What would happen if Terry Gilliam impregnated a bowling ball, and the child grew up to be a laudanum-addicted history major?
Wait, lemme try that again.
What would happen if a Katamari ball and a 7th-century Corinthian amphora made out a party, and forgot to exchange Twitter IDs?
Okay, okay, one last try.
What would happen if a mute Bocce champion discovered Doc Brown's time machine and decided to remake history one smushed, angry cow at a time?
(If you hit the jump now, I promise not to tell you the one about latter-day Marlon Brando and the hill made of butter.)
Did you grasp the tenuous connection between all three of those incredibly stupid scenarios I listed above? "Rolling," you say? You're brilliant!
Rolling is the central theme of Rock of Ages, a new downloadable Xbox 360 title (PC and PlayStation 3 versions to follow shortly) that manages to take such a simple concept and sprinkle it with so much nuance and care that the end result is a hyper-addictive, complex puzzle akin to classics like Marble Madness.
Before I get into that though, a bit of history on developer ACE Team. If you don't recognize the name, don't feel too bad. Prior to Rock of Ages, they had only created one other game, the bizarre, brilliant Zeno Clash.
If we've learned anything from that first game, it's that ACE Team is kinda off. Whereas most developers cling to well-worn traditions, ACE seemingly takes the concept of "game design" as a personal challenge to see just how weird they can make things. As an added bonus, they also seemingly have brilliant chops when it comes to crafting simple, yet endlessly playable gameplay concepts.
In Rock of Ages, you play the part of a rock. Specifically, a giant, roughly spherical boulder, hellbent on smashing up the place. Luckily, that's your entire purpose. You're placed at the top of a hill, and tasked with rolling yourself down it, smashing livestock, people, buildings, and eventually your enemy's front gate.
A bit of strategy comes in when you find that you can outfit your rock with various upgrades, and drop units like damaging catapults in front of enemy rocks to protect your terrain. Did I forget to mention the enemy rocks? Yeah, while you're rolling toward collision with an enemy fort, your enemy is doing the same at you. In the end, the game boils down to "smash them before they can smash you."
It's truly impressive just how much gameplay ACE can wring out of that simple concept though. Thoughtful level design, novel new powerups and a clever adaptation of Skee Ball combine to offer dozens of hours of gameplay. This isn't a 100-hour roleplaying epic, but as far as downloadable titles go, few can match this game's replayability — particularly in multiplayer.
It's a good thing that the gameplay in Rock of Ages is so accessible, as I'm not entirely sure if its cultural references are. I'm going to assume, for instance, that your average teenaged gamer won't grasp the impressive artistic nods to Romance- or latter day Baroque-era imagery in the game. That's probably a given. However, I'm not even entirely sure that they'd be able to catch the game's myriad, and witty nods to popular film and game series' either.
Then again, I don't write this stuff for teenagers, and I'd guess that the Mercury's readership of cultured, attractive adults should have no trouble laughing at the Castlevania nod in the Vlad Tepes level, if not the later Goya-inspired imagery.
I really don't mean to make Rock of Ages sound as pretentious as I just did. It really is a wildly accessible game designed specifically so that anyone can pick it up and play it at a moment's notice. It's just that game also includes some very clever, very intelligent humor. Anyone can have fun with it, but one gets the feeling that it was designed to appeal to those gamers who get off on intellectual pursuits.
Sadly, there's no money in appealing to any denomination above the baseline, so thank god that Atlus and ACE Team were willing to buck common sense to bring us something so unique.