First-person shooters have always been a challenge on touchscreen-based devices. The lack of physical controls means that games are usually reliant on virtual joysticks, which harm the experience in two different ways: the game’s playfield is often obscured by the player’s thumbs (especially dire with my bratwurst-like digits) and the lack of any real tension from a physical stick make precision shots a daunting affair. Mobage’s The Drowning aims to rectify both of these issues by completely eschewing the virtual-stick control scheme (although gluttons for punishment can enable it) by redesigning the interface from the ground up for touchscreens, making their attempt at zombie-horror a more palatable affair.
There are your usual zombie apocalypse tropes on display here, although there’s a twist of eco-consciousness in the cliché corpse cocktail. Strange black oil has turned millions into murderous, monochromatic monsters that want nothing more than to batter your body into a bloody bouillabaisse, and it’s up to you to make sure that you stay a survivor.
This is achieved in a series of small, arena-style environments, where you either Attack or Defend. Both are almost completely the same, but with minor differences to justify two different buttons in the menu. Attack mode has you running down a timer, blasting black-and-white beasts back to the oil from which they sprung, whereas Defend has you doing the same…but in a more controlled scenario where you protect chokepoints from their animalistic assault.
The controls really are a revelation, making this fairly mundane concept into something that’s worth revisiting again and again. Tapping on the screen will send your character to the spot in your field of vision that you’ve pointed out, while tapping two fingers on the screen will fire your weapon to the spot located between your depressed digits. The only real onscreen button is a 180 degree spin button located at the bottom of the screen, helping speed up the process of looking around the environment with a swipe. It’s genuinely strange the first few times you try it, as it’s so different from any control scheme featured in an FPS before—iOS based or otherwise—but once you fall into its intuitive groove, it makes you wish that more games featured this remarkably strong interface.
Once you run down the timer, you’re given a load of loot based on your performance. New weapons and items can be crafted from the scavenged items, so repeated playthroughs of the game’s arenas becomes a necessity…unless you want to pony up some real scratch for extra items via the dreaded in-app purchases.
Yep, The Drowning is free, and as a result it constantly harangues you to buy flares and other items to increase item drops. While one can theoretically complete the game spending no more money than the kWh to charge their iPad, it’s a slow process of repeated replays that preys upon players’ lack of patience. I understand why this business model is used nowadays (some MMOs that have switched from traditional subscription models to “free-to-play” have reported an increase in revenue), there are times when it becomes a bit tacky.
But if you can get past the persistent panhandling, The Drowning is probably the best FPS that mobile gaming has to offer. Its graphics are gorgeous, its controls are revolutionary, and it’s quite a bit of brainless fun in the short bursts that it’s designed for.