We put Google's newest tablet through its paces. Is it a viable gaming platform?
By James Pinnell on July 31, 2012 at 12:39 pm
Without a doubt, there is no better way to enjoy playing Android games than on a Nexus 7.
This probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many, especially those who have been following the release of Google’s flagship device, when you take a look at its specs. Its 7″ form factor may seem small when compared to an iPad or an Asus Transformer Prime, but the 1280×800 IPS display, 1GB RAM and incredibly beefy quad-core Tegra 3 processor just propels it onto the front line. But it’s not just what’s under the hood that makes it an impressive gaming device.
At 340g, it’s much less bulky and easier to wield in one or two hands, with the distance between your thumbs wide enough to avoid that irritating screen block that comes with touch screen controls. As a result, it’s much more compatible to something like a Sony Vita (although with a much larger, wider and more detailed screen), where you hold it horizontally and grip it on either side, than the awkward one hand hold, one hand tap system that you find with bigger form factors.
Including a Tegra 3 was not an accident: although there are many other (cheaper) mobile processors available, the Tegra is the only one that has been fully primed for gaming. Developed by NVIDIA, they also provide intensive support to developers who are planning to make games for devices that include it. This has resulted in some stunning games, including Shadowgun and Dead Trigger. Dead Trigger in particular was somewhat of a showcase for Tegra 3, and it shows – the game looks, runs and sounds amazing.
The Nexus is also a “Pure Google” experience, meaning that what you receive out of the box is the most lean, recent and cutting edge rendition of the Android experience. Improvements made via the recent 4.1 upgrade provide a much tighter connection between the OS and the hardware, properly utilizing the power of the various processors to heavily reduce lag when using multiple fingers or scrolling between windows. This also translates, obviously, to significantly more reliable screen response to touch controls.
Not only that, but all future updates will come down straight from Google, keeping the Nexus free from the delays, bugs and stodgy bloatware that tends to plague most Android hardware. Thankfully, one of the strengths of the operating system is its ability to scale up (or down), meaning games that were developed for earlier OS’s (or newer ones) tend to work on almost every device, and will usually support almost every form factor, including the relatively new 7′.
So, now that we know the tablet is ready for gaming, is there anything worth playing? While the Google Play store has indeed suffered initially from a dearth of decent games, well known developers like Square Enix, EA, Capcom, and Sega are now producing titles for the platform, alongside mobile and indie stalwarts like Gameloft, Zynga, Kairosoft, Halfbrick, Mojang and, of course, Rovio. While many games still tend to be ports from iOS, there are more and more titles (like the above mentioned Tegra titles) that are exclusive or designed specifically for Android.
The only problem, however, is finding the titles that are optimized for the Nexus’s superior graphics capabilities. The Play store does a reasonably good job at telling you what is and is not currently compatible with your device, but it won’t let you know if there is an better version available. Unlike the App Store, there are usually various versions (up to 3 or 4 in some cases) of each app, depending on what graphics package or group of hardware is has been designed to support. The rule of thumb is that games with “THD” in their title are Tegra based titles, and have been optimized to run at the highest graphics settings available.
On the plus side, every app is universal, meaning that once you do buy a game, it will work on any Android device registered to your account, hardware willing. So if you buy yourself a Samsung Galaxy S3 to accompany your Nexus 7, any game you buy will translate across. While this is becoming the norm on the App Store too, many iPad versions of games (especially from Japanese developers, for some reason) require separate purchases for each device that you have on your account. As long as the specifications are sound, mind you.
Being the FPS tragic that I am, I originally found the afore mentioned Shadowrun via a quick search on the TegraZone app (essentially a list of all the Tegra optimised games on the store), an impressive looking Gears of War style (3rd person) shooter. $5 and a short download later, I was navigating my burly generic space marine through a facility full of angry brutes, mechs and robot spider bombs. The controls, being touch based as is the norm for mobile, were scaled well for the tablet and removed the annoying screen block that usually occurs when you’re attempting to navigate and shoot at the same time.
The game is actually a lot of fun, has a reasonably interesting story and enough difficulty and challenge to compete with any other futuristic space romp. But if your thumbs are a little bigger than mine, Android offers a host of various apps that allow USB or Bluetooth controllers to be connected to the tablet, meaning that touch controls are no longer taking up any screenspace. Prop your tablet against a book and you’ve got your own little console, complete with a PS3 controller providing a much more accurate control scheme.
Dead Trigger, a “kind of” freemium FPS from the same studio (there is a 99c barrier to entry), is a pretty entertaining Zombie based survival game with an interesting mission system and a set of great weapons. Unfortunately, the business model rears its ugly head quite early on, when the game strips you of your assault rifle and drops a pistol in its place while drastically upping the difficulty. The solution? Grind your way through extraordinarily difficult battles or simply drop some more cash for a better weapon. It’s a shame too, the game looks, sounds and runs beautifully, especially on the Nexus. I first played the title on my iPhone but it’s (obviously) significantly more enjoyable on a larger screen.
The early success of the Nexus 7 (Google has yet to release numbers, but the device is selling out everywhere), is a boon for Android as a platform and the legion of dedicated developers that support it. The introduction of a viable base model for tablet based games and apps will significantly raise both the number and the quality of these titles and provide a promising future for mobile gaming, not to mention other applications that have struggled to find markets thanks to a reasonably fractured and erratic set of devices.
It’s really a no brainer if you are looking for a smaller tablet to game on; while the iPad still dominates the tablet market, the 10′ form factor is just way too large for portable gaming. There are currently thousands of great games, from casual classics like Angry Birds and Cut The Rope, Racers like Race Of Champions, Asphalt 6 and Reckless Racing to JRPGs including Final Fantasy III and the fantastic Zenonia series. Better yet, there are usually free, full featured versions of many of the more popular titles, with only a tiny (usually) unobtrusive ad to accompany it. All in all, the tablet is a steal for the price, and the $25 of included credit is enough to keep you occupied for months.