ARC Squadron Soars in the Wild Pew-Pew-Pew Yonder

The fact I'm sitting here thinking, "Dammit, I really need to get an iPad," explains both the general excellence of ARC Squadron and its one unfortunate shortcoming, though the game still is a highly recommendable rail shooter that shines with high production value.

Yes, a larger screen would do more justice to the outstanding visuals in this sci-fi flight combat title, and a larger surface maybe would make the swipe controls more useful and precise than they are on an iPhone. Still, developer Psyonix should nudge up the responsiveness of the controls when it patches the game, for reasons I'll get into a little further down.

In ARC Squadron, you're in charge of a space fighter that can dart anywhere about the screen with a swipe or a precise finger drag, but whose general direction (and speed) is on rails. Enemies, whether opposing spacecraft, mines, or missile installations on the terrain, materialize and assault you. Your spacecraft returns fire automatically as long as a foe is within your crosshairs. There's also a homing missile feature, though it takes a good while to recharge at its lower rating.

If it sounds like Star Fox, well, that's probably the point. I'm not saying ARC Squadron is groundbreaking, only that it's very well done. Combat is fast-paced, often leaving you wondering how you got out of that last wave taking no damage. The sound design, an area I often forget to praise, is superb, both in the pew-pew-pew of the effects and the driving soundtrack. Even ARC Squadron's end-of-stage cutscene is satisfying.

The only problem I have with ARC Squadron is that its controls are a little underpowered to feel like I had much of a chance in the game's end-of-wave bonus. Energy cubes will appear between some waves, and collecting all of them will return you a big bonus in the form of a star (and you can collect up to four per stage.) Some of these cubes are so spread across the screen that gathering up all of them appears to be flat impossible. And while the swipe-to-barrel roll command is always there (and indeed, what you're supposed to use to pick them up) it feels more desperate than deliberately implemented thanks to execution that seems to be playing one beat behind.

Maybe this wouldn't be such an issue if I was playing on that iPad I don't have. I do feel that mobile games today are now being designed, if not optimized, for the larger screen devices, leaving iPhone-only users like myself in something of a second class. Still, ARC Squadron strikes me as a game that, even though it would be better on a tablet, is damn fine as it is on a smartphone.

It's only a buck, and though it has a pay-to-upgrade (or at least accelerate that process) shop, the essential upgrades are attainable, for free, through sensible and consistent play. ARC Squadron also offers what appears to be more than 60 missions and side challenges altogether, which is great value. It applies simple touch controls to a classic console gaming genre and doesn't skimp on the presentation one bit. ARC Squadron is a delight.

ARC Squadron [iTunes, $0.99]