Review: Pocket Tanks (Android)



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Artillery games are nothing new … Set your angle. Compensate for the wind. Set your power. Hit fire. Give an evil chuckle when you hit your enemy. Wash, rinse and repeat. In fact, before Solitaire became the “installed on every computer” go-to game, some form of Artillery was pre-installed on most computers (or at least included as a type in program). No matter the platform, the resolution or the graphics; in the end – killing your enemy using basic power vs. angle is still the core game play. You’ve seen it called many names; Worms, Warheads, Scorched Earth, Gorilla – all shadows of a very similar genre.

Basic History

scorchedearth3

Scorched Earth (PC)

Like all good gaming concepts; Artillery evolved. Most early versions had a single weapon and two players lobbing them back and forth. Then a game called Scorched Earth changed the face of Artillery; adding multiple players, some new weapons and big playfields with VGA graphics. But there was a problem with Scorched Earth – when you put ten players on a single screen playfield – you’re pretty much guaranteed to hit SOMEONE no matter how poorly you aim or how off your power settings are. Scorched Earth gets all the media and glory – but evolution wasn’t done with the genre.

Scorched Tanks (Amiga)

Scorched Tanks (Amiga)

It took a single programmer on the Commodore Amiga computer platform armed with an amazing programming language called AMOS to evolve Artillery into what it should have been all along … Scorched Tanks by Michael Welch. Watch a video!

Arguably the best-selling and well-known shareware title on the Amiga platform, Scorched Tanks (ST from now on) took the Artillery game to the next level; it actually added a game to the exercise of lobbing salvo between the players. It did this by changing some key elements of the game that put it miles ahead of anything that had been done before.

The first thing that ST did was build a better mousetrap; that is – it took the playfield and extended it several screens in size. Even with ALL FOUR player tanks on the screen, you couldn’t just randomly shoot and hit someone. Amiga’s hardware was perfect for smooth scrolling the screen around to find your enemies. I’ve had great discussions with fans of the game (and even the programmer) and I believe that giant scrolling playfields are where it is at for Artillery games.

The second thing it added was an arsenal – a REAL arsenal of weapons. Not just double shot, triple shot, bouncing shots – but serious, hardcore inventive weapons. Dozens of them. You loaded out your tank before each round – spending the money you earned from the previous rounds (or the seed cash in the amount predetermined at the beginning of the game). As the game updated, the arsenal grew. Fans submitted weapon ideas (I even submitted – and had added – several of my own creation) and the game became a Juggernaut … a game of legend.

ST also set itself apart by using cool retro graphics and a “dirt fall” routine that is still a coveted coding secret by the programmer – along with fun inventive sound effects, none of it taking itself too seriously. At the time, I ran a small group of indie programmers called Dark Unicorn Productions and we wooed Michael into joining our label and Scorched Tanks became a Dark Unicorn Productions (learn all about DUP on the September 2012 edition of my RetroGaming Radio podcast).

Warheads (PC)

Warheads (PC)

As the Amiga dwindled and the PC took over, Scorched Tanks didn’t make the move. But a nifty space version called Warheads did – and it captured the magic of Scorched Tanks – lobbing great weapons across planets to blow up your friends online. I loved it so much, I sent them a testimonial (which later appeared in their advertisement in magazines) and had an active role in the Warheads community.

Oddly enough, the most well-known modern version of Artillery comes in the form of Team 17’s humor blast-fest Worms and its many incarnations across multiple platforms.

Welch DID create a PC incarnation of his popular artillery tank game – and it was well-received.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  You may have even played it.  It goes by the name of Pocket Tanks;  a slightly slimmed down version of the glorious original.  Pocket Tanks shipped for numerous platforms – including iOS – but left us poor Android folks in the cold until now.

Pocket Tanks Overview

Volcano!

Volcano!

It would be very easy for me to slip on the glove and simply compare Pocket Tanks to Scorched Tanks but I’m going to take the high road and review it as if you haven’t seen or played Scorched Tanks.  For those that have, I’ll throw you a comparison bone from time to time.

Pocket Tanks (PT from now on) comes to you via Google Play’s store as a free download under the publisher Blitwise Productions, LLC.  However, you won’t find Smurfberry IAP in this free title.  Much like good indie apps should be, PT is more like “shareware”.  You get a functioning game – and if you like it, you pay one time to unlock the remaining features of the title (at the time of writing, $2.99USD).

Like its predecessor, PT takes a minimalistic approach to visuals.  They are silky smooth and pleasing – just like an Amiga-inspired game should have, but if you’re looking for Unity-based full 3D HD graphics here – you aren’t going to find it here.  The style of graphics is fun, colorful and refreshing – giving them a much larger appeal.  There is no gore or excessive violence – meaning you can play with your kids and not worry about scarring them for life.  In fact, in PT – no one even dies – including the enemy tank.

