We trialled The Grand Mafia and Raid: Shadow Legends to save you time. They are Ponzi schemes that aim to drain your wallets and are NOTHING like the YouTube ads.
If you’re under 30 and use YouTube on your mobile – you will have seen your fair share of fake phone game adverts. Some are garishly madcap and trashy, but others actually threaten you with a good time – like those Mafia ones that promise vicarious living as a 25-year-old Al Pacino. We’ve all considered, if only briefly, actually playing one of these things, but have never been stupid enough to do so – until now.
1. The Grand Mafia (4.3 Stars on the Play Store with 10m+ downloads)
Before we begin, I strongly recommend you watch the following:
If you’ve seen the jib of its promo, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Grand Mafia is a mash-up between Grand Theft Auto and Fable. Its adverts depict numerous scenarios; inner-city streets, prison blocks, or villas, with one constant – a low-level crook or villain getting one over on a bully, levelling up, and accumulating women and riches in equal measures. But for me, it didn’t pass the sniff test – there was no way a mobile game could be as complex as these adverts suggested.
But when I booted up the game, it seemed the too-good-to-be-true proposition was living up to its end of the bargain. I was immediately transplanted into the body of a cool Al Pacino type, and able to pick dialogue in a well rendered 3D cutscene.
Although the dialogue was stilted and boring, the graphical fidelity and the game’s success in exceeding the low bar I had set for it served as adequate compensation.
Then it all got exciting, I was presented with one of the much-vaunted player choices, to kill or not to kill.
I tapped ‘kill’ (obviously). But before my decision could take effect, the screen faded to black and I was torn out of the opening cinematic.
By the time the lights came up, I had lost the body the game had teased me in with. I was a ghost, an isometric camera, looking down with disappointment upon a 2.5D base building game. The opening cutscene transpired to be just that, an opening – with the actual game revealing itself as an isometric pay-to-win strategy game.
Far from giving me choice, as was promised, I was railroaded into doing exactly as the on-screen instructions demanded. A floating arrow directed me to one menial task after another, to construct this building and that and them level them up.
After enough of the game’s demands were satisfied and I had trained the requisite number of ‘gangsters’ I was tasked to muscle a gym owner out of his livelihood, and then occupy his premises in order to train more ‘gangsters’.
There was nothing that this game did that your average 2001 strategy game didn’t, but better. With my bored-o-meter approaching maximum, I quit the tedium.
2. Raid: Shadow Legends (4.6 stars on the Play Store with 10m+ downloads)
Before we begin, I strongly recommend you watch maybe four or five seconds of the following (and no more):
Raid is a favourite of in-video YouTube sponsorships because of the purportedly large fees they dole out to content creators. It’s showcased as a role-playing game in which you lead a party of heroes into battle against monstrous enemies. In the main that’s true. Like The Grand Mafia, it started out with a rich 3D cinematic that soon melted away to reveal the actual game.
The real thing sees you engaging in turn-based combat and looting, to collect resources in order to build your base. After completing three levels, which all re-used the exact same map, I was ready to follow the diktats of yet another floating arrow telling me to upgrade things. But to my surprise, I was met with a pop-up asking me to spend £25.99 on some digital jewellery and coins, which I could use to upgrade my base, which would enhance my party, so I could get more resources to build my base. I thought it was a bit forward to try and charge me this sum just for showing a bit of leg, and decided to dump it and protect my dignity.
3. Penny and Flo Finding Home (4.5 stars on the Play Store with 10m+ downloads)
Watch the bizarre, depressing ad for Penny and Flo Finding Home before we start:
Penny and Flo Finding Home boasts a few mind-boggling adverts. My favourite, which seems to have been scrubbed from the internet, sees Penny’s unattended child meet an untimely demise in a washing machine, only for the mother to have to face the tribulations of redecorating the baby’s bedroom.
So, it was like the Sims if it was made by Terry Gilliam, as far as could be divined. But I loaded it up and lo and behold – another base building game. But there was a twist, in-between constructing my outdoor wedding venue I was sucked into puzzles, which I’d have to complete in order to earn cash to pay for the cakes and shrubbery. It wasn’t obvious to me who was paying for me to complete puzzles or why – but I found comfort in the belief that my benefactor was the Saw franchise’s Jigsaw, who had found new purpose in more benign forms of play.
I managed to complete enough puzzles to set out my chairs, arrange the flora, buy a cake and sort a few other bits, and by then had had enough.
4. Puzzle Breakers RPG Online (4.2 Stars on the Play Store with 500k+ downloads)
Do yourself a favour and watch the advert for this game (it’s a ‘YouTube Short’ so it can’t be embedded). It’s ten times better than the actual thing, which manages to be marginally interesting for about three minutes. Puzzle Breakers again features base building – only pattern recognition experts will see the trend here.
To gather up resources you’ll fight monsters, who you have to defeat in a puzzle game which is probably a clone of Candy Crush – I have no idea because I’ve never played Candy Crush but I would be shocked to the core if the developers managed to make a proprietary puzzle this good.
Once you’ve played one puzzle, you’ve played them all, and they never got better after the first – like they say about heroin, except Puzzle Breakers RPG Online is neither enjoyable or addictive.
