[20 June 2008]
Steven Spielberg isn’t exactly a stranger to video games. As the creator of the Medal of Honor series of first person shooters, his experience in film in general and with the subject matter of World War II in particular was brought to bear in an intense, well-regarded, and pioneering title. When it was announced that Spielberg had entered into a deal with Electronic Arts to collaborate on three original games, it was only logical to assume that he would again attempt to create something cinematic.
Surprisingly, however, the first of these titles essentially has no meaningful narrative. Rather than a heady story or an action-adventure romp, Spielberg has brought forth a simple party/puzzle game. To its credit, Boom Blox is in many ways exactly the sort of game the Wii was designed for. With appeal for both the casual and hardcore gamer, and with largely successful use of the Wiimote’s motion controls, Boom Blox is far more engaging that it seems like it should be on paper.
Essentially, Boom Blox consists of a number of physics-based block tower puzzles, similar to Jenga. Via an intuitive interface, the player can rotate the playing field, enabling them to set the proper angle from which to approach block removal. That removal is generally accomplished by throwing an item at the block or grabbing it directly. The concept seems simple enough, but the variety in both block and projectile-types, as well as in direct objectives, keeps the game fresh throughout.
While the control scheme is largely satisfying, it’s the physics model that steals the show. It doesn’t take long to get a feel for exactly how hard to throw a ball at any given block, and watching and hoping that the wobbling tower will actually tip over (or won’t, depending on what your objective is) like a tottering bowling pin is remarkably intense and fun. The different weights of blocks and projectiles alike are so well realized, they are almost tactile. Although medals are awarded for accomplishing the stated goal of any individual level, there isn’t really any reward for gold medals per se. It might be expected that getting gold medals all the way through would unlock some sort of expert mode, for example. However, in this instance, that proves to be unnecessary. While the player may remove all target blocks with three throws in a particular level, earning a silver medal, sheer curiosity encourages replay to figure out how it’s possible to do so with a single ball.
Even with all it does well, there are a few missteps in the Boom Blox formula. Likely in an effort to present variety in gameplay, there are some levels which essentially function as shooting galleries. Unfortunately, the Wiimote doesn’t work particularly well in these sections (completely counter to how perfect an input mechanism it is for the rest of the game). Further, those sections seem rather misplaced in the context of the other levels. Since Boom Blox essentially represents an abstract extension of Jenga, its uniqueness is tied to concepts that are only possible in a virtual setting, and this is territory that hasn’t been exhaustively mined before. Shooting, on the other hand, has been done many times before, and much more engagingly.
They look so sad…won’t you help them?
Although the presentation of Boom Blox with its anthropomorphic animal blocks is charming, it’s hardly necessary. The likely reason for it is that it was intended to be attractive to younger gamers. It might have been nice to give these different creatures more distinct personalities, as opposed to what amounts to skins for various blocks. It’s arguable that this choice could be contributing to the title’s poor retail performance thus far. Although the fundamentals of the game make it an all ages affair, the design aesthetics are clearly targeted for a younger audience. Of course, Boom Blox doesn’t come from an established intellectual property, and as such, it’s possible that it’s simply not positioned to perform as well as it deserves to.
Once again, a title with such wonderful potential for online play suffers from Nintendo’s anemic online structure. While the level creation aspects of Boom Blox offer a great deal of flexibility in crafting block masterpieces, they can only be shared with people with whom you’ve exchanged friend codes. In this kind of game, more robust online trading features would undoubtedly make for a much richer and longer-lasting experience. As Boom Blox is an exceptionally entertaining party title (not to mention one that isn’t a stereotypical collection of minigames), more online content would have been extremely welcome.
It will be interesting to see if Spielberg expands scope for his next collaboration with EA, particularly given how critically well-received Boom Blox has been. One of the remaining two titles he is developing is stated to be an action-adventure game, which presumably is more along the lines of what people were expecting from this collaboration to begin with. Perhaps the decision of such a marquee name to create Boom Blox speaks more to the rise in popularity of casual games in general. If that’s the case, it is promising to the hardcore gamer that casual games with appreciable depth are starting to appear.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/boom-blox/