There is, in pop and rock music, the much-feared and daunting prospect of the ‘difficult second album’. You see, all bands and artists dream of releasing their debut album to rave reviews, triple-platinum sales and a raft of number one singles. But as wonderful as that sounds, it creates a problem: your fans are going to expect that same level of excellence when you release your follow-up album. Put out another barnstormer and you’ll be set, your position in the rock-god firmament as good as assured. But release a stinker and people will drop you like you’re contagious. Don’t believe us? Ask Alanis Morrisette.
So you can imagine that Nokia and developers RedLynx are anxious at the release of this, the follow-up to the wonderful Pathway to Glory. The original wargame which placed you in command of miniature US military troops combined a wealth of strategic options (using the terrain, vehciles and weapons) strategy with some stunningly atmospheric presentation to deliver the undisputed best game on N-gage bar none. Suffice to say Pathway to Glory: Ikusa Islands has a lot to live up to and it's hardly surprising that the basic winning formula remains unchanged.
Instead the major alteration comes with the setting; where the first game was confined to the murky, muddy brawl that was World War 2 in Europe, Ikusa Islands ships you out to the Pacific theatre. Here you’ll join the American Rangers (gone are the mixed European units) as they respond to Pearl Harbour in the only way they know how: lots of heavy ordnance and island-hopping. It’s certainly a welcome change of scenery; the visuals, if anything, are lusher and more detailed than those in the first game and there’s much more variation. You don’t get the sense that you’re playing on a battlefield where the buildings are the same, just in different places.
As the action shifts from a predominantly urban setting to the jungle of the Pacific islands, the enemy changes, too. Whether it’s an honest attempt on RedLynx’s part to improve the enemy soldiers’ artificial intelligence or simply playing up cultural stereotypes, the Japanese forces you’ll be fighting are much more aggressive. In the first game you could be pretty blasé about your approach and you’d routinely play the aggressor. But here the enemy soldiers swarm at you in greater numbers than they ever did in the first game. In fact, they’re a little too aggressive and, once you get used to it, you can set up some very effective ambushes and defensive actions. Find a solid piece of cover and your small squad of 6 to 8 men can fight off four or five times their number.
This is, in part, thanks to Ikusa Islands’ new weaponry: your troops now have a mortar at their disposal, which is as powerful as a bazooka but with the ability to lob the shells in a high-trajectory arc that’ll clear any cover that the enemy troops might be cowering behind. The Japanese forces aren’t left short-changed, though, as they’ve been gifted a flamethrower, which is positively horrific. Throw in more numerous and bigger tanks and there’s a much wider scope when it comes to implementing your battle plan.
Left unchanged is the way the game plays. You still command a squad of soldiers, each of whom has a set number of action points which can be expended on movement or firing. When you’ve used up these points, your turn ends and the enemy moves and fires; when they finish, it’s your turn again and your surviving soldiers are endowed with a fresh batch of points. Unchanged, too, is the excellent multi-player mode that accompanies the involving and historically-inspired campaign mode. You can play a two-player hotseat game using a single handset or play with up to four using Bluetooth or via the N-Gage Arena. The experience, as before, is sublime, truly showcasing the strengths of the N-Gage.
But if you’ve played through the first Pathway to Glory, you’ll end up feeling like you’ve not really experienced anything new. Great bands continue to grow with their music, challenging the listener and exploring new musical directions. Good bands just come back with more of what they did the first time around, and that’s the impression you’ll get with Ikusa Islands. There’s no denying that it’s the premier title on the N-Gage and we doubt we’ll play anything better the whole year. But it leaves you wondering just what the game might have been like had RedLynx not opted to play it safe. That’s what Ikusa Islands is: safe. Bugaboos like not being able to save a game mid-mission have been fixed and a few new bells and whistles have been added to give it the impression of an all-new game. But there’ll be something niggling at the back of your brain, suggesting that you might have heard this one somewhere before…