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Rock of Ages review: Boulder dash


I hope an egregious museum mixup, or a sudden societal cataclysm, preserves Rock of Ages as an ostensibly accurate record of history. There's something inspirational about a timeline that repeatedly flattens haughtiness. "That's right, Jimmy," the teacher will say. "Some think that Marie Antoinette died in the guillotine, but she was actually stoned to death. Well, technically, it was just the one huge boulder that crashed through the castle door and then crushed her into an exquisite pulp."

The ol' crash-and-crush, accompanied by Mozart's "Dies Irae" requiem, is the satisfying conclusion to every match in Rock of Ages. It's a surreal, semi-strategic smashing game in which you steer an enormous boulder (complete with chiseled face) through cluttered and extremely classy environments. The ball is a sturdy companion to Sisyphus, who breaks free from his uphill toil and goes on a rampage throughout and over various eras of rulership and art. You're still peeling off bits of Giovanni de' Medici by the time you enter the Rococo period.

Gallery: Rock of Ages (8/18/11) | 13 Photos

While you attempt to put a full stop in your opponent's biography, they're rolling their own rocks toward your castle. Boulder attacks can be asymmetrical -- with each player starting in the middle of the winding level, facing each other's castles -- but they tend to match up in what inevitably becomes a frantic race. One boulder is not enough to break a castle door, so while another is being prepared you have time to purchase and erect obstacles on your side of the map.

These are meant to damage or slow down your enemy's rock, and should be placed in areas that are likely to get traffic. Towers can obstruct a narrow passage, elephants and cows can herd boulders off course, and enormous fans can create gusts of air that push an incoming orb over the stage edge (incurring an audible "AAAAAH!" and thus proof that these rocks have vocal chords). Smashing items, including innocent architecture and civilians (also innocent, I suppose), will earn you money to spend during the defense turn, but can injure your boulder and rob it of size, speed and impact.

The difference in damage caused to the castle door, however, seems negligible within the game's frantic war. Things move so fast that the strategic element can feel ignored, despite its potential, and though the quick rounds give the game an engaging pace they do erode more elaborate plans. Launching your boulder sooner, and using your money to encase it in fire or armor, usually works best against the campaign's bungling AI. An unfortunate side-effect of racing to the finish is that it embeds repetition within the campaign -- I won every match with my third boulder, every single time.

The clockwork gives way to more variation when you play against a human opponent, who is more likely to fill your shortcuts with devious placements of explosives and ballistas. The camera in Rock of Ages does a marvelous job of swooping between bird's and boulder's eye views, though placing items precisely on the grid from high up can be finicky on the overly sensitive analog stick.

Only light areas of the grid may be populated with obstacles. This is a welcome simplification, given how little time you have to assemble your obstacle course, but it makes for sparse object placement in some of the game's more unnecessarily complicated maps. There are so many routes and layers in latter stages that your finances come up short and your turns just can't be stretched out long enough. Put down an intricate, considered defense on the left path ... and watch your opponent take a right.

It's a clearly lopsided game, but the heavier side -- that is, the one where you control a big boulder -- is where it really charms. Playing a platformer as a granite sphere is an unusual challenge, and its weight is almost palpable. I'd go so far as to say that the competitive Skeeboulder mode, in which you race another rock and attempt to smash as many targets as possible, is the best part of the game. Rolling down narrow paths, building up speed and desperately pulling back when momentum threatens to hurl you off a cliff is the primitive joy at the heart of all the high-brow presentation. It's like spying a sweaty, shirtless Conan the Barbarian having escargot and langoustines in an upscale Parisian restaurant.

Rock of Ages is also worth playing for the sense of disbelief that results. Okay, the cheeky cutscenes couldn't have eaten too deeply into the budget (they make Terry Gilliam cartoons look expensive), but the question stands: How did an eccentric pairing of sullied history and cathartic obliteration get this far without some suit kicking down a door and yelling, "You're making a game about WHAT?!" Surely, this game's existence demands to be celebrated.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Rock of Ages provided by Atlus. It launches on XBLA on Wednesday, August 31, for 800 MSP ($10). A PC version is due on September 7, while the PSN version is coming "soon." Rock of Ages supports both online and split-screen multiplayer.

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