The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Ball Review

Before we begin a review of a game called “The Ball”, we are going to need to establish a basic level of trust. Let me give you my word we are going to avoid any sort of groin or gonad related jokes. For this review. It would be too easy. Although, I’d have gone with a name involving “sphere” or “orb” myself.

Anyhow, The Ball is a first person action/puzzler built on the Unreal 3 engine, the first release from the folks at Teotl studios. I imagine it owes its origin to a conversation something like this one:

Bob: Hey Steve, you remember the Weighted Companion Cube, from Portal?

Steve: Yes Bob. Everyone remembers the Companion Cube. It’s an Internet Meme. If you’re building up to a joke involving cake or lies I will be forced to hit you.

Bob: Hear me out. What if we did a whole game like that? Carrying around a giant physics prop as your tool and weapon?

Steve: Only if you can use it to crush monkeys.

Bob: Well of course. Why would you even need to ask?

And crush monkeys you will. The Ball owes much of its inspiration and heritage to Portal, while still being its own game. The designers learned the lessons about gameplay, level design, and communication with the player that Valve strives to teach. The controls are intuitive and quick to pick up. Very early on you find a “magnet-hammer” gun that allows you to manipulate the Ball artifact.  The right mouse button magnetically pulls the Ball to you, the left forcefully punts it away. There are a handful of other contextual commands, but that’s it really.

By the way, we’re going to call the actual in-game Ball the “Doomsphere” from now on, to distinguish it from the game’s title and minimize confusion. I also like the word “Doomsphere”. Chant it with me.

As you have probably guessed by now, the core of gameplay is maneuvering the titular indestructible Mesoamerican artifact through an assortment of environments, physics puzzles, and light combat encounters. The Doomsphere is, of course, your primary tool. The levels are laid out so you can never get too far away, and there are plenty of gates and checkpoints where you need it with you to progress. Most puzzles involve figuring out how to move it to where you need it to go. The game quickly teaches you the “visual shorthand” you need to understand what doors will open, what you need to do to activate different switches, and so on.

Tetol studios have anticipated and summarily dealt with most of the problems you would predict for a game that centers on moving an object bigger than you are. The Doomsphere automatically turns transparent when directly in front of you, and you can force it to become so at any distance with the touch of a button. Your HUD tells you where and how far away it is, and another button automatically spins you to face it. Keeping track is never a chore. The Doomsphere also never forces you to move or knocks you around; no matter how fast it is moving.

Much energy has clearly been spent on making sure the Doomsphere’s rumbling weight, momentum, and inertia feel just right. It’s a visceral joy to shove it down inclines and send it smashing through obstacles and enemies. And what better to smash than priceless archaeological artifacts?

The Ball’s premise is that you are an archeologist investigating a dig site at a giant volcano in Mexico. You fall down a hole in the opening cut scene, which does not seem to inspire much concern from the rest of the dig crew. Rather than asking if you maimed yourself in the fall they encourage you to “Go explore”. I guess you owe them too much (or not enough) money for them to consider throwing down a rope.

There is a lot of life under the volcano. Can you spot the giant birds?

But who needs those losers when there are the ruins of an entire advanced Mesoamerican civilization to explore? Much of The Ball’s setting is vividly realized and beautiful to behold, although it tends to fall back on a series of square rooms and connecting corridors between the cool set pieces. You make your way through temples and pyramids and lush subterranean cities with a rich Aztec art direction while traveling deeper into the volcano.

The game has a strong sense of place, and the world under the volcano drips with ambiance. Lava rumbles far below, cobwebs and creepy-crawlies cover the screen as you move through dusty crypts, and frighteningly large avians circle overhead in the largest caverns. It’s reminiscent of the atmosphere found in the early Unreal games. The low background music enhances the environment without becoming distracting. Good ambience is like pornography. It is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. This game has it.

Thematically The Ball draws from the best elements of the Indian Jones series, with vast underground chasms, primitive but lethal traps and mechanisms, and ancient secrets waiting to be uncovered. There are rushing subterranean rivers and searing lakes of magma to cross, and bits of the environment collapse or can be knocked down at the most dramatically appropriate moment. There is even a mine-cart ride, although it’s non-interactive. The late game vistas are especially impressive, and well worth playing through the slower earlier levels for.

Pacing is a little uneven. The first hour or two is dull, containing the most basic puzzles and the least visually interesting areas. A game with such an intuitive base mechanic really does not need a tutorial. Once you clear the extended training section things get more interesting, and the instant help button ensures you’re never stuck for longer than you have the patience for. The general balance between puzzles, exploration, combat, and the introduction of new elements is good, preventing fatigue at any one type of gameplay.

The pace picks up by the second half, as the more entertaining mechanics are introduced and the environments become larger. One of the game’s greatest strengths, especially past the slower introductory chapters, is that it is always showing you some cool new way to use the Doomsphere and manipulate the environment. Some puzzles force you to move it without being able to go near it; others have you infusing it with new properties like extreme heat or electricity. My very favorite parts turned the Doomsphere into a low-gravity field generator, allowing you to carry a bubble of moon gravity with you and effortlessly leap vast distances.

More ancient ruins need anti-gravity

While primarily a puzzle game, the Ball does have physics based combat. It is great fun to use the Doomsphere to squash the loping mummies and skittering bugs that guard the ruins. The survival levels that form an alternative to the main campaign let you bowl over waves of enemies and obliterate them with traps without any exploring or puzzle solving to get in the way. Back in the campaign you face off against a number of foes that are simply too big and tough to be crushed outright. Killing them by manipulating the Doomsphere and the environment makes for some of the highlights of the game. There’s nothing like luring a giant zombie ape into the path of a fiery exploding pinball.

You will get killed a lot. Enemy attacks do a lot of damage and instant-kill traps are common in the later levels. Checkpoints are frequent and well placed though, and everything you accomplished before you died stays accomplished when you re-spawn. This excuses the lack of a quick save, and makes death a minor penalty at most. A slowly regenerating health system would not have gone amiss, but the game keeps the action flowing and never becomes frustrating.

Mummies are a constant nuisance

The Ball is not a narrative heavy game, but there is a story to be had, told by the levels themselves. There are scores of abandoned weapons and reddish streaks on the ground, angry graffiti painted over the hieroglyphic symbols on the walls, and a creepy mummy priest/king patiently watching your progress from one step ahead. Something really bad happened to the civilization that built the world of “The Ball”, and secrets hidden across the levels contain scraps of well written text that flesh out the narrative.

I found the ending of the game an unfortunate letdown. I was looking forward to a cool and suitably epic puzzle boss like those battled earlier, but the ending is a bit of an anticlimax after all the awesome buildup of the final levels. I’m not going to spoil it, but the final puzzle doesn’t even make use of the Doomsphere.
             The game is technically sound and well polished. The program only locked up once, requiring a reboot. The actual Doomsphere itself also got stuck on the level geometry once, necessitating a restart from the last checkpoint. This only happened once each across an eight hour game though, and the game looks good and plays very smoothly. The Ball is only $20 on Steam, and provides a single player experience at least on the level of many full price commercial games.

Reasons to play: Excellent use of central mechanic, well realized and atmospheric setting, fun combat.

Reasons to pass: Slow start.
             If you enjoyed Portal, you will enjoy The Ball. Someone looking for a more traditional FPS or adventure game may not find it to their tastes, but there is a lot to like, especially for $20. The puzzles entertain, the combat is fun, and the world is worth the visit just to see.

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