by James Christy3
A Dawn of a New Epoch for the Mobile Shooter?
It seems no small task to make a quality 3D shooter for Android, as evidenced by just how few there are available. It also doesn’ t help that as the technical capabilities of our devices inch closer to console levels of performance, so too does our expectations of the gameplay grow to match. The thing is, even after overcoming the graphical gap a bugbear still lingers: touchscreen controls just don’t have the responsiveness and scope necessary to handle everything gamers have come to expect of a modern day shooter. At least, not without overpopulating the screen with buttons better suited to a gamepad, or worse, oversimplifying the controls to a tedium. The majority of commercially successful titles on other systems being shooters, this void leaves a lucrative opportunity for developers to step in and make one that finally works with the touchscreen instead of around it. To this picture, enter Epoch.
In Epoch, you play a nameless robot out to save a princess in a dystopic future plagued by warring robots. There’s also some revolution or something in the background; honestly it’s hard to tell what’s actually going on and even harder to care. There are brief cut scenes throughout the game, but all that really seems to matter during the missions is shooting stuff. To bulk up the story, short messages by otherwise irrelevant characters are unlocked whenever you complete a mission, but these just serve as optional flavor text. The writing is pretty clever (“Aldous Orwell” is a character and one of the entries is encoded in binary) and worth a skim if you’re starved for a story, but don’t expect emotional pay-off. None of these characters actually make an appearance and your own avatar has about as much personality as you’d expect from a robot (i.e. none).
The feel of the game is reminiscent of contemporary RPG/shooter hybrids (Mass Effect comes to mind), but it bears mentioning that Epoch has some major differences from its older cousins. For starters, there’s no free-roam to speak of; the only real control you have over your robot’s movement is in sliding between pre-established cover positions, giving the three-dimensional game a two-dimensional quality. Yet, rather than being a detriment to the experience, the system works to the touchscreen’s strengths, keeping the interface uncluttered and the controls natural. The shooting mechanic is similarly stripped down: aiming involves tapping an enemy once to acquire a target and automatically start firing. There’s no targeting reticule to speak of, and the camera is locked to the cover position. Most of the interactivity and excitement comes from bouncing in and out of cover and timing your shots. While deceptively simple at first, the gameplay picks up as difficulty progresses. The variety of enemies helps to complicate things, with more advanced robots shooting lasers right through your cover or lobbing grenades at your position. It keeps things frantic and tense, and adds a bit of tactical engagement as you form a hierarchy of targets.
The RPG element in Epoch is limited to character advancement, and the options here are thin but not so thin as to be superfluous. Completing each mission earns you a number of credits and experience points based on your performance, and occasionally you’ll find a new weapon or piece of armor. An in-game store allows you to spend credits on items or sell the stuff you don’t need, but of course, the developers just had to shove In-App Purchasing in your face. Every time you complete a mission you’ll get an offer to double credit-earning rate for just $5 of real life money, and if you’re really lazy you could just buy credits outright, but they might as well be selling you a game over screen at that point. Though the inclusion of IAPs is obnoxious in any game, it doesn’t really detract from the experience here and you can get by well enough without spending a dime over the cost of the game.
The sound is serviceable, but the music is a repetitive loop of uninspired gloss so irritating that I ended up muting my phone ten minutes in. Graphically, Epoch makes great use of the Unreal engine’s capabilities and sports some bright, shiny visuals. The modeling and particle effects are impressive, the projectile physics superb, and taken together, the whole package comes damn close to console quality. The comic art-style aptly evokes a war-torn future, but it’s also pretty generic and may feel monotonous after a few levels. Drab grays and browns tend to dominate the screen, and observable differences between the robots are minimal to the point that nothing really sticks out. Such quibbling aside, the polish in this game is impossible to ignore, and such attention to detail is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a gaming ecosystem in which shoddiness is the norm.
All things told, Epoch is best when taken on its own terms. Really, this is the sort of game that depends on the player’s prejudices and whims in determining its value more than anything else. If you enjoy the combat you’ll find plenty of replay value in pushing your robot to ever higher levels and testing your skills at the arena. The repetitive missions, absence of an engaging story, and lack of exploratory options might be a deal-breaker for some, but the solid gameplay and seamless production still outshines most of the clunky console ports that have made their way to Android by quite a few lumens.
Summary: Minor missteps notwithstanding, Epoch is refreshing take on a genre that has had a hard go of adapting to the touchscreen. Robot on robot violence never felt so right.