Ever since it’s unveiling over two years ago, Midnight Star (Free) has had some lofty expectations thrust upon it. One consistent theme we’ve heard since its announcement was a promise for a control scheme reimagined for touch-based input. As the game slowly soft launched we realized that such a reimagining would also come with a free-to-play system for monetization. With its worldwide launch last week, we’ve finally had a chance to check out both its claim for improved controls as well as test out its freemium elements. After some extended time with this first-person shooter from Industrial Toys, I came away impressed with the controls and the amount of content offered, but was left lamenting its free-to-play elements.
At its core, Midnight Star is essentially an on-rails FPS. While I’d hardly call it a revolutionary concept, I will admit that it’s executed quite well. Shooting enemies is as simple as tapping and holding the screen to bring up a reticle and start shooting. While movement is obviously restricted due to its on-rails nature, Midnight Star does allow players to look left and right by simply tapping an arrow (important for later missions). Tapping the upper right corner of the screen reloads, while a pinch-zoom lets you aim for headshots. Aiming is restricted to one enemy at a time so once you take a baddie out you have to pinch-zoom again to set the headshot sights on another baddie.
Why are headshots so important? Well, that has to do with Midnight Star’s nicely done arcade elements. Missions are scored based on points earned and players can earn up to three stars per mission. Scores are calculated based on how well you can combo kills within the mission. There are actually two separate combos: an overall combo for kills between getting hit by baddies and a much faster multi-death combo that rewards quick, consecutive kills within a few seconds of each other. Mastery of both types of combos can exponentially increase your score and help you earn those stars. A comprehensive leaderboard system also provides additional motivation for getting those high scores.
Beyond its scoring mechanics are a plethora of achievements which reward a variety of currencies and experience. The game’s leveling system goes towards unlocking weapon upgrades while the game’s other currencies can be applied towards in-game health and weapon recharges (part of the freemium system that’ll be discussed momentarily) and towards weapon and armor upgrades (with one of those currencies acting as the game’s premium currency). Two currencies is more than enough for me, so I found Midnight Star’s four currencies (including experience points) to be a bit daunting. However, all currencies have the potential to be earned in-game, and enough experience with the game’s store eventually brought some manner of understanding.
My favorite aspect of Midnight Star is its inventive story. Playing in the role of Charles Campbell aboard the experimental vessel MSRV-Joplin, the whole crew is transported across time and space. Realizing that they’ve entered a bleak future where humanity has disappeared. Campbell continually goes back in time, hoping to find out what happened to humanity and to discover more about the alien race so intent on killing him. It’s a fascinating story that is further supplemented by the graphic novel Midnight Rises and kept me coming back to play each new mission.
Other aspects of Midnight Star worth talking about are the game’s amazing soundtrack (supplied by Serj Tankian no less) as well as its impressive visuals. Considering the game’s lengthy development, I came away pretty impressed with the game’s graphics. Midnight Star moves at a smooth framerate on current-generation devices and the backdrops and enemies simply look beautiful. The soundtrack rocks and offers the game a great selection of battle-appropriate tunes that mirror the game’s sci-fi motif expertly.
Unfortunately, the game’s lengthy timer and energy systems really prevented me from fully enjoying the game. Energy systems attached to weapons and power-ups mean that when said energy is exhausted you either have to wait a decent amount of time or spend some Element, which is an easily earned currency that is used primarily for recharges. The energy system is just the start for Midnight Star’s freemium elements, as lengthy timers for purchasing and upgrading weapons and armor also exist and those can’t be sped up with a currency as prolific as Element (the premium Catalyst currency is reserved for that).
As mentioned earlier, the relative ease in earning Element means the energy system is relatively forgiving, but the same can’t be said for upgrades. Players looking to try that new weapon or upgrade are going to be waiting hours at a time unless they shell out some of that sought after premium currency. In this regard, Midnight Star never really prevented me from playing the game, but it certainly offered time roadblocks in trying new and upgraded weapons and armor.
Whenever I launched Midnight Star I always got the distinct impression that its freemium elements were being thrown at me front and center. If you have any sort of currency available to upgrade anything, I was informed ad nauseum that I could upgrade. Should you actually take the plunge and upgrade anything, you’re then immediately met with a dialogue to speed up the upgrade for freemium currency. I’m not opposed to a fair freemium system but it’s always irked me when it becomes nagging.
These are hardly novel or new techniques within the system at play but I felt really annoyed at its implementation in Midnight Star. The combination of an excellent gameplay system combined with the lengthy timers and the aforementioned pay dialogues created a longing for a simple premium title without the timers and premium currency. Alas, in this day and age such requests are pretty unrealistic.
Midnight Star is a hard game to crack. There is so much here in terms of unlockable weapons and upgrades. There’re also the great production values and a story that’s actually worth exploring. However, it’s all tempered significantly by the game’s freemium system. While the energy system can be dealt with in enough ways, waiting for hours on end for upgrades feels excessive considering how much they typically cost to unlock. I don’t believe the freemium aspects are harsh enough to significantly impact Midnight Star as a whole, but it’s enough to leave an unfortunate lasting effect. However, even taken as a complete package, I have no problem recommending Midnight Star as there’s enough content now to enjoy the experience and the promise of more to come keeps it just as alluring.