Sticks and Stones
Not so long ago, if a development studio pitched a game that was a mix of Super Monkey Ball, 19 century history, a healthy dose of pop culture parody, and some fart jokes, it would probably be shut down. The fact that Ace Team, developer of Zeno Clash, got to make that vision a reality is stunning and encouraging. Rock of Ages is an artsy, sophomorically humored ride through 1800s Europe that clearly lacks some great design choices, but certainly manages to attain some chuckles and bewilderment in its style.
Describing Rock of Ages is different to say the least. To start with, you play as Sisyphus’s rock. You know, the one that has to be pushed up the hill over and over? Well old Sisy’ has gotten tired of that and decides to break out of Hades. When he busts down the exit door with his trusty boulder, it reveals a portal, which—for really no reason at all—leads to throw downs between the Greek legend and various figures from European history. Each match has you steer your chunk of stone down a course that has been obstacle laden by your opponents—among whom are Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles III, and Vlad the Impaler—while they steer their own rock down an identical course. The end goal is to break down your enemy’s door and roll over the cowering fiend inside (accompanied by a girly shriek and wet squish when finished).
Typically each match takes three hits to win, and in between rounds you get to use a simple tower defense mechanic to slow down your competitor. You earn money from knocking over buildings, and your options of how to spend it range from catapults to bombs, and more outlandish choices such as stampeding cows and elephants. Cash also can be used for different rock power ups such as fire to increase your destructive potential, and protective metal bands to keep your rock from fracturing. Fracturing and falling off the track are due to enemy defense placement and lessen your door-smashing prowess, so keeping your boulder safe until the door is vital.
The weird, surreal quality of the story set up permeates everything in Rock of Ages: from the visuals to the voice acting, Ace Team has injected a great amount of cynical irony to make, shall we say, a unique personality here. In less soft terms, this game is freaking nuts. The cut scenes involve energetically animated, Photoshop cutouts of your opponents, all voiced with little grunts and hums. Your boulder itself has a strained face carved into it that gets more and more disgusting as you take damage. The artistic quality is silly, and technically it looks pretty good for an Arcade title.
The failing of Rock of Ages lies not in the art or humor, but entirely in its design, which is unsound most of the time. As mentioned, matches end after three hits, and I mean only three hits. While it may be theoretically possible to beat a level in less than that, I never managed to do it even with power ups and a great run down the track. This means that every match is really similar and the track layouts and humor can’t compensate for it. Even some intermittent boss battles, visually impressive as they may be, bow to the three hit rule and fail to create any healthy challenge. Instead, a difficulty spike in the regular matches comes abruptly, leading to multiple trial and error restarts that are only avoidable by precise placement of defenses, not skillful control. The enemy AI manages to maneuver hairpin turns, and snake through most defenses with ease, rarely fracturing or falling. Meanwhile you’ll get stuck in a gauntlet of hellacious stampedes, barrages, and blockades that are perfectly placed. I found myself cheesing and exploiting certain defenses and items to win since any sort of skill of control didn’t matter.
Complementing the uneven story mode are two multiplayer options. At least, there were two options at some point in time. As of this writing, Rock of Ages’ online multiplayer is completely dead on the Xbox 360. I’ve tried quick match, I’ve tried custom matchmaking, and I’ve tried hosting my own match; no one is playing. There is split screen, which has the potential to be great depending on who you recruit to play. You also get to pick different rock faces and historical figures when you play locally, which is a nice detail.
I’m all for some unorthodox games being released, but when design gets shunted for ridiculousness—and trust me, it gets deranged here—I can’t help but feel some more serious direction was needed. Rock of Ages is fun for a week or so until you finish the story mode, but with nobody to play against on Xbox Live it is a hard sell. There is a basic fun quality to Rock of Ages, but many structural issues chip away at that core, exposing some cracks that humor and silliness can’t fill. It may not last you long, but it will entertain you just enough to get your 10 dollars worth.
This review is based off of Rock of Ages for Xbox 360. I purchased the game during a 50% off sale, but it has since gone back to 10 dollars. I wrote this review with the current price in mind, since anyone who follows my advice--anyone? Bueller?--will have to pay the full amount for it.