Review: Boom Blox

I’ll admit, as a core gamer, it’s been hard to love the Wii these past couple years. In between tent pole releases of huge franchises like Zelda and Mario, we’re left with the sour taste of third-party shovelware and mini-game collections I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. All that was before I played Boom Blox, and if this is what casual gaming on the Wii has the potential to become, then sign me up.

The first thing to point out about Boom Blox is the physics. Powered by the Havok engine, the towers that make up the levels of the game sway and react almost perfectly to whatever force you exert on them. If you throw a ball and dislodge a particularly critical piece of the structure, you’ll see the whole thing start to lean in that direction, and if the the weight shift is great enough and the momentum gets rolling, it’ll start to topple. The same rules apply to levels where you find yourself sliding out “blox” and trying to keep a structure standing (think digital Jenga); when you pull out a critical piece, the whole stack will bend and warp, and normally, all you can do is grab frantically at pieces trying to maximize your score before the whole thing comes tumbling down.

There is a great deal of variety in Boom Blox, and the tools and objectives remain fresh and challenging all the way through the single-player affair. While things start out simple enough with you trying to knock over towers of blox in as few throws as possible, things quickly ramp up as you face later stages that require you to carefully slide out pieces without upsetting the structure, constructing paths so characters can get from one side to the other, or using a ray gun or six-shooter to blast away incoming baddies. It’s the type of game that’s very, very hard to get bored with.

The single-player experience is divided into Explore and Adventure modes, with the former giving you the opportunity to try out all the game’s cool tools and features, while the latter strings together a few nonsensical stories that flesh out the objectives for the upcoming levels. Explore mode is the more thoughtful affair, often presenting you with a puzzle of blox laid out in such a manner that, if you think it through thoroughly, you can usually completely disrupt and destroy in one or two throws. Obviously, the game would be boring if there were only one type of block to hit, so the team devised a whole armada of blox, from point and penalty blox to blox that explode when they come in contact with one another and much more. The sheer diversity of the pieces will have you carefully pondering nearly every move you make.

There is something deeply satisfying about taking your camera and looking at a structure from all over, and then throwing balls at it until you have the “Aha!” moment where you discern how to bring the whole thing crashing to the ground. This feeling is augmented by the incredibly clever and detailed level designs, and some of the things you’ll see the blox do really makes you believe that the development team spent a lot of time and energy crafting these challenges, knowing full well the joy you would have wrecking them relentlessly.

Adventure mode is a bit more harried, as you will spend most missions trying to get your on-screen characters from Point A to Point B in as little time as possible. Of course, you don’t directly control the creatures: they merely amble toward their goal and you have to clear the path of blox or enemies looking to impede them. This mode also features some “defense” missions where you are tasked with protecting your team from baddies who throw bombs or break through blox, and some of the levels can get quite tense. The second-to-last mission in the last level sticks in my mind as especially stressful, as you literally have enemies coming in from all sides and nothing but a baseball and a few blox to protect you.

One thing that I noticed in both modes was a relentless drive to succeed. Each successful mission results in the awarding of a bronze, silver, or gold medal, and I found myself constantly retrying challenges simply to better my score. “One more try” turned into ten, and I would often look up at the clock, shocked by the realization that I had been playing for hours and hadn’t even noticed. The challenges in Boom Blox can be difficult, but they are never frustrating, and you always feel that you’re this close to getting it right and scoring the gold medal you were after. This is the sort of game you’ll come back to again and again; getting tired of it simply isn’t in the equation.

One reason the game is so immersive, and therefore fun, is the implementation of a near-perfect control scheme. In a standard level where you are throwing balls at towers, you first line up your shot by rotating your camera (used either by manipulating the control stick on the Nunchuck or holding the B button), and then once you have your angle you simply hold down A and make a flicking motion with the Wiimote. The speed of your flick will determine the strength of your toss, with throws falling into the light, medium, or strong category. While it can be tempting to throw with all your might, there are many occasions where discretion is the better part of valor, and you must use a gentle touch to nudge a piece away from danger without knocking off a penalty block, upsetting another piece that is precariously balanced nearby.

This precision also translates into the “grabbing” tool, which you use to yank blox out of rickety towers. Often times, you’ll want to jerk pieces out quickly in the hopes of minimizing damage, but this carries with it the danger of accidentally bumping other pieces, which at such high speeds can spell disaster. Indeed, sometimes you will find yourself carefully poking and cajoling out particularly critical pieces, being ever so diligent to not slip even the slightest. It can be a tense experience, but it’s truly tense in the best sense of the word.

For as much fun as Boom Blox is alone, it’s even better with friends. The game offers both competitive and cooperative modes, so you can attack the puzzles in any way you wish. While some of the shooting gallery events put all the players on the same screen at once, most of the other modes are turn-based, with each person trying to successfully knock out a block or remove a piece of the tower without sending the whole thing over. These modes make for great opportunities to trash talk other players (or offer reassurance in co-op) as they intently pour every facet of their concentration into making sure all of their on-screen movements are just right. Of course, you could just quickly yank their Wiimote as they try and remove a block, but that’s cheating, and cheaters get beatdowns.

Boom Blox even has something for aspiring game designers, as the Create mode allows you to create and finagle puzzles to your heart’s content. In the creator, you have the option of either importing an existing level to tweak and modify, or you can start with a blank canvas and create you dream level from the ground up. The creator gives you a full compliment of blox, balls, and backdrops, and playing through the single-player levels unlock even more tools. Best of all, when you finally create your masterpiece, you can share it with friends online and let them see if they can best your fiendish challenge. The only thing missing is the ability to put levels on WiiWare and let everyone share their creations with everyone else, but if you have enough creative friends with this game, they can likely keep you entertained for days anyway.

The only area where the game suffers any real setbacks is in its presentation, with frame rate chugs and blasé music ruling the roost. From a graphical standpoint, the game isn’t all that amazing to look at, but then how many Wii games are? The real hang-up comes during particularly intense explosions, as the game struggles to crunch the numbers needed for the physics calculations it brings things grinding almost to a halt. It becomes pretty obvious that while the Havok engine does a great job determining everything from the velocity of a falling block to the spin imparted on objects tagged in the corner, it is simply too much for the Wii to keep up with in this instance. Some would say that if such a case exists, then the developers should have dialed back on details in other areas of the visuals, but the truth is that they already have; the backgrounds and characters adorning the levels really can’t get much simpler than they already are.

The sound is equally unimpressive, with peppy-but-boring music making up the majority of the soundtrack. The sound effects provided by the animal characters that pervade the game are good for a chuckle (listening to a cow or sheep freak out when hit by a ball is priceless), but there just isn’t really much here. While I wasn’t expecting a John Williams score, I was hoping for something a bit more lively and interesting.

In spite of these minor gripes, however, Boom Blox stands head and shoulders above its competition in the casual market, offering one of the most fun and challenging experiences I’ve ever seen on the Wii. The sheer number of levels, along with their constantly varying objectives, makes sure the game never bogs down, and the multiplayer is just as fun and addictive as anything you’ll find in bigger name titles like Super Smash Bros. Brawl. So while we wait for the next Metroid or Mario title, I sure wouldn’t mind another helping of Boom Blox, as well as a whole lot less of the other drivel that’s out there.

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