Review: ARC Squadron (iOS)

I absolutely frickin’ love rail shooters. They are completely, gleefully unabashed about what they are, and they don’t try to be anything else. Instead, they focus on doing one thing and doing it well — providing a thrilling fairground ride in which you get to make things explode along the way.

But, like so many of gaming’s staple genres of yore, the humble rail shooter has fallen somewhat from favor in recent years. Some might argue that heavily-scripted, linear “corridor shooter” first-person titles such as the Call of Duty series’ single-player campaigns still provide some of those same thrills, but it’s not quite the same. Call of Duty is trying to pretend that you have freedom to wander around. It is, at times, seemingly embarrassed to be what it is.

ARC Squadron, a new iOS game from Psyonix, meanwhile, might as well render a rollercoaster track in space and put wheels on your spaceship, so proud is it of its rail-shooterishness. Your viewpoint hangs back from behind your suitably pointy and threatening-looking single-seater fighter; you move around on the screen on a flat plane using some superbly-implemented touch controls; the route your fighter takes through the various levels is preset, heavily scripted and spectacular; hordes of enemies show up in predictable patterns that you can learn; you shoot them.

If that sounds like fun, you probably don’t need to read any further; ARC Squadron is the game you have been waiting for ever since Nintendo started doing unspeakably awful things to the Star Fox series.

For those who need further convincing, however, let me explain exactly why I’m willing to make the bold statement that ARC Squadron is one of my favorite games of the year. Note, and this is important, that I say “favorite games” not “favorite mobile games.” ARC Squadron is, in my eyes, more than good enough to stand alongside offerings on dedicated handhelds and consoles with pride.

In ARC Squadron, you’re cast in the role of a pilot and something bad is happening with Guardians… or something. In the truest tradition of the shoot ‘em up genre, the plot is completely irrelevant, though that doesn’t stop Psyonix from trying to add at least a little personality to the experience with some voiceovers at the beginning of each level. Ultimately, though, the reason to play this game is not its barely-existent plot, it is the thrill of swooping through lively, gorgeous-looking battlefields and blowing seven shades of snot out of anything that is unfortunate to cross the path of your targeting reticle.

The game’s touchscreen control method is simple and well-implemented, though most players will probably want to immediately bump up the sensitivity in the options menu. Moving your finger across the screen moves the ship around; moving it quickly causes the ship to, well, move more quickly but, more importantly, it does a barrel roll at the same time. Some enemies shoot weapon-disabling electrical blasts at your ship which can only be shaken off with a well-timed barrel roll, so that maneuver so beloved of Peppy actually has a use beyond looking badass.

As you fly around, your ship automatically fires when something enters its targeting reticle, but far from this making the game easy, it means you have to be quite careful, as achieving high scores is only possible by racking up “combos” of kills in rapid succession. Combos can also be maintained by collecting cubes that appear in various arrangements around the level. Skilled players will find themselves delaying their kills until there are large groups of enemies together on screen, preferably with an arrangement of cubes approaching too.

It’s a pleasingly simple combination of systems, but one which taps into the pleasure centers of the brain beautifully. Racking up an enormous combo and seeing the on-screen multiplier going up and up and up is enormously satisfying, and chasing the elusive four-star “Space Ace” rating on each of the game’s levels proves to be an immensely addictive experience in the same way as hunting for medals in Star Fox 64 was.

That’s not all, though. Interspersed throughout the game’s relatively short campaign (which repeats three times with increasing difficulty and different bosses each time) are special “Wormhole” levels in which you’re given a simple, specific challenge of indeterminate length. No attempt is made to explain how these challenges fit into the story, and that’s absolutely fine — all you need to know is that you need to survive as long as possible. In some cases, this might mean collecting cubes until you miss one and then explode; in another, you might be confronted with a rather Return of the Jedi-esque flight of rapidly-increasing velocity through some twisting, turning tunnels that feature inconveniently-closing blast doors; in another still, you might be forced to fend off relentless waves of enemies with only enough health to take a single hit. These bonus levels — when was the last time you played a genuine, honest-to-goodness bonus level? — are simple, quick to play, hugely addictive and provide excellent “quick-fire” thrills for those who want something simple to play on their phone while they evacuate their bowels; the rest of the campaign, meanwhile, provides a more meaty challenge.

Completing any level automatically converts the points you scored into in-game currency, which can then be spent on upgrading and purchasing ships; upgrading and purchasing secondary weapons (most of which are controlled with a simple tap on the enemy you’d like to target); or acquiring new “skins” for the various craft on offer. The ever-present “buy more currency” button is present and correct — it’s a seemingly-obligatory addition to every iOS game these days, sadly — but in practice you’ll never need to use it, since the rate at which you earn points (and thus money) throughout the game is paced so well that you always have the potential to unlock something new, and being able to afford the more exciting, powerful ships feels like a genuine achievement. Purchasing currency so you can jump straight to the better items pretty much breaks the game’s well-crafted sense of progression and achievement completely, so I’d advise most players to avoid that option unless they’re really impatient and/or not very good at the game. There’s certainly no artificial difficulty spikes forcing you to shell out for extra currency, though — simply by playing through levels again in an attempt to best your last high score will naturally earn you enough money for that next upgrade before long.

I could happily rant on and on and on about how good this game is, and how nice it is to be able to play something that is purely “fun” and has no pretensions of being anything that it isn’t, but at this point it’s perhaps best to just let you go and try it out for yourself. At $4.99, it may be “expensive” for an iOS game, but you get what you pay for — and also, bear in mind you’d be paying at least $15-20 for this were it an Xbox Live Arcade title. Forgo that large latte with extra froth you were considering and buy this instead. You won’t regret it.

Arc Squadron is available now from the App Store. The review copy of this game was provided by the developer.

Absolutely one of the best “pure games” that has been released this year on any platform, and an essential purchase for all iOS gamers.

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