Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Simple is as simple does.
The Long Version: I don't normally enjoy losing. My favourite computer games are all single-player turn-based strategy games in which I can overcome minor obstacles on my way to eventual victory. Call me simple, but these games can keep me amused and entertained for decades.
Pocket Tanks (iTunes free/deluxe) has a combination of quirky gameplay, unpredictability, and humour that actually makes it almost as much fun to lose as it is to win. I used to play it on my old Mac computers, but now I have it on my iPad, and play it daily.
Pocket Tanks is a fairly simple 2D artillery game. Two tanks, with very limited movement, lob munitions back and forth at each other. But yet beneath that simple concept lies strategy, humour, and dare I say it, Art.
I usually choose a single-player game. The difficulty level of the CPU opponent can be set from 1 to 10. Higher levels have better aim and sometimes make better decisions, but my biggest predictor of success is simply how much attention I pay to what happens in the game.
The weapons are, well, a little unconventional. I'll look at a few in more detail later, but I need to note upfront that I've bought a lot of the expansion packs. They're $1 for 15 new weapons, and considering their entertainment value, are an excellent way to keep the game engaging for hours and hours.
Do people still say "terraforming"? Pocket Tanks was first released in 2001; fortunately it hasn't had the charm modernized out of it, and stays true to its original look.
The entire playing area is contained in one screen. There are four types of landscape: hill, valley, cliff, and flats. I prefer to have the terrain chosen randomly for each game.
Wind is another possible variable. It can be zero or vary by game, volley, or change with each shot. The CPU opponent – do people still say CPU? – won't be thrown off by it, but it adds variety for us humans.
Your tank has four controls to work with. Pocket Tanks is a shooting game, not a maneuvering one, so this keeps gameplay straightforward.
Munitions that leave the left and right edge of the screen are out of play, while munitions that leave through the top can arc back in again. Parking your tank against the edge of the screen gives a tactical advantage, but is seriously uncool. Don't do it.
I usually set my firing angle first and change it only when absolutely necessary. I like being at 75 degrees, since that will clear almost any terrain, but will go higher or lower depending on the wind.
Sometimes it's better to fire in a straight line instead of ballistically, and standard touch-screen control gestures can be used to manipulate the display for precise aim.
Power levels are what I usually adjust to fine-tune my aim. Explosion kick and shifting terrain means small tweaks from shot to shot, plus some munitions do better when they're fired long or short.
Finally I'll select the weapon to use. For the first volley I like things like Tracers which show exactly how I need to adjust my aim, or something that's guided or has a decent a blast radius as I dial in the range. More precise hits come later.
Weapons that need line-of-sight, like the freeze ray or laser, should be used as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Clear shots don't often last for many rounds.
While Pocket Tanks is a simple game, there are a lot of little things that make a difference. It's best to use the Super Star when there's a lot of terrain under your opponent, and choosing where it hits can extend how long it's able to cause damage.
Some weapons don't cause any damage at all, but create dirt piles, craters, walls, or surfaces that change how other munitions behave. The Funnel in particular concentrates splash damage, which can be devastating.
The Plasma Orb is one of those things that makes Pocket Tanks so much fun. It lifts and encases the tank, assuming that the shot hits, and does damage exactly the way it should. And now the tank is locked in, so that's a problem to solve.
Some munitions can travel through obstacles, and others will blow them up. Others will do neither, but sometimes there's no choice but to take a bad shot. The good news is that it's imposible to go below a zero score.
Being buried isn't always a bad thing. I like to hold on to weapons that can fire through obstacles, letting me stay covered and protected from most weapons. That way my opponent needs to waste their explosives digging me out instead of having to inflict more damage by doing it myself.
Not that taking damage is any guarantee of moving enough dirt to excavate oneself. There are specialty digger munitions designed for these occasions.
Many weapons do different amounts of damage depending on how they're used. Popcorn and Burnt Popcorn do splash damage, and are best in confined places where the chain reactions can continue. There's also the Hot Potato, which does best after a couple of bounces.
Quad Missiles need room to expand and find their target. Other weapons need space to bounce, dig, or hover. UFOs have even been known to crash into mountainsides.
The Paddle Ball does exactly what it sounds like, with particularly amusing results, but how it lands affects its effectiveness.
The Chaos Grenade is in a category all on its own, and frequently manages to do no damage at all to its target while dramatically rearranging the map.
Torpedoes can fly through the air or tunnel through terrain, and will hit tanks that are buried. This creates a large crater with water for extra damage.
These are very useful weapons because they can be launched even when the tank is buried without self-inflicted damage, and pack a lot of power.
The tunnels that torpedoes create remain open, giving a chance to use line-of-sight weapons.
Cannon balls can also roll down tunnels, as can some of the 'bot' weapons.
The Bouncy Shelter can be effective against opponents with bad aim, but against ones with good aim they're just self-inflicted Funnels.
Avalanche, Napalm and Nitrogen all do much more damage to a tank that's in a depression than to one that's on top of a peak.
Properly placed, an Island can be confounding.
Potholes does a lot of damage across a large area, making it ideal as a ranging shot or against a lightly buried opponent.
A number of weapons will also scramble the fire-control settings. This never makes the CPU opponent more likely to miss a shot, but will punish people who aren't paying attention.
After ten shots each the game is over.
If I beat my opponent by more than 500 points I reward myself by spending $1 on a new weapon expansion pack.
Other games have closer scores, and of course ties are possible as well.
Playing again uses the same opponent level and colour, but generates a new terrain layout and weapons selection. Saying no returns you to the main screen.
Love the 2001-2013 copyright dates. Pocket Tanks predates the iPod by three years; playing it on an iPad means using it on a platform radically different from what was possible when it first came out. The game is a perfect fit for the iPad, but while it's playable on the iPhone, it suffers on the small screen.
The options screen is where you go to turn off the music.
(I probably should have opened with this image.)
The game settings include the amount of kick from explosions and how large the craters will be, which I prefer to keep low for the sake of easier aiming. Wind speeds and variability can make the game much more difficult for people, but don't hinder the CPU opponents.
Weapons Selection lets specific weapons to be included or excluded from play. Sadly there's no way to create sets or groupings that the game will remember, which would really, really improve long-term playability and provide additional interest.
The expansion packs are available an in-game purchase. This is a way to turn a cheap game into an expensive one, but their occasional addition will spark things up.
After buying an expansion pack I'll use the Target Practice mode to see what the new toys do. This infinite play mode gives each tank unlimited movement and access to all of the weapons.
Two-player mode is the traditional hotseat method, while wifi lobby allows two players connected to the same Wi-Fi network to play on different devices.
Online play is an interesting option, but there's a lot of waiting involved. I'll often have several games on the go at once, but even still, I'll often have plenty of time to check twitter or read a book between rounds. This means that I usually forget how I need to adjust my aim from shot to shot.
There's a replay option to see what happened, including the ability to step back through several volleys, but it doesn't show what settings were used. Each player has access to their own expansion pack weapons, so expect to have a few unfamiliar munitions thrown your way.
Playing against human opponents is very different from the CPU, but there's no ability to communicate with your opponent.
I name my single-player tank "Howie" – short for Howitzer – but wasn't quick enough to snag it as an online name. So I play as HowieDewing, and feel free to add me as a friend for future matches.
Quirky, clever, and fundamentally simple, Pocket Tanks is a classic artillery game that has stood the test of time. It's easy to play badly and hard to play perfectly, but getting things wrong is a big part of the fun. I genuinely don't mind losing, even though winning still has its charm.
last updated 3 jan 2014