Playing with the iPad

Getting to the core of Apple's new device

It can surf the net, open a book, drop pins on a map, play movies, pipe through music, and it might even make you breakfast. Yet, the question on our minds is whether iPad's got game.

For a device as multifunctional as iPad, asking whether it has the potential for great games is tricky. After all, PCs do tons of things and manage to play fantastic games. iPhone and iPod touch handsets were intended for other purposes, yet have become phenomenal portable gaming devices.

iPad is different, however, because unlike iPhone and iPod touch it represents Apple's first decisive push to bring gaming into the fold at the launch of one of its platforms. During Wednesday's presentation announcing iPad, CEO Steve Jobs actually managed to get the word "gaming" out of his mouth. Don't get too excited, though. As attractive and engaging a device as iPad might be, its gaming cred looks questionable.

The potential is definitely there. A luscious 9.7-inch touchscreen, decent processing power, not to mention wi-fi and 3G network connectivity (only select models) could be leveraged for compelling gameplay. Such an expansive touchscreen opens up a myriad of possibilities, though it's also a limiting factor. iPad is portable, but it's hardly handheld. Unlike an iPhone or iPod touch that can be played with ease in your hands, iPad is too large to really work for certain types of games.

Take first-person shooters, for instance. Mobile games publisher Gameloft showed off an enhanced version of their Halo-like shooter N.O.V.A. that placed two virtual analogue sticks on the touchscreen. Holding the device in landscape mode, we placed left and right thumbs over the analogue sticks to move and look. That's easy enough, but when context-sensitive actions like opening a multi-touch locking mechanism on a door requires moving your hand from the corner to the centre of the screen, a weakness appears.

iPad is cumbersome in these situations because you literally have to move your entire hand across the surface of the screen to play. That spells serious trouble for twitchy shooters where reaction time is key to survival. Repositioning the device to be held by one hand while the other moves across the screen every few seconds just isn't fun. N.O.V.A. is great on iPhone and iPod touch, but playing it on iPad it feels awkward.

EA's Need for Speed: Shift fared better, yet tilting something as big as an iPad felt unnatural. The accelerometer steering was spot on in the build we played, though the issue isn't a matter of precision control; to the contrary, it's about the way the game felt in our hands.

Obviously, these are early games that hardly tap into the potential hidden deep within the hardware. Every game machine finds its voice in the years following launch; however, it's difficult to see how iPad will be home to twitchy genres like shooters and racers.

What seems more likely is the rise of games that can be played with the device in your lap, on a table, or passed around with friends. A real-time strategy game like Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 or R.U.S.E. would work wonderfully on the screen and could benefit from multi-touch control. Board games played atop a coffee table with friends sounds brilliant to us. What about puzzle games like Peggle or Puzzle Quest that take up the entire screen? Tactical role-playing games may find a home here.

There's certainly potential for some select types of games to thrive, but iPad isn't capable of delivering the breadth of experiences we've come to expect from our consoles.

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