Scattered Entertainment's The Drowning is located at the centre of a vortex of unanswered questions. It is the first release from an expert team specifically assembled to bring AAA console values to mobile gaming. It is a supposedly 'revolutionary' new approach to making that most commercial of genres, the first-person shooter, work with a touch-based interface. And it's the tangible product of a studio led by Ben Cousins, one of the industry's most impassioned advocates of the free-to-play model.
So, a slick, polished, visually impressive mobile game where excitement can be found for the princely sum of absolutely nothing, then? Well, not quite.
"Instead of clumsily fumbling over a virtual stick, you direct your player by tapping sections in a level and the character moves automatically"
At present, the response from the critics has been near unanimous in two areas: first, The Drowning is a great looking game, with the sort of detail and visual effects one normally associates with console releases; second, and rather more important, in its fresh approach to FPS controls Scattered Entertainment has found a unique and engaging way to tackle the genre through touch.
In its 8 out of 10 review - the highest score awarded to The Drowning so far - Modojo is full of praise for a "novel" control scheme that "works incredibly well."
"Instead of clumsily fumbling over a virtual stick, you direct your player by tapping sections in a level, and the character moves automatically. While doing this, you can look around by swiping the screen in different directions, or hitting a 180-degree spin button.
"It's useful to have this functionality, because the soulless oil creatures in the game come out of nowhere. You can shoot baddies on the move using a neat two-finger shooting system that provides better accuracy. The shot places itself between two digits and works incredibly well, especially with headshots."
There can be no doubt that this is Scattered Entertainment's biggest bet. The Drowning's control scheme has been at the heart of every preview, interview and press release since its marketing push first began, but while the majority of critics give credit for a job well done, there are still some dissenting voices. Specifically Eurogamer, which awards The Drowning a lowly 4 out of 10 in a review that struggles to find many redeeming qualities in Scattered Entertainment's debut.
"The Drowning has to tinker with the guts of the genre to make it work without a joypad or mouse but, credit where it's due, the system that developer Scattered Entertainment has come up with is about as close as we're likely to get to something that works through touch alone.
"It just doesn't always work well enough... When monsters do get up close, the system creaks and you end up all fingers and thumbs"
"It just doesn't always work well enough. This is still a clumsy and unnatural way to play an FPS, and while it's more functional and intuitive than many previous touch-screen shooters, it's still inevitably going to be your third choice if keyboard, mouse and joypad are unavailable. Mostly, you'll find yourself running to a distant corner and firing madly at the oncoming horde before running to a different corner and repeating the process. When monsters do get up close, the system creaks and you end up all fingers and thumbs."
For GamesBeat, which rates The Drowning as a 5 out of 10, the controls are, "the most interesting part of the experience." However, Scattered Entertainment's achievements in this area are also misleading, as the experience those controls support can also be, "a chore to play." GamesBeat expresses appreciation for the short, contained missions, which recognise the way people prefer to play games on mobile devices. However, this arcade-like focus is undermined by a fundamental lack of substance.
"The actual game consists of small, timed missions on tiny maps. You either attack a group of zombie-esque creatures or defend a location from them as they try to break through small barriers. Essentially, both modes are the same. You run around and shoot the bad guys until they die."
And progress is tied to the game's free-to-play business model, which attracts a great deal of criticism from almost every review currently available. Destructoid, which awards The Drowning 4 out of 10, lists the approach to monetisation as the single biggest issue with the game, undermining the solid work evident in other aspects of its design.
"Even with some fairly generic enemies and scenery, The Drowning still functions as a decent, [visually] stunning mobile shooter. But here is where the game completely falls apart: microtransactions - and lots of them."
Apparently, getting ahead in The Drowning is a complicated business. Your performance on any given stage is assessed with a star rating, which subsequently dictates the amount and rarity of loot you are given for your efforts. All new weapons are broken as a natural state, and require parts to return to working order. Moving on to the next stage demands the use of a vehicle, which must also be fixed and filled with gas.
"I felt duped on multiple levels, as the game was quite clearly selling me three different ways to pay for a game that should have just been one premium price"
There are three in-game currencies: Black (oil, basically) is the most common and features in most transactions; Gas is used to power vehicles to the next stage; and Flares can be employed to earn better loot in any given round. Needless to say, all of these can be purchased with real-money, and Destructoid - among others - is less than satisfied with Scattered Entertainment's definition of 'free'.
"Firstly, you may find yourself entering a level with 30 seconds on the timer, wasting three precious energy/Gas points almost instantaneously. Then you find out (without warning) that you aren't equipped with the "right weapon" for the job, which you have to either grind for with random rewards, or buy/upgrade through purchasing "Black/Oil" for real-life cash. The Drowning then notifies you that if you buy "Flares," (after you've used up your free allotment of three), you can earn better items in that particular run.
"From that point if you've exhausted all your energy, then you have to wait to get more gas (read: wait to play the game again). You do start with three gas tank replenishment power-ups, but even then I was completely tapped out with roughly an hour's worth of play, waiting for it to slowly fill back up -- and you have to buy more from that point on with no freebies. I felt duped on multiple levels, as the game was quite clearly selling me three different ways to pay for a game that should have just been one premium price.
"Without the energy mechanic and constant drip-fed weapon and item parts, I could easily see myself destroying an entire afternoon blasting apart zombies. But that's not what happened."