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Rochard preview: Gravity, don't let me go


Rochard is a game built on miner inconveniences. As spacefaring but down-to-earth excavator John Rochard, you'll learn that off-world facilities are designed to be as complex and diversionary as possible. Even a simple corridor finds an excuse to become a gravitational gauntlet, proving that engineers and game designers are almost the same thing in the future.

Of course, we don't actually want Rochard to lead a more convenient life. In a side-scrolling puzzle platformer such as this, there's irresistible schadenfreude in seeing the camera pull back to reveal a room of improbable, nightmarish construction. The fun part is in navigating that space, to untwist it as we bound upwards and upside-down.

Gallery: Rochard (6/29/11) | 7 Photos

Rochard has the ability to temporarily dampen the effects of gravity, turning the meager bounce of his portly person into something that athletes of the future will describe as "soaring" and "cheating." The effect is active for as long as you hold down a shoulder button, or until the fun, lightweight movement no longer serves a purpose. And the purpose is nearly always to solve a puzzle.

In addition to near-flight, Rochard's astro-mining gadgets allow him to carry levitated crates and other objects, the heaviest of which also require gravity dampening before they'll budge. The game moves away from crate-on-switch solutions quite early, and opts for more nefarious complications in what would otherwise be boring transportation busywork. Some color-coded energy fields only allow the passage of organic materials (mostly Rochard), while others only allow the passage of inanimate objects (mostly crates). It's important to remember that being barred can also work to your advantage -- you can treat a horizontal bio-barrier as a bridge and walk across it, whereas you'll fall right through an anti-object field and leave your cargo stranded above.

Planning your way around these barriers, launching your cargo through them, and then making sure to reunite with it at some point forms the fundamental challenge in Rochard. By the time you reach the game's second environment, a kitsch space casino, you''ll have already encountered several more mechanisms and learned a few tricks along the way. One of the most useful interactions is grabbing a box, turning down the gravity, jumping and then launching the item away from yourself as a propellant. Think of it as a safer, defused version of the rocket jump. (Yes, I know that sounds neutered, but it's fun.)

Aside from pushing and pulling on anything that looks like it'll fall neatly into place as a counter-weight, power source or platform, Rochard's gravity gun can also transform into ... a regular gun, I guess. Blasting away at bandits and automated turrets doesn't quite challenge the brain in the same way as the neatly designed puzzle rooms do, and it feels like an essential part of Rochard only in that it seems essential for a modern game to have some sort of shooting in it.

An upgrade station eventually turns Rochard's gun into a grenade launcher, which can quickly do away with the one-tone firefights. It's a welcome evolution, but an odd one when you consider some of the more creative ways in which you can dispatch enemies. How about lifting a crate, carrying it as a bullet shield and then dropping it on someone's head with a satisfying, slapstick clunk? What if you deactivate a bridge and drop some grunts into an electrified pit? You can do all of that, but it feels like the game is just as happy to let you shoot everyone the old-fashioned way. (Here's a general lesson, then: Try to be creative, even if the game doesn't pat you on the head for it.)

The different weapons also introduce a level of unwanted complexity in the controls. If you have the gravity gun equipped and come under fire, eliminating the threat can be a two-step process (change to the weapon mode you want, and then fire back). In the middle of a puzzle that turns into a gunfight, it's easy to get flustered with the different weapon modes. You'll also have to break through some inconsistency: you hold a shoulder button to enable low gravity, but picking things up with the gravity gun is a toggle on a different shoulder button.

I think practice will help ameliorate that confusion, and I hope that when Rochard comes to PSN this summer, the overall structure will keep the focus on sequential puzzle rooms and keep introducing new physics-based mechanisms. The introduction of new concepts occurred at quite a rapid pace in first two environments that I played, so I hope the game isn't too front-loaded as a result. Let's hope the shootouts grow into something that feels less obligatory, and more in line with Rochard's penchant for gadgetry and his habit of unearthing mysterious relics across the galaxy.

Having to shoot things in a game is hardly the end of the world, but it's definitely not the highlight of Rochard's antics. I'm more excited by the idea that some thoughtful fellow at Recoil Games has (or would like to have) a big map of all the puzzle rooms on his office wall, filled with notations on where Rochard should go and whether he should be on the ceiling or on the floor. That man's going to design some stellar space stations one day.

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