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Mass Effect: Infiltrator, hands-on: iOS gets its taste of the trilogy

Mass Effect 3 has a companion game on the App Store, and it's definitely a separate experience.

Screenshot by Scott Stein

Hungry for Mass Effect? Buy the console game. As far the simultaneously-released iOS game for iPhone and iPad goes, I'd recommend downloading Dead Space instead.

So, maybe it's a tiny bit unfair to compare a $60 console game to a $6.99 iOS game, but when the name "Mass Effect" is slapped on a download, there is some expectation of a certain style of game, and a certain level of quality. Mass Effect: Infiltrator is downright beautiful to look at, especially in its opening cinematics: at first, it could cause an onlooker to drop their jaw and proclaim that the iPad is the true inheritor of the future of handheld and even console games.

Well, not so fast. ME: Infiltrator is a shooter, and a basic one at that. The game employs a "duck and cover" mechanic to hide and then pop up and shoot oncoming enemies across a storyline that feels like a self-contained piece of DLC, like reading a "Star Wars" universe short story as opposed to watching "Star Wars." Your mission follows a rogue Cerberus operative, Randall Ezno, on a journey through a base station on a frozen planet. I played Mass Effect: Infiltrator on an iPad 2, but the universal app can also be played on an iPod Touch or iPhone (iPhone 3GS, 4 or 4S, and iPod Touch third- and fourth-gen). It also works on an original iPad.

Screenshot by Scott Stein

The micro-missions that unfold involve a whole lot of running up to rocks and walls and ducking behind them, then tapping on enemies to pop out and do damage. The biggest hindrance to Mass Effect: Infiltrator is that, as a shooter, it has to compromise with swipe-and-tap control schemes instead. Rather than use a virtual joystick, you have to learn Infiltrator's system. It's sometimes intuitive, and sometimes maddeningly not: for instance, shooting is automatic, but aiming happens by dragging your finger around after tapping on a target. If you're not taking cover and are out in the open, you can't simply press a fire button to attack. Tapping to focus and shoot didn't always work if I was too far away. As a result, I ended up running around in circles and being gunned down until I learned the tap and swipe strategy that Mass Effect: Infiltrator really wants you to play. Once I got the hang of it, it's reasonably entertaining. Seven dollars' worth? Not really.

Checkpoints and auto-saves are frequent, but not frequent enough: I died over a dozen times on one submission and kept getting sent back to the beginning. The game's plot is minimal at best, with occasional touches of the good-guy/bad-guy morality decisions that make the console Mass Effect so iconic. At a few moments, you can choose to save or kill an enemy. Neither decision seemed to have much consequence.

After a while, the similarities to Dead Space for iPad were all too frequent (the same development team made both). The corridor-based shooter structure worked better for Dead Space. I'd recommend you buy that instead (it was previously one of CNET's 30 best iPad games).

I also wasn't a huge fan of the game's not-too-subtle encouragements to buy extra credits to unlock armor, biotics, and weapons, of which there's a decent handful to uncover and level up in the game. You can always save up credits earned in-game and buy them the honest way, but Mass Effect: Infiltrator is happy to take up to $50 of your money anyway if you're weirdly impatient.

Screenshot by Scott Stein

There is some crossover to the console game: earned credits can also be converted via an Origin account into improving your "Galactic Readiness" in Mass Effect 3. If you know what that means, you'll be excited. Otherwise, you're better off leveling up your in-game weapons and armor. The cross-game concept is clever, but used to a bare minimum here. (Why not use Origin account syncing for sports titles instead?)

I've been thinking a long while about the problem with Mass Effect: Infiltrator is. Really, it might be the way that developers handle iOS games. Do the lower cost and lower expectations, versus higher-priced Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita games, take a toll on quality? For an iOS game, this Mass Effect game isn't bad. If you're a graphics lover, you'll be quite happy indeed. If this game were on a Vita or a 3DS, however, people would run it out of town on a rail.

Best bet? Wait for a 99-cent sale.