Star Horizon

Star Horizon is an on-rails shooter that looks great on the iPad and offers one of the better control schemes I've come across in a touchscreen game, but its shallow and breezy action fall flat before its brief campaign ends. While it can be entertaining enough for that first run, the lack of effort required from you makes the prospect of coming back for more a distant one.

There's a barely-intelligible storyline involving a Federation star pilot named John (and that's about all we learn about him), a nebulous rebellion for you to shoot down, and an AI companion programmed to quip about not understanding human conventions. The writing falls as flat as the characterizations, as each cut-scene flimsily sets up some basic but responsive on-rails shooting through stages filled with vibrant star fields, space debris and laser fire. You have complete control over where your ship sits on screen, but what path you take through an area is per-determined. The greats of this genre (Panzer Dragoon, say) use that rigidity to compose eye-popping technical displays and, more importantly, demanding attack patterns that force you to master the controls and make every last movement count.

Star Horizon's impressive vistas make good use of the iPad hardware, but it never matches those sights with compelling action. The building blocks are here. You track your thumb across the right side of the screen to steer your ship around, and the way your gestures immediately and fluidly respond on screen feels great. I rarely feel in full control of the action on a touchscreen, but this is precise and intuitive in a way few App Store offerings manage.

There's just never an opportunity to make use of all that hard work. Enemies show up in pretty manageable numbers, and all of your attacks have an extremely generous target lock that nearly spans the entire screen. You have a basic blaster attack, a missile barrage, and a powerful "torpedo" attack for a lone target, with no need to worry about ammo; each operates on a brief cool-down that makes hammering irresponsibly on your best attacks all too viable. I cleared most missions by lazily popping my missile attacks as soon as their respective cool-downs were over, and this approach barely taxed my rapidly recharging shields, let alone my actual health. Some later levels have you weaving through dangerous fields of obstacles that look cool and dish out some challenge, but there aren't nearly enough situations that leverage the controls like that.

There are no in-app purchases or other stabs for your wallet as you play, and that means the game is refreshingly free of intentional imbalances meant to be patched up by paid items, a practice App Store titles can be all too eager to offer. But things are too much in your favor in this game. It's automated nearly to the point of a quick time event, and that's about as exciting to play as it sounds.

While I can respect Star Horizon's business ethics, I can't get behind it as a game. There's a bit of potential and a lot of technical chops within, but playing it is too uninvolved to stick with for long. Unless you're purely on the hunt for something showy on your iPad, there are no shortage of space-based games on the App Store with more substance.