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Verdict: The Ball

The Ball is released today, via Steam. Jim and John have been playing it for the last couple of days, leaving them no choice but to have a chit-chat about it all. Which you can read below. Warning: contains monkey death.

Jim: Ok, so The Ball. It's an Unreal mod turned full on game. It did well in the Make Something Unreal competition, and subsequently has been sucked into the mod-to-game machine that is Tripwire. It's got a ball in. A big shiny one.

John: Do you prefer spheres or cubes?

Jim: Cubes actually, but I can see that spheres are very contemporary, what with Rock Of Ages and so on.

John: Balls are all the rage. As is mining. Most games are about mining these days, and this is no exception.

Jim: Mine Of Ballcraft will be amazing. (There is no mining as such in The Ball, it is set in a mine, that is a temple.)

John: I like to think that The Ball is the true story of the Chilian miners. You're trapped down a shaft, and the new crane doesn't arrive for ages. So you go for an explore instead. And there's this big ball!

Jim: Aztec Companion Ball, I call it.

John: I found its unpleasant appearance to make it no companion at all. The Weighted Companion Cube has hearts on it. The Ball has skulls on it.

Jim: The Ball is a tough guy, it's true, but I began to feel concern when I was separated from him.

John: I did like that he would come rolling to you from no matter how far away. So long as there wasn't a confusing corner in the way. So yes, you control it with a mad hammer gun, which also has a horrid skull on it. Left click to hammer it away from you, and right click to call it back home.

Jim: And you can take it for a walk by holding right click, as if it's on some kind of magneto-leash. At which point it becomes translucent, so you can see where you are going. It's quite literally a magic ball. But what is it for?

John: I know the answer to that, because you find out at the end of the game.

Jim: Interesting. Don't spoil it! Well, I haven't got that far. I am several hours in.

John: It's the lost marble of the Great God Xiriqui. That's a spoiler.

Jim: How long is the full game?

John: I would say it's about infinity long. At least six hours. But it feels like it's coming to an end for the whole second half, each new level larger and more climactic-feeling than the last.

Jim: So we should explain a bit about how that works. While it's a first-person Unreal engine game, it's not a shooter, even though there are undead things and dinosaur-men and stuff.

John: And gorillas.

Jim: You use the ball to complete a series of puzzles. Are they really puzzles? More like mechanisms. Mechanisms that happen to be puzzling.

John: Sort of puzzles. In the last few levels it suddenly gets way more puzzly.

Jim: Initially the temple of sort of puzzles didn't seem very interesting, but it does throw some really ingenious stuff in there as you progress.

John: The first couple of hours are BORING.

Jim: I think for about an hour I was thinking "this is slow" but it gets better.

John: Like, extra boring with a side of boring, and a large flagon of boring to drink. It's a horrible, horrible start.

Jim: It feels a bit like they were being too cautious about people not understanding how the Ball's various systems worked.

John: Which is all blindingly obvious.

Jim: It's a ball, it can smash things that can be broke, and it can tow stuff with a rope. That's about it, I think, but it's all tied into other systems, like magnets and water levels.

John: It can also do magnet bubbles, which are by far the best bits.

Jim: I like the bit where it plugged a hole and the water rose.

John: I liked when you made a trail of oil with the Ball, then set it on fire. It gains loads more powers toward the end.

Jim: Which seems like a failure of pacing, I could have done with a new power more regularly.

John: Absolutely. Also, I think the best thing about the game is squishing monkeys.

Jim: Yes. The monkeys are there to be murdered, it's true. Goddamn monkeys.

John: They're bound to be evil. It really is Weighted Companion Cube: The Movie. It's an incessant series of puzzles involving getting you and your giant Ball through to the next doorway. Whether that's by setting everything on fire, electrocuting an angry monster, or attaching it to a crazy tractor and driving through lava.

Jim: So I remember saying something like "oh there are bound to be loads of first person puzzlers now physics has been invented" when Half-Life 2 hit, but there really weren't. There's this, Portal, that German one with the gloves...

John: Penumbra, to some extent.

Jim: Amnesia?

John: A bit.

Jim: And I think that's what is best about The Ball. It's an uncommon thing. But yeah, what has kept me going through The Ball was to see what it did, simply because it wasn't a shooter. It's all about architectural puzzles in this big spooky temple place.

John: I think so too. But that it's a rare breed doesn't make up for what's a very poorly paced game. The final third is how the game should be, and even then it's a tad repetitive. The scale of the mechanisms and puzzles is really awesome by that point. But the build up to it is Sleepytown, Norwich.

Jim: I dunno, I mean I was hooked from the start, I just felt certain bits were not okay, like the pointless non-interactive train rides. The rest of the time I was quite happy pootling about with the ball. Partly because the ball was just fun to manipulate.

John: It's pleasingly instinctive.

Jim: The push/pull of the ball is something we've kind of already seen in Half-Life 2 and Portal, but because the ball itself has a distinctive rumbly weight, it feels great to smack about. Flattening enemies who are running at you by sucking toward you is great.

John: That is awesome.

Jim: It also gets the atmosphere right, most of the time. I was worried it was going to be Generic Aztec Temple, but actually it felt like its own Aztec Temple, complete with unhappy dino-men caretakers and stuff.

John: It feels like quite an old soul. The game reminded me, alternately, of Quake and Unreal. The initial level design felt very Quakey, but the ambience, and the creatures, very much reminded me of the original Unreal.

Jim: Yeah, it's almost as if you could sense of the FPS modder origins in it. There were bits where its heritage is very clear. But the result of that is that, occasionally, it looks really fantastic. I mean it's mostly rooms and corridors, but there are bits where the rooms open up to mad ziggurats, or temples with giant bat-monsters flying about overhead.

John: The huge outdoor areas, with vast waterfalls and towering temples are epic. Pardon the pun.

Jim: I'm guessing I am about half way through now, and I will definitely finish it, given what you've said. I think I've enjoyed it more than you up to this stage.

John: Yes. Which means you should enjoy it to the max by the end. Perhaps even too much.

Jim: That can happen.

John: I still wish the Ball had hearts on it.

Jim: Presumably that could be modded in. Reskin the temple as a mall, put some pop tunes on. Call Of Ball Mall seems like a logical sequel.

John: This sounds great!

Jim: Anyway, the game is pretty cheap - $20? I think it's unusual enough and atmospheric enough to be recommended. I mean I'd rather people bought this than half the under-imagined rubbish that will turn up over the next few months.

John: It's to be £15 in Her Majesty's Isles. Plough through the first two hours, and it opens up.

Jim: There's also some "survival" levels, which are mini bits to play through when the campaign is done. So there's actually quite a chunk of ball in there to get through.

John: Yes - it's as big as a full-price AAA release. If The Ball were a ball, which ball would it be?

Jim: I think it would be the large ball bearing that my Dad brought home once when I was a kid. It was huge and incongruous, and then I lost it somehow. I think the kid from down the road nicked it.

John: I say medicine ball.

John: We got all the way through this without making any "playing with my ball/what big balls/balls is a word for testicles which is a source of amusement" jokes.

Jim: Yeah, I was wondering about that. They don't seem appropriate somehow.

John: I wouldn't want to put The Ball's ball in my trousers.

Jim: Yes you would.

John: Yes, I would.

Jim: It's there RIGHT NOW

John: Yes, it is.

Jim: In conclusion then: You should probably buy The Ball, it's quite good.

John: I concur.

John: High fives?

Jim: High fives!

Jim: Actually, how about some earnest applause.

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