StarFront: Collision Review

Here’s what you need to know about StarFront: Collision — it’s basically mobile StarCraft, for all the good and bad that statement entails. While Gameloft has more or less ripped off borrowed the entire concept of Blizzard’s RTS powerhouse right down to the mix of races, the game is also extremely well-polished and designed.

Gameloft has given us StarCraft on the iPhone, and it has done a really great job of it.


StarFront: Collision HD (IPhone [Reviewed], IPhone)
Developer: Gameloft
Publisher: Gameloft
Release Date: May 12, 2011
MSRP: $6.99

There’s a plot to StarFront, but good luck making sense of it. Basically, it amounts to two planets being close together and one disintegrating, throwing meteorites of a super-valuable and useful mineral at the other. These meteorites are the primary resource for three different groups: the human mining Consortium, the zerg-like hive-minded Myriad, and the robotic Protoss stand-ins known as the Wardens. So they go to war in a top-down strategy game the likes of which you’ve seen before.

The campaign gives you a taste of all three races in various situations and with several different kinds of missions, amounting to 20 in all. There’s a disproportionate emphasis on the human campaign, which stacks up to eight missions total. Five more go to the Myriad, and the final four concern the Wardens, with three levels left for tutorials.

Throughout the campaign, you’ll guide small bands of units and complete stealth runs with single or small groups of troops — the same kind of things you see in the StarCraft campaigns — as well as fight in larger battles with objectives or allies. None of it makes a whole lot of sense as far as plot progression, as sometimes the Myriad and the Wardens are allies, sometimes the Consortium and Wardens are allies, and sometimes humans fight humans and Myriad fight Myriad. It’s just an excuse to get you into a lot of situations.

It’s a good excuse, though, and Gameloft has packed a lot of RTS variety into a mobile game. StarFront is a pretty deep and rewarding strategy experience, too — it includes multiple tech trees and unit types, and leaves quite a bit of room for strategy. Some units fly, some units have heavy armor, some units cloak: The game really does mimic the StarCraft experience in a lot of key ways, with great results. You’ll feel that you have plenty of tools to get the job done and customize the way you approach different battles.

From a control standpoint, StarFront has mastered the touchscreen in a pretty effective way, and for only have really one interface option (rather than the versatility of a mouse and keyboard), Gameloft has found good ways of giving you full control of the situation. Tapping a building or a unit brings up its contextual controls, a series of buttons allowing you to issue commands. Double tap a unit and you get all of the same ones of that type; tap a spot on the screen and the units go there, and depending on a setting you can control from the menus, they’ll go there directly or attack encountered enemies along the way. Tapping and holding a spot on the screen toggles to the other option on the fly for that order. You can also select your units and tap a single enemy to have them all attack that target.

The edges of the screen are covered in heads-up display controls to keep you fully engaged in the battle. Buttons at the bottom of the screen allow you to select all the units you can see, or deselect whatever you’ve selected. Another button lets you respond to prompts, like units under attack or idle workers, instantly. A mini-map you can toggle on or off in a corner of the screen lets you quickly jump around the map, and you can slightly adjust your zoom-in, zoom-out level with a slider. For all the different interface pieces on the screen at any given time, Gameloft has done a great job of making them unobtrusive and keeping them out of the way. Many can be slid off the screen and reactivated later when you need them.

There are other great little touches, as well. Gameloft has studied StarCraft and found what players need, so you can set rally points to send units to locations as soon as they spawn, including sending workers to resources immediately. Touching one finger to the screen in a place, and then another in a different spot creates a selector box that will highlight several units at once, allowing them all to receive orders. There’s also a small hotkey menu that can be filled with unit groups to quickly find them and issue them orders — great for sending a group to attack while working back at your base. Unfortunately, buildings can’t be hotkeyed, which is a drawback StarCraft players will miss.

For as well as the controls work on a touchscreen, their very nature makes them irritating at times. It’s way too easy to accidentally send a worker halfway across the map or accidentally disengage a group of attacking units because you were trying to swipe the screen to scroll your view over to another location. It’s a hard complaint to make, because I can’t see a good way that Gameloft could prevent these issues given the platform on which they’ve created StarFront to work, but it’s still a frustration that makes playing difficult at times.

StarFront includes three different game modes, the second being a Skirmish mode that allows you to quickly jump into a game against AI players, and an online multiplayer mode. It has two options: 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 play. I struggled to find and connect to a 2v2 game (and can’t really nail down if it was my Wi-Fi’s issue or StarFront’s), but 1v1 clipped along just fine with no issues. Multiplayer is also substantially more interesting than the campaign, and like the rest of the game, it brings the appropriate multiplayer experience to the mobile platform. It’s not quite Battle.net, but it’s pretty damn close and it can reach a pretty similar level of frustration fun.

I haven’t had occasion to sample widely the RTS offerings on the iPhone, but I’ve played quite a bit of StarCraft, and Gameloft’s mobile conversion is eerily dead-on. There are drawbacks — it’s scaled down in many ways to function well on the platform, it can hiccup a bit when lots of units engage each other, and ¬†as well as the controls work, they’re limited by the technology they employ.

But StarFront definitely won’t disappoint RTS fans. It’s a bit of a niche game, especially at its price: $6.99, though it’s free to download, with the tutorials, first level and a skirmish match on offer to sample. Still, StarFront is a premium experience with exactly the right kind of treatment to warrant such a price, and a strong example of the ability to bring quality, more traditional video games to the mobile platform. Download it.

Pros:

  • Deep RTS sensibilities, with multiple tech trees, unit types and strong-weak match-ups per race
  • Appropriately scaled down for the iPhone while still being an engaging experience
  • Quality control scheme — Gameloft thought of almost everything
  • Pretty strongly recreates the StarCraft experience on a small mobile screen
  • Great production values
  • A pretty long (and somewhat challenging) campaign and an instant-action mode for playing alone
  • Online and local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth multiplayer

Cons:

  • Not a lot of innovation; desperately apes StarCraft
  • Touchscreen controls are well-designed, but still result in mixed orders and frustration
  • Campaign is uneven in difficulty and the plot makes no sense
  • Couldn’t get 2-vs-2 online multiplayer to work

Final Score: 90/100

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