Saturday, July 12, 2008

Boom Blox: Initial Impressions & Re-review


So I opened the box and BOOM... I was having fun. Ok, maybe it wasn't quite that instantaneous. I still had to put the disk into the Wii. I started off easy on the training levels, and quickly moved to passing the Wiimote around, laughing, and enjoying the multiplayer modes. Before I knew it, it was four hours later.

Sound like a great game? Perhaps. Sound like an A+ game? Even upon initial impressions, Boom Blox is no A+ game.

I remember a quote that went something like... "physics based indie games are the new first person shooter mods. Everyone can do it, and they're not that impressive. You sort of code the physics and watch the game play itself." Boom Blox, being a physics based puzzle game, falls in this category.

The 4 biggest problems with Boom Blox so far are...

The camera
  • The camera controls in Boom Blox is are some of the best 3D camera controls I've encountered. Using the Wiimote pointer and B button to drag the camera around is direct, intuitive, individual, and dynamic as far as controlling a camera can be.
  • Unfortunately the core of the game uses the camera to aim.
  • Because the camera rotates around on fixed ring instead of around the unique contours of the level, aiming at individual points can become very difficult by making distances hard to judge.
  • The 3D levels can easily obscure view of the interior areas.

The controls
  • I think there are three throw speeds, and that the Wiimote sends the data from the accelerometers when the A button is released. Perhaps if the game factored in the recent history of accelerometer data like in Drebin#1#2 or Wii Sports, the controls would be tighter.
  • The shooting gallery Wiimote pointer controls are a little sticky. I think this happens because the aiming reticule is locked for the short period of time when you press the A button to fire. So moving quickly from target to target can create a disconnect between the pointing the player is doing in actual space versus what the game shows.
The Havok Physics
  • Because all the puzzles are physics based, the all too familiar form of block towers/formations creates unique challenges based off a few rules that we have been internalizing since birth.
  • Unfortunately, because the goals are reached through "open ended" physics reactions, there is a significant amount of random "error" or seemingly random results even when trying to reuse the same winning strategy.
The Primary Mechanic "Aim and Topple"
  • Pulling is a very interesting mechanic that involves the most interplay out of all the primary Boom Blox mechanics. Pulling a blox directly affects the blocks around it. If things start to get out of control, you can pull a block in such a way as to correct the balance of the blocks around it. Aside from complications due to how the pull controls are calibrated relative to the camera angle, the pull mechanic is direct, fairly intuitive, and dynamic.
  • The throwing and shooting mechanics can start chain reactions. However, these mechanics are singular and work one at a time. The design doesn't leave a lot of opportunity for interplay. And even in the cases where interplay exists between multiple throws, working with the camera, aiming, and throwing can complicate the execution.

Nick Suttner's review of Boom Blox is filled with bold unsupported statements. If you can't play Boom Blox for yourself, then at least read the review before moving on.

Here's what stuck out for me...

  • [Boom Blox is] definitely the best use of the Wii yet
  • Boom Blox employs dozens of different variants...It adds up to an impressive variety in terms of the goals, the actions required to complete them, the properties of the blocks themselves, and the sheer volume of levels.
  • the motion controls are subtle, responsive, and impeccably precise...The angle of each throw is dictated by where you place the cursor after positioning the camera, and the speed of your throw is reflected quite accurately using the Wiimote's accelerometer (generally falling into one of three speeds)....but it so squarely nails every movement that you can forget about the controls and simply enjoy the experience.
  • but gamers rarely get to impose such immediate and complete control over the environments they interact with.
  • It's incredibly satisfying...and, unlike firing a weapon or driving a car, it's something that all players -- no matter how casual -- can enjoy without having to fully understand their visual relationship to it.
  • Boom Blox is simply a laundry list of great features and options wrapped around an incredibly fun, expertly designed, and well-tuned puzzle game.
  • It's a casual game made for a casual crowd

The words in bold are the examples that most clearly apply to the guidelines I covered in How To Write A Critical Video Game Review. Boom Blox definitely has some charm, but for the single player experience, that charm has worn off. All the variety and creativity has fallen apart because of the game's heavy reliance on physics and mechanics with little interplay that require analyzing targets in 3D space and wrestling with a 3D camera.

As a critical-gamer I don't believe in hardcore or casual game design. There is only good and bad design, and Boom Blox falls somewhere in the middle.

In the end, if a reviewer can't clearly explain why a game is good enough to warrant a high score, then chances are the game isn't good enough.

5 comments:

Bryan said...

Boom Blox does look good. Some questions about the review though.

On the controls section, you mention the Recent History of accelerometer data in Drebin#1#2 and Wii Sports. I agree about Drebin#1#2, but I don't think Wii Sports uses any history in its calculations. Are you referring to a specific game?


Are there any hazard blocks which need to be avoided in the knock everything over mode?

You mention that there isn't a lot of interplay. Is there potential to improve this using the level editor?

How well designed are the levels in the game?

Does this game work best as a single player or multiplayer game? I'm mostly looking at design here, because just playing with friends can arbitrarily increase the fun.

KirbyKid said...

Of course Wii Sports does. Try swinging the golf club. After the club makes contact with the ball, the game continues to read the Wiimote data to determine the strength of the swing. So, you can hit the ball very softly and then speed up at the end to still achieve a hard hit. I believe baseball and tennis are the same way.

There are some hazard blocks, yes. But the basic strategy doesn't change much. I found that I could blindly throw balls around without surveying the level and get a gold medal on my first try.

Interplay is mostly locked by the nature of the mechanic. In Boom Blox, after you throw a ball, there really isn't much else you can do but repeat the same action and throw another. Perhaps if you have access to multiple mechanics and you built a level to support that fact, you can present some cases of elevated interplay. But I think this is the case for most games with level editors. You can always create a special/strict case to highlight something that doesn't occur naturally within the normal game.

Level design? Well, they're almost all towers of some sort. And because the towers are 3D with their internal blocks hidden behind the exterior blocks, it's hard to understand a level the more complicated it becomes.

Some levels are clever, but for the most part (from what I played) the levels are a wash.

So far, it's all about multiplayer for me. The intricacies and even the interplay increase in many of the multiplayer modes when compared to the single player.

I wouldn't say that playing with friends arbitrarily increases the fun, but I know exactly what you're talking about. Doing almost anything with friends can be fun whether it's watching a bad movie or playing a bad game.

Still, multiplayer is my choice.

Bryan said...

Without having played the game, I was guessing that the only interplay would be setting your opponent up for a bad shot, kind of like giving somebody a bad shot in pool.

You could make this easier to do by using hazard blocks in the level editor, but i'm not sure how it would turn out.

Bryan said...

Oh, and I was pretty sure Wii Sports Golf detected the swing right at the bottom of your swing. I think it uses gravity as a frame of reference. This always annoyed me when I was putting until I figured that out. Does this make sense?

KirbyKid said...

@ Bryan

Your pool example is spot on. The additional cool part about Boom Blox multiplayer is that you don't have to wait for all the blocks to stop moving before you throw. To make the analogy, it's like stepping up in pool and hitting your shot while all the balls are still rolling around.

This creates a push-pull, set up-knock down interplay.

Boot up Wii Sports and see for yourself. All accelerometer tech uses gravity as a reference. But I think I know what you're talking about.

Thanks for the comments.