The all-powerful Call of Duty franchise steamrollers its way onto mobile devices with Strike Team, and – gasp! – actually brings along some new ideas on how to play military shooters.
I don’t pretend to know exactly what the average Call of Duty fan is like, but I think we can take an educated guess, right? They’re very invested in their beloved franchise – their skills at shottin’ manz are as much of a status symbol as the way they dress or the company they keep. Their console, or their PC, is the One True Format on which to play Call of Duty, and all others are but pale imitations. And most importantly they’re in it for the chance to prove all of this by plugging their friends in the head over the internet, again and again and again.
So in that light it’s something of a surprise to find out Activision have decided to commission developers Blast Furnace to make a new Call of Duty game specially designed for smartphones and tablets, one that tends towards the accessible and that’s (currently, anyway) completely devoid of any kind of multiplayer mode bar high score tables. (It’s the first one they’ve done, if you ignore the zombie spinoffs.) Even more surprisingly, though, it’s not bad at all. Call of Duty: Strike Team has its flaws, but it’s one of the most interesting steps the series has taken for ages.
Strike Team gives you a squad of one to four men to take through each mission in the singleplayer campaign. By default it’s a standard gung-ho military power fantasy, where you’re shooting naughty foreigners in the traditional first-person view and your allies will hold position, merrily trading fire with the enemies until you tell them to form up. The gimmick is, at any point you can switch to a tactical overhead view of the level – spinning, panning and zooming the map and ordering each individual squad member around to get the edge over whoever you’re trying to kill.
Each of these approaches has its pros and cons: in general, the tactical view gives you much greater situational awareness and the capacity to multi-task, but if you want one thing done right you can often get it done much more efficiently yourself. Tactical is anything but a gimmick, though. Setting up two or three-pronged attacks, owning the battlefield much faster than one lone wolf ever could – a useful, solidly implemented innovation in a Call of Duty game! Somebody pinch me!
Not to oversell things, though: Strike Team is no XCOM, for the most part. Levels are fairly small – it’s an understandable decision if you’re trying to appeal to players who might not have much time on their hands, and the maps do make reasonably good use of the space, but on the default difficulty there’s nothing too challenging in the singleplayer campaign. The two perspectives are great fun to play with regardless, and the later, tougher maps (plus veteran difficulty) do force you to play a lot more cautiously. Again, it’s no great challenge, but it’s more cerebral than anything else bearing the Call of Duty brand.
If you want the job done right…
Strike Team is still a Call of Duty game, though, with all the downsides that implies, even without people screaming death threats at you in multiplayer matches. The story is a garbled mess shot through with the exact same jingoistic chest-beating as every one of the “proper” games, and a couple of plot beats leave a sour taste in the mouth (riffing on Anonymous, or how anyone bar Americans just can’t seem to get things done). Many fans won’t care, but some of the casual market Activision is after might be put off.
Strike Team still trots out the same design clichés, too, with countless door-gunner sections (no playing these in tactical view), breach-and-clear manoeuvres, clearing rooms of startled bad guys in slow motion or planting demolition charges under fire. The tactical view is a bold step, make no mistake, but the game underneath is still relatively conventional. And it’s short – like, three hours short, the story petering out into nothing with a cliffhanger ending it’s difficult to understand how anyone could possibly care about.
And yet this is a far smarter, more adventurous attempt to retool the first-person shooter for mobile devices than anyone else has attempted so far. It’s technically solid: the art is nothing too special, but the developers have done a very smart job of emphasising map detail and draw distance over polygon counts and texture resolution. The result being Strike Team looks decent in first-person, and even better in tactical view. The interface works well, too – tactical can seem overly complicated when you’re under pressure but take it slow and steady and you soon stop making mistakes.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that some of the mobile-specific features dumb the game down much less than you might expect. The virtual controls are good, but they still include buttons to snap to aim – but then you turn the difficulty up, or play the extra survival levels (which are solo and locked to first-person) and you realise yes, you can lock on and blaze away without thinking, but that won’t score as many points as a well-placed head shot. You wish Blast Furnace had dared to coax players to make more use of these and other tweaks right from the start.
This should become less of a problem with time, as new levels or game modes are offered as DLC, but it’s disappointing Activision weren’t feeling a little more ambitious. Still, compared to what they could have tried, it’s a godsend. A premium, stand-alone Call of Duty title on your phone, with no paywall, and (nearly) all the levelling up, perks and long-distance head shots your inner fifteen-year-old could want? As far as mobile shooting games go, Strike Team sees Activision kicking in the door and ordering the competition to get down, hands behind their head – it’s an impressive entry into the market, and hopefully should only get better from here.
Call of Duty: Strike Team, by The Blast Furnace and Activision, is available now for iOS devices.