Modern Combat 5: Blackout (iOS|Android) is the latest sequel from Gameloft's popular first-person shooter franchise, and it's the best FPS for mobile to date. Featuring both a single-player campaign and multiplayer game modes, it's closely modeled after the Battlefield and Call of Duty games on consoles and PCs, but while it looks great and plays well, it still doesn't live up to the games it emulates.
Is that a surprise? Not really. It's incredibly difficult for a touchscreen FPS to compete with the precise control systems on consoles or keyboard-and-mouse setups. So one thing you need to know right away is you won't have the tight control you might be used to in other FPS games you've played.
The other thing you need to know about Modern Combat 5: Blackout is you can't play offline, so if you don't have Internet connectivity, you can't play even the single-player missions.
As in most modern first-person shooters, you predictably play as an elite super-soldier whose job is to save the world by clearing out terrorists until you face an insane and brutal boss bent on world destruction. The single-player campaign includes a few different game types you'll encounter as you progress through the game's chapters and unlock new equipment.
On your journey, you'll start in Venice, Italy, to learn the ropes. From there, you'll continue to a temple in Japan, then fight through the streets of Tokyo, then back to the canals of Venice, then back to a neighborhood in Tokyo. The graphics and animations are better than those of most games on iOS and looked great on the iPhone 5S and even my iPad 2 (the game requires at least an iPhone 4S, iPad 2, or 5th-gen iPod Touch to play). Each of the main missions is more or less on rails, requiring you to fight through enemies until you clear an area, then move on to the next until you complete the mission objective at the end. This is true for most FPS games as you're guided through the storyline, but be aware that you'll never go far from the beaten path.
Each chapter in Modern Combat 5 also has other game types to complete before you can unlock the next chapter (or area) of the game. These include special-ops missions where you'll clear rooms one after the other in quick succession, and multiplayer missions where you'll play with other Modern Combat players from around the world. Each of these side missions will help you unlock the next chapter, so you'll need to at least dabble in a few game types outside the main storyline to move on in the game.
In the previous installment of the game, Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour, you could take class specializations that would give you perks to help you play as a sniper, demolition expert, support, and other types of soldiers, but it wasn't broken up into classes. Modern Combat 5 takes customization a bit further toward games like the Battlefield franchise with set classes. Before a fight, or after dying, you can choose from Assault, Sniper, Heavy Assault, or Recon. Each of the classes has a number of weapons and accessories you can unlock by playing the game and gaining experience.
You also earn skill points that you can use to upgrade class traits to make each class more powerful. As an example, with the Assault class you can choose an upgrade called Improved Gearbox to increase the number of grenades you can carry. The Heavy Assault class has a Bulletproof upgrade that reduces damage by 15 percent. What's great about this system is you can customize each class to focus on how you want to play the game, and it differentiates your character from other people playing the same class.
On the multiplayer side of the game, you get all the standard FPS game types, with team battle, capture the flag, and free-for-all, along with VIP (kill the marked player), and squad battle. The different game types give you more choices than previous version, and the maps are bigger and more detailed than ever.
With that said, multiplayer is much less forgiving than the single-player campaign, and here's where the less-than-precise controls start to become a liability. As with almost all FPS games on iOS, you use a stick on the left to move your player, swipe the screen on the right to turn and aim at enemies, and hit a button in the lower right to fire your weapon. There's also a button that lets you look through the crosshairs and auto-snaps to an enemy if he is close to your aiming reticle. I found that most of the time I didn't have time to aim, so hip-firing was the more common method. It's extremely difficult to be precise with this setup, and I often ended up standing 15 feet away from my enemy while we wildly shot in each other's general direction. In other words, the control system is literally hit or miss.
The exception I noticed is when my opponent had a certain gun: the Red-34. When I came up against players with this particular gun, it would only take a few shots before I was dead, while I was shooting a stream of machine gun fire at my opponent with much less power. I did a little research in forums, and sure enough, a lot of people are saying the Red-34 is overpowered. Hopefully this is something Gameloft will address, because weapon balance in FPS is crucial to good gameplay. With one overpowered gun, it will be the one everyone picks, ruining the variation in gameplay styles.
Perhaps my biggest annoyance with Modern Combat 5: Blackout is that you can't play the game when you're offline. As soon as you log in (in airplane mode) the game will kick you with an error message saying you need to be online to play. Obviously, if I wanted to play multiplayer, I can see how an Internet connection would be required, but for single-player? What it means is when you're flying or in an area with poor connectivity, Modern Combat 5 is nothing more than a useless icon on your home screen.
Modern Combat 5: Blackout is the best game so far in the series and the best FPS available for smartphones. It sports amazing graphics and a new class system that gives you much more flexibility. The single-player campaign is exciting, and you get varied gameplay with the different challenges in each chapter.
Multiplayer has improved from the last version with bigger, multilevel maps, and the class system lets you switch on the fly when you want to change your strategy. I also like that you can create your own squad and have matches against other squads to climb the high-score ladder.
For all that is good about Modern Combat 5, it still has some problems. Some are fixable, like overpowered weapons in multiplayer, and we'll probably see a fix sooner rather than later. But others, such as the inherent disadvantage of touchscreen controls, make the game much more frustrating than its console or desktop counterparts. The inability to play offline is probably the most frustrating of all because when you really want to play on your airplane trip or when you're in remote areas, you're completely out of luck.
Still, if you can stomach the game's imperfections, it's still the best FPS on smartphones to date, with plenty of improvements over the last installment.