Weapon Shop

Weapon Shop

The free version gives you access to 35 great weapons to choose from – the in app purchase of the title gives you over 70 more (for a total of 110 weapons total).  Buying the game also gives you access to both free and paid “weapon packs” (if 35 or even 110 weapons weren’t enough).  At the time of writing, there were three free weapon packs (5 weapons each) and ten “paid” weapon packs (each one featuring 15 weapons each).  The weapon packs will set you back $.99 each – which my lower form of math skills tells me will set you back another $10 to fully “fund” this game – bringing your total IAP to $13.  That’s like 10 minutes running Smurf Village or a single level of Heroes Call.  It’s worth noting you can play the game for free forever if the 35 weapons are to your liking.  Thanks, Blitwise, for delivering a quality product without having your hand on our wallet the whole time we’re playing it.

PT offers a maximum of two players; either you vs. CPU or you vs. a local friend (push play is supposedly a feature coming soon).  If you play against the CPU, you can set the level of difficulty 1-10 and choose a 10 weapon load out to start the game.  Weapon selection is done ‘taking turns’ style – you’ll get to choose a weapon from the shop (randomly populated with 20 weapons), then the CPU chooses one.  This continues until both players have a full arsenal.  A RANDOMIZE feature will outfit both players quickly without selection so you can get into the game faster.

Choosing a Weapon

Choosing a Weapon

Once completed, the playfield is randomly “terraformed” (a bit faster than the Amiga cousin, I might add) and the game starts.

Unlike ST, PT is played ala Scorched Earth with a single screen playfield.  Thanks to modern hardware, you are able to zoom in and out (pinch) and scroll around with your finger.

The players take turns (or volleys) – hot seat style for two humans.  You have four “movement” points you can spend during the overall round.  While not overall useful in every situation, moving can get you out of a sticky spot should you need it.  The player chooses a weapon from the arsenal, sets up the angle and selects a power rating.  With these two settings in place, the player hits FIRE and watches the action unfold.

Instead of damaging (and eventually blowing up) the enemy tank like in ST, you score points for your hits.  Your weapons also can cause ground destruction, causing dirt to fall (still one of the greatest effects ever).  This can be handy for burying your enemy or creating barriers to protect you from subsequent shots.  Points get deducted if you cause yourself damage, too.

The round ends after ten volleys, a winner is declared and you’re asked to play again.  If you say yes, you will go back to the weapons shop to reload (probably should be an option to play again with the SAME load out – save some time).

The game has some settings you can control – like the basic type of terrain (flat, hill, etc.), explosion size/kick and some wind variations.  You can also turn on/off weapons from the Weapon Shop randomization system; for example, disabling overly powerful weapons like Mega Nukes.  Naturally, there is an option for controlling music/sound as well.

The Weapons

I told you – the core component of Artillery games are all the same.  What set ST (and PT too) apart from the other games is a rich weapons arsenal.

There is no way I’m going to sit here and discuss all 110 weapons you get with the paid version.  But we can look at the 35 that come free with the game – and that will give  you some idea of just how profound the weapon system is here.

Spider

Spider

  • Single Shot – The default weapon, medium sized explosion and good points
  • Big Shot – Large explosion radius, but points are low
  • 3 Shot – 3 bullet spread, medium explosion size, low points per explosion
  • 5 Shot – 5 bullet spread, medium explosion size, very low points per explosion
  • Jackhammer – Bullet bounces straight up 5 times… lots of fun to use
  • Heatseeker – If the bullet gets close to the opponents tank, is flies toward it
  • Tracer – Fires a spread of 5 bullets that tell you how much to change your angle for the next turn
  • Pile Driver – Small amount of damage, but explosions are directed down creating a hole
  • Dirt Mover – Directional dirt removal based on the angle when fired
  • Crazy Ivan – Proximity-based multi-warhead with unusual yet fun results
  • Spider – Spider web effect that sprays the closest tank when it goes off
  • Sniper Rifle – No explosion radius, large points, throws the tank nicely, deadly

    Superstar

    Superstar

  • Magic Wall – Vertical wall will grow where the bullet lands
  • Dirt Slinger – V-shape dirt effect based on location where bullet lands
  • Zapper – Laser beam emits from bullet if it gets close to tank
  • Napalm – Exploding liquid that covers and burns everything caught in its wake
  • Hail Storm – Hundreds of bouncing ice pellets that flow along the ground
  • Ground Hog – Ground weapon that tunnels through the dirt and explodes on other side
  • Worm – Ground weapon that tunnels through dirt, but tries to dig upward
  • Homing Worm – Same as worm, but stops when it passes under tank and rises upward
  • Skipper – Skips a number of times before exploding
  • Chain Reaction – Random explosions in the general area where the bullet landed
  • Pineapple – Shell explodes when close to a tank, emitting a large number of tiny but highly damaging explosions
  • Firecracker – Horizontal spread of explosions based on where the bullet lands
  • Homing Missile – Stops horizontal speed when it passes over a tank
  • Dirtball – Dirt forms where bullet lands

    Mr. Freeze!

    Mr. Freeze!

