Getting Into the Action
Modern Combat: Sandstorm doesn’t kid around when it comes to providing what you might call an old school style FPS. Gameplay is straight-forward and to the point: move forward and kill the enemy. Over the course of ten levels, all tied together with a story, players will encounter and kill well over a thousand terrorists in an Iraq or Afghanistan-like setting. Environments include outdoor markets and city streets, a hospital, a palace, a shipyard, and even a secretive weapons facility. Fighting takes place about as much outdoors as it does indoors, but the idea of kill or be killed remains the same. If you’re cool with that, as I still am in this day and age of increasingly complex FPS, read on.
Simply known as Chief, the player will engage the enemy alone for the most part, but a lot of the campaign has you running around with your squad mates (Jones, Fox, and Dozer) as well. As the story goes, you were part of this elite unit before becoming injured, and at the outset of the game players are informed that their character has healed up and is eager to get back to action. This makes for a good segway into the first mission, which is a basic tutorial that takes only about seven minutes to complete. The tutorial takes place on a base near enemy activity, so the transition from the introduction through the tutorial and to your first actual mission is seamless.
Learning the controls only took a few minutes, and they work rather well. There are three forms of controls that you can switch between, but I found the default method to work well. This default scheme will have you aiming your weapon with swiping motions from the thumb or finger. If you’re concerned about having to be absolutely precise with your aim, don’t worry — a handy Aim Assist feature will help your nearly spot on aim be spot on, except when sniping through the scope. Even though Aim Assist helps you get shots on target, it won’t necessarily target the best area, which in the case of Modern Combat is always the head. When aiming, shoot for the chest or head because Modern Combat features a nice, albeit basic, damage system whereby head shots are the most deadly while shots to the extremities are the least impactful. Players know when they have an enemy targeted because the crosshair changes from yellow to red, even when you are blinded by your own flash bang. When aiming, you also have to take into account the distance, aim type (hip or iron sight), and weapon that you are using to achieve the best accuracy.
Moving on to the HUD layout, the lower left area contains your virtual joystick and a toggle button in the very left corner that makes Chief stand up or crouch. There wasn’t much of a need to ever crouch beyond the one time use during the tutorial mission, but it’s good to know it’s there. Situated in the upper left corner is the pause button, which brings up the Pause Menu. The Pause Menu offers several options like restarting from the last checkpoint or restarting the mission. You can also ditch the mission and head back to the Main Menu or access the game’s options (also available from the Main Menu). The Options include the ability to adjust the volume of the music and the effects, toggle Aim Assist, Auto Grenade, Blood, Flip Screen, and Lefty Mode — all of which are really self-explanatory. Additionally, players can switch between the three control schemes, adjust controller sensitivity, and Invert the Y Axis.
The top right of the HUD displays your weapon status. Players are allowed to carry up to two weapons. Weapons include an M16, AK47, RPG, pump Shotgun, MP5, SAW, and bolt action sniper rifle. There actually are no pistols or knives, but players can perform melee attacks if they are close enough to an enemy. In addition to those arms, Chief can also utilize frag grenades and flash bangs, both of which are very useful and I found myself enjoying both equally as well. While frag grenades offer that instant explosive power, flash bangs will stun any enemy in a good sized area, giving you time to kill each one of them while they hold their face in shock and awe (yeah, I went there).
The weapon status icon does a few other things for you, too. If a weapon is out of ammo — this only happened to me once (on the eighth mission) — the number icon below the picture of the gun will be red (otherwise it’s yellow). Furthermore, a single tap of the weapon picture causes Chief to reload, while a double tap has him switching between the two weapons. You also double tap the grenade icon to switch between flash bang and frag; just be sure to double tap quickly, as you will toss a grenade out with a single tap.
In the center of the HUD, at the top, objective updates and your compass pointer appear to help steer you in the right direction, although getting lost is not an issue due to straight-forward level design. In the center near the bottom, special interaction icons will appear when necessary so that Chief can interact with an object in the world (jump over a box, melee a foe, throw a grenade back, plant a bomb, press a switch).
