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EA previews titles from Chillingo and Firemint: New Flight Control, Burnout Crash, more

EA had a large suite set up at GDC last week to show off its various new and recent offerings. Here's a quick roundup of what the company is working on for iOS, including among all of its recent acquisitions: PopCap, Firemint, and Chillingo.

PopCap was up first -- the popular casual games developer has just released Zuma's Revenge HD on the App Store, and it's a very faithful port of the old arcade title originally released on PC. There's not much new to say about this one -- if you liked it on PC, you'll like it on Apple's iOS devices.

I did ask PopCap's about Bejeweled 3 as well. That game has been out on PC for a while, but we haven't really seen a port of it on iOS just yet. But there was no news to report -- PopCap is taking its sweet time working on new titles, and is instead mostly just concerned with putting its popular catalog on as many titles as possible. We may have to wait a while to see another original title arrive on iOS.

Next up was a game that a lot of Flight Control fans will be surprised to hear about: Flight Control Rockets. The space-age follow up to the extremely popular Flight Control title was developed by Firemint, but I'm sorry to say that I found it not quite as elegant as the previous version. The title has gone freemium, and you now earn coins as you play, which can then be spent on all sorts of upgrades for your station and skills (or, of course, purchased via in-app purchase).

There are some good new ideas in the game, like a combo score that builds up as you line-draw ships of the same color into your station, and lots of new ship types, including ships that break off into two, ships that speed up after being guided home, and even a "snake ship" that is actually a series of ships that will follow each other wherever you draw the first one. There are also "robot helpers" that you can hire, three maximum for each time you play, that will either make things easier for you (by helping you score higher or guide ships in automatically), or change up the gameplay (there's one called a "hardcore bot" that will turn off all of your warnings, but give you more XP as you play). In addition to the player's XP, you can also level up each of your bots, and unlock extra abilities for each of those as well, and there are also "power crystals" you can buy via IAP to earn XP faster.

If that all sounds complicated, you're right -- as I said, the first game had a sort of understated elegance to it, and this version is a lot more complex (and maybe even burdened, you might say, by the various in-app purchase possibilities available). But we'll see what players think -- Flight Control Rockets is due out later this month.

EA's also working on a World Series of Poker app that even the company's rep admitted was very similar to the already-available Zynga Poker: It's completely online, a freemium title driven by microtransactions, and includes a lot of social fuctions (and even a subscription "VIP" service, if you're so inclined). Unless you're already interested in Zynga's social poker offerings, you might not be too interested by this one, but it's worth saying that EA's app also includes Omaha play, and a few nice metagame options, like the opportunity to quest for a WSOP ring. The poker game is due out early summer.

Finally for EA's core lineup, the company is also porting the popular downloadable console title Burnout Crash to iOS, and developer Criterion Games has made quite a few improvements just for this platform. Most notably, the controls are now all touch and swipe based -- rather than going with an odious virtual stick layout, players now swipe their crashed cars around the screen, trying to line up as many explosive and destructive combos as possible. The game looks great (and will probably look even better on the new iPad), and there are new tweaks to the various game modes (Road Trip is now called Road Block) and a lot of nice features (Autolog has been implemented in full) to play with. Burnout Crash is a paid title that should be out later this month.

EA recently purchased Chillingo, and that company's titles were on display at GDC as well. The most interesting offering was a really gorgeous flying game called Air Mail, which seems quite well crafted by N-Fusion Interactive, and just looks terrific on the iPad's big screen. The company did go with virtual buttons and a joystick for the default controls (though they are rendered beautifully anyway), but the most interesting feature of the game are the "Advanced Mode Controls," hidden in the game's menus.

For that scheme, players use two thumbs on the screen to control either one of the plane's wings, and then can move the iPad or iPhone around in real space, using the gyroscope and accelerometer to guide the plane. It's hard (and I crashed quite often while using it), but once you get the hang of it, it's not only very exciting, but you can also do some pretty spectacular stunts. Air Mail offers a full campaign of more than 20 missions, but I'm most excited about the Explore mode, which just lets you fly around the game's amazing environments at will for as long as you want, finding and collecting various objects.

Among Chillingo's other offerings is an interesting title called The Act, which is basically an animated romantic comedy movie that you control at certain times. The premise might be a little strange, and I found the "controls" a little confusing (at one point, I was supposed to swipe towards a woman to try to get my character to be attracted by him, but (as in real life, I suppose) the feedback on whether she was interested or not was a little unclear). Still, The Act's animation looks very well-done, and it's a project that's quite a few years in the making. We'll have to see how it comes out later on this year.

Obviously, EA and its various mobile acquisitions are really hitting on all cylinders lately. There's definitely a big trend towards freemium and microtransactions, and I worry a little bit that some of the titles (Flight Control Rockets, especially) are going a little too far in that direction, and away from the core gameplay that really makes the absolute best iOS titles so popular. But we'll have to see how players respond going forward: If a title that heavily relies on the trappings of freemium games doesn't do as well as expected, maybe we'll see a return to a more subtle approach.

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