Star Hogs much more than pigs in space

Posted: July 6, 2009 in Shooter, Strategy

When it comes to the name of a game and its icon in the iTunes store, it can make a huge difference in determining its popularity. So when I first heard about Star Hogs a month ago, I honestly thought this was another game riding the swine flu meal ticket. The reality is that Star Hogs couldn’t be farther from swine flu or even this planet, delivering solid turn-based trajectory gameplay. Think iShoot and Pocket Tanks except with a little more oomph when it comes to customization. In some ways, I think the space theme appeals to a broader audience, and while the visuals bring Star Hogs back down to Earth, the gameplay moves along at warp speed.

Star Hogs is about turn-based battles with 3 game play modes: Campaign, Freeplay and Multiplayer/Online. All of the modes offer a good degree of customization gameplay depth that should appeal to broad base. Campaign consists of 32 single-player levels, while Freeplay allows you to play up to 4 ships both against the AI or another actual person within 15 different game layouts. Multiplayer/Online requires an initial account registration that allows for play with anyone anywhere. In addition, Star Hogs also has global online scoreboards so you can see how badly you’re doing in the space mining business.

Hogs (aka ships) sit on space rocks which basically keep them from falling and burning in the orbit of the planet below. By the way, if this happens, you earn injury pay…I guess CAL-OSHA applies in space too. These rocks can also serve as obstacles blocking shots from being made or damage from being taken. The game focuses on energy which can be used for firing and moving, and additional energy and money can be earned by finding ore deposits in the game field or via inflicting damage to enemies. And, the best part is with a victory, you can go on a shopping spree to upgrade your Hog.

The controls are pretty straightforward although you will need to get familiar with some of the special nuances. Buttons for selecting from among 20 different weapons which you gradually purchase as well as separate weapons and move buttons complete the interface which I will get into shortly. It’s actually very intuitive once you familiarize yourself with the different functions, and the devs did a nice job of incorporating this within a highly functional HUD.

In Campaign, the game follows a linear progression storyline through 32 missions with each gradually unlocked once the previous level has been successfully completed. There are 3 difficulty levels—easy, normal and hard—and medals are awarded based on success at each difficulty (e.g. easy=bronze, normal=silver, hard=gold). In Free Play, there are 15 game fields with names such as Rose Bowl, The Wheel, Undercurrent, and The Underground. They look exactly like they sound. Turn-based moves must be made within a 30-second allotment (you have that much time to move and attack) with accompanying timer. It’s a rather simple, yet effective way to make sure games don’t drag, and makes you wonder why more games don’t adopt something similar. Certain parts and Hogs must first be unlocked in Campaign before they’re available in Free Play which leads into customization.

Customization is a big part of Star Hogs, and there is plenty to dress up your Hog in the latest fashion weaponry. You first begin by selecting your Hog in the Hangar section, and several options are provided. The ships have different attributes in terms of armor, speed, weight, lift and energy, and a full 360-degree view of each ship can be had via swipe and drag. You can even name each Hog (mine is called the Space Hussey) and select the paint job which takes the saying “Putting lipstick on a pig” to a whole new level”. Once a Hog is selected, there are several areas where customization takes place: Parts Shop, Storage, Ship Yard and Paint. The Parts Shop is where most of the fun is at for customization. Here you can select from a variety of arms that would make your soldier of fortune mercenary salivate including machine guns, Vulcan turrets, concussion mines, lasers, and the standard zero rockets among others. In addition, different types of hull and technology are available including afterboosters, main boosters and alloy armor plating as well as power generators and shield protectors. It’s a pretty extensive lineup to choose from if you can afford it, and feel free to buy extra slots to further build up your arsenal.

The gameplay in Star Hogs is terrific in strategic and tactical gameplay and easy to learn. The game screen consists of several key things on the HUD. In the middle of the screen is the toolbar display and power meter. In the toolbar is available weapons as well as a Move icon. A power bar is located underneath the toolbar, which regulates the amount of thrust behind a weapon’s launch as well as showing the amount of energy available. On the right bottom corner is the Move/Fire button. When a weapon is tapped in the toolbar, the right button automatically changes to a Fire button and a trajectory ring appears around your Hog. This ring allows for changing the angle of the shot. By touching and holding the Fire button, the power bar increases in strength until you release the Fire button and the weapon is unleashed. If you tap the Move icon, the right button will change to a Move button and acts as a d-pad enabling you to move and reposition a Hog in any direction. Also, swipe and drag allow for moving around the game field. As long as there is energy, another weapon can be used allowing for multiple launches or for moving a Hog. On the left side are the End turn and Pause buttons, and along bottom of the screen is a ticker indicating player turn. Each Hog also has two bars—shield and health—so you can monitor when oblivion is near.

Aside from the challenges that come from handling different type of weapons and implementing tactics, one of the nice challenges that Star Hog offers in its trajectory play is the use of planets and gravity to alter shots. We’ve all played iShoot and Pocket Tanks, and in the early levels, the gameplay is similar in terms of angling and making successful shots on enemy vehicles. Each of the levels provides a different formation of asteroids around a planet, and it’s that added element that influences and impacts the direction of attacks. The most basic is the asteroids themselves. In many cases, you will need to gauge the impact of a planet’s gravitational pull on the flight of a missile for example. So what appears to be a straight shot may actually require a missile loop around a planet before it can reach a target. And, in Free Play and later on in Campaign, multiple Hogs add even more to the gameplay. Sometimes moving and repositioning Hogs can be a little awkward because of the rocky terrain, and even dragging the screen on occasion can have a slight lag.

I had an opportunity to try the Multiplayer option over wifi this morning, and it worked remarkably well. The gameplay was smooth and there was very little lag in general. Of course, I haven’t had a chance to try this out online yet well, frankly because I couldn’t find anyone so I can’t speak to that aspect, but I would anticipate a similar experience.

As with space travel, Star Hogs is not without its issues. When it comes to customization, this can either be a great benefit to players or a hindrance, and I’ll tell you why. For the casual player, Pocket Tanks and iShoot are terrific games in their own respect because of the relative simplicity. Beyond selecting or randomizing the weapons and the actual gameplay, there isn’t much to think about or consider. Customization is a big differentiator for Star Hogs, but it can also be a double-edged sword. Having said that, the weakest aspect of Star Hogs is arguably the visuals. While the asteroids and the different layouts fit within the space theme, the visuals is an area where tastes will vary. Honestly while the gameplay should make up for this, it’s not the most visually appealing in a space where first impressions tend to be everything. It may make more sense to add other landscapes so the game isn’t visually monotonous.

Star Hogs offers impressive gameplay and enough different elements that anyone who enjoys trajectory-based games should consider. The visuals may not grab you, but the impressive gameplay certainly does. Even for those new to this type of game will find it easy to get into with plenty of replay value.

Albie Meter: 4 Stars (recommended for turn-based fanatics and space wackos; visuals aren’t out of this world, but the gameplay gives it the necessary boost—sorry, couldn’t help the space analogies)

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