The latest in battling entropy, Imangi Studios’ Harbor Master is quickly climbing the app store charts. Each level is a cargo port and you must guide boats of varying size and cargo-bearing heft into dock then safely out to sea again once unloaded. With only a few docks per stage and plenty of incoming traffic the challenge comes on fast, and the added task of having to get the ships back off the screen is an excellent way to raise the gaming bar.
See there, I made it through the intro paragraph without bringing up the glaringly obvious: Harbor Master bears more than a passing resemblance to Flight Control. Before you dismiss something that has on some level been done before, ask yourself this: How many sandbox or FPS games do you own? Alright then, moving along. Harbor Control – er, Harbor Master – is no “better” than Flight Control, and no worse. It is, in fact, a different game carving out its own oceanic turf within a Flight Control-y genre.
Controls are clean: touch a ship and drag to draw the boat’s path. Once all cargo is unloaded, redirect the ship to safety off the screen. The simple controls are key to the game’s addictive draw. Navigation on its own is so simple that it in no way frustrates the challenge of managing so many vessels. The larger the ship, the more cargo it has and the slower it moves. That means that the largest ship with four cargo blocks takes up the most time at a dock, but it also increases your score by four. Yes, score is cargo-based, so while the tiny ships are easier to manage the bulky carriers have bigger pay-off (aside from getting their hulking size off the screen and out of your way).
Currently there are four different harbors, or levels, though when you begin the game only one is unlocked. Unloading a steady flow of cargo will allow you to advance to the other stages. Each level offers its own challenges, like a reappearing cyclone that will throw your ships off course. In most levels it does not matter which docks you bring ships into, though the Sturgeon Creek stage introduces color assignments with two purple ports and two orange. The start screen for each harbor shows the number of shifts you’ve worked there (or the number of times you’ve tackled a level), and other stats like your best shift and the average for all your shifts.
Harbor Master introduces an enemy – other than sheer chaos – in Cannon Beach: pirates. Those wily ruffians will try to seize your cargo and send your empty ships to Davy Jones’ Locker, so you must quickly eliminate them. Two blasts does the trick, just touch the canon at the bottom center of the screen, drag to the desired target and let ‘er rip. Handily enough your ships are impervious to friendly fire.
When you’re getting blasted with speedy single cargo vessels it starts to seem like somebody is out to get you. Luckily, there are no fuel concerns and you can employ any means necessary to keep ships at bay while others dock, including my personal favorite: the endless spiral. Additionally, collisions are all boat-on-boat, and you don’t need to worry about driving boats into the dock. A drawn path is a bold white line, red if the line does not take the ship to port or completely out of harbor. A flashing arrow around the perimeter of the screen indicates an incoming ship. Once unloaded, ships remain docked until you direct them out of port and when you do they follow a basic trajectory: point a boat in the right direction and it will find its way out to sea.
There are affirmative message at the close of a round complimenting your “shift” and letting you know if you bested your high score. You can enter your e-mail address and a username into the app allowing your scores to be posted to the global leader boards. Online leader boards track your best scores, the average score in each harbor and the total amount of cargo unloaded – which really only serves to show how out of hand your Harbor Master addiction has become. Those of us fond of sharing can create additional player files and settings. “Achievements” as they use them here are a bit of a misnomer within our new gamer understanding of the word. “Work History” would have served just as well, but the choice of “achievements” creates an expectation that is as yet unfulfilled.
Graphics are as crisp and clean as the great blue deep and I love the menus (though the portly green fellow scares me a little). The sound is quirky like a tinny jack-in-the-box and while you can play your own music I prefer the personality the carnival style tunes bring to port. Punctuating the cries of seagulls are the ships themselves which come equipped with their own distinct horns that sound off when they are close to bumping life rafts, and when a ship’s cargo is successfully deposited you are rewarded with a satisfying oven-timer “ding”. Time from app launch to first level is a matter of seconds, and this lack of painful load times is always great in a mobile game. Also essential to mobility is pause, which gives you a still shot of what is happening onscreen so you can dive right back in.
A “just one more round” style game, Harbor Master offers both the longevity of true addiction and the kind of gameplay easily broken into mobile segments. With all the sheen of a highly polished title, excellent controls and plenty of challenging gameplay it’s more than worthy of its .99 cent price. Actually, it’s such a fantastic addition to my iPhone maybe I ought to send Imangi some kind of bonus? Ship-shape cookies headed your way, guys.