This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.The Drowning has the best controls of any touch-based shooter I've ever experienced. I'm in love; I don't ever want to go back to the way things were before. I hope I never touch a virtual thumbstick again.
It's an incredibly simple and intuitive interface. You tap on the screen with two fingers and your shot is fired directly between the two pressed points. Close shots are easy to aim, but the further away the target is, the more difficult it is to land a decent shot – and the more rewarding it is when you do. The system effectively marries the concepts of a user-friendly interface with skill-based aiming, providing a welcome change to the clunky or watered-down control schemes seen in other touch-based shooters.
Movement is also surprisingly intuitive: A simple tap anywhere in the environment will move you in that direction. The Drowning employs a smart path system, and your character will automatically walk around obstacles in the environment to reach the chosen destination. Looking around only requires a swipe in that general direction, either while standing still or in motion. It all works surprisingly well, even in the most panicky moments when you're firing at multiple encroaching enemies.
If only the rest of The Drowning were as good. There is a virtual joystick option, but it's as unwieldy as it is in other games – hardly a perfect solution. Also, regardless of your chosen control scheme, there doesn't appear to be any way to manually reload weapons, which really hampers the overall strategy of The Drowning. If I could choose when I wanted to reload my gun, there'd be fewer instances of zombies crowding up on me.
Outside of gunplay, The Drowning doesn't offer much innovation or excitement. It's a tired story about an apocalyptic event and a mysterious, thick black goo that is turning people into zombies. Of course.
And, essentially, each mission plays out in one of two ways: attack or defend. Either you move from point to point, killing as many zombies as possible in a set time frame, or you stand your ground and defend against incoming waves. You know the drill: Evade zombies, aim for the head, try to get a good score.
Your performance determines the level of randomized loot you'll walk away with. Sometimes it's gun parts, other times it's more essential, narrative-driven gear for vehicles that will help you progress to the next area. Other items allow you to upgrade weapons.
Leveling up a gun offers a very negligible boost to stats like damage and movement speed. For example, the basic Glock doesn't show much improvement at all until around level five, when it finally starts to output noticeably more damage. Constructing new guns from broken parts discovered in the environment is also an option, though a very taxing one. It requires plenty of scrounged-up scrap and the patience to wait upwards of 20 real-world minutes for your new firearm to be built. That is unless you pay real-world money to speed up the process, which brings me to The Drowning's biggest downfall: Upselling.
It's when mired in conflict that The Drowning shows its ingenuity and viability as a shooter. I enjoy the enemy encounters in The Drowning because the gunplay and movement mechanics are so fresh, employing elements of skill while simultaneously offering an ease of use unseen in other touch-based shooters. Everything outside of those brief shooter segments isn't exciting or charming at all, which is a shame. Without all of the upselling, and with greater mission variety, The Drowning would be one of the best first-person shooters I've ever played on a touch-screen.
This review is based on The Drowning, played on an iPad 2. The app is universal and available as a free download in the App store now.