  • Tommy Gun – A very satisfying automatic machine gun-style weapon
  • Mountain Mover – Explosion removes dirt, but takes no points from tank
  • Scatter Shot – 5 bullets spread upward where bullet lands
  • Cruiser – Bullet ‘cruises’ along terrain for a few seconds before exploding
  • Fireball – Super DX-Ball’s Fireball power-up makes a cross-over appearance
  • Flea Circus – Lots of ‘flea’ bots hop around looking for a reason to explode
  • Super Star – Flying star explodes into 3 pieces then orbits and fires at tank
  • Drillers – Multiple drilling warheads become homing missiles when underground
  • Gamma Blaster – Magnetized gamma radiation particles fly through air and terrain

And there you have it – Artillery with attitude.  The weapons make the game, folks – and having access to over 100 of them really make the game seem fresh and new every single round.  The publisher has proven over and over that new weapons are ALWAYS around the corner and you have tons more to pick up on the cheap (and free) if you want them.  Here are some videos showing some of the other available weapons in action:

 

The Dark Side

No title is perfect.  My “Dark Side” section highlights any shortcomings or issues with the products I review.  With this title, I have a disadvantage; I’ve played PT’s big brother and it is hard for me NOT to simply compare ST and PT; listing the differential in features and play as negatives to PT.  I’ll do my best …

As previously mentioned, I’m a huge proponent of the scrolling playfield.  PT has always had a single playfield – and frankly it has always driven me crazy.  The fact that there are only two tanks on the screen at any given time (instead of four – or even ten) eases the suffering a little – because you aren’t going to hit anything with an unskilled shot.  Those unfamilar with ST and others (like Worms) that have the feature will likely not miss it in the least.

I’m not a personal fan of the scoring system.  I want to blow crap up – and I want the game over when I take the enemy tank down.  I do understand the “family fun” nature of Blitwise’s games – but we could really use a “kill” mode for those of us over 40 going through a midlife crisis where we need destruction to make up for our otherwise failed existence.

Hot seat play is so … 1990s.  While a lot of people are going to have a good time with this title alone, when playing with a buddy, you’re really not going to want to keep passing back and forth that $300+ device.  The game could benefit OH so much by simply offering a “cocktail” mode for controls where my buddy and I could sit at a coffee table and leave the tablet on the table while we take our turns – inverting the display appropriately.  Split screen weapon load outs where both players could control the load out from “their” side of the device would be great for 10″ tablet owners.

I would recommend split screen play, but since it is turn-based?  No real need.  This game would be 100x more attractive with some sort of online play mode – even the foreshadowed push play would be perfect for this type of game (just don’t kill my battery, ok?) and keeping the ability to have multiple games open at one time would be perfect.  Tanks with Friends, dontchaknow?

Some of the UI components needs some updating.  I would like to be able to double tap the screen and go into “aim” mode to precisely control the aiming of my turret (disable scrolling).  When setting power, I actually have to scroll the slider to the power position – vice just tapping the new position.  Little things, easy fixes.

Custom, pre-configured load outs would be useful.  Randomize is a nice option, but I have a strange feeling if you polled a number of die hard players, they are altering the available weapon load outs to meet very specific needs … aka “No Nukes” or “Single Shot Only” – that sort of thing.  Saving a custom load out you’ve tuned to your liking would extend this even further as I guess most people choose the same sorts of weapons each time.

Any of these the 'droids you're looking for?

Any of these the ‘droids you’re looking for?

Most of my complaints revolve around this being a “light” version of what COULD be a much bigger game.  While some of the things I groan about are “because ST has it and PT doesn’t”, most are things that would be new to both franchises.  That being said, Scorched Tanks PROPER is in the pipeline and might address one or ALL of these.  In the meantime, we can enjoy a low-cost edition with plenty to do.

As is, there is nothing really WRONG with PT – just observations of what it COULD have been (or even could be).  I never experienced any glitches, crashes or other issues with either my Nexus 10 or Galaxy Nexus phone.

Summary

Pocket Tanks does what it does very well – with all the spit and polish you would expect from former Amiga game programmers.  The weapons are ridiculously fun to use and there are so many of them, it would take you a long time to properly play with all 110 of them you get for a mere $3. The low-learning curve means you can grab someone at lunchtime and throw down – even if they have never played the game before.  You might even laugh out loud a time or two.

The fixed ten volley rounds are perfect for the bite-sized entertainment needed for mobile and tablet devices; and being family-friendly, anyone should be okay with even their kids playing with them.  The game is missing a few minor elements that have become standard in turn-based mobile games but I have it on good authority that this will be rectified in future builds.

It is a no brainer to pick up this title – even if you just play it for free (but support your developers; that’s the shareware creedo).  The game has fantastic replay value (ROI as we say in the business) and the price – even buying every weapon pack – is still a bargain in today’s market filled with Evil Smurfberry fueled abominations.

Blitwise is the kind of top-notch, experienced and capable developer we need supporting the Android platform and Pocket Tanks is a shining example of quality gaming done right.

Note: Pocket Tanks is also available for iOS, PC and Mac platforms.

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About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+

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