When Rock of Ages was first released on the Xbox Live Arcade and PC platforms, it was something of a breath of fresh air from the staid, stereotypical downloadable titles that increasingly fill either the libraries of each system. I say “something of a breath of fresh air,” because though the game was relatively unique, Rock of Ages is by no means an original game. It plays like a cross between NES classic Marble Madness and any of the stereotypically similar titles in the “tower defense” genre. In sum, it’s a game centered around rolling a massive boulder into increasingly complex objects, in an effort to topple an enemy’s home fortress, but by offering a host of unlockable upgrades, new abilities and ceverly designed additional game modes — which still center on rolling a big rock — Rock of Ages earned a place as one of those rare games that attempts to go its own way, and succeeds largely based on a simple gameplay concept expanded to an utterly massive, engaging scope.
While the XBLA and PC releases weren’t massive blockbusters, each version drew a rabid niche fanbase and apparently earned enough cash to convince publisher Atlus and developer ACE Team to port the title to the PlayStation Network. As this latest version is appearing nearly nine months after the original release, the people behind it opted to give the game a new lease on life via momentarily exclusive game modes and a wealth of minor content aditions. The end result is a game that was fantastic on the Xbox 360 becoming utterly indispensable on the PlayStation 3. Given the game’s $10 price point, Rock of Ages is a must-buy for anyone who enjoys simple titles that simultaneously leverage quick, to the point action and cerebral planning. Rock of Ages may not be a thinking man’s game per se, but it’s far more intelligent than the majority of downloadable titles.
That intelligence is actually a major, two-pronged feature of the game. The first result of this is seen in the game’s clever, Monty-Python-esque storytelling. Between levels you’re shown vignettes that depict your character’s interactions with various famous legendary historical figures. From Sisyphus to Charlemagne, your spherical stony avatar finds his/herself (do rocks have genders?) playing a role in various important historical events, all of which are animated in a style that is an obvious homage to the iconic animation work of Terry Gilliam. Whereas Gilliam created the animations you see in both the Monty Python films and the troupe’s BBC television series using cut-out reproductions of illustrations from historical sources as disparate as illuminated medieval manuscripts and 19th-century newspapers, the developers at ACE Team directly ape the art style of the game’s distinctive historical time periods. Then, using computer-generated graphics, the devs create videos that mimic Gilliam’s stop-motion animated cut-outs. The end result is a familiar aesthetic style that perfectly matches the game’s non-sequitir humor. Granted, the jokes in Rock of Ages are more geeky than Gilliam’s satirical mainstream gags, but for anyone playing Rock of Ages a reference to Castlevania in the Vlad Tepes level is likely comedic gold.
The other aspect of the game’s intelligence is found in the full scope of its main gameplay options. Superficially, Rock of Ages is a game about rolling a huge rock around, into and through obstacles in a quest to smash your foes into a fine paste. Literally every problem in Rock of Ages is solved via rolling boulder, and said boulder serves as both protagonist and the sole method through which players interact with the game’s world. The complication to this simple formula comes in when you realize that while you’re trying to roll a huge rock at your enemies, they are likewise attempting to roll a huge boulder back at you. In an effort to protect yourself, you purchase and place various obstacles (cannons that blast boulders to pieces, and war elephants that push boulders off course, for instance) to destroy or deflect oncoming rocks. You’ll never utterly destroy your foes’ ability to launch stones in your direction, but if you can delay their efforts long enough, your own stone will smash them into bits.
Like the basic rolling mechanic, the actual process of selecting and placing obstacles is quite simple. It’s a basic drag-and-drop, cursor-based affair, with a handy grid that reminds users how large each unique obstacle is and where exactly you can place the thing. That practical simplicity comes in handy when it comes times to cover the grid in obstacles because each unique item you can place has its own swath of abilities and effective range. A single new object is introduced in each stage, so by the time you complete the main story mode you’ve learned how to best use and combine a dozen different items. On paper it seems like a slow progression, but in practice the developer has perfectly balanced the rate at which players are given new toys, both in an effort to gradually complicate the overall gameplay and to reward users with periodic bursts of variety. Combined with the otherwise simple gameplay, this wrinkle of complexity ensures that the game has weeks of replay value, and could take years to fully master, all while offering an enjoyable gaming experience in sessions as brief as three minutes.
Everything I just wrote should be familiar to anyone who purchased Rock of Ages on the Xbox 360 or PC, but what PlayStation 3 owners will find in their version of the game is just a bit different. More specifically, the PlayStation Network release of Rock of Ages includes a handful of new, exclusive gameplay options that have never been seen before. The language used by Atlus to describe these additions indicates that they will eventually appear on the Xbox 360 and PC iterations of the game, but for now the only way to experience them is by dropping $10 on the PS3 game.
The biggest addition to the PS3 game is the new “Obstacle Course” mode. As with all things in Rock of Ages it centers on rolling a huge stone, but unlike the main game the goal of Obstacle Course is in reaching the end of an obstacle-laden track before your opponent. That might be another player via local or online multiplayer, or an AI-controlled foe, but given the simple nature of the gameplay, the title’s AI is more than capable of replicating the strategy and skill of a real person. Also, though the experience is directly competitive, it applies motivation and stress in a completely separate fashion from the standard story mode, making it an excellent way to switch things up when you grow tired of smashing rocks into giant wooden doors.
Less impressive, are the minor options added by ACE Team. These includes tweaks to the game’s “War” mode that essentially unlock the game’s many, many power-ups and obstacle options instantly, allowing players to jump right into the game’s most complicated levels without having to spend hours unlocking everything individually. Then there are the aesthetic additions, like new stone skins (the simplistic smiley-face is nicley ironic when attached to a stone smashing through wooden huts and crushing innocent villagers), and a swath of minor gameplay tweaks that, when taken as a whole, make the PlayStation Network version of Rock of Ages the definitive release of the game to date.
The concept behind Rock of Ages is so deceptively simple that it makes one wonder why no developer has thought to center a game on rolling huge rocks through explosively fragile objects earlier. It’s exactly the kind of visceral destruction backed by fantastical canon that defines gaming as a successful whole, and the game’s perfect blend of complex strategy, engagingly accessible gameplay and gradually increasing difficulty make Rock of Ages a wonderful game both for veteran players with years of joystick experience, and neophyte gamers whose only exposure to gaming prior was casual Facebook titles and Angry Birds. Given its $10 price tag there is simply no reason for anyone to skip Rock of Ages.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Atlus)