If only the rocks and boulders of the world could talk, the stories they would tell. Their grand exploits through time, being thrown by cyclopses at those pesky Greeks making an escape on their boat, clattering through the gates of Caesar’s castle and squishing him to death, racing Krampus’ representative boulder in a perilous assault course. Wait… what?
ACE Team are back once again with their quirky tower defence action platformer hybrid, wringing this concept out for everything its worth in Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break.
Rock of Ages III is yet another a wild and wacky journey through history, this time following Odysseus’ lesser known companion Elpenor as a heady cocktail of curses detach him from time and send him to encounter all manner of famous names on his journey. Wherever he goes, trouble follows, whether it’s his ship landing on top of someone’s castle or the giant boulder that lends its face to the game’s logo crashing through… someone’s castle. The story takes famous historical moments and spoofs them in a delightful Monty Python-esque style. Sure, it’s been done in the first two Rock of Ages games, but it’s still got some momentum.
There’s a set of six game modes in the game, but whether it’s the series’ signature War mode, Avalanche or Skeeball, they always boil down to being a remix of the game’s two fundamental sides. You’re either rolling a boulder through to a goal, crashing and smashing your way through scenery and traps that get in your way, or you’re setting up those defences to try and stop or diminish boulders coming at your own base, or a mixture of the two.
Rolling your boulder is pretty straightforward, with just your movement and jumping to worry about, but it can be surprisingly tricky at times. The courses are just strips of land atop sheer drops, and as they twist and turn or ask you to leap across gaps, you’ll have to manage your momentum to stop from being thrown off. The wild variety of traps and siege weapons that are arrayed in front of you only make things harder. Trap boards send you flying, mythological bulls lie in wait to charge at you, big cats dangling from balloons will claw at your rocky shell, and that’s before we get to the sticky cows.
You’re not always a boulder, but could be a cube, a wheel, a floaty balloon, a ball of sheep, or a giant stone fist. The choice is often put in your hands, with different rocks having different properties, such as the balloon being able to jump higher, or a ball of tar that leaves gloopy splotches wherever it lands. Most of the time, the safest bet is just going to be the default rock, but you can mix things up every now and then.
Turning the tables, it feels pretty darn tricky to stop an enemy ball from getting through the defences you throw together. The traps feel slow to react, narrow in their angle of attack, or like they’re going to be barely scratching the surface. Such is the tower defence genre, where you’re gradually whittling down the enemy and hopefully stopping them from breaking through. You’re not helped by the narrow tract of land on which you can place things, but picking the right traps to work in combination with each other, or maybe splurging on some of the most powerful ones can pay off in a close fight.
Thankfully for people rolling through the campaign, the AI doesn’t really put up too much of a fight, but that’s another thing when you head online and have to pit your wits up against another person in the multiplayer for up to four players. Joining other players is handled via personal invites or browsing public lobbies and joining them. It works fine, but can be awkward finding a match. When you head online, you’re restricted to boulders and traps that you’ve unlocked through the story.
The ‘Make’ from the game’s title brings a new and intriguing element. The creation tools are quite straight forward, letting you draw a course, fiddle with heights, pitch and tilt and then populate it with natural scenery and obstacles. That simplicity, however, leads to jump pads placed on a slope that clip into the floor, and the potential for some very awkward looking geometry in tight turns. A little more refinement wouldn’t go amiss here, but the best levels should rise to the top through some simple player ratings for curation. On day one, though, there’s not an awful lot of good or great stuff to be found.
There’s a similar lacking refinement through other parts of the game as well. Each period in the campaign has a particular rock remix of some classical music, which can drive to distraction after a while. There’s quirks to some game modes, so Skeeball feels like a straight up race because the second player simply cannot finish and score points, and several game modes are just too similar to one another, the game as a whole leaning too heavily on the ball rolling gameplay – Avalanche is a new addition that is purely about tower defence, but not enough is really made of it. Then there’s a handful of niggling bugs, the worst of which saw the game crash while I was creating a level, wiping out my entire creation.
The game looks pretty good playing on PC and home console, with the ground covered in a grass, your boulder leaving a lovely trail behind it, and the mixture of 3D scenery and 2D Pythonesque people cutouts to squish looks great, especially as the settings change. On Nintendo Switch you get something closer to the original PS3 Rock of Ages visually. You lose the grass, for one thing, but the resolution can often leave the game looking blurry, the frame rate doesn’t feel as solid, shadow pop in is very noticeable, and the UI is just painfully small and difficult to read in handheld mode.