Most games of the modern era aren't exactly what one would consider unique, especially when you take a look at the holiday release schedule and see nothing but sequels and remakes. That's why it's so nice to occasionally see a game like Rock of Ages, which manages to be so different from everything else that it defies classification. Part tower defense, part action adventure and even a touch of bowling, the title presents an experience that will stick with you and remind you that there actually are a few new things under the sun. It's a pity, then, that the core gameplay falters, turning a very special concept into something mundane and predictable.
The primary gameplay mode in Rock of Ages is called War, and the objective is to roll your massive boulder through one of a number of intricate mazes, ultimately smashing into your opponent's gate to break it down. It's not just mindless destruction, though, as players can speed up, slow down or even make their rocks jump in an effort the find the most efficient route to their foe. Exploration is also rewarded, as smashing towers and houses grants money, and in the single-player portion, each map features keys that are scattered about and unlock later stages. The best comparison I can draw is to Marble Madness, with various hazards and dangers lurking about the map for players to avoid or smash.
The boulder rolling isn't constant, though, and competitors will spend the time between attacks beefing up their side of the board with various defenses meant to slow down and chip away at the boulder of their foe. Early defenses are simple, such as wooden towers and charging cattle, but later options include wind machines to slow advancing rocks, slingshots and trebuchets to blast away chunks, and even war elephants that can stop a boulder cold and push it off a cliff.
While the available defenses are varied, they are also ultimately useless, as they do little to actually thwart your foe. In every match I played, the victor was the one who managed to get three boulders to the bottom of the hill first, and never once was I able to obliterate an enemy's rock with my defenses. Furthermore, placing units with a controller is clumsy work, and you'll likely struggle to set up the perimeter you want due to restricted placement options and touchy controls. This tower defense aspect, which should have been the bread and butter of Rock of Ages, utterly fails to impress.
Despite this, it's hard to hate the game because there are so many other aspects that are wildly entertaining. The title boasts an absurdist sense of humor and takes great pleasure in lampooning some of history's greatest figures in ridiculous ways. In the story mode, players take on the role of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who was cursed to roll a boulder up a hill only to see it come tumbling back down for all eternity. Sisyphus decides to use the boulder to his advantage to escape Hades and subsequently finds himself engaging in a rock-based battle with all of history's greatest figures for some reason.
The cut scenes introducing these figures are hilarious, as the folks at ACE Team have taken heavy inspiration from the cartoons of Terry Gilliam. Each character's likeness is pulled directly from artwork native to his period, so Sisyphus appears as he would on an ancient Greek urn while the physical embodiment of Plague is drawn from Renaissance paintings. The two-dimensional figures emote and flail and speak with flappy mouths, and each round ends with a high-pitched screech and fart sounds as you squish them with your boulder. It's the sort of thing you'll see in the old episodes of "Monty Python," and it managed to make me giggle pretty much every single time.
There's also some fun to be had in multiplayer if you manage to get away from the War mode and invest your time on Skee Ball. This mode puts both players' boulders on the same track and tasks you with finding the route that will net you the most points and ultimately land your rock in the hole with the greatest reward. Jockeying for position with a friend is great fun; just make sure they don't have any real boulders to throw at you when you knock them off course right before they're set to secure a major score boost. What at first seems like a throwaway mode might actually be the game's crowning feature.
Rock of Ages is the rare game that manages to stand completely on its own and also deliver a memorable experience. The title is always funny and sometimes entertaining; it's just unfortunate that the tower defense gameplay doesn't really amount to much in the end. In spite of that, this is still a game that is worth downloading if for no other reason than to show support for developers who strike out and try something completely unexpected. Rock of Ages falls short of perfection, but I'll take it over a sequel to yet another mediocre franchise any day.
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