This game ROCKS. ...ROCKS.
I didn't pay an ounce of attention to Rock of Ages as it started to slowly release trailers. This wasn't just my fault- it's a fairly small game, and few outlets had time to talk about it with some of the bigger franchises coming out with great sequels for the coming months. Even now that it's out, there's scarcely a dozen reviews for it, but most of them agree on one simple fact: this is a great, unique game that deserves more attention than it will ever get.
Its uniqueness makes it a bit difficult to describe, but Super Monkey Ball meets Tower Defense and a little bit of Blast Corps is probably the best way to go. You start at the top of a hill, roll down to destroy buildings on the way down, and dodge enemy units to destroy their gate and smash their leader. It sounds a bit simple, but the game does hold a surprising amount of depth- other reviews have pointed out that the tower defense elements are a little half-baked, but I get the feeling from my playing that they're (forgive me for the term) playing it wrong. Though it's hard to get back into the lead when you fall behind, I've been able to force the opponent into gauntlets and areas that are difficult to maneuver and get myself back in the lead many times. It's immensely satisfying to have someone on mic or on the couch next to you in split screen and hear them react as they go from a strong lead to completely destroyed. Add in some cleverly created tracks that really test both your abilities at placing units and your skills at navigating obstacles and it can take a while to master a map, power-ups on the ball to do more damage, help with jumps, ruin your track or just defend the boulder, and everyone will have their own strategy for what they think works best (always be catapult!) and what the best way down a track would be.
The design of the game is stellar in terms of aesthetics as well. The cut-scenes are very Monty Python, cut outs of paintings and a lot of funny noises instead of actual voices coming out of the characters' mouths. The humor here really shines as well. It's not really hi-brow, with each level ending in girly screams and fart noises, but it's put in smartly to places that really emphasize the humorous power of a good fart. There are a few pop-culture references, but even they're subverted in a way that at least got a chuckle out of me (Leonardo da Vinci's great 4th-wall breaking scene is especially great). Plus, the idea of rolling through history with giant rocks and destroying enemy fortresses is never not weird, even up to the very end.
Rock of Ages uses the Unreal Engine, and it's very rare to see something so vibrant, bright and colorful popping off the screen from this engine in the way that this game does. The detail on the rock is nice, and seeing it chip away as it takes damage is still pretty neat, even after so many hours with the game. Same for the way that designs on the floor of the level slowly reveal themselves as you roll over and light glints off of them- it's very smooth and delights the eye to see. The units are also well designed, and the 3D models are nicely textured and modeled; a good example being the creepy angel baby boss, who has some gorgeous wings. Crashing into enemy units and watching them fall apart is immensely satisfying, too, as individual bricks and splinters go flying around. There are a few unfortunate spots where the framerate takes a dip, but they're rare in single player (a bit more common in split-screen) so it's not too much of an issue.
Multiplayer is a great addition to the game as well. Split-screen is highly enjoyable, and though SkeeBoulder (Skee Ball, essentially, but with you in control of the ball down the courses from the game) can get cheesed after a while by jumping on the score board, it's still a fun race between getting more points and getting down quickly enough to get a good multiplier- or even taking a bad one just to mess up the opponent. Head-to-head war is great, too, even with the temptation to look at the other side of the screen; you can see where they're placing their units all you want, but you've still got to navigate it!
I wish I could talk about online more, but as of this writing, it's either busted or barren, as I've only had around 7 games. The best way to get in was to create a lobby and wait for people to join me, and even this takes a while. Quick match just never works, period, and this is especially a shame, because I'd love to be able to play with people, and have enjoyed the few matches I've had. Lag is almost never an issue, but can severely alter a performance when it is there- and you're already handling a multi-ton rock with a lot of momentum, so any difference in handling can be extreme.
Ace Team is a very small company, but with Zeno Clash and now Rock of Ages on their slate, they're definitely a group to be watching. They have a very unique art style and a great vision for bringing it to fruition with surprising amount of polish. At the low price of $10, it's difficult to find a better deal- I lost my entire weekend to this game and its surprisingly long single player (as well as the extra challenge of finding all the keys in the levels), and even after taking so much in over such a short time, it's still a charming, often funny and highly engaging experience.