In the lower right corner you will see a large X button and an iron sights button. The iron sights act as your zoom function, especially important when using the scoped sniper rifle but also vital when you’re trying to get any kind of ranged accuracy with your other rifles (shotgun excluded as it’s useless outside of close quarters). The iron sights button is a toggle button, just like the crouch/standup button on the opposite side of the screen. whenever you are in iron sights mode, Chief moves around slowly, but accuracy is much higher. I found this only to be a real problem when I walked into an area that had a lot of enemies popping out at me, and I wasn’t able to get out of iron sights mode and turn around to get back to cover quickly enough. Since you aim by swiping or sliding your thumb or finger along the screen, doing a 180 degree turn is slow going making running backwards a better option at times. I didn’t feel the urge to turn tail and run back for cover all that much, but if you really need to, it’s a slow enough process that you might get killed. Also, some weapons force you to move slower than others whenever you have them in hand; for example, you’ll move a lot faster with an MP5 in hand than a SAW, but having a SAW “on your back” has no effect on your movement (which is also kind of an old school design mechanic).
Players die whenever they’ve taken too much damage in too short of a time period. This health system probably sounds familiar to anyone that has played an FPS since Call of Duty 3 introduced that “hide and heal” type of health system, where there are no health packs or really any penalty at all for taking damage, so long as you get to some cover for a few seconds to heal up. As an elite soldier, players are able to sustain a good amount of damage before dying, but you’ll know when it’s time to take cover by the heavy breathing of Chief and red spatter covering up your screen. Modern Combat is pretty forgiving however, at least on the Normal difficulty which I played through, and checkpoints are well placed so that you’re never too far back from where you died.
Getting back to the story, after the training mission, Operation Sandstorm is launched, and as the voiced over lady tells you during the load screen, it’s up to your team to locate and destroy several data transmission towers this unnamed terrorist cell has setup around town. According to intel, this terrorist cell is supposed to be new and not very well manned or trained. Chief, Jones, Fox, and Dozer find out this isn’t the case within minutes of hitting the ground. In fact, as one of your NPC buddies says, it looks like the terrorists were expecting you. Immediately after hearing that, I figured the story would go in one direction, and it does, but quietly until the very ending cutscene when the traitor is revealed. I won’t spoil it, but once you play the first few minutes of this game, you can already tell who the mole is. I thought they could have done a better job hiding the fact, but it’s not really a big deal in this guns blazing FPS.
Destroying the towers is but one of several primary objectives you will receive while going through the campaign. About halfway through, it is revealed that a top terrorist target is in the area and may be behind some planned activities against the US. The team discovers traces of a nuclear weapon and eventually, a hidden weapons base, all leading up to the final showdown between your team and Abu Bahaa, the terrorist cell leader.
Missions are primarily on foot, although two, maybe three, sequences have you on the back of a Humvee, manning the machine gun. There are several machine gun parts overall, usually of the gun nest variety that have you running up to an emplaced machine gun to mow down a couple dozen enemies. While ammo is not a concern during these moments, you do have to keep an eye on an overheat/cool down meter for the machine gun.
Most of the action takes place on foot, and normally Chief is separated from his team, but nearly half of the action involves your team members to some capacity. Many times the team splits up into pairs, and while your friendly AI partner can’t die, he will leave you hanging sometimes. The friendly AI partner is often more of an ‘atmosphere builder’ than a truly helpful soldier because you’ll notice him take a really long time to kill an enemy or he might run past them altogether. Other times he just suddenly stopped helping me after we cleared an area and just let me go on up ahead — so much for team work. Then again, other times he would take a few enemies out, but more importantly he was a good distraction for the enemies to help take some of their focus off of me. Additionally, having an NPC run along with you, even if not for the whole game and even if he’s not all that effective, does a lot for the atmosphere.
