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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Ball Review

In 2007, Valve's Portal captured our hearts with mind-bending gameplay and one snarky AI. Now, The Ball from Teotl Studios aims to rekindle what made the Portal experience so memorable by putting a spin on physics-based puzzling. But while it's packed with clever challenges, nasty enemies, and a unique Aztec design, many of the game's finer moments are buried beneath so many layers of tedium that you might never reach them.

Originally an Unreal Tournament III mod, The Ball earned second place in the "Make Something Unreal" competition by Epic Games before being picked up by publisher Tripwire Interactive. Set in 1940's Mexico, the game drops you into an expedition gone awry deep within a volcanic mountain. You're left with no other option but to plunge into the abyss. Not long into your descent, you stumble upon a handheld Aztec cannon and the ball: a massive, metallic sphere that is both a silent friend and the key to your escape.
Using your handy cannon, you can easily manipulate the ball by either hammering it away from you or drawing it magnetically towards you. Together, you and the ball roll through a lost subterranean civilization riddled with puzzles; puzzles that start out easy and stay that way until you hit the credits. The majority of these mental exercises involve either standing on a switch, pushing the ball into a switch, or standing on a switch while guiding the ball to another switch. Naturally, this starts to feel very repetitive very quickly. With such slim variety up front, there's little motivating you to stick with The Ball through the early stages.
For the truly dedicated, however, patience is rewarded in the game's final acts. Challenges evolve from simple switches to ones that, for instance, have the ball adopting special properties. In one area, the ball projects a low-gravity field that allows for some impressive vertical movement. Another has you painting the floor with oil before lighting up a trail of fire. Why these clever ideas are hidden away so far into the game is a mystery. Such creativity would have better served the game up front.
Unlike the puzzles, combat in The Ball is starved for variety throughout. Your simpleminded foes come primarily in one of two flavors: bum rush or projectile. When you spot a pack of them barreling your way--mouths agape and eyes hungry for murder--you simply slide your rolling sphere of death in their direction and pop them like ripe tomatos (complete with screen-splattering gore). While simple and satisfying at first, the carnage quickly loses its luster after your first dozen encounters. Some tougher, late-game brutes (that you can't simply roll into oblivion) provide the only legitimately interesting challenge by forcing you to use both the ball and the environment to defeat them.

But though The Ball suffers from lack of substance, it benefits from a great sense of style. The presentation of its lost Aztec metropolis feels unique throughout as it guides you down a labyrinth of ancient ruins, emerald lakes, and molten seas of magma. It's a pity the story didn't receive this level of attention. Largely throwaway, the key plot elements are handled via static exposition at fixed intervals. Other nuggets of detail are also hidden away in the form of secret items within each stage.
Outside of the campaign, The Ball includes four Survival mode stages, which only exemplify the game's weakest element: its combat. These trap-filled areas pit you against a constantly increasing wave of enemies and might leave you feeling as if you've slipped into a vanilla version of Serious Sam. Without a fulfilling combat system to support it, Survival mode doesn't hold up past initial curiosity and serves only as a bullet point on the game's feature list.

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