Over its last two iterations, the Assassin's Creed series – primarily known for letting players climb on historically significant landmarks and get stabby in different time periods – has increasingly become known for something unexpected: 18th century sailing and naval combat. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, with its focus on Caribbean piracy, embraced wooden ships to the point of making them central to gameplay and plot — and now we have spinoff Assassin's Creed Pirates, which is set entirely aboard them.
One-man indie studio Damp Gnat (a.k.a. Reece Millidge) has proven itself a purveyor of experiences that are short, sweet, and sensationally stunning. Last year’s single-screen iPad mini-golf course in Wonderputt made a strong mark, and it’s followed up in the exquisite Icycle: On Thin Ice – a 2D platformer that bears a similarly impeccable sense of design, yet explores altogether different territory. The result is an unforgettable, humor-spiked affair in which you’ll guide a half-naked man on a bicycle through an array of surreal challenges.
Skulls of the Shogun, a game about a recently slain samurai fighting his way though the afterlife, is nothing if not slow. Its bright palette, bawdy humor, and straightforward concepts suggest an easy, breezy turn-based strategy game, but large maps, limited moves per turn, and cutthroat enemy armies combine to make skirmishes feel long and drawn-out. Don’t mistake “slow” for “meticulous” or “tedious,” though, as Skulls of the Shogun is neither, opting instead for a series of tense, chaotic, down-to-the-last-man tête-à-têtes.
Zynga’s Skateboard Slam pulls out some solid tricks and coasts over the finish line without ever breaking a sweat, although its upgrade and level unlocking systems seem cynically balanced to drive additional in-app purchases. In a fun, surprisingly deep, but ultimately somewhat frustrating experience, you stack up gnarly trick combos and race through four vibrant worlds of 10 levels each in a challenge-based single-player campaign, along with multiplayer match-ups.
Darklings' endless arcade-style approach uses gesture controls to deliver an experience that keeps you coming back for more. Using just your finger, you’ll need to draw the symbol that appears above a monster’s head to destroy it before it gets too close and knocks you out. That may sound easy, but with constant waves of enemies coming at you from all sides, plus the ever-present temptation of collecting as much currency as you can, it makes for one challenging and addictive game.
Our monthly recap looks back at the games we reviewed during November, with a total of 25 iOS and Mac games presented here in bite-sized, to-the-point encapsulations. And if you want to read more, simply click the link on each slide to read the full, scored critique and find the link to purchase each game. We covered a great array of entries this month, including big-name affairs like Star Wars: Tiny Death Star and Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol: Pacific Skies — plus Mac add-ons/expansions for BioShock Infinite and XCOM: Enemy Unknown — along with under-the-radar gems like The Shivah and Pathogen.
Despite its 3D graphics, physics engine, and any marketing material you may have seen, Touchgrind Skate 2 is not a realistic skateboarding game. For one, there is no rider, only a pair of fingers spectrally guiding a deck through a series of blunt stalls, 50-50 grinds, and kickflips — it’s skateboarding by marionette. If there’s one aspect of Touchgrind Skate 2 that comes across as completely authentic, it’s that skateboarding is difficult and requires practice. Amazingly, that proves a pretty effective hook.
Spec Ops: The Line thrives on colorful, deliberate level design; its self-conscious take on the shooter genre (by way of Apocalypse Now), and its reversal of traditional player incentives. Originally released in June 2012 on other platforms, Spec Ops' recent release on Mac captures every concept from the original for better and worse. It's as well-built a package as any modern AAA shooter — crisp, quick, and brutal — albeit saddled with some stop-and-pop repetition and decrepit multiplayer modes. However, for all the game does well, the Mac port unfortunately limps along with sluggish and inconsistent performance.
Strike Force Heroes: Extraction is a noble – if uneven – attempt to replicate the classic side-scrolling console shooter. Likely due to the complexity of its control scheme, the genre hasn’t often been particularly well served on iOS devices, but Strike Force Heroes (HD iPad version reviewed; also available separately on iPhone) has found a few clever shortcuts. The result is fun to play in short bursts, even if the smoothness of some controls makes some of the weaker spots more glaring.
Running a clandestine agency devoted to fighting diabolical alien invaders is tough, but as XCOM: Enemy Unknown taught us, it gets a lot easier if you can steal things out of the enemy's playbook. And when those things include extreme genetic modifications and hulking robot exoskeletons — two of the biggest features introduced by the Enemy Within expansion — the fight doesn't necessarily get easier, but it does get a lot more interesting.