As far as the AI of the enemy, it’s more about quantity than quality. Just about every mission contains well over one hundred enemies in a twenty minute stretch, but never more than about five on screen at once. The enemies will exhibit several flaws like throwing grenades off of objects back into themselves, killing them and anyone nearby. They also don’t seem to want to run away from any grenades you toss, either. Enemies can be slow to react whenever their buddy just got gunned down, too. However, enemies do take cover, carry a variety of weapons, appear above you, and can also duck and roll too. Take that into consideration along with their quantity, and you have a good fun challenge despite their flaws. That said, the difficulty doesn’t really change a whole lot from one mission to the next, nor do the variety of enemies. There are also no boss fights to contend with either (even at the end of the game). There are however lots of RPG wielding enemies that require special attention as they can do massive damage — fortunately, these enemies are designated with a bright green arrow and Fox will always yell out “R-P-G!” whenever one appears on screen.
How Fox always knows where the RPG guys are I don’t know, but his warning yell is one of many lines of dialogue recorded for this game by a team of voice actors. You can’t go very long in Modern Combat without hearing either the enemy or your allies speak. While the enemy dialogue isn’t very compelling or varied, your team members say a lot of things about the moment — especially the female voice in your ear who gives you mission updates from afar. She, and the other members of your squad are all nicely voiced and together with the instrumental score, make for an overall compelling audio presentation.
The graphics and physics are nice, too. I showed this game to a friend and his first thought was that it reminded him of Counter Strike on the PC. Granted, Counter Strike is pretty old and its graphics don’t hold a candle to today’s high end games, but for a phone, this is impressive stuff. Animations and effects in Modern Combat are well done and smooth, with a consistently high frame rate. In game cutscenes and the opening cinematic are also impressive. While I’m not saying the iPhone isn’t capable of more, I think it’s safe to say that Modern Combat sets the bar for what a 3D FPS should look like on the iPhone these days.
Some Other Points
As I often do in game reviews, there are a handful of miscellaneous points I want to make about the game that I have yet to fit into the article thus far. To begin with, it’s important to note that there are no save spots during a mission. While there are checkpoints, these are just checkpoints for your current play session. That said, if you get a phone call while your planting a bomb on a tower or while blasting away on the machine gun, guess what, you’ll have to restart the mission from scratch.
In between missions, you’ll get a breakdown of the situation via on screen text that is also read aloud. Mission load times on my 3GS take roughly 10-15 seconds, usually well before the voiceover has read through the text, but not before I’ve already been able to read through it myself. Also, each mission, while connected by the story and location, is distinct from itself in that your weapon loadout resets — so if you’re out of grenades at the end of a mission that’s a good thing, but if you enjoy carrying around the pump shotgun with your M16 as I did, the shotgun is gone when the mission ends (until you find another one).
Finding weapons and ammo is done via specially marked crates. Usually these bright yellow and black crates will contain one or two weapons that you can switch for, other times they have the same type of weapon you’re already carrying, in which case you’ll net a nice ammo bonus. Otherwise, ammo is claimed from the bodies of fallen enemies, who disappear immediately after death by the way. As a last point about ammo, it was never a concern for me except during a part of mission eight (the shipyard) — I actually ran out of ammo for my M16 during this mission and had to spend several minutes relying on my sniper rifle and grenades.
I was glad to see that players can break out of reloading their weapon simply by pressing the shoot button (this of course will only work if you still had ammo left to shoot). This all but does away with the frustrating ‘getting caught while reloading’ moments we’ve all had.
Lastly, I wanted to point out that my favorite mission would have to be the fourth one when players have to fight alongside their squadmates to hold a building during an enemy onslaught. It’s one of those static escort missions whereby players have to defend a building with a large health meter, and the enemies keep on coming. I think the action during this particular stage really tied together a lot of the positive aspects of Modern Combat. During this defense, you’ll be running around, taking aim, switching weapons, tracking targets, reloading, and manning machine guns, all while hearing the great sound effects, voiceovers, and music that compliment the visuals nicely.
When you’ve completed the four to six hour campaign, there isn’t much left to do except maybe replay it on a harder difficulty. Each mission does keep track of accuracy and head shot counts, as well as completetion time, so you can try to best your score in those areas if you’re really bored. Without any collectibles, secret areas, alternate endings or characers, etc. to discover, for many of us it will be a ‘one and done’ experience, but certainly a fun and memorable one.