GTA San Andreas is coming to mobile this December. Not only will it offer the full mission structure of the PS2/Xbox classic, it’s got fancy new features like improved draw-distance, better character models, texture resolution and colours. I know, right? Sounds superb. But there’s one feature in particular that’s spiked my interest even further: iOS 7 controller support. I can’t emphasise enough how big a deal this is for gaming. Mark my words: We’re on the cusp of a revolution.
Rewind to earlier this week: I’m in a meeting with some PR reps and they want to show me a mobile game they’re working on. Sure, I’ll take a look. I am handed an iPhone 5S, but it’s unrecognisable because it’s got one of those newfangled iOS7 controllers attached to it. Imagine an iPhone with a sawn-in-half DualShock attached to the ends. As I look at this Frankenstein’s Monster of a device, I don’t see an iPhone. I see a Vita-beater. A full-fledged handheld console. And it’s brilliant.
If these things were glued onto the end, you could market this device as a new handheld gaming platform. Many, many gigabytes of internal storage, 4G capability for playing online games and downloading new ones in mere moments, twin analogue sticks, four face buttons, triggers and shoulder buttons and a multi-touch screen displaying 1136x640 resolution visuals. Lightweight, powerful... the works.
The A7 chip is already rendering top-end mobile graphics that really are as-near-as-dammit to the quality of mid-range Xbox 360 games, but on this screen size the already denser-than-Vita screen resolution makes the display look super-sharp. I’m used to retina graphics, but now I’ve got a controller in my hands with the screen in the middle, it suddenly seems better.
And it’s a good controller. Not amazing, but the analogue sticks are like the 3DS’ circle pad and there’s no noticeable input lag as I play the game--probably because this particular unit (the Moga Ace Power) connects via the iPhone's Lightning connector. It’s comfortable but light and the device itself can unplug, push together and fit in your pocket. It’s even got pressure-sensitive buttons. Colour me impressed.
I should of course point out that Android controllers have existed for a while already. But compatibility is never guaranteed because the layouts are different, games don’t have a single model to support and devices vary in size too much. I do love Apple products, but even so, it’s easy to see the benefits of iOS 7’s controller compatibility because it’s the same for all apps. They either support it or they don’t.
Also, from my brief hands-on, I’m not convinced the controls are completely worth their current price point, which is $99 (about £62). That’s a lot to pay for the current list of games that support the feature. But it won't stay this way for long. More games will come, as will competition in the peripheral space, so prices will soon come down to a much more affordable level.
And that’s not the only fast progress that will be made in a very short space of time. Smartphone technology is advancing so quickly, some current-gen (now last-gen) games are getting ported in their entirety. Games like X-COM: Enemy Unknown, which are exactly like their current-gen counterparts, only with a few graphical compromises. Then there’s Castle of Illusion, which just received an iOS port from XBLA/PSN. It’s literally the same game. Console-quality gaming on a phone. Look at it:
We probably haven’t seen many full-fat console games getting ported to iOS because the controls haven’t been up to replicating the console experience. Well, no longer. In my article three years ago which asked can mobile games hit PS3 quality in 3 years?, I said at the end that it wouldn’t matter if they did because (and I quote) "they'll still control like a bitch". Well, not only are the graphics finally approximate to mainstream PS3 titles, I was wrong. The control is far from that of a teated dog. In fact, the control is perfectly adequate.
This is it, folks. All this needs is for the mass market to adopt it and for games to start focusing on supporting these peripherals and mobile gaming will shake everything up again. There will always be a place for single-finger swipe games for casual play, but now the tech is there to deliver console-grade gaming like San Andreas, there's a massively exciting emergent platform for core gamers.
With the smartphone market so healthy in terms of competition, I don’t see how Sony or even Nintendo are going to keep up. If I had to make a prediction, I would say once Vita and 3DS have had their day, your next handheld console will be a phone.