Delicate classical notes sound out of the radio in the lobby speakers at the hotel. The water in the canals of Venice reflect the evening sun, and this could easily be a postcard moment from a holiday trip. However, the music is mixed with the sound of guns fired, death rattles and jets carpet bombing the streets. Not as idyllic as it might have seemed at first. Welcome to Modern Combat 5: Blackout. The latest chapter in one of the best shooter series on mobiles.
Since 2009, Gameloft has delivered their take on Call of Duty. Labelled a clone series it has constantly pushed the boundaries of multiplayer on mobiles with delicious graphical details and a mix of the best game modes from the better known console counterparts. Modern Combat 5:Blackout pushes the boundaries of what we can expect in terms of visuals, not least due to the implementation of SSAO. SSAO stands for Screen Space Ambient Occlusion and is a rendering technique developed by perhaps the world's most graphic crazed developer Crytek. SSAO has previously been reserved for the PC, with a few console versions (mostly Xbox 360) joining the wave. SSAO provides delicious lightning and a slightly exaggerated contrast between light and shadows that really go well with smaller screens. Meanwhile, Gameloft has locked the fighting to 30 frames per second and with newer Android or iOS devices in hand it looks terrific. Older hardware keeps the framerate at the expense of a bit of graphical detail.
Again, Gameloft shows a flair for variation in the environments and in the 70 (!) or so chapters of the singleplayer campaign you will enjoy the sunlit streets of San Marcos, Ryogokus Japanese urban environment, large office buildings and smaller temple landscapes. Of course, both on foot and in a variety of vehicles, while leaving nothing but death and destruction in your path.
The music also provides nice variation with grandiose compositions through solid craftsmanship from nine different musicians reminiscent of the typical action-film music of the kind that is best known from composers like Nick Glennie-Smith and Hans Zimmer. The voice acting is also surprisingly good, some annoying accents excluded. And the characters articulate and move their lips quite convincing.
However, graphical fidelity and sound is rarely that first thing mobile gamers ask about, more often they want to know about the controls. Once again Gameloft show off their flair. You can choose from several options, change sensitivity and move everything around as you please. The latter function is often overlooked by many players, and it is quite understandable. It is not to be found in the menu, but it requires that you pause the game and select the function. You can then rearrange all the icons and resize them as needed. It is solid as always - apart from the odd placement. Android owners can of course connect a controller while iOS people must wait for a promised update if they want to play with MFI controller. Gameloft has this time chosen to give you the opportunity to put sprint feature into your analog pad to minimize the number of buttons. If you hate first-person shooters with touch controls this probably won't win you over, unless you use some hours to find exactly the touch control to suit your needs. For the rest of us, this is as good as it gets.
Modern Combat 5: Blackout this time is a pure premium title. No intrusive IAP system (in-app purchases). If you've bought the game, you're not expected to pay anything more. It's nice to see Gameloft move away from the hated freemium model.
All is not rosy. Firstly many firearms sounds slightly flat (although the background sounds are really atmospheric), and some weapons lack weight, also sprint mode this time seems a bit slower. Secondly the game requires that you are online no matter if you play single player or multiplayer. The reason is that this time you earn experience points for your characters from both single player and multiplayer. The advantage here is of course that if you come late to the party, you do not have to get nuked constantly in multiplayer to improve your class, but can gain experience through the single player campaign.
Gameloft has more or less thrown single player campaign over the shoulders and replaced it with a bunch of ultra-short level that smell more of shooting gallery fun than something more coherent. Thus, one can expect stages that last between one and three minutes. Several of these are well-made, including a fast-paced car chase through dark alleys and some other more creative sparks of fun. Each theme has typically a handful of campaign maps that play like any other modern shooters: linear areas with lots of reckless enemies. A new addition is spec ops missions, which resembles Time Crisis in turbo speed. Here you breach a location, and then you need to wipe out the enemy behind the door within a few seconds... If it were not for a short intro (that in comparison with the actual game part feels too long), it would be quite entertaining. Other courses let you take the role of a marksman, with a special bonus: you can guide your bullet towrds the enemy. It's fun and entertaining to play. In short the single player campaign feels more like a pile of tasty snacks, but it never completely fills you up.
Of course most players mainly flock to the Modern Combat series for the multiplayer, and it delivers this time as well. Free-for-all, Squad Battle, VIP, Team Battle and Capture the Flag are once again part of the pool and you can make a squad in the fight for victory and participate in special events that regularly show up in the game. Especially the VIP section where a random player from each team are the hunted, has proven to be tons of fun this time around.
Four different classes with a wealth of upgrade options and weapon combinations again provides good variation regardless of whether you prefer to be the crazy Rambo-type, the careful soldier, the gadget-loving one (revealing enemy drones, this time a part of the pool) or a happy camper.
Since Modern Combat 4 however, we have seen increasingly bigger combat maps, and in Modern Combat 5, they were widely considered too big for six vs six games. This time you fortunately get a solid mixture. Thus, the rooftop map, as the name suggests, which takes place on top of a skyscraper, will surely delight those players who have missed compact and packed levels, while Venice offers a plethora of channels, open street locations and different levels. There is something for everyone. And that part of the game is as addictive as ever.
That leaves Modern Combat 5: Blackout as a mixed but overall good experience. If you come for the single player campaign, you can easily deduct a number from the final grade. If you're looking for a great FPS multiplayer in mobile form, you can add just one more on top of the already fine score. Modern Combat is still the world's best shooter series on mobiles and tablets.