Very few games can pull off being utterly bizarre and completely satisfying in the same step. Chile based ACE Team has now managed to do this twice. First in 2009 with the unfathomable Zeno Clash, and now with Rock of Ages, a game that is almost as hard to describe as it is ridiculously fun. Did I also mention that it was weird? Like totally off its rocker? But in a good way.
Immediately after loading the game, I got a sense that I was about to partake in something special that nobody in their rational mind would have ever thought of, except maybe the guys from Monty Python. Apparently a few Chilean’s enjoy dry British humor as much as I do, as the cut-out style graphics pay homage the cartoon sequences in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The game is also chock full of similar, often clever, toilet humor.
The similarities between the game and movie abruplty end there. You are Sisyphus and spend each day under the gaze of Cronos, the master of time, who makes you push a boulder uphill only to have your ass poked by a pitchfork-weilding demon while the boulder rolls back to the bottom. This happens day after day until Sisyphus decides he has had enough, and uses his trusty boulder to smash a hole in Cronos’ lair and escape. From there it’s a heyday of ransacking and castle wrecking as you work your way through ancient Greece, Rome, Romania and other parts of Europe in order to finance your retirement.
Wrecking castles is pretty straightforward: once your boulder is built, you maneuver it across the playfield, either avoiding or smashing obstacles in your way until you reach the end and smash into the castle door. Your boulder can jump, so it’s easy to avoid obstacles like catapults and towers and will spare you damage, but it will slow you down. Hit too many towers and your boulder will quickly crack and crumble, and ultimately fall apart forcing you to sit around while another is built. It’s not all waiting when the boulder is being constructed, however. The second aspect of the game is a minimalistic tower defense system, where you can construct obstacles of your own to protect your precious castle gates from enemy boulders. Light colored tiles on the strategic view show where you can place units, which include high-powered fans to blow the enemy off the edge and tall stone towers to deny certain routes. These units all cost money, of course, and the only way to get it (besides the money generating units you get later) is to smash stuff with your boulder. It’s a neat balance of avoidance, quick thinking and total mayhem. The strategic view isn’t described well in the tutorial levels and it took me a while to figure out exactly what the hell I was looking at. I wasn’t sure if I was looking at the path I would be taking, the enemies path or even if it was my own castle I was seeing. I eventually got the hang of it, but it took some practice.
In addition to the numerous unit improvements received almost every level, you can activate specific boulder-related power ups as you progress. There are four power ups in all: an iron spike ring that surrounds the ball allowing it to take more damage, a fire coating that causes great damage to enemy units, a petroleum coating that blacks out enemy construction tiles and an angelic halo that allows one double jump. These upgrades can be used once a level each and require money to activate. So if you mis-time that second jump or douse your fiery boulder with water, you’re out of luck and hard earned cash.
As I mentioned before, the game is quite funny. In the first couple levels you’ll square off against some of history’s toughest cookies, including Agamemnon and Leonidas’ 300 Spartans. Gandalf the Grey even makes an appearance, only to get squashed by Sisyphus’ dopey-faced boulder. There’s a ton of historical and cultural references in the quick animated scenes between levels, and when you’re not laughing your ass off, you’ll probably be on Wikipedia trying to figure out why the corpulent, fig-leaf wearing hedonist just ate all those people. It’s funny enough that you might find yourself playing through the games 23 levels more than once just to watch the goofy animations one more time.
The game is fairly short overall, and the humor can only carry it so far. There aren’t even any difficulty settings to make the game more challenging. I found the game to be almost too easy and only lost one match due to my own stupidity in planning and general retardation. The boss challenges that take place every four or so levels are similarly easy and have no real sense of danger. Bosses themselves are spectacular to look at and incredibly detailed (especially the final boss), but not once did I feel like I might lose to the giant fire-breathing dragon or the animatronic statue of David, replete with rocket launcher abdomen. You’ll most likely squeeze out around three to four hours in a single player story if you breeze through it, and then you can spend some time charging up the leaderboards in the Time Trials. Fun, but only for so long. But then there are the multiplayer modes.
There are two options for multiplayer: War and Skeeboulder. War is just the normal game with a human opponent controling the opposing castle instead of a computer. Skeeboulder is the Rock of Ages take on the ever popular arcade staple, skeeball. In this mode you race down one of a dozen or so retooled game levels, smashing targets along the way to rack up points before coming to the bumper that pops your boulder up in the air and into one of seven multiplyer holes. Skeeboulder sounds fantastic and I can imagine frenetic battles as you race down the track, snagging targets and trying to bump your opponent off course as you sail into the highest multiplier bucket. Unfortunately, I was only able to witness the single player practice, since the online matchmaking, as of now, is completely screwed. I couldn’t find one person in several hours of attempting to hook up for the chance of eternal boulder glory. I hear there’s a patch down the pipeline, and that can’t come fast enough, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s odd. It’s fun. It’s innovative. It’s only 10 bucks or 800 Microsoft points. It’s worth it.
The Good: Imaginitive game design and graphics; quirky orchestral score.
The Bad: Very short at 23 levels, and with no difficulty settings, single-player has little replay value.
The Ugly: Fix the online matchmaking! I wanna bust some rocks like I’m in a 1912 state prison!