In 2008, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 was the ruler (pun intended) of Xbox Live. It riffed on Asteroids aptly, mixing simple, refined shoot-em-up with a hypnotic techno frenzy. Like a three-legged pub crawl with tequila shots, it delivered in short, impelling bursts that kept you drunkenly chasing high scores through the night, or at least until your thumbs passed out. In short, it was a black hole of time in the best possible way.
After such a siesta, it's hard to see Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions outside of what came before. Oddly enough, it's a sometimes overlooked Geometry Wars entry, Galaxies, that brings the most enjoyable component to developer Lucid Games' revival: a dense, challenge-based campaign. In contrast, GW3's freshest defining quality, the third dimension, doesn't make the same impact. If you view GW3 in the inebriated, blurry lens of GW2 it comes up a little short. Take a more sober look at it, and it's a welcome, faithful enough return that you can still sink plenty into.
Switching from 2D to a Super Stardust HD-like 3D may sound massive, but Lucid doesn't reinvent Bizarre Creations' wheel. In some of GW3's levels you whiz across the surfaces of cubes, spheres and other 3D shapes, but the top-down modus operandi remains the same: Shoot lots of geometric enemies while dodging your way through the rainbow of carnage, collect green diamond "geoms" to increase your multiplier, and exponentially boost your score like crazy. With its countdowns, lives and growing waves of enemies, GW3 remains a test of dexterity, timing, and at its best, bravery. At their best, the 3D grids tie into that well enough.
The more seismic shift, even if it's more a reversion to similar mechanics in Galaxies, is the single-player Adventure mode. The 50-part campaign spans various gameplay types, some old and some new, to offer a deep series of diverse challenges. Each level has score-based goals that earn you ratings of one to three stars, and you need to collect enough stars to progress through the different sections of the campaign. In addition, the geoms you gobble up can be exchanged for upgrades in the form of companion drones and power-ups.
From the perspective of that emphasis on progression, Adventure works sublimely. Each level feels like its own esoteric beast, thanks largely to the ten or so different gameplay styles that span the campaign, but also because of inventive level design. One moment you're circling a dome to score as much as you can within a time limit, the next you're on a cube desperately trying to keep one life intact while dodging flurries of enemies and insta-