We've seen ad-funded games before, in Nokia's own MOSH Sponsored Games, but these are of higher quality and greater currency, even if they're not quite up to cutting edge titles from the really big mobile game publishers.
As with Nokia's MOSH effort, the idea is that you are forced to click through a couple of static image advertisements before and after each game session. The game 'in the middle' is totally free, but unless you're guaranteed to be on Wi-Fi or flat rate data, then there may be data charges to take into account because the ads themselves are loaded from the 123play.com servers. One ray of light is that the ads seem to be cached, so you don't have to keep paying and waiting for the same ads over and over again.
Having picked a game online, you're sent an SMS link for download - the system works well, although choose Wi-Fi for fastest loading and no extra data charges. Note that not all games are S60-compatible, despite being Java.
In use, the ads themselves are no problem, but their loading screens are a pain. Having clicked on a game's icon, to sometimes have to wait over fifteen seconds before seeing the first ad seems. You could argue that you're getting something for nothing, but in cases where you're having to pay for the ad's bytes at your 3G data tariff then you're talking about double frustration. You can't just refuse the network connection, by the way, the game shell detects this and won't run the content 8-)
Some typical advert screens. You have to doubt whether anyone will actually ever click on them though, except by accident (the 'Click to browse' option is sometimes highlighted - maybe to catch people out?)
BUT - what of the games themselves? Here's a selection of the current top 123play.com titles, picked at random. Note that not all the titles on the site are compatible with S60 smartphones, rather strangely - you'd have thought that the likes of the N95 could have handled anything.... Ah well.
It's night-time hot hatch racing and there's nothing wrong with the frame rate here, for a Java title. The action gradually ramps up, with different cars and city circuits, but you'll probably get tired of the MIDI-style soundtrack fairly early on. Subtleties like car control into and out of tricky corners need to be mastered if you want to win big in the end. 75%
Office Games Challenge
I had this awful feeling that this was going to be a completely clunker and I was right. This title is all about trivial mini-games like nose-picking, catching sheets of fax paper and (my favourite, though it's not saying much) card flicking. It's a jolly good thing this game is free because, in all honesty, noone in their right mind would ever pay for it. 35%
A clone of the same title on other platforms, Cake Mania is all about formulaic cake baking to satisfy customer orders. The sprites are all a bit small and there's little atmosphere, but the puzzle/simulation element means that the action gets busier as time goes on. Most people will still find it tedious though. Save this for your pre-teen daughter. I did. 58%
Note that the main game screen refused to be captured by Screenshot - ah well - you can try it for yourself...
Although the car racing games seem to run at good speeds under Java, it seems that the physics of pool balls is just all too much for the runtime - shot animation with a full table is painfully, eye-pokingly slow, down to almost a frame per second. (That's a frame of animation, not a frame of pool!). I'm sure the AI is OK, the interface fairly well thought out and the atmosphere adequate, but with performance like this, the game is a complete non-starter. Virtual Pool Mobile, a native S60 game, is several orders of magnitude better, no matter how much you have to pay. 34%
Aha. Pinball should be a good match for Java, with only one ball's physics to worry about. And indeed, 80's Pinball plays surprisingly well. Compared to N-Gage's Mile High Pinball, the single table is very limited indeed, but for a quick pick-up-and-play then this fits the bill - it's just a shame about the time added by all the ad screens. This is a title I'll probably buy for a few quid standalone in order to get quicker access. 72%
MACH Air Combat
Not surpisingly, this isn't a full flight simulator. It's a plane-based arcade racer/shoot 'em up. Hacking around aerial courses (trying to get through rings in the sky) with fellow competitors to both beat and err... shoot sounds like a recipe for fun - and it is. At first, the complexity of what you need to keep track of is a bit overwhelming, but you soon get the idea and MACH Air Combat moves fast enough to stay involving at all times. 76%
Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 29 May 2008