Once in a while, an Angry Birds or Temple Run comes along in the mobile gaming sphere. Games that are able to hook you with their simple but endlessly entertaining mechanics, and an ability to immediately "dive in" to the game at any time, even if for just 5 minutes (or 3 hours).
The problem with those games is that they're generally aimed at an audience that has never played video games, or has but doesn't actually love them. This "casual gamer" is a mass market holy grail that many game developers are now trying to tap into. As a result, there are very few great games on any mobile platform that I would classify as being directed toward gamers, somewhat ironically.
Sure, we have backports of titles like Max Payne, Final Fantasy III, and Duke Nukem. We have cutting-edge visuals in games like Shadowgun (from the developer of Dead Trigger), Asphalt 28 (or whatever number Gameloft's on now), and Mass Effect Infiltrator.
Some of these games are very good. Final Fantasy III is even what I'd call great, but it's still a port, and to some extent still feels like one. You can never fully take a game designed for a controller and make it feel like a game that was designed for touch. Not without undergoing some prohibitively expensive total redesign project, at least.
And that's sort of where we are on Android games. There are plenty of great casual titles out there, but they're really casual. And while there is a growing market for ports and console franchise spin-offs (Need For Speed, Dead Space, Mass Effect), these games often still feel half-baked in some ways, and just aren't meant as much for mobile consumption. Often, they are severely lacking in replay value, as well.
Dead Trigger is the first Android game I've played that seems to have struck the balance for a gamer's mobile game just right. It's casual enough to sit down and play for 5 or 10 minutes, but engrossing enough to keep you entertained for a few hours at a time. It also is complex and content-rich enough so as to keep your brain churning.
The wonderful thing about Dead Trigger is that it manages to take a very simple gameplay mechanic and turn it into something that feels enjoyable over and over again. This is what many great games do - Final Fantasy is about turn-based combat with hit points, but it builds on that mechanic with endless abilities, intervening factors, random chance, and enjoyable visuals wrapped in an amazing story.
Dead Trigger's mechanic is shooting zombies in the face. That's what you do. Occasionally, this involves picking up boxes and taking them somewhere else, or camping out in front of a door you're supposed to defend, but in the end, it's really just zombie face-shooting. This has the potential to get supremely boring very quickly. Shadowgun was an equally simple mechanic - shooting enemies while using cover. But because there were so few weapons, special abilities, items, or real goals, it got boring. It also had no replay value whatsoever. But Madfinger seems to have learned from the mistakes it made in Shadowgun.
Shadowgun also had all these wonderfully-designed, big map layouts. But there was no appreciating them - they didn't make the game any more fun. They were, at best, a technical achievement worthy of praise. But beyond that, they didn't add anything. In Dead Trigger, there are maybe half a dozen area maps. They're all pretty small, and you just go through them over and over. And you don't care, because they're so secondary to the primary game mechanic (again, shooting of zombie face). In fact, Dead Trigger so efficiently recycles these maps, textures, and other resources that it only takes up 102MB of on-device space.
Instead of working on maps, dialogue, or any semblance of a story, Madfinger focused on gameplay content. There are over a dozen distinct weapons you can utilize in Dead Trigger (14, I believe). And once you buy them, you can also spend money upgrading them to be more powerful. They aren't just useless skins, either.
Each weapon has four characteristics - damage, accuracy, clip size, and range. And the characteristics get even more nuanced when you're using them. For example, the Colt M4 has a red-dot scope, making it much easier to precisely target zombie noggins from afar. The AK-47, though it has greater range and comparable accuracy, is much harder to use for long shots because of its view-obstructing iron sights. This is the kind of consideration gamers (like me) love. If you're really good with the AK-47's iron sights, with practice, you can be a more efficient head-popper than with the Colt M4.
And while there are a limited number of basic maps, some are more open than others. A close-range encounter will be better suited to a shotgun or submachine gun, whereas more open areas allow you to take aim at the walking dead from 50 yards with an assault rifle.
You have a character equipment screen, and at maximum can carry 4 weapons (you have to buy additional weapon / equipment slots). And that brings us to items. Unfortunately, I found items other than health-restoring bandages in Dead Trigger to basically be useless. If you're a reasonably-coordinated person, most of the secondary items are quickly forgotten while you're busy mowing down hordes of the undead. So, that might need some work - maybe introduce some missions where they're really necessary. Carrying two weapons also means ammo drops much less often, and that you're forced to use your secondary weapon a lot (usually meaning, a crappier gun). So there's never really a reason to carry more than one weapon other than the fun or challenge of it.
About the missions, each one takes no longer than 5 minutes. You simply choose one on the map (either a "Main Quest" mission or a repeatable generic one), and go. There are 3 basic types - survive, defend, and collect. Survival missions require you to stay alive for a certain amount of time or kill a certain number of zombies. Defense missions make you defend a stationary target (or two) from zombies for a period of time, and these targets have hit points, letting one fall to zero results in a mission failure. Collection missions involve picking up a box and taking it to the other side of an area 3-5 times in a row.
There's also some kind of story - I didn't follow it. The main quests are typically just like the generic ones, though I have encountered one "mega-zombie" thus far that was quite challenging to kill. There may be more such quasi-boss fights (I'm sure there are, in fact), but I've yet to reach them after 3.5 hours of in-game time. The increasing difficulty as you progress seems spot-on, too - you can't just blast through every level with any particular weapon. And the game definitely gets harder.
Controls / Graphics
The controls in Dead Trigger are fantastic. Shadowgun's controls were good. These are even better. My Nexus 7 had the occasional wig-out with the crosshair going 180 degrees in the opposite direction for no apparent reason, and this same glitch has been confirmed on multiple device and OS versions. The issue also wasn't bad or common enough to stop me from enjoying the game, but it does need to be addressed.
Weapon switching is reasonably easy, and once you're used to the positioning of everything, it all feels pretty natural. I don't notice Dead Trigger's controls much, and that's the best thing you can say about any game's controls - they just feel right.
Visually, Dead Trigger pulls off a high-end, indie PC game-quality look when you've got a Tegra 3 device, allowing you to enable the "Ultra High" mode textures. Guns are very well done (especially the whole iron sights thing). The thing about mobile games, though, is that a lot of that console look is sort of smoke and mirrors. The physics engine is a fairly basic ragdoll system. Animations and textures are rehashed a lot - I've counted like maybe 6 different zombie models. This stuff is all a matter of keeping development overhead down, and on a mobile game, pretty much par for the course. Effects and explosions and such are OK, but without a truly pervasive physics engine, aren't exactly convincing.
Still, Dead Trigger looks great and I doubt most users will care about the lack of visual variety in the zombies they're blasting.
The Whole In-App Purchases Thing
You don't need to buy anything to make it through Dead Trigger. While I haven't finished the game (yet - I will), I have not found it at all necessary to purchase any of the in-game currency. I was tempted at one point, but then did 4 or 5 generic missions to bolster my funds, and from then on have been perfectly fine. It's challenging, because the game sort of tries to goad you into buying the currency at times, especially when you're not of a high enough "rank" to purchase a particular weapon yet (your funds will eventually slightly outstrip your up-ranking). And grinding to get a decent new weapon doesn't take unreasonably long, so no worries there.
There are some weapons (maybe 2 or 3) that do seem to require in-app purchases, though, specifically those costing "gold bars" (a secondary currency). It's unclear to me how and why I get gold bars (I'm up to 11 so far, as you can see), but it basically seems like you can only buy them through an in-app purchase (it says you can get more from the bank, but I can't get this to work on my N7). This means some guns will never be attainable without spending money, but none of those guns are required to complete the game.
It's sort of like Team Fortress 2 that way - some unlockables demand an almost psychotic level of devotion to obtain without just coughing up the money to buy them. In this sense, I think what Madfinger has done here is fair. You can get most of the game's content without spending a dime more than the initial dollar, and with a lot of grinding, you can probably come very close to rounding out all of it. While few people will have that level of dedication, the option is there. Leaving an item or two off the table for purchase only isn't a big deal - developers need to make money, too, guys.
Additionally, you can get extra cash by doing things in the "bank" - eg, following Madfinger on Twitter, watching the YouTube trailer for the game, etc. There are a number of options, so that's cool.
There's also a registration you can go through for some sort of Madfinger gaming network (I'm not sure if or how it works at this point), and the game keeps fairly detailed stats on what you've done so far.
Madfinger has struck the right balance of casual fun and true gamer appeal with Dead Trigger. A dollar gets you in the door, and that dollar gives you hours upon hours of grade-A entertainment. This game is absolutely great value for money. And it doesn't make you spend more money (even if it encourages it) if you don't want to.
Casual gamers will probably go for the in-app purchases to shortcut their way through, but if you're like me and sort of abhor the idea of using real money to buy fake money, Madfinger has made it totally feasible to steer clear of that option. And good on them for it - this is how in-game purchasing should work.
And when an expansion pack with new weapons, maps, or content comes out (I'm guessing that's their angle here), I'll probably buy it.
I think Madfinger has a real hit on its hands here, and I hope that it's a big enough one to allow them to keep making even better games in the future. If you're looking for a fun, well-made Android game, it doesn't get any better than this. And hey, it's only a buck.