Full disclosure: Dinoroar Interactive provided me with a copy of Havoc for the purpose of this review.
It's a question that keeps me up at night. How do you assert yourself (or your product) in a marketplace that is crowded with titles that have attained overnight success and - in some cases - reached multi-platinum status (in terms of either downloads or purchases) in mere months? I'm pretty sure that Australian developer, Dinoraur Interactive is in the same boat, too; especially when it appears like some Australian-based competitors do it so effortlessly. Studios like Firemint (in spite of recent troubles) and Halfbrick have seen great success and acclaim on the App Store and Android Market: commerce channels whose volume grows daily by literally hundreds of rival apps.
How do they do it? Aesthetics may have something to do with it. Whether it's Real Racing HD 2's realistic visuals or Jetpack Joyride's pixelated approach, there's no denying that artistically and/or technically impressive graphics can bring in some customers. But you can't win in these highly competitive markets based on looks alone; you need some addictive play mechanics to have any chance at success. You don't need to create an experience that rivals what home consoles can offer in terms of depth and responsiveness, you just need something that's shallow enough to be enjoyed in short bursts with a scoring (or progression) system that can lure players back. That mantra is true for both of the apps I mentioned previously.
Havoc is a vertical-scrolling shooter with a children's book art style that tasks you with destroying almost everything in sight. As one of three characters - with no discernible difference other than appearance - you'll throw collectible stones at everything from giant grasshoppers to toilets. Sounds simple enough, but is the game's storybook charm enough to keep players coming back for more?
The short answer is no. While the watercolour visuals were appealing at first, Havoc suffers from a multitude of design and technical flaws that make it hard to recommend.
The first thing I asked myself as I trudged though the game's first level was: what is the target market for this app? At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Havoc was aimed at children with the visuals and simple gameplay premise seeming a perfect fit for the youngest of gamers. When I reached the finish line of the first level and noticed that I hadn't scored enough to progress, however, I immediately questioned my initial assumption. The four or five subsequent attempts after that were enough for me to abandon it altogether. Target scores aren't disclosed until you make it to the end of a level for the first time, and anything less than a near-perfect run will almost always end in failure.
This wasn't a great concern to start off with, as the earlier levels are populated with a small array of immobile enemies (the only time an enemy moves is when you break or kill it) and you're afforded more stones than you'll possibly need. Enemies come in three variations: ones that require one, two or three hits to kill. Their appearance will differ from level to level, but there's never any variation to the action other than enemy numbers. You can make it through the first two (of five) levels without even hitting bonus rockets that grant you score multipliers or extra firepower. After that, however, things take a turn for the worst.
With more targets, the broken touch controls turn from minor annoyance into an unbeatable foe (read: I couldn't unlock the final level). There's only a few more stones available for collection than a level's worth of enemies can take. More often than not, when I tapped a stone to collect it, I'd fire one by mistake. I tried hard, sharp taps, slow, smudgy taps, any kind of tap would almost inevitably send a precious stone hurtling towards the abyss instead of at my enemies, where I desperately needed them to go. To make matters worse, hit detection is spotty at best with many stones appearing to be on course - at times even passing through the enemy - but still being ineffective. I tried it on iPad and iPad 2 and the results were the same: broken, frustrating gameplay.
Perhaps if the scoring system was a little more forgiving, I'd be able to suffer the complete lack of movement on the player's part. Your selected monster will trudge forward, but you can't dodge incoming enemies (that will still inexplicably damage you). Enemies don't attack you either, it's just that you'll lose health if they happen to be parallel to you. It was somewhat amusing: the preposterous notion of being killed by an outhouse or a bucket and spade that was nowhere near me; but after about five minutes and a few hundred grunts (that sound the same, regardless of your choice of character), you'll be done with Havoc.
While the game has a charming point of difference with regards to its storybook visuals, Havoc fails to deliver addicitive gameplay and/or scoring mechanics to justify the purchase price ($1.99 as of time of publishing). The various glitches and repetitive sound design may incite a few cheap laughs, but I'd forgive you for wanting more given the quality free and premium competition available for your chosen Apple device. Buy a chocolate bar and download Jetpack Joyride instead.