Last year's Call of Duty: Strike Team finally brought a non-Zombies version of the series' trademark first-person shooting action to phones and tablets, adding the cool twist of swapping to an overhead view for strategic movement. While generally nailing the familiar look and feel of Call of Duty campaign action, it lacked one key component: online multiplayer, easily the most popular part of the console and PC entries.
In the touch screen space, the game that delivers online multiplayer is Gameloft's Modern Combat, about as unabashed a Call of Duty clone as you'll find. Still, nobody else is making complete-package shooters like this with both slick online showdowns and single-player missions in tow. Modern Combat 5: Blackout came out Wednesday for Android; versions for iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows 8 arrive Thursday. I've spent a few hours gunning down terrorist goons to find out if the latest mobile military shooter truly is the greatest.
Back to Blackout
Like previous entries, it's best not to think too hard about the storyline in Modern Combat 5--names and factions are frequently dropped without much context, and there's little value to following the intricacies of each interaction. In fact, terribly named hero Caydan Phoenix was apparently a very minor character in 2012's Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour; but who would remember that? Don't sweat it.
Instead, frantic run-and-gun action is the name of the game, and thankfully it's been made more mobile-friendly in Blackout. Rather than deliver a series of lengthy, 20- to 40-minute missions, there are many more bite-sized ones that last anywhere from three to eight minutes a pop. That's a huge help for on-the-go gun fun, even if it just feels like the normally larger missions have been split into tiny chunks. That's fine. What's less fine is the total lack of checkpoints within missions, which can be a pain when you're gunned down at the last encounter.
Most missions are simple shootouts: clear this area of lookalike enemies, move on, and repeat. Occasionally, you'll swipe the screen to deflect an up-close melee attack, or hop into a vehicle-mounted turret to lay down some heavy fire (usually against enemy vehicles), but otherwise it feels like more of the same from the series.
One thing that sticks out, however, is how many shots it takes to kill the average tank top-wearing baddie in the single-player missions. Pumping some no-name goon with a dozen rounds before he falls is initially laughable, but eventually irritating--plus their reactions and movements are so stiff. Modern Combat 5 may look the part of a $60 console shooter in many regards, but nuance isn't really its strong suit.
Always on, unfortunately
In a welcome tweak, Modern Combat 5 adds a unified player progression system across all game modes, meaning campaign gameplay will unlock gear and abilities for use in multiplayer, and vice versa--an uncommon approach for the genre. And a revised menu approach puts story objectives, side missions, and even multiplayer matches on the same screen, split up by campaign chapter. However you want to play, it'll make your character better prepared for the next battle.
But when that next battle comes, you'd better have a solid Internet connection. Perhaps as a consequence of that unified approach, Modern Combat 5 requires users to be online at all times during gameplay--even in single-player missions. I tried to play the campaign while on a train that passed through rural areas, but couldn't hold a steady enough connection to push forward. The same happened when I used an iPad in the part of my apartment where the Wi-Fi can be inconsistent.
It's a terribly inconvenient and user-unfriendly decision that makes this entry a lot less portable than usual, and it's something to be mindful of when considering the premium $7 price tag. Also frustrating: the game downloads its content in big chunks as you progress through the campaign, meaning a potential 10-plus minute wait when you complete a chapter. And Blackout is a huge battery-killer, to boot: 15 minutes of gameplay sapped a whopping 10 percent from my iPad Air charge and left it feeling rather warm.
Shoot to thrill
But like the series it takes strong cues from, Modern Combat 5 delivers when it comes to online multiplayer. With only a handful of other players online before launch, I couldn't find full matches--but even the partially filled showdowns recalled the excellent fun provided by the previous entries. With several maps and modes, along with extensive unlockable customization options, I'm excited to jump back online once the rest of the world starts playing.
While visually improved and more mobile-friendly in some respects, Modern Combat 5: Blackout doesn't make quite as strong an initial impression as its predecessor. The always-online requirement is frustrating, and aside from breaking up its missions and unifying the progression, it doesn't feel like the gameplay itself has really changed or advanced. But once the servers fill up, I imagine it'll be a lot easier to overlook those issues as you rack up kills and dominate the competition.