reviews\ Jun 1, 2010 at 8:00 pm

N.O.V.A. HD review


When first-person shooters came to portable consoles, they started out very rough. Limited controls - thanks to only one analog stick, tiny screens, minimal possible commands, poor graphics and the bare minimum of just about everything else. They’ve gotten somewhat better over time, though the FPS genre just hasn’t managed to fit in on portable game consoles.

Ironic, then, that on the iPad we get not just a good, but a great FPS, and immediately at launch no less. Hell, the iPad isn’t even a dedicated game console.

NOVA, or Near Orbital Vanguard Alliance, is basically Halo for the iPad. A lone human fights against an alien menace on foreign worlds and must stop an invasion. The story, and characters for that matter, are as one-dimensional as any other iPad game, but they’re all also completely useless to the gameplay. In fact, one of the achievements is to skip over all of the cut scenes. How’s that for an excessive plot? Even the name doesn’t make sense.

NOVA’s tale has our protagonist going up against hundreds of enemies over 13 levels, with the environment drastically changing every two-three, from forests to space-walks to other dimensions. Not just one, but two AI’s guide players through the game, giving directions and orders on what’s ahead and what to do. Their jibber-jabber is entirely useless, as is everyone else’s commentary and all of the cut scenes. The acting is surprisingly very good, all things considered. Actually hearing voicework is pretty rare, with no more than 50 lines in the whole game total, but it’s still better than some of today’s home-console titles.

Controlling NOVA takes some time to get used to, but after a good 10 minutes any player will adjust to the two main actions: movement and shooting. A digital analog stick on the left controls movement (forward, back and strafing) and dragging anywhere else on the display points the screen in the dragged direction. Actually shooting has its own virtual button, which is huge and hard to miss. Below it is a secondary attack and jump command.

Most of the game revolves around the same basic principle: walk through the one path towards the obvious directive and kill everything that stands in your way. Three main enemy types (similar to Halo’s Covenant races) do everything from clawing your eyes out to throwing giant hammers and spitting fireballs at you to shooting at you and taking control of human soldiers to do their bidding. Killing them is easy, thanks to a wide assortment of weapons: a pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, plasma rifle, sniper rifle, and rocket launcher. Add onto that wide arsenal grenades and a stun attack, and players are set to wreak havoc.

These weapons work as we’ve seen in countless other games: the pistol has unlimited ammo, the assault rifle is weak but good at medium range, the shotgun is devastating at close range, etc. Grenades are extremely powerful, though using them is difficult because instead of a dedicated button, throwing one requires a two-finger swipe. I’ve thrown more accidental grenades at my own feet than at enemy aliens, and stopping in the middle of a firefight to throw a quick grenade is practically a death sentence. Then again, if properly placed, it can end that firefight instantly.

NOVA has everything players have come to expect from a space-faring sci-fi FPS - macho-man humor, the ability to carry an inhuman number of weapons, completely unforeseeable power-hungry commanding officers, and a completely lax and uncaring hero. Yet all of these dumb, adolescent-inspired motifs can be so easily forgotten when running in circles around fire-breathing brutes who chase you with hammers, five at a time. NOVA does something very difficult to accomplish on a portable FPS: it inspires anxiety. With that, the game remains fun.

It also offers online multiplayer, which surprisingly works! It may seem difficult considering the touch-based controls, but because all players are playing the same way, it’s a fairly level playing field. With multiple maps and all the weapons from the single-player campaign available, you’ll be complaining that your controller isn’t working right in no time.

NOVA HD is a step forward for iPad gaming. It proves that even a hardcore, FPS can be done on the portable console and play better than any previous FPS found on the PSP or DS. It’s a graphical achievement, and it’s a launch title no less. Sure, the plot is paper thin and the campaign is short at 5-6 hours, but for the price and the console, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything better.


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