Modern Combat: Sandstorm Review

The much-anticipated multiplayer update for Modern Combat: Sandstorm has arrived. You get three maps and four character classes to choose from, along with the option to battle via Bluetooth, local Wi-Fi, or online. (3G is not supported, so you’ll have to be near a wireless router to engage in firefights online). So does the update live up to the hype?

At the time of this writing, multiplayer is a mixed bag. We suffered many game crashes when trying to search for games to join, as well as the occasional crash mid-match. Many other users on message boards are reporting the same thing, so we’re hopeful a fix is in the works.

You can play with a maximum of three other players at a time, but we rarely ever fought in full matches. Usually it was us versus one or two other players. When we created matches, we often found ourselves all alone for as long as five minutes before anyone joined in. We’re not sure if this is a matchmaking issue on Gameloft’s part or if there just aren’t that many people playing at the moment. We suspect the former.

You can tap the top middle of the screen at any time to see who else is in your game and how many kills and deaths they’ve racked up. We found it necessary to check often whether anyone else was in a level with us, because the maps are very large compared to those in Eliminate Pro. We spent a good percentage of our time roaming the levels, looking for someone to shoot at. The maps are exceptionally well-designed, with lots of hiding places, stairways, bridges, and objects to take cover behind, but because of their size, we really wish more than four people were allowed in at a time.

When you set up a match, you can choose to make it team-based or every man for himself. While we liked the team dynamic, we found the solo experience to be best, simply because more enemies means less time looking for them.

When the multiplayer mode was working and four people were in the game, we had a lot of fun. The controls are nearly perfect, just like in the single-player campaign, and the added tension of playing against real people makes for a real thrill. And while the larger levels means you’ll spend more time hunting for enemies, it also makes for a significantly different experience from playing Eliminate Pro, which we appreciate. Some players will prefer the constant action of Eliminate Pro, while others will like the more methodical, strategy-based combat of Sandstorm.

Aside from the technical issues, our biggest complaint is that there’s no way to level up or expand your character’s abilities. Each time you respawn, you can choose from four different character classes, each with different weapons, but there’s no customization beyond that. On the plus side, there are global leaderboards that track a number of stats.

The graphics in multiplayer are just as gorgeous as the single-player game, and much more detailed than Eliminate Pro’s. The excellent draw distance and lighting effects create a very functional and atmospheric experience. The tense music adds nicely to this effect.

If you were waiting for this update to buy the game, we’d suggest you hold off a little longer to see if the bugs are ironed out. At the moment, we still find Eliminate Pro to be the premier multiplayer FPS experience on the platform, because of its smaller levels, character upgradeability, and significantly fewer bugs. However, this game remains an excellent buy, because its single-player campaign is second to none.

We will continue playing the game, and if the multiplayer experience changes, we’ll keep you informed.

Gameloft continues to pump out high-budget games on the iPhone and iPod Touch that showcase the impressive graphics the devices are capable of producing. On the heels of big-name powerhouses like Gangstar and NFL 2010, Modern Combat: Sandstorm looks and feels equal to or better than anything available on the platform. And while none of these games are based on original concepts, they certainly fulfill gamers’ needs by giving them low-priced versions of smash hits on other systems.

Modern Combat is a clone of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and it plays very similarly to the Nintendo DS version of that game. By default, an onscreen analog stick controls strafing and forward and backward movement. Looking around is handled by sliding your finger anywhere else on the screen. There are also well-placed buttons to fire, crouch, and zoom with your weapon, as well as context-sensitive buttons that appear as necessary. Other control methods are available, but we saw no reason to stray from the default. Finally, someone has gotten FPS controls on the iDevice right.

The stories behind the missions are composed of your average war videogame tropes: defend the outpost, destroy the communications towers, man the turret, etc. These missions are explained to you by a female voice while the levels are loading. The result is that you pay less attention to the load time and more attention to your objective. This is a great idea, and we hope other developers borrow it. The level design is linear, but there’s usually an arrow directing you to your destination.

The controls for fighting are superb. By default, aiming is assisted by a snap-to mechanic that centers on enemies near your crosshair. We found this feature extremely helpful, but hardcore players can switch it off. Changing weapons, reloading, and ducking behind cover are a cinch.

Our chief complaint is with the enemy AI. First of all, the bad guys follow linear paths that never change. You can play a section a million times, coming at it with various strategies, but the same terrorist will run the same line to his firing position and plant himself there every time like clockwork.

The other problem is that the terrorists are all expert marksmen. If you have six enemies all firing at you from any distance, you’ll be dead very quickly unless you can totally conceal yourself behind something in the environment. If any part of you is visible, they will hit it every time. By the same token, if you are concealed, enemies will not come to you to get a better shot. These are not game-breaking flaws; in fact, you might not even notice until a few levels in.

Another issue is saving. Each of the ten missions takes between ten and twenty minutes to complete and is peppered with helpful checkpoints along the way. However, if your game is interrupted in the middle of a level, you’re not sent back to the nearest checkpoint when you boot the game back up– you have to restart the whole level. This can set you back a good deal of time, and it seems pointless when the checkpoint saves are already being recorded.

The gaming experience in Modern Combat: Sandstorm is a great one. The controls are the best we’ve seen in an iPhone FPS, the graphics are beautiful, and there’s plenty of level variety. Sure, we’ve seen it all before, but not on the iDevice, and never for such a small price. If you like first-person shooters, buy this game. Now do us a favor, Gameloft, and give us the icing everyone wants: multiplayer.