Poor controls hamper the pure, dumb PvP arena fun of iMech Online.

If you’ve ever wondered why we’ve yet to see our battlefields dominated by soldiers in hulking two-legged tanks, the answer might lie in the gameplay of this new multiplayer arena battler for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Put simply, they’re a royal pain to control. Moving forward and backwards isn’t so bad, but when you find your big guns simply shooting off in the direction of Alpha Centauri when you’re trying to blast the guy who’s barbecuring you from behind with a flamethrower, you might find yourself realizing why the military’s devoted its resources to less fantastical projects.

As it is, turning and firing both require using the same half of your iPhone’s screen, and I once became so frustrated with the design that I simply left my mech standing in place like a turret and fired on anyone who happened to fall within my sights. (It worked better than you might expect.) The good news is that comments left by the devs on various message boards suggest that a fix for such shoddy controls is on the ways; the bad news, of course, is that we have no way of knowing if such a fix will do the job.

I sincerely hope it does. If you can get past such a massive speed bump, there’s a whole bundle of good, stupid fun in store in the screen beyond. This is a game that’s not about anything more profound than shooting other players dressed as the big, bad robot from RoboCop before they shoot you. There are scores and kill counts, yes, but its drop-in/drop out arcade design puts the fun before the statistics. In both visuals and controls, iMech Online bears the ambience of an earlier, simpler time–a time when we were less concerned with a variety of gameplay modes and more interested in the mere novelty of fighting other players online.

In some ways, it is a port. iMech was actually one of the first multiplayer games to make a splash on the mobile casual gaming scene several years ago, and one of the first to gain a significant and devoted following. Now it’s back under new management, and with some tweaks, there’s enough potential here to make iMech Online a go-to shooter for players seeking to sneak in a few rounds of high powered action while they’re waiting in line or commuting on a train. A pity, then, that all the maps I saw looked like the same wartorn urban wasteland, although the blocky skyscrapers yield numerous opportunities for avoiding enemy attacks. With a wider selection of maps, iMech Online might even be able to sway over players who would otherwise be turned off by its single match mode.

iMech Online

What variety there is instead comes from the weaponry. Each mech comes with its own special ability–one teleports a short distance ahead; another might fire a grappling hook that grabs other robots–along with three abilities such as machine guns, flame throwers, and laser blasters. Along with the special weapons that drop in the middle of the match, the special abilities yield just enough variety to keep the gameplay interesting, and as a bonus, a MOBA-insired weekly switchout of available free mechs allows you to sample every mech before you buy one.

That’s a smart move, and with the caveat that we’re still only a couple of days after launch, I never felt as though I was severely behind players who’ve pumped some money into their mechs (usually identifiable by the customized names above their heads). Even the limtation of not being able to change my free mech’s loudout didn’t feel too draconian; in fact, the limits helped me grow accustomed to the limits of my mech and, in turn, a better player. If they get the movement fixed properly, that might be enough to bring me back. But right now, most of iMech Online‘s skill demands seems to involve the mere act of being able to turn around to fight the guy who’s fighting you, and not even shooting things in a giant robot can make a headache like that fun for long.