Those of us who grew up with the likes of X-Com and Jagged Alliance have long been waiting for something — no — anything in that vein to come up in the App Store since its inception. We’ve seen plenty of turn-based strategy games come and go, but nothing has captured the RPG-centric squad-based tactical combat we’ve been yearning for (save, perhaps for the recent release of Tactical Soldier – Undead Rising). Hunters: Episode One [Free / HD] wants to scratch that slow-moving turn-based itch and does so by offering you a few maps for free.
Hunters uses the same in-app purchase style of recent Gameloft games, you’ll get a tutorial and a couple of levels for free and you can decide from there if you’d like to purchase the game. That’s not the only quirk, it also has a 24-hour mission cycle — so every day Rodeo Games drops new maps into the cloud for you play through. This is a great idea in theory, but that “always connected" feature also happens to mean there will be ads on the mission select screen, which is a weird thing more than an annoyance. If you’re passionate about checking the ads, you’ll get some snazzy loot.
Being a turn-based strategy game, the goal is generally to either kill everything on the screen in a nice bloody mess or to retrieve an object and wander away. To accomplish those tasks you upgrade, unlock and beef up your soldiers in a variety of ways. Each move takes away action points and is done through an intuitive and easy to grasp system that works remarkably well on the touch interface. Because of the increased screen real estate, it feels better on the iPad, but it works well enough on the iPhone. You’ll wander blindly (and often straight into fire) through a fog of war, trying to gain an understanding of each levels layout without dying. Most gestures you’ve grown used to work here, including swiping and pinching to slide the map around. You’ll double-tap to select your soldiers, which can cause some frustrating moments, but not being in real-time keeps it from causing your teeth to grind.
As you move along, you’ll gather up soldiers and weapons and you’ll be able to customize them to your liking. Different weapon and skill upgrades allows you to build a relatively diverse crew of killers and the fact you can replay missions ad-infinitum during the 24-hour cycle means you can farm XP and gold as much as you’d like. Since there isn’t a linear story-mode, difficulty is shoddy at best. It seems to cater enemy type and variety according to your current level, but at no point is the game particularly difficult — especially when you factor in the lack of perma-death among characters, a feature sure to ruffle the feathers of a few long-term strategy fans.
Why are you doing all this, you ask? Well, because shooting things is fun, apparently. There is some ramshackle backstory here dealing with a world of mercenaries and contract-for-hire nonsense, but it doesn’t get much deeper than “you’ve been hired to clear the screen." For most people, that’s all well and good, but at the same time, the lack of a narrative of any kind also comes at the price of a cohesive world environment. From a technical standpoint, the graphics are rendered well and function perfectly fine, but there isn’t much soul poured into the universe itself. For most people that probably won’t matter, but many might find the cookie-cutter science fiction universe and bland, toned-down color scheme a bit of a drag — or at least a disappointment. That’s not to say the level design isn’t solid, because it is, but the generic art style is a bit underwhelming.
Most people aren’t going to care about that little niggling complaint because the gameplay is solid and works well. There isn’t a huge layer of strategy depth here, you’re only offered a few weapon varieties and soldier types and you can’t prone, kneel or sneak, but as an entry-level strategy title it should tickle your fancy enough to keep you coming back. The mission structure is interesting and as an immersive technique does make you sort of feel like you’re really a mercenary with daily updated objectives. Once you’ve figured out the systems and upgraded your soldiers you might find things a bit on the easy end, with the tactical aspect borked down to something like, “eh, I’ll just wander in here and shoot some stuff," but don’t let that shy you away from checking out the first few levels. It’s a good title, but its lack of innovation in anything except its content delivery keeps it from being great.
One thing worth noting is the possibility of multiplayer in the future. Currently, the game is set up as a single-player only experience, but Rodeo Games assures that multiplayer is in the works down the line. They’re also claiming a more cohesive story mode is coming soon as well, which might fix a few of the complaints listed above. Either way, you’ll be able to spend a reasonable amount of time with it for free and it’s most certainly worth that much.