle app for the iPad is free. So you can have your cake and eat it. Enough said. It’s missing some of iBooks’s sizzle (e.g. page-turn animations) and cleverness (e.g. adjustable brightness) but beats it on practical considerations (e.g. you can view books as white on black, which is handy if you’re reading in bed next to a sleeping spouse). It’s early days yet, but the iPad is already a better Kindle than the Kindle.

Numbers

Alone among the Apple offerings on the iPad, Numbers is kind of broken. Some of its quirks are simply infuriating. E.g. stretching a selection doesn’t fill the way it does in the desktop version (e.g. if you want to fill-right or fill-down with a formula), and exactly how scrolling works in grids has me mystified. Insofar as it works, it works quite well, but compared to Pages and Keynote it’s a very unpolished.

Pages

My big gripe with Pages is that you can’t modify styles, which is very annoying when you bring in a document and discover some style has been reassigned to an inappropriate font. There’s simply no way to say “make bullet paragraphs Times please”. Aside from that, it’s very well done. Unfortunately, I’m not running iWork 09 on my Macs yet, making it a bit of a pain for interoperability.

Speaking of which: the system for moving files to and from the iPad is horrible (I’m hardly the first to opine thus) and needs to be fixed. Also, when will I be able to drag a PDF onto my iPad (or download one) and read it in iBooks or some other built-in app? (Heck, Safari is pretty decent, but won’t explicitly download files.)

Which leads to:

GoodReader

I was pretty desperate to have a PDF viewer on the iPad and willing to pay anything up to… $0.99 as it happened. GoodReader is a solid app with a cluttered UI and a ridiculous number of features. You can send files to it wirelessly (it pretends to be a server) or use its built-in browser to navigate to pages containing PDFs and download them. (Again, can we please have a file system of some kind? Thanks.) The PDF viewing component is pretty decent, albeit cluttered and perversely pages “down” and “up” rather than “left” and “right” which is not only inconsistent with iBooks (with which the developer may not, at the time, have been familiar) but pretty annoying in general (I generally don’t have any fingers near the center-bottom of the screen when reading).

Note: I just updated my apps and the developer of Goodreader has acknowledged the page-turning issue and promised a fix imminently.

So, a pretty darn nice app (functionally speaking) wrapped in a slipshod UI.

Cat in the Hat & Seuss ABC

Aside from draining my iPad’s battery faster than any other app (including GTA: Chinatown Wars and Pocket Legends) I’ve tried, these are really very nicely done. You can have the books read themselves, read on demand, or read them yourself. If you touch objects the word “puffs” out of them and is spoken. If you touch the text it gets read aloud. And the drawings look incredibly sharp. Very, very nice stuff.

Doodle Buddy

I got this $0.99 (or was it $1.99) drawing app with stamps and sound effects for my twins, and they love it (a little too much). It’s essentially Kid Pix for the iPad (only better and insanely cheap).

JamPad

There are tons of apps like this out there, but this one was free with a $0.99 internal upgrade (darn I got suckered!). It’s a simple app that gives you a piano keyboard (good multitouch support, but no way to stop the keyboard from scrolling around as you play and no way to hit a note hard or soft), and the ability to play percussion and guitar backing tracks, or hit electric guitar chords. For a $0.99 it’s a fine musical “doodling” tool (well, it is for me — my father would probably wince were he alive to hear it).

Labyrinth Lite

I never bought the full version on the iPhone, although I liked the lite version well enough. The iPad version is prettier (beyond the extra screen real estate) and has almost too many gimmicks, but none of the free content is terribly compelling, nor does it seem to promise enough to hook me into paying. Lovely piece of software though.

Touchpad

Touchpad uses VNC to let your iPhone (and now iPad) act as a remote mouse/keyboard for any Mac running 10.6 (not sure if it works for 10.5, and not really bothered to find out given the immense upgrade cost). We’ve been using it on our iPads to control the Mac that drives the HD TV in our bedroom, and this just makes it more useful (especially since, on the iPhone, it’s a bit of a battery drain).

Pocket Legends

This MORPG  (it’s not massive, at least not yet, so just one M) deserves a review of its own. In almost every sense except perhaps the most important one this is a truly brilliant piece of work. The big problem is gameplay, which is 75% of the way there, but has no flaws that can’t fairly easily be addressed. A slightly lesser problem is a business model that appears to preclude trading items with friends (or anyone else).

Here are the salient features from my point of view:

  • It’s essentially instanced. Your character lives on a server, but games are essentially group-level or solo. So it’s more like Diablo than World of Warcraft. The one difference is you can go to “town” and experience the lag of lots of players all in one place spamming emotes.
  • The game architecture and base assumptions mean that you can play it as a single-player game, or just with friends, or you can just join random games and silently cooperate with strangers (you can chat in game but no-one seems to bother).
  • The business model is essentially Zynga but — I think — better. Instead of spending money on useless doohickeys or simply to gain a leg up on people who don’t waste money, you basically spend money to gain access to more content. This means you pay for what you do, not for how long you keep an account. (World of Warcraft is great value for people playing it 4h/day, but kind of a ripoff for casual players who only log on now and then. Why?) You can also spend real money to buy game money or special gear, but neither seems necessary. I approve.
  • The game itself is very simple. You touch the ground to move. You touch bad guys to target them. You attack enemies by touching an attack button or firing off an expensive special ability. There are three character options: archer (a bird thing who uses bows), mage (human girl), and warrior (a bear thing). The graphics are low poly but stylish, so if you like World of Warcraft’s aesthetic, you’ll probably like Legends. If not, not.
  • The content is also very simple. So far all I’ve seen have been simple mazes with monsters and treasure chests scattered around them. The monsters wander back and forth. The only real challenge in the game is pulling (getting single or small groups of monsters to attack you without drawing any of their friends to help), and it’s not much of a challenge.
  • It works pretty well, although lag can be terrible and sometimes things mysteriously won’t work (e.g. you can’t target a monster, or your wife’s mage’s spells don’t show up on your screen). It also took us quite a while to figure out how to loot chests (you point yourself near them facing towards them and attack).
  • You can’t trade items — which is particularly infuriating if the loot system allocates you a piece of loot your companion can use and you can’t.
  • There’s no sense of a “world”. Dungeons are small, flat mazes. You start at one end, go to the other, kill everything, and you’re done. This opens up the next dungeon. You don’t travel overland (except inside a “dungeon”). There’s no world map.

Anyway, it’s free and the stuff in-game is cheap (and we haven’t paid for anything yet). It’s mildly diverting, and it gives the iPad a coop game that doesn’t suck — which is no bad thing. I think I’ll try out Dungeon Hunter before I spend any money on Legends, though.

Tiny Freecell (iPhone)

The $0.99 iPhone solitaire game implements Freecell and Eight Off very nicely, and it works just dandy on my iPad (and looks great pixel-doubled). It hasn’t been updated in years, so I’m not holding my breath for a native iPad version.

GTA: Chinatown Wars (iPhone)

It hasn’t been updated to support the iPad yet, but the “glass joystick” works better on the iPad than the iPhone (more screen real estate, I think). Even so, I think this app really needs a more “native” interface.