Rock of Ages has one of those baffling concepts that sounds too crazy to work. Yet here I am about to spend a thousand words explaining why everybody should rush to their systems and download
this charming action/strategy game. Even with a short campaign and repetitive levels, Rock of Ages is one of the most refreshing Xbox Live Arcade games I've played all year.
Believe it or not, Rock of Ages is incredibly easy to describe. Think of it as a mixture of Marble Madness and Rampart, two of Atari's very best arcade games. You play a large boulder whose sole purpose is to speed down a hill and crash into your enemy's castle door. At the same time there will be a second boulder trying to do the same thing to your castle. The first player to successfully break down the stronghold wins.
It will take more than one boulder strike to break open the gates, so in the meantime players will want to buy and place obstacles to mess up their opponent's run. These objects include catapults, livestock, explosive barrels, wind machines and much more. They can also be upgraded as you play through the campaign, making them bigger, stronger and much more useful.
Of course, your opponent is also spending money placing obstacles to thwart your plans. This is what makes each round of Rock of Ages so exciting. Not only will you have to traverse long, winding levels, but you'll also have to put up with exploding barrels, wind machines and all of the other obstacles your opponent left for you. By the time you've launched the third boulder, the course will be littered with animals, forts and barrels in your way. It's safe to say that beating this game requires excellent platforming skills.
Rock of Ages plays out like a twisted history lesson as illustrated by Monty Python's Terry Gilliam. Each stage has you going rock-to-rock against a historically relevant character. You take the part of Sisyphus, who journeys through time and battles everybody from Leonidas to Vlad Tepes, Julius II to Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Antoinette to Napoleon, and many more. By the end of the game you will have defeated the black plague and conquered Zombie Aristotle.
Each level is accompanied by a humorous cinema, usually involving some sort of pop culture reference. I was excited to see Vlad Tepes' cinema play homage to Castlevania. You'll also see Jokes riffing on the Matrix Reloaded and Doom, among others. These brief cut-scenes are genuinely funny and one of the best reasons to see this game through to the end. Even though the actual gameplay may not be a laugh riot, the story built around Rock of Ages is one of the most entertaining I've experienced all year.
Each opponent has his or her (or its) own unique level design, including a few specific obstacles that can change the pace of the game. A good example of this is Leonardo da Vinci's stage, which involves the many waterways of Italy. Don't spend too much time in the shallow water; it will slow your roll to a near-standstill. Other stages include harrowing shortcuts that require pinpoint accurate jumps and a little lucky. The stages range from simple to overly complicated, giving players of all skills a challenge.
As much fun as it is to roll down hills and lay obstacles, there really isn't a whole lot of variety from one level to the next. The difficulty increases and the items you can buy get bigger, but you'll be doing largely the same task in every single level. There are several boss battles to contend with, but they are all easy and make up a very small portion of the game. The rest of the time it's basically a one-on-one battle between you and the supporting cast from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
Outside of the campaign mode, Rock of Ages features a fun (albeit simple) Skee Ball mode. Here players will race down the hill hitting targets along the way until they get launched from a large ramp into a traditional Skee Ball board. Much like the coin-operated game it's based on, players are rewarded with bigger points for making hard to hit holes. The result is an interesting mini-game, but one that didn't hold my interest for long.
The game's one-on-one match-up makes it perfect for online battles. Sadly, I have been unable to find many gamers playing looking for random skirmishes. Thankfully you can still play a bulk of this game locally, making the multiplayer useful while you wait for your friends to buy Rock of Ages. I can see this being one of those online games that has a cult following long after its release, but as of right now nobody is playing.
Much of the game's charm comes from the stylish art direction. This is a world full of cardboard cut-outs, medieval landscapes and boulders with emotion. Your rock looks incredible as it hurls itself down the hill taking out villagers, buildings and everything else in its path. The game has a real sense of speed, something that made it feel more like a racing game at times. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention how cool the cinemas look.
Control over your giant boulder is a mixed bag. For the most part the rolling feels natural, or as natural as controlling a giant boulder can feel. Once he picks up momentum it's sometimes hard to turn or aim, and the boulder doesn't always jump when you need him to. Crash too many times and the poor boulder will crumble and shrink, making it even more challenging to control. On the plus side, the graphics really shine when you see the half-destroyed boulder in action.
Some gamers may be turned off by the depth of the strategy elements, but once players master the learning curve the entire game opens up. There's a lot to love about Rock of Ages, I just hope enough people stick with it long enough to discover its charm. Despite its flaws, Atlus has a real winner on their hands. History class will never be the same!