What would Chilean crazy-maestros Ace Team do after their mind-curdling FPS melee game, Zeno Clash? Well, it should have been obvious: they set about creating, Rock Of Ages, a competitive boulder-rolling comedy action-puzzle-strategy game set within several centuries of art history. Yep, it was an open niche, and they rolled right in there. It's out now, and I'm going to have to tell you Wot I Think.
I have mixed feelings about Rock Of Ages, and they're not mixed like a delicious cocktail, but like grit in my porridge. Let's talk about the porridge first, because really that's the main ingredient in this metaphor: tasty, nutritious oat-thoughts. Rock Of Ages has a simple premise of the kind that makes for strong videogames: you roll your boulder down the map to smash a gateway. If you can smash down the gate (which takes a few attempts) then you can crush your opponent, and that's level complete. Simple enough, except the map is a huge slope that graduates through the levels into being a series of slopes with different routes and islands. This means that the immediate challenge of the game is in actually driving your boulder down a slope and hitting the gate at maximum speed, so as to cause the most damage. But there are a few further layers of complication to come.
The first is that there's currency in the game. This seems to be earned partly from rolling over the tiny people and houses that litter the track, but can later be earned from things that you yourself place on the track, such as "mines". The currency you collect needs spending, and this initially happens in the time between rolls, where you get a bird's eye view of the track and of the locations you are allowed to build. What you build are obstacles for the enemy boulder: each course is mirrored, so you get to see where your enemies are going to be rolling, and know that you face a similar task on the other side. Obstacles are various, including towers, air-blowers, projectile weapons, exploding barrels, cows, war-elephants, and a bunch of other things that can damage your ball, or send it flying off the side of the track. There's a use to all this in terms of slowing down your opponents rolling, especially at certain chokepoints, but it was perhaps a little lightweight as a strategic element to the game.
Futhermore, having your ball destroyed is extremely unlikely, but it can happen, and it is fatal. This is far worse than going off the side of the track, which just means that you have to be picked up by the hand of God and placed back down in the world. There is an issue with this too, however, in that a versus game sees your opponent "rolling" at the same time as you. If you are too slow they'll have a chance to crush you and win the match. While there's lots to crush on every track, and vital keys to collect, you can't dawdle, or you'll be flattened.
Anyway, getting back to the currency thing: there are some limited power-ups for the rock, too, including fire (although it doesn't really seem to do much, I suppose it is a kind of extra damage when you collide with stuff), spiked armour, super-jump, and so on. These all cost money, but can only be used once per track, providing a little trade-off for you to think about when you are spending your cash.
All this is wrapped in a single player campaign that treads its way through mythical and historical figures, picking up art styles from those of ancient Greece to very close to modernity as it goes. Occasionally you are faced with a need to go back and collect keys from previous levels to open things up. Then there's the art style, which is something you will no doubt already have found remarkable. The majority of the characters are flat cartoon cut-outs that jiggle about in a vaguely Monty-Pythonesque pisstake. And it's brilliant, even occasionally laugh-aloud funny. It feels like like a game artist at the height of his powers, delivering brilliant, appropriate art to a game that merges a broad understanding of history and art with fart gags. It's a genuinely beautiful game that has more character than the next two dozen games you'll see on Steam.
And there's multiplayer too, either split screen with two gamepads, or online. I am not sure this is actually a better way to play than vs the computer, mainly because I think of a lot better ways to spend my multiplayer time. Rock Of Ages is an entertaining, esoteric challenge, but it's really not a competition that I care to have with anyone online, let along the few real-life souls I can drag into my pit to play games with me. That's probably not the best assessment of the multiplayer, so... look over there! A more interesting paragraph is coming right along.
The one thing that really caught my attention while playing this was that phenomenon in games where you are able to imagine the physics of something that does not exist. In this case the behaviour and properties of a smiling, self-propelled boulder, which can somehow jump. It's a fabulous thing that these imaginary ball physics are immediately grasped by our imagination and assessed by our faculties of reason. What it means, however, is that you can also detect that it feels a bit too floaty. The ball has some weight when it's on the ground, but somehow I felt it needed to crash to Earth harder. Gosh, that's a subjective sort of dissatisfaction isn't it? Yes, sir, it absolutely is. As would be the judgement that this game actually isn't as quirky as I'd hoped it would be. Charming and engaging both, but not actually the offbeat gem I was hoping for.
And this dissatisfaction brings us to the grit being mixed in with this otherwise edible recipe. There are quibbles to bemoan, but they're really quite minor. Firstly, the game is a little short. I flew through it. But then it's only a few quid, so that's probably not all that surprising. The second is that the boss battles, of which there are only a few, are all horrible. Especially the first one. These are minor complaints against what is otherwise an amusing and challenging little game. And I say "little" in a sort of condescending auntie sort of way: "Aren't you a little cutie!" Rock Of Ages is a splendid thing, but I am hoping their next outing will be far more mature, and impressive. I know they've got it in them.