It's not out of the ordinary to see games appear on the App Store with lackluster screenshots, and Vermes On Mars [$0.99] by Aztlan Games couldn't be a better example of that. You couldn't tell what was going on, and all of the screenshots looked a little too similar to each other. Regardless, we decided to give it a spin just to see what the game had to offer, and boy are we glad we did. In fact, I've had such a good time with this top-down 2D Sci-Fi shooter that I'd much rather be playing the next level than writing this review.
In Vermes on Mars, you control four unmanned vehicles on Mars. These vehicles are used to patrol the area and search for minerals, while always watching out for alien lifeforms-- Specifically, worms. These big worms (also known as "Vermes") seem to be clearly inspired by the popular science fiction novel and movie, Dune, which I'm a-OK with.
The whole patrolling process works very nicely with the iOS touch controls. If you tap the screen, the four vehicles all move to that area, but if you draw a line, the vehicles automatically distribute themselves along it. While the vehicles are moving, you can draw the next line to modify their as well. The AI navigation of your lines isn't perfect though, and occasionally the vehicles get stuck against some terrain and need extra help around the corner, but not too often.
When one of your vehicles enters the vicinity of a martian worm, it bursts from under the sand and attacks. This is a good time to switch to weapons mode and blast it before it eats your vehicle. There's eight varieties of worm to encounter but the most deadly are bossworms, which spawn other worms and spit fire. To stand a better chance against the legless alien creatures, you can upgrade each of your four vehicles individually. As you progress through the game, three additional vehicles are unlockable, to strengthen your fleet, if you've earned enough credits. Other items also come into play, like additional weapons, lightning to scare worms from the soil, plus items to provide more time or slow down the aggressive worms.
Once you've cleared an area of worms, the level is completed and the levels adjoining your current location are unlocked. There's a solid 40 levels in total. If you don't locate and neutralize the worms within the allocated time, a sand-storm will destroy your robotic vehicles. Your progress is not lost when you die, so you can retry the level until successful, although a destroyed vehicle does lose it's upgrades. The music and sound effects are pretty good too, and it even integrates with Game Center for a measly 7 achievements and score rankings.
I've had a ton of fun with Vermes on Mars, but it isn't without its flaws. It's a little awkward to switch between the navigation and combat modes, which is accomplished by double tapping the border of the screen. Also, the sandstorm animation could be better. It doesn't really give you a good indication of where its edges are, which often leads to vehicles being destroyed without looking like they're actually touching it. It would also be nice to be able to position vehicles individually in order to protect weakened vehicles with stronger ones.
Vermes on Mars constantly switches from "calmly patrolling the area" to being attacked, which provides a great feeling of tension and release, as you're constantly anticipating the worms-- Things become even more exciting when multiple worms or larger worms attack simultaneously which makes for a surprisingly fun gameplay experience. The game is under 20MB so you can download it via 3G, and it's even universal, making it easy to grab and play on whatever device you'd like.
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