Connect 4:Getting it right 2
In all the many months I’ve been writing about iPod and iPhone games, I’m not sure I’ve ever got round to saying anything about this one, and now seems like a good time to put it right. Electronic Arts is currently having one of their frequent sales, and in focus on this occasion are some of the publisher’s classic-boardgame properties. The likes of Monopoly, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit and Battleship can all currently be had for 59p each (the first two in particular being very worthwhile purchases), but my personal favourite is the exemplary take on Connect 4.
Historically, “family” board games have had a terrible time on consoles, typically being the victims of awful, point-missing conversions clogged with useless bells and whistles that served no purpose other than the slow the game to a snail’s pace of cutscenes and over-complex interfaces. (Connect 4 itself suffered such a fate at the hands of an atrocious port to the Gameboy Advance.) But as part of the company’s general reinvention over the last few years as one that sort of vaguely knows something about games, EA has got it spectacularly right this time.
The iOS version of Connect 4 is one of the finest examples in existence of how to blend the qualities of a classic boardgame and a videogames console and get the best out of both. You get a straightforward port of the game itself, of course, unencumbered by excessive faffing around – you can be dropping pieces within about four seconds of the app loading up – and offering three levels of CPU opponent. You can also play a human opponent via wifi, bluetooth or on a single machine – the latter being an incredibly basic feature astonishingly absent from a huge number of console boardgame ports. (You even get two positional options – pass the iPod to play, or have it sat on a table between you with the board flipping over between turns.)
But it’s the extra stuff that really lifts iPod Connect 4 out of the ordinary. There are three all-new modes, some with elements copied from the new version of the real-life boardgame versions and some necessarily videogame-exclusive.
There’s “Pop Out”, which plays like the normal game except that you can remove a chip of your own colour from the bottom row in place of a normal move, radically altering the strategic possibilities. There’s also Max Score, which is a continuous game where a round doesn’t end when you make a line of four (or more, with lines of five or more scoring extra points). Instead, the chips in the line(s) disappear and everything else falls down Bejeweled-style to fill the spaces, opening up the possibility of making extra lines in the same move, with the winner being the player with the most points at the end of the time limit (which is adjustable from 60 seconds to three minutes).
Both of those are substantial additions, but the most fun is Power Chips mode – a variant on Max Score which, as its name suggests, throws powerups into the mix. You can drop chips which crush anything below them, chips that push everything in their column down one row, chips that prevent your opponent playing that column for one turn, exploding ones that take out everything around them, and score multipliers. Ingeniously, you’re given two chips to choose from for each move (the unused one carrying over to the next turn), which sometimes forces you into self-destructive plays undoing all your own good work.
With only eight seconds allowed for a move (which is the case in all of the extra modes), the tension is high from the off, but there’s also scope for underhanded strategic timewasting, which can horribly backfire if your opponent suddenly gets just the right chip and puts 16 points on you with no time to recover. It all contributes to an intense competitive atmosphere that could easily end in someone having to be taken to Casualty to have their iPod removed from a personal area and the Daily Mail getting another apocalyptic headline about how games are responsible for all world evil.
And we’re not even done yet. In addition to the classic game and the three new variants, there’s also Challenge Mode, a collection of 16 specific challenges like completing a full game without either you or your opponent scoring any points or getting 20 points in a Max Score game with only 30 total chips in play, interspersed with the occasional arcade minigame. The 16 challenges are arranged in four columns of four, and completing one unlocks the next one above it, so you’ve always got at least four available (until you’re on the final row, at least).
The game maintains an exhaustive collection of stats (including high scores for Max Score and Power Chips) and offers 25 achievements over and above the Challenge Mode, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever make a more comprehensive and complete Connect 4 game. The whole thing is wrapped up in excellent, lively graphics with separately-adjustable music and sound, and pretty much everything about it is great. By simply calling it Connect 4 (rather than Connect 4 MAX! or Connect 4 ULTRA ExTrEmE X!), EA are showing commendable restraint but also rather underselling a fantastic videogame that just happens to have its roots in something more traditional. See through their foolishness and buy this today.