Attempting to describe Rock of Ages without visual reference is nigh on impossible, such is the absurdity of the design Zeno Clash developer Ace Team willed into being. By day it’s a Super Monkey Ball, Carnival Games and Marble Madness clone, but by night it lives an alternate existence as a modern tower defence variant with a dash of the Katamaris. It’s a barking mad but entirely lovable abomination, and, like its stablemate, it’s a wonder that it ever made it to market.
The setup – such as it is – involves you taking on the persona of Greek character Sisyphus, or “that bloke doomed to forever roll a rock up a hill”, as some of you may know the legend. In this version of the tale, however, Sisyphus is more than a little narked by his captor’s tormenting pitchfork, and so decides to make a break for it – complete with his rock – through the nearest portal out of the netherworld. In doing so, he kicks off a series of battles against historical entities as diverse as Napoleon and The Plague, in which his only goal is to destroy the enemy’s stronghold by repeatedly rolling his boulder down an obstacle-strewn hill until their fortress gates crumble.
Go with it, you’ll be glad you did.
If that makes little sense however, maybe the gameplay foundation will provide a foothold. At its most basic level Rock of Ages is a Monkey Ball clone with incredibly heavy physics. Each of the five minute levels tasks the player with rolling downhill through maze-like obstacles, jumping over ravines, finding shortcuts and picking up as much speed as possible before crashing into the castle gate. A health bar trickles downwards as the rock takes damage from falling and bumping into objects, eventually shedding layers of granite, the consequence being that it loses weight and potency for scoring damage on the varied defences blocking its path. Go too fast then, and you risk smashing into something heavy and shedding mass; move too slowly, and you’ll easily be pushed off-course or lose too much momentum to make the final blow count.
At the same time, your opponent is attempting to roll his own boulder down a mirrored version of the terrain. In order to halt his progress you’re able to place defences during the down-time between runs, but once you’ve used up a terrain segment and its emplacement is destroyed, you’re unable to build on it again. Defensive units start with simple towers that block and funnel, but quickly expand to include wind turbines, dynamite, war elephants, money-making mines (currency is replenished between rounds and is topped up by destroying structures), and even wooden airships capable of calling in rudimentary air strikes. In keeping with tower defence tradition, each of those is levelled up three times throughout the campaign.
The flow then, is one of action and swift strategic planning. Each of the levels rewards deft gamepad skills as much as it does the ability to plot waves of defences, and both are so fast-paced that individual rounds (comprising of the roughly three runs it’ll take to destroy your target), rarely scrape past the six-minute mark. In keeping with that nature, controlling everything is as simple as manoeuvring the rock – or your cursor – with the left analogue stick, jumping or placing units with the A button, popping up a radial menu with the right trigger and manipulating the camera with the other analogue stick.
Even with those basics however, the 360 version exhibits a few control niggles that could easily have been avoided. Much like the recent From Dust, placing units is far too skittish and imprecise for the micro-management the design occasionally demands, whilst the viewpoint when trundling downhill is a little too close for comfort at times. PC users will find at least one of those obstacles circumvented with the mouse, but even then neither are hardly the end of the world. Rock of Ages trumps each of the those issues (and the occasional AI blip) through sheer distraction and madness.
Working your way through each of the Gilliam-esque animated levels is an absolute joy, with plenty of terrain variety keeping things interesting to the end. The short intro sequences that frame each of the protagonists are as utterly ridiculous as anything you’ll see in any medium, and there’s a playful spirit and willingness to embrace silliness that triumphs where so many attempts simply backfire. It’s funny, and effortlessly so.
Indeed the only major issue is one of content. Whilst single-player clocks in at a couple of hours in total (including three ‘boss’ battles of sorts), there is little else here to distract. A rudimentary Skeeball game mode is the only other offering, whilst multiplayer would provide a good deal of extra life if there was anybody actually playing. Try as I might I was unable to get into a game last night, despite loitering in my own lobby for a good hour or refreshing the list every few minutes.
Despite that inevitable problem though, Rock of Ages is still worth your money. It might not have the legs that some might expect from a downloadable title these days, but at least those few hours of singleplayer are guaranteed to leave a smile on your face. In that respect, Ace Team can definitely rock on.