5. Land of Empires: Immortal (4.5 Stars on the Play Store with 1m+ downloads)
Another base building game with those infernal tutorial arrows that force you to do very specific tasks. You’re obliged to obey a straightjacket tutorial, if you want to make any progress. Presumably the game hopes that anyone whose brain hasn’t melted by the tutorial’s end will be demoralised enough to cough up for some microtransactions. There was no way I was building another base. Next!
6. Evony: The King’s Return (4.6 stars on the Play Store with 100m+ downloads)
Evony is advertised as a puzzle game. The adverts usually feature our hero, a damsel, a monster, some traps, and a chest of gold. Typically, a moron is at the seat of the controls, to invoke that The Apprentice ‘I could do better response’, and force us into an instinctive hate-download.
I can report that there are puzzles in the game, though they are much clunkier than in the ads, they do exist. However, they are used to…collect resources in order to build your base.
When I opened the game, I was invited to ‘choose a culture’. Quite why I needed one to interface with a basic puzzle I wasn’t sure, but I chose to play as a European which would boost my mounted troop attack by 5%. I would never find out the utility of this bonus because at the sight of the first floating arrow I was out.
7. Rise of Kingdoms: Lost Crusade (4.2 stars on the Play Store with 50m+ downloads)
Watch the ad if you can stomach it:
Kingdoms is a bootleg version of Age of Empires Online. Unlike the other base builders, it outwardly presents as a strategy game. So at least it has honesty going for it.
However, there is nothing that this game does that the previous six didn’t do slightly better, which is damning, since they were awful.
8. Street Racing 3D (4.2 Stars on the Play Store with 50m+ downloads)
I hadn’t intended to only play isometric pay-to-win strategy games. But every time I pressed that download button it was to pull the mask off of a Scooby Doo Villain to reveal the same bad guy behind it all.
So, I confess I didn’t come across Street Racing 3D by way of an advert, more just a desperate search of the Play Store to see if an actual game existed on the platform.
The game only had one input – tilting the screen to steer – with the gears, acceleration and breaking all taking care of themselves. The racing, the actual gameplay, was bookended by adverts, which were all for – you guessed it – base building games. My favourite was Rise of Empires, whose hutzpah has to be respected – they just straight up used footage from Age of Empires 2.
I had come here to escape the base building meta, but they had followed me. I had no choice but to leave the game to exorcise them.
9. War and Order (3.4 Stars on the Play Store with 1m+ downloads)
War and Order makes similar promises to the Grand Mafia. Its adverts look more like a medieval fantasy RPG than the doldrum that is exposed once you boot it up – which is to say, it’s another 2.5D base builder. But there is a twist – in this game you have to complete a tower defence minigame to increase your resources, a mode that somehow manages to be worse than its 2004 Java antecedents.
It then had the audacity to try and flog me some virtual diamonds, which must have been good value because they were discounted from £178.89 to £3.09.
10. Gun Head Run (3.4 Stars on the Play Store with 1m+ downloads)
Gun Head Run is one of many games within the popular ‘Move forward in a straight line while crossing zones that will further enable you to travel in a straight-line genre’. These games tend to be advertised with raw gameplay, with the operator performing obnoxiously badly. But it sparks an intrigue because the upgrade options do actually seem a little bit exciting – the ability to recruit more troops and get bigger guns is a staple of the genre – and the advert’s refusal to show us the full monty gets our imagination ticking.
But like Street Racing 3D, every level, each of which lasted about 20 seconds, was bookended with adverts. For every minute of actually playing the game, half or more was spent watching an advert for another. On a scale of 1 through 10 I would give this a 2, decreasing to minus 10 when accounting for the intrusive advertisements.
After playing the above games, and a few more not even worth mentioning, I wondered if I had really played any games at all. In order to pontificate further I had to ask Google what a game actually is, which it defined as:
1. an activity that one engages in for amusement or fun.
2. a complete episode or period of play, ending in a final result.
3. (videogame) a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display.
In my time of playing, there was little to no amusement of fun. There was no final result, other than in the sense that all things are finite – these games had no discernible end, rather they just went on and on. Why should they have a final result when their reason for being is to sell you microtransactions and keep you ‘playing’? And I hardly manipulated images, with most of the games I was carrying out pre-ordained orders to bring about pre-rendered visual results.
These games are just thin straps of code wrapped around Ponzi schemes. They either want to strip you of your cash for pointless virtual currencies, or make money by hosting ads that point you toward those sinks – which are funded by people dumb enough to fund the former. This in the end is why these games are worse than stuff I played on the Nokia N Gage, or on my Windows 98, they aren’t games in any sense of the word – they are specimens of digital trash that prey on children and idiots. If you see a mobile game advertised on YouTube, understand it as a kitemark of these characteristics.
If you do want to play a mobile game, first of all don’t, but secondly, there are a couple of options out there. The first is ‘Chess’. I had a go on this and found it an engaging turn-based PvP game. The second is Call of Duty Mobile, which has all the functionality of Warzone and more, and wherein you can shoot down the spend-heavy, pay-to-win players like hydrogen zeppelins – if you’re good enough.