Friday, January 06, 2012

The Friday Review: Rock of Ages (XBLA, PSN, PC)

Rock of Ages
 -review by Tesh

One part Monty Python, one part Marble Madness, one part Monkeyball, one part Skee-ball, garnished with light Tower Defense seasoning, Rock of Ages is... weird.  It's a good weird, but it's still... weird.  It's an innovative little beastie, well worth spending some time with; especially if your dream game involves crushing things with giant rocks.  Breaking stuff never gets old.  Funny how we're wired that way.

The Good:
  • You control a big boulder and smash stuff along a zany obstacle-ridden path, ultimately crushing your opponent in person after leveling their fort door.  You crush stuff.  With a big rock.  It's not subtle, but it's fun.
  • Controls are surprisingly tight for driving a big slab of stone.  The titular rock handily ignores many Newtonian rules of rock-rolling and it's relatively easy to roll back uphill if you happened to miss something.
  • Winning seems to hinge on solid steering, good timing, and smart defenses.  I like that all are important, though I'll readily concede that's a matter of taste.
  • Sounds are solid.  The whimsical music feels appropriate and the characters, for all their simplicity, work well.  Smashing stuff and sending bystanders screaming is satisfying.
  • 300, Castlevania, Greek legends, great art and artists... nothing is sacred, and the Greek ancestry of this game runs deep.  It's funny in a twisted sort of way, but never really mean.
  • Falling off of the track doesn't hurt, it just costs time.  Smart call, that.
  • There are shortcuts in some levels that make exploration rewarding.  Sometimes they make it too easy to win, but sometimes that's exactly what you're looking for.
  • Varied alternate boulders make for some fun experimentation.
  • The game's demo is good for getting a feel for the core mechanics.

The Bad:
  • Most forts will take three hits.  It would have been nice to have a bit more variety or fudge room, especially in harder levels... but on the other hand, that does mean bouts are relatively quick.
  • Spatial awareness and camera control are very important.  The automatic camera is decent, but it may take time to get used to controlling the camera and finding your way around some of the occasionally large and convoluted maps.  Thankfully you can invert the camera controls, if you're so inclined, and there are helpful signs to suggest a route to the enemy.
  • Lack of good feedback on the defensive part of the game.  You need to build structures to trip up the other player, but it's not terribly clear how well they actually work, or when they will actually be functional.  You'll get used to it, but that comes with time, not explicit instruction.
  • Those fun alternate boulders typically aren't even necessary, and are too easily broken.
  • The game's demo doesn't really hint at the crazy level design that shows up later.  Don't expect the whole game to be as straightforward as the demo.
The Ugly:
  • Count Vlad Dracula and the personification of Plague.  Blame that on the Medieval artists, though.  The bosses are creepy, too.  On the plus side, that makes smashing them more satisfying.

Fudge or Chitlins?
On the whole I heartily recommend Rock of Ages.  As always there are a few things I'd have done differently (especially feedback in the defensive part of the game), and the humor is a bit juvenile, but the game is original and fun enough for me to have thoroughly enjoyed it.  It tests skills I'm fond of (spatial awareness, planning, exploration, steering) and gives enough control and short enough play sessions that it always feels like I can conquer a level if I play well.  It feels fair, like failures are my fault, not that of bad game design.  That's a Good Thing, and Rock of Ages is a great game.

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