Developer: Proper Games
Release Date: April 8, 2009
For me, the beauty of Xbox Live Arcade games is the fact that they can be a gateway to some immediate, challenging and simple fun that doesn't require a significant time investment. This ideology especially holds true to most of the quality puzzle games on the service, from early hits like Geometry Wars all the way to newfound favorites like Peggle. In the case of Flock!, a puzzle game that gives players control of a flying saucer with the objective of harvesting defenseless and gullible animals for Xenu only knows what kind of experimentation, that instantaneous kind of gratification is much harder to extract.
Flock!'s core gameplay is easy enough to get a hold of, simply requiring the maneuvering of an alien spacecraft with the left thumbstick in order to scare a mixture of farm animals around varying obstacles, eventually coaxing them back to the Mother Flocker (for an E-rated game Flock! isn't shy about making plenty of F-bomb innuendos). Like any UFO worth its weight in space age technology, the player-controlled ship comes equipped with standard features, such as a boost button and tractor beam, to help manipulate obstacles within the environment to herd your helpless captives aboard the mother ship. While the controls were fine, a rotating camera system would have been much appreciated because animals tend to run behind bushes and trees, causing a bit of frustration because you have to continually pause and retrieve them.
Each of the single-player campaign's 55 stages will have a quota of critters to capture; if the quota is met within a certain time frame, the player will earn either a bronze, silver or gold medal for bonus points. The roster of targets throughout the game forms a veritable who's who of the farm animal family including chickens, cows, pigs and sheep. All species can be herded at the same time, but their unique characteristics should be heeded; cows tend to stampede if chased too aggressively, and sheep must be shrunk with water to get under fences.
Despite having a time limit for acquiring bonuses, Flock! needs to be played at a fairly controlled pace to avoid driving animals off cliffs or into other traps that populate each level. They must also be carefully guided during nighttime stages, which are home to deadly predators. If too many animals die, the stage must be restarted unless a mating patch is provided, where animals can be paired to produce more offspring to be harvested.
These managerial tasks, along with the game's plush toy look, certainly carries echoes of titles like Viva Piñata, but while the same type of patience is needed, there's just no real reward for it. Unfortunately, even with over 50 scenarios to solve, the campaign's difficulty curve doesn't ramp up until the last five stages, and with no real flow or intensity to the gameplay, the simple task of shepherding animals from one point to another feels like manual labor after a while. Once the campaign has been conquered, there's no point to journey back, as the game comes without any alternative difficulty modes.
There's no vacation from the droning single-player game to be found in the cooperative mode, which serves up 17 levels that can only be solved with a local partner. Here, each player is given a flying saucer and must perform simple trust exercises, like lifting large rocks that require both parties to work together. Besides having the benefit of another player to watch over the herd of soon-to-be-probed animals, the multiplayer doesn't quite offer an altogether new experience but a semi-complimentary one. I say "semi" because the multiplayer cannot be taken online, which is absurd when you take into account the game's online level sharing system, which we'll get to later.
There is a little fun to be had in Flock!, but it takes some effort on the player's part to build it — literally, in the case of the level editor. This is where Flock! manages to shine, thanks to a level creation system that's easy to use but also potentially quite complex, depending on how advanced the user is. Categories of objects can be selected by pressing up or down on the d-pad, and then left or right to view a specific item, such as what type of animal, fences or traps one wants to put into the custom level, as well as a specific animal quota and time limits for earning medals. The game supplies plenty of tips for the novice designer when building a stage, which can actually be quite large but easily managed with different camera modes. However, it's not possible to build the mother of all Flock! levels because only so many items can be placed within the world. If creating your own levels wasn't enough, it's also good to know that any section of the campaign can be tweaked to give it some much-needed challenge.
Not unlike another game featuring cute stuffed mascots, Flock! allows users to share their creations with the world and choose from hundreds of levels created by other players, making for great replay value. To get the impression of a level before downloading it, a small map overview is available, along with the animal quota and medal times. Community reaction can also be gauged by looking at the number of times a stage has been downloaded, along with user ratings.
If you happen to enjoy one particular person's work, then more of their maps can also be seen. There are a few pretty interesting designs out there, but it would have been nice to have a difficulty sorting option, since many levels can be completed in a few steps. The goal of herding animals onto the Mother Flocker is, of course, the staple objective of any stage, but the level creation and sharing system gives Flock! a good dose of refreshment and is easily the game's strongest suit.
Flock! has a bright stuffed toy look that is reminiscent of Little Big Planet, as I previously alluded, and there is a certain charm to the goofy behavior of spooked sheep being shrunk or cows sucked into UFOs. It's just a shame that the gameplay ended up being as tame as the presentation itself — so tame that Flock! doesn't really deserve the exclamation point in its title. The landscape of the environments never drastically changes, but the game is all about paths, and varying seasons are included for a color palette change every once in a while. Flock! gets the music right for its setting, with a lineup of tracks that consist of hokey banjo-infused country music synched up with campy '50s sci-fi tunes for added variety.
Flock! is a game with an endearing presentation but it's sadly followed by incredibly weak execution in the core gameplay, especially in the offering of campaign levels. There's no sense of intensity like most puzzle games, but even in terms of strategy, Flock! flounders; the mostly short stages fail to build up any sense of accomplishment or success that would come with any other God game. The developers deserve props for the level editor and sharing system, which saves Flock! from falling lower in favor, but it's the only area that really struck a chord with me, and one area of fun just isn't enough when it comes to a $15 game. There might be a few good times to be had in Flock!, but it comes down to a case of having to construct that enjoyment for yourself, as the game does not offer the immediate challenge and satisfaction expected of an arcade title. The cute exterior and easy controls should please kids, and level editor buffs might find Flock! engrossing as a tool to practice design skills, but those who wish for an engaging puzzle game right out of the gate should look elsewhere.
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