When you review games, you’re always on the lookout for the gold standard– those few games that you can hold up as examples of the very best the platform has to offer. With its combination of well-orchestrated single-player shootouts and multiplayer chaos, N.O.V.A. 3 hits every correct note. If you’re an iOS gamer who demands the very best, you should buy N.O.V.A. 3.
The N.O.V.A. series has long stood in Halo’s shadow, completely by design. By patterning itself after Bungie’s blockbuster shooter series, Gameloft tried to make the N.O.V.A. series stand out on iOS, where Microsoft would never dare to tread. But in the last year, a string of graphically intensive shooters like Shadowgun and Epoch have also wowed action gamers, so it’s time for N.O.V.A. 3 to change direction. Copying Halo is no longer enough.
Now, Kal Wardin looks and sounds a lot less like Halo’s Master Chief, and more like the heroes of Crysis or Gears of War. He’s got a sleeker suit with handy telekinetic abilities, and a mouth like a sailor. If salty language is a concern for you, you’ve been warned.
I left my heart, and other vital organs, in San Francisco.
The rougher look matches a grittier, more realistic-looking series of environments, too. The ruins of San Francisco are your first battlefield, but you’ll soon move to a desolate Judger spaceship and a planet covered with both ice and lava. Each has its own unique gameplay elements, like solar flares that can cook your character aboard the Judger ship if you don’t stay in the shade.
The graphics in N.O.V.A. 3 are probably most players’ main reason for buying the game– they’re quite outstanding, and hold up very well next to Unreal-powered games like Infinity Blade 2. However, if you’re buying this for your new, Retina-enabled iPad, we did encounter a disappointingly low frame rate in some scenes. The game ran smoother on an iPhone 4S, but didn’t look quite as eye-popping.
Dropship, time to drop dead.
Even if N.O.V.A. 3 didn’t have such appealing visuals, we’d still flip for the action. Gameloft’s level designers are experts at keeping up the momentum, and in the single-player mode you’ll race from one over-the-top shootout to the next. You’ll often be accompanied by another character, who will provide backup. Occasionally, you’ll have to jump through some platforming segments, or man a turret or mech as a break from the core gameplay. But once you see those piles of ammo in a big, open room, you know things are about to get very fun.
By now, we’re used to Gameloft’s control scheme for their first-person shooters, but played on an iPad, it still feels a little cramp-inducing. There are multiple control options, but none of them let you slightly move the controls to exactly where you want them. For the most part, N.O.V.A. 3 grafts effective console controls onto the touchscreen intact.
Precise aiming and movement is especially important when you’re playing the game online against live opponents, who are much more clever than the game’s single-player artificial intelligence. N.O.V.A. 3’s 12-person multiplayer is absolutely madcap, with vehicles racing by and firefights breaking out all over the huge maps. Even after you’ve completed the 4-6 hour story, there’s still a lot more shooting to do online.
Red vs Blue, MechWarrior edition.
As much as we loved N.O.V.A. 3’s two main modes, we have a few minor complaints. Besides the choppy frame rate and cramped controls, we encountered a number of distracting bugs in the main game where story events weren’t triggered correctly. Most of the time, this was solved by restarting from the nearest checkpoint, but in one case, we had to replay an entire 40 minute level. We still enjoyed the game, but these bugs stand out, and N.O.V.A. 3 should be patched so players don’t become frustrated.
Also, some players will probably dislike N.O.V.A. 3’s optional in-app purchases in the single-player mode. You can spend a buck or two to unlock a few new weapons, or to buy ammo if you’re in a pinch, and as a result the main game is a little stingy with the ammo. You may have to rely on your pistol a little more instead of paying extra money, but we still felt the game was balanced correctly for a premium price tag.
N.O.V.A. 3 isn’t just about wish-fulfillment, fitting a console-style shooter on iOS to prove it can be done. It’s also about the huge amount of enjoyment you get for your money. Even when N.O.V.A. 3 occasionally lagged or glitched out, we still had a lot of fun blasting aliens with a shotgun, blowing up mechs with a rocket launcher, and drifting out in space towards the sun. Short of the occasional direct PC or console port, N.O.V.A. 3 is as substantial as iOS games get.