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N.O.V.A. 3 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

"Split my topsail. That was a rag doll effect!"

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Those being some of the first words uttered while playing N.O.V.A 3, the newest entry of iOS's own Master Chief-bating sci-fi shooter series. But no one else hears them - I'm alone with my iPad. Likely for the best; there was a lot more surprised profanity in that exclamation.

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Rumour was that the Unreal engine would be used in N.O.V.A 3, as developer Gameloft had purchased the license. But it's clear that they instead have used the experience gained from their work with Unreal to improve their in-house engine.

N.O.V.A. 3 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

Kal Wardin is still part of the story, but the third game takes place a good while after the last, and this time the adventure starts out on Earth. Or remnants of it. Without spoiling too much of the plot (yes there's a plot - and a rather nice one) Kal is called to San Francisco as a terraforming project has gone wrong. When the omnipotent Prometheus gets wind of the affair, Kal's sent on a true treasure hunt across the galaxy to save humanity. What else would you expect?

After a hard landing on Earth, it's time to look around. Usually the changeover between games in the same franchise ushers in changes so small it's like trying to find a couple of needles in a haystack. With N.O.V.A 3, the haystack's been obliterated by a towering monument of shining HD steel.

It's really crazy.

N.O.V.A. 3 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

Where N.O.V.A. 2 was a little cartoon-like version of Halo with a simple color palette, NOVA 3 is Crysis mixed with Gears of War with a vivid colour scheme nicked from Far Cry. When standing still, the view is mildly impressive. But when moving, the frame rate remains stable - even with effects blasting across the screen. No hyperbole: it takes the breath away.

Visuals aren't the only improvement. The soundtrack is surprisingly good - and I mean not only good, but holy-shit-it-works-great-great.
Such as chasing an invisible foe by the direction of the sound, and robot-like creatures cry out with Star Wars-style conviction.

Yes, you still notice this is a tight budget, but the voice-acting is decent, and has its moments. Kal admittedly still sounds like a very macho-like man who speaks inside a can, with Darth Vader listening enviously from the sidelines. But now lines are delivered with life and conviction - something particularly rare in Gameloft titles.

N.O.V.A. 3 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

In fact all the characters are charming, and their dialogues are sometimes really funny. Such as when Kal and an old friend hijack a huge mech and discussion turns to our hero's old flames while they're under attack by hordes of Volterites. It's macho bull - but enjoyable to listen to. The extra energy that has gone into voice acting means come the end of the ten missions, you feel you've experience a really great action-adventure.

There's also a good variation with the environments. To visit a destroyed San Francisco is in itself is an experience that feels fresh in NOVA-context, and when the tour then moves on to a huge desert planet (with clear inspiration from Rage in both enemies and design), to continue to almost Mass Effect-style spaceships and alien-infected space stations, then onwards to the deadly climate challenges on lava planets, the seven to eight hours of the single player campaign entertains.

N.O.V.A. 3 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

And then it's time for what for many is the main course: multiplayer.

The NOVA series is the classic old-school shooter interpreted brilliantly in a modern context. It's wonderfully nostalgic and relatively simple, and has the depth that it takes to sustain the interest.

It's Halo mixed with GoldenEye as you remember it (yes, I've evoked the Holy Grail of the genre). The game's got perks and so many options to tweak that you can always find a way to be entertained, whether it be done exclusively with friends locally or online. This time, it can be played with all 12 players at once across six different locations.

The major addition is that both the vehicles and mechs can be used. Vehicles are Warthog-style sand-buggies, fast and with room for a gunner, while Mechs are heavy bastards with even heavier artillery.

As always in Gameloft's online modes, you can buy or earn perks (more weapons, better radar systems, faster reload, and all the usual types of benefits - and there is also now more fun equipment like jetpacks to find).

All things can be earned through normal play though, and the prices are reasonable. A jetpack cost of around fifty in-game credits, can be recouped by taking about twenty matches.

N.O.V.A. 3 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

New are the regular competitions. The winner of these will be mentioned on the multiplayer menu, and there are prizes for the top 100. It's a great way to create a community around the game and ensure that the enemy is more than just anonymous players. A number of ready-made messages that can be easily selected from a menu also ensures that we can thank for a good game or ask people to stay in the group and so on.

Gameloft shows its the king of multiplayer, with stages which again have good variety and game modes that include virtually all the classics: Capture the Flag, Capture the Point, Free-for-all, InstaGib and Team Deathmatch.

N.O.V.A. 3 Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

I must also admit that I had to dig deep to find criticisms of this mobile title. For it's still a mobile title, albeit one approaching a good console quality.

As previously mentioned, the voice acting at times has its limitations, but it's still Gameloft's best-ever effort. Twice the game glitched; once when I fell through the spaceship I was exploring, second when a door failed to open even when the all enemies were dead. But with regular check-points, it wasn't a huge issue.

Some voice work doesn't sync with the facial animations, that warthog steering is opposite of the mech control takes some getting used to (but as always with Gameloft titles, controls can be tailored to the user's wants).

Whether the future will offer the same issues as before, with hackers spoiling the pleasure of multiplayer is unknown, Gameloft seems more aware of the problem in this game.

Is N.O.V.A. 3 still generic? Perhaps, but far less than before. Kal & Co. seems to have found their own identity, and the story, complete with a solid finale, is far from stupid.

I am not in doubt that this is the iOS format's finest shooter:the single player portion is solid and the multiplayer is fun. If you're the type to go see Transformers and be disappointed that they look like transforming robots, then you might be disappointed that Kal looks like a generic super soldier, talks macho, and combats a shooting gallery of enemies with the same ten sentences again and again.

But for my opinion, I was a N.O.V.A fan, and this third title only increases my enjoyment of a series that's finally come into its own.

09 Gamereactor UK
9 / 10
+ Good story + dazzling graphics + solid single player + bold multiplayer
- Some problems with the mouth movements - boring music - still brain dead enemies
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