Apple Game Center Review
At a spring conference this year, Apple announced a new game-oriented service for iPhone and iPod Touch users that would not only allow them to connect with friends through game invites and information sharing, but would also introduce a competitive gaming market similar to ones found on gaming consoles.
This week, Game Center went live for most Apple devices. So how does it fare?
When you first download it (a quick update to your existing iTunes program), it hooks up very easily and allows you to log in within a matter of seconds. From there, you’ll need to hunt down your friends, gathering their user names and building up a list of folks you don’t mind playing with. Then it’s just a matter of getting into the games , sending invites to those you want to compete with or messing around on your own and eventually earning some Achievements in the process.
However, there are a few speed bumps that get in the way of Game Center’s success. First of all, it’s not exactly what you would call a universal app. Game Center is mainly supported by newer Apple devices, such as the newer model iPod Touch or an iPhone that runs iOS 4.1 or later. This shuts out anyone who’s using a first generation iPod Touch or even the 3G iPhone model, which many people still use. Apple should’ve made it a convenient service for everyone, even if that meant providing limitations for those with older hardware. Shutting out the “old-schoolers”, if you will, is a bit unfair.
A cinch to use
As for the app itself, it runs pretty smoothly. You can organize your games in Game Center and run them straight from the app, bypassing the need to launch them separately. This is a nice touch, as you don’t need to go rooting through several sub-menus in order to get everything Game Center has to offer. On the other hand, there is a mild need for organization on your part, in both game selection and friend lists. But once they’re set, they’re a snap to find.
The text is very easy to read on the iPhone screen, and little icons indicate who’s online and what games you have available on the service. It’s also very easy to set up your custom username and motto, so you can let everyone know just what kind of business you’re about – serious gaming, casual gaming, that sort of thing. Sorting through whatever Achievements you earn (they’re unlocked automatically depending on your accomplishments) is as easy as selecting the game and seeing how far you’ve gotten in it, through sub-menu buttons at the top of the page. You can also access leaderboards this way, seeing how your friends’ scores compare with yours.
As for setting up multiplayer games, you simply access the particular multiplayer menu to see who’s playing what, and then send a proper invite to join in. You’ll spot them on the list if they’re online, along with the option to “remove player” or “add player." The program also features auto-match options, should you feel daring enough to go up against a random opponent. From the sessions we tried out, it worked pretty well, although there were slight connection issues, depending on your signal strength.
Another downside of Game Center is that there are only a few games compatible with it at the moment. When the service launched this week, it only came with one compatible game – Ms. Pac-Man, based on the Namco arcade classic of the same name. Now, the game’s functional, although there are problems with screen size and touch-screen controls. But that’s something we’ll save for another review. The leaderboards function rather well, and seeking out fellow players gunning for a high score was pretty easy. But, still, one game?! Since that time, Game Center has become compatible with other titles, including Zen Bound 2, Fieldrunners, Real Racing and Cro-Mag Rally, but come on. This service should’ve launched with online compatibility across the board. We’re talking online Madden leagues, leaderboard support for Osmos HD and so forth.
Worse yet, you can’t really post your Achievements anywhere. With OpenFeint, at least, you could post your accomplishments to Facebook, depending on which game you were playing. With Game Center, your tasks are only pointed out to those who are accessing the same program as you. That beats nothing, of course, but Apple should’ve considered better compatibility with online programs before rushing out and launching the service. Over time, it’ll get better, with more and more games joining the ranks.
Overall, Game Center just feels a little underwhelming. While there are options galore here, the lack of game support and functionality with other social programs make it feel less than it should be. But we think that given a few months, Apple will be right up there with Xbox Live in terms of social activity and popular get-togethers. For now, it’s just a small community, looking to be something more.