The protagonist of the N.O.V.A. games series tells his AI sidekick that this time, really, he's through. He's going to quit. But like any good Space Marine, he reloads his rifle and jumps back into the fray anyway. Such a moment fairly well encapsulates the N.O.V.A. series: It's a tired and clichéd sci-fi shooter franchise but hey, why stop now?
Like many of Gameloft's titles, N.O.V.A 3 for iPhone and iPad resembles a knock-off carnival prize version of a major console title: in this case, Halo. And while the comparisons are obvious—faceless Space Marine with a blue female AI sidekick, alien enemies and allies—Gameloft seems to take the core game aspects of the first-person shooter genre and not appreciate what people actually enjoy about them. See also Group Test: What's the best mobile game?
N.O.V.A. 3 sees series protagonist (and world-weary, sarcastic Space Marine) Kal Wardin back in action as he crash lands on Earth before being sent to retrieve several artifacts throughout the galaxy to atone for humanity's sins. The character seems exhausted by every encounter, waving off instructions from his AI sidekick and other characters like a man who has seen it all before. No, he doesn't need the alien to tell him where the engine room is or that he needs to find two keys—this is all old hat for him.
And even if you haven't played the other games in the series, you've pretty much seen it all before, too: There aren't many breaks in your constant slogging through sci-fi hallway after sci-fi hallway looking for a key, only to backtrack and do it all again after mowing down a new crop of the same three enemy types you keep confronting.
There's a dearth of cinematic moments, boss fights, or breaks in the repetitious gunplay. The nods to Halo seem to go as far as “look, N.O.V.A. also has an ancient space ship to explore,” and “we have evil space aliens and rebel aliens too,” and “our blue female AI sidekick is just as sassy.” Unfortunately, the character development and wide-open levels of the source material are nowhere to be found here.
But really, plot, level design and character are trappings to an FPS. The main course is the shooting mechanic.
N.O.V.A 3: control scheme
Thankfully, Gameloft largely nails the control scheme. Moving and shooting is still a clunky enterprise on the iPhone and iPad, but the auto-aim function with the iron sight makes it a breeze to quickly dispatch enemies. Firing grenades, mines, missile launchers and rifles is fluid, a welcome reprieve from the usual stiff affair of most iOS shooters. The online multiplayer and in-game upgrade system speak to how much this series has evolved. After several years of developing games for the platform, it seems Gameloft has finally figured out how to create an enjoyable control setup for first-person shooter.
Yet, even praise for the control scheme comes with a caveat or two - the movement stick is too close to the sprint function on the iPhone, making it difficult to change directions and then sprint. And the iron sight will sometimes aim a quarter inch to the left for a period, ensuring that you miss every enemy you're shooting at.
But such a small bug is comparatively unimportant when seen among the litany of technical issues plaguing N.O.V.A 3. On my iPhone 4, I found lag, clipping, doors that wouldn't open, important dialogue that failed to trigger, unexplained deaths, and enemies that would spawn on top of the player. The checkpoint save system is essential because you'll have to replay certain segments simply because the mission critical event never occurred.
The iPad version has its problems, too, particularly if you're running the game on a third-generation model. Graphic effects that you see on other iPads—billowing smoke, for example—don't appear on the third-generation of the tablet, which also doesn't display the depth-of-field effect used on the iPad 2. It's a trade-off Gameloft apparently made to run the game on the new iPad's higher-resolution screen. Cnet reports a future update will let users pick between running the game at the higher-resolution or a resolution that lets you see all of N.O.V.A. 3's effects.
The single player campaign will take you nearly six hours, depending on how much you'll endure the restarts. On the plus side, setting up a multiplayer account through Gameloft Live and hopping online is a relatively simple and painless process. Just as the single player campaign has seen an improved set of features, achievements, and upgrades, so too has the multiplayer feature enjoyed a robust remodeling: the many modes, weapons, and achievements give players a real alternative to the single player campaign, for the first time making it not just a tacked-on bonus.