Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rock of Ages Review

Rock of Ages, developed by ACE Team and published by ATLUS.
The Good: Simultaneous defense construction and platform gaming, quick matches in multiple game modes, interesting art themes, tense online matches, capable AI opponent, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Inconsequential damage and minor penalty for falling, skeeball score bonuses are too significant, split-screen requires two gamepads, annoying boss battles
What say you? This competitive tower defense game has a distinctive style and solid gameplay with some balance issues: 6/8

This review also appears at

So, how do you follow weird (think “explosive parachuting squirrels”) melee combat game Zeno Clash? With a tower defense game, of course! While this genre has seen an explosion of popularity, ACE Team hopes to inject their own flavor of “strange” into the equation. How so, you ask? Imagine a huge, smiling boulder smashing through Renaissance and Greek art. This tower defense game takes a competitive edge, with both players constructing defenses and piloting their rock through the opponent’s carefully planned resistance simultaneously. Does Rock of Ages combine theme and gameplay well, or does it roll away to obscurity?

Rock of Ages grabs your attention with its awesome graphics. The game’s five artistic themes (Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, Rococo, and Romanticism) each come with stellar track designs and animated background images that make many references to their inspiration. The ground textures, track elements, and buildings are all fantastically designed and look wonderful in motion. There is some pop-in when approaching some parts of the map (no doubt a limitation of the consoles creeping in to the hardware-superior PC), but it’s rarely noticeable on the game’s usually twisty layouts. The game does not support 5:4 displays (like mine) and does not save resolution settings when you exit the game, so I had to tell the game to run in a window every time I started up: annoying. The sound is also excellent, with some great effects for weapons and pleasing background music to accompany your crushing. Overall, Rock of Ages clearly exceeds its $10 price tag in terms of graphics and sound design.

In Rock of Ages, the goal is to roll down a hill and smash through the doors of the enemy castle using a giant boulder (obviously). Along the way, your opponent constructs defenses meant to slow you down. The main single player feature is the story mode, which features a series of one-on-one battles against historical AI opponents. The levels themselves feature multiple paths with fixed obstacles and the occasional shortcut, accessible by skilled boulder pilots. Games are quick, clocking in just over five minutes, with three solid shots against the enemy castle doors enough to win the game. The mix of platform and tower defense gaming is peppered with tedious boss battles that are unnecessary and annoying: I hate them.

Rock of Ages is not just about the “war” mode, however. There is also a throwaway timed mode where you try to finish a level as quickly as possible (taking use of those shortcuts mentioned earlier), complete with online leaderboards. More interesting is the skeeball mode, where you must smash targets on the way down the map and then put your boulder in a scoring multiplier. While this is a nice twist on the game, getting the multiplier is far too important: whoever finishes first two out of the three matches will win, unless they completely missed all of the large targets on the way down. Rock of Ages also has comprehensive multiplayer features in both the “war” and “skeeball” modes: you can quickly search for a match or browse available options. Local split-screen is also available, although you must have two gamepads, as support for one person on the mouse/keyboard and another on a single gamepad is not available, much to the dismay of myself and my daughter. Finally, Rock of Ages is only $10, which is a great price.

The first thing you’ll want to do in the “war” mode is build some defenses. You’ll start out with some cash that you can spend placing objects in specific, highlighted areas of the map: towers, cows, catapults, explosives, and wind are all meant to slow down your opponent and/or push them off the map (incurring a small time penalty for a reset), and there are three types of each with increasing strength and cost. You can also place resource collection points and balloons to automatically fire your castle cannons (you can also manually target the opponent, but it’s very difficult to do). Money is also earned by smashing into things as you roll your boulder down your opponent’s maze. Clearly, the key to success is to find the chokepoints in each map and then place complimentary defenses; for example, towers to slow a boulder down, and wind to push it towards elephants, who will charge it off the map. You can rotate objects like trebuchets, but only in the four cardinal directions, which is problematic considering most of the maps feature angled sections. Not only are you restricted as to where objects can be placed (for no apparent reason), but things can only be placed on a particular square once, so make sure you plan ahead. You are also time-limited: once your next boulder is ready to roll, you must go to stay ahead of your opponent.

Controlling your boulder feels “right”: using the WASD keys in concert with the mouse-driven camera, you are given a level of precision while retaining a heavy feel with high momentum. Your boulder can jump over obstacles (just like real life?), and timing your controls is important. You can spend leftover funds on one-time rock upgrades, like increased armor or the ability to double jump. Unfortunately, Rock of Ages suffers from some balance issues. There is only a small time penalty for falling, and I’ve never had a boulder completely destroyed during a run. Since it always takes exactly three runs to destroy the other castle, no matter the health or speed of your boulder, whoever is fastest wins. While this does make for more exciting games (since both players are likely to be neck-and-neck), it doesn’t make the defensive game as important as simply not falling off the map. The AI is good: while it may get stuck against stout defenses every once in a while, it plays like a medium-skilled human, placing effective defenses and piloting well. I wonder how scripted the defenses are in advance, since they are well placed in almost every level. While I only lost to the AI once during the story mode, it did offer some close, entertaining games.

Rock of Ages features a nice mix of tower defense and platform gaming. Controlling your weighty boulder feels intuitive and works well on the PC, and navigating the terrain while avoiding your enemy’s defenses is challenging, tense, and enjoyable. The small downtime between rolling rounds is spent hastily placing a wide range of defenses: towers, dynamite, fans, and elephants. There are placement restrictions and natural checkpoints that should be taken advantage of. Multiple paths means that no defensive plan is foolproof, however, and you can always simply jump over poorly placed obstacles. It always takes the same number of hits to destroy the enemy game, no matter how fast you’re going or how much damage you’ve received, which is disappointing. While this does make defenses less important, it does make the games very close and amplifies the small penalty for falling off the track, since seconds do matter. The story mode features very competent AI but boss battles are tedious and out of place. The time trial mode isn’t very entertaining, but skeeball provides some good head-to-head racing, although being first is the key to victory due to high scoring bonuses. Online multiplayer is quite fun and finding opponents is easy; split-screen is also available, but you’ll need two gamepads to play it. And you can’t mention Rock of Ages without citing the unique art and music. In the end, Rock of Ages is a fun take on the tower defense genre.