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Spatial Awareness: Critical Mass

Match 3 (well, 4) redemption?

Critical Mass came out t’other day on Steam. It’s a match-four game in which – wait! Don’t go! Well, I never. What a rude young cabal. They just up and clicked away. Whatever. We don’t need them, casual fans. We’ve got this bad boy, a game that is half Rubik’s cube, half Bejeweled, all okay to play even if you are not a stay-at-home-Mum-thank-you-very-much. Read on for some more thoughts.

Critical Mass is okay. Or is it actually quite good? Or just okay again? Hmm. That's the kind of impossible question that Frontier Games Journalists like those on RPS are forced to deal with every day.

Let's talk about what it definitely is, and see if we can make a decision about okayness. It is somewhere between being a relaxing curio and a panicky game of matching colours and chasing achievements. In Classic mode you’re presented with a cube or cubic shape of assorted blocks. You rotate the cube and place new blocks on in an effort to delete as much as possible and finally dissolve the mass into nothing. It’s Tetris with only one shape and no missile silo. All the while the mass grows at a worryingly fast rate, forcing you to make snap judgements about whether you should throw down a block immediately, or spin the shape around and look for a neater fit, possibly wasting time.

After a while you gather a few power ups. The first is a score multiplier, the second slows down time and the third shrinks the mass right down to its original size. You have to save up to use these so if you want to use the Fusion Pulse to shrink the mass, you’ll have to forgo using the Multiplier early on.

It requires a lot more concentration than expected and a steady mouse hand to put blocks precisely where you want them. Rush mode is an even faster paced session, while Survival mode just keeps adding blocks until you can't keep up. All modes are good enough for getting into that warped brain state when you do nothing but sit around hunched over looking like John Prescott, scowling at the screen in constipated puzzlement.

I will survive

And... and... Ah. Turns out there isn’t much more you can say about joining up four or more of the same coloured blocks. I’m totally lost. This is silly. New angle!

Critical Mass is for people with a severe and constant urge to tidy shit up. Just like all matching colour/shape games. Do you want to tidy shit up? Look at your room, house or office desk and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Have I ordered my games and DVDs alphabetically?
2. Is my garden or lounge perfectly geometrically sound?
3. If I was asked to drip chocolate sauce all over my body by an extremely attractive person so that they could lick it off, would I say no on the grounds that it is impossible to squeeze chocolate sauce in directly parallel lines on my chest due to the undulations of the human frame?

If you answered yes to all of these questions then Critical Mass is definitely for you. Even if you only answered yes to one of them, Critical Mass will probably suit you fine and dandy. For everyone of the messy, lackadaisical and unfussy persuasion you will probably just feel like you are playing a really, really tiny version of Minecraft. With really strict rules.

Meditation mode lets you add a limited number of blocks without the added pressure of the shape expanding and going critical. This is a lot more easy-going, a lot more of a patiently thoughtful game. But I have to admit without the timer and without red danger-mist leaking in at the side of the screen when your shape starts to quake and tremble at its own girth, I somewhat lost whatever impetus I had to keep playing and started idly making shapes. I think this one was supposed to be a bunny.

This is Dara. He is the space rabbit. Like Bucky O'Hare, only much more mysterious.

Hi-score fiends won’t get so easily tired. There’s full rankings and a lot of achievements to get stuck into. But like I said, that’s mostly for the non-saucers among us.

For all its compulsive madness Critical Mass isn’t just okay. It functions exactly as it’s meant to and, apart from a bit of frustration whenever you misplace a block because of the rate the shape grows, it manages to avoid ever getting to the point where it feels unfair. So yeah, it’s not just OK. It’s good. It’s certainly good. The biggest issue is whether or not you’ll get more than a few hours out of it if you're going to shell out real tangible cash-dollars for it. It’s close to being as refined as something PopCap would make but it lacks the same crunchy feeling of satisfactory progression in play that pervades their work.

This may have something to do with how difficult it is to work up a combo in any mode but Meditation. You can’t see the inside blocks clearly and a lot of combos just come down to luck. With time and practice maybe this difficulty wears off but if you aren’t hooked the minute you start slapping shapes together it rarely blossoms into a dedication like that towards Bejeweled, where the image of matching shapes ends up invading your every blink.

To conclude: Critical Mass fills a cubic gap between the spatial awareness of toy puzzles and the human obsession with bureaucratically grouping things by colour. It is definitely better than okay. It might even trouble the border of the great Venn diagram of worth between okay and GOOD. You just won’t dream about it when you’re done.

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