Whenever a Gameloft title hits the iPhone I play a little game before the game: I try and guess what popular console game it's trying to mimic.
Initially, I thought Backstab was Gameloft's unofficial take on Assassin's Creed (never mind that they made an official take), but after spending a bit of time with it I'm starting to see that this go around the developer seems to have created a game that mimics the play of Assassin's Creed but drops it into a setting and story unusual to the franchise: the 18th century Caribbean.
In Backstab you take on the role of Henry Blake, a former officer in the English Royal Navy, who was set up and betrayed during the invasion of Bristol.
The game play starts off pretty straight forward. You move your finger around on a digital gamepad to move your character, and touch the screen to shift the camera around. The third-person perspective shows your character almost from heel to head. There's also a cluster of icons in the bottom right corner that allow you to swing your sword, fire your gun and pull of instant kill moves if you're in the right location. Later on other things are added to that cluster, like the ability to call your horse.
Initially the game feels like a third-person hack-and-slash game, with players tapping away at that sword icon to dispense enemy Spaniards and pirates. But early on the game takes a sudden twist, dropping you in front of a canon and asking you to use it to repel a naval invasion. Later you discover that Blake can free-run through the city, dashing from rooftop to rooftop, dangling from decorative walls, leaping across narrow, plummeting drops. Later still I found myself hunting down rabbits and chickens, looking for explosives, spending a little quality time with a lady of the evening.
It turns out what I thought was going to be a straight run through a mediocre screen-tapping action game was actually the beginning of a journey through a surprisingly deep, surprisingly interactive world. There are problems: camera angels go crazy some times. The fights are a bit too easy. Controlling Blake, especially as he dashes across roofs, isn't always precise enough to prevent some head-splitting drops. But this is still an impressive effort by Gameloft.
I'm only on the second city so far, of four, but I already feel like I've got tons of things to explore and revisit. The in-game stat page lists all of the cities I still have to visit, people I need to push, harlots I need to chat up, thugs to kill, assassination missions to complete and the list goes on and on.
At $8.99, Backstab is relatively pricey, but it's also relatively epic in scale. I'm still trying to decide whether I'm a fan, but I'm also having trouble putting it down. With all of its flaws, it's still nice to have a game of this depth and variety in my pocket.