Far back in the mists of time, in an era known as “the 90s”, there was a game for the Macintosh called Escape Velocity. It was a swashbuckling, spacefaring micro-opera that carefully blended RPG trappings and writing with classic Asteroids-style gameplay. Beginning your lonely career with what amounted to a garbage scow, you embarked on a series of chained quests, eventually making your way up to a galactic cruiser (or, my favourite, a mind-ship). It was ruthlessly addictive. Warpgate for the iPhone is, in almost every way, attempting to be a spiritual successor to the venerable Escape Velocity in pocket-sized form.
The times have changed and Warpgate‘s graphical presentation dispenses with the old top-down view, opting for an isometric 3D display. While the ships and planetary objects are polygonal, the gameplay retains the same two-dimensional mechanics. Touch empty space to fly there, or swipe for a general direction. You can also pinch-to-zoom, which is handy for spotting marauding pirate spaceships, as well as double-tap to min/max the view. Every other control is mapped as a series of buttons on a lower dashboard display or as overlaid icons on the playfield itself. This can present some issues with accuracy, as developer Freeverse has stacked a lot of buttons down there and the edges of an iPhone are the hardest for the digitizer to recognize reliably.
A very expansive universe awaits you in WarpGate, and it’s one that you are free to explore at will. After a series of tutorials and test-missions, you are cut loose to either continue on the first plotline of quests or simply fly off to explore. Or engage in bloodthirsty piracy, of course. That’s a vocation best left until you accumulate a better ship and some weapons, however, as death’s embrace can come very quickly in the early game due to the anemic shields and low-end firepower you start off with. It also behoves one to stay in the stellar neighbourhood, so to speak, as various scary Factions control parcels of distant space, and most of them follow a policy of “shoot first and don’t ask any questions”. You can take a more mercantile cargo-shipping route (wimp) and buy low in one star system to sell high in another, or you can search for asteroids to leave automated mining robots on, which will replenish your bank account in a slow dribble over time.
The storyline content moves along very briskly, and has the same bombastic, lively prose as its inspiration -which is one of the most endearing things about it. This goes a long way to making what could be a cold and empty tech-demo of a universe into something with real purpose for the player, even if it is just the old stand-by quests of deliver X or kill Y and Z, wrapped in elaborate text dressing. These gigs are quick hits and never last long enough to feel bogged down. Flying around to the various planets can get a little tiresome, like any open-world game, but also offers some truly interesting random encounters and impromptu missions. The game saves after each system jump or landing, so if you get a call, you’ll pick up almost exactly where you left off.
Sadly, the game falls flat when it comes to actual space combat: the screen switches to attack mode, which consists of tapping weapon icons or a shield boost button. That’s basically it. The combatants fly around and near each other in tight circles until one is destroyed. Supposedly the tilt function can be employed to sway your ship’s flight, but I was unable to get it to register in any meaningful way. This reduces altercations to a shallow numbers game -whomever has more shields, or bigger guns, wins. After a battle, shields recharge slowly, leaving the player vulnerable to rapid destruction should any other hostile ships decide to engage.
A single requisite epic-space-battle theme song ships with Warpgate, which is fine at first, but eventually sort of stressful (it feels like you always should be doing something really important while it plays). There is a custom music soundtrack option to tap into your iTunes library, although at the time of writing it behaved badly, ignoring taps for playlists or songs, and crashing the game outright at one point.
Warpgate is a solid but flawed re-creation of a fantastic original game. I say this as a compliment, as the source material would lend itself well to iPhone gaming if Freeverse can figure out a better combat system and continue to refine the interface and flow. While we can’t give it a glowing recommendation in this incarnation, I do hope to see some updates and sequels expanding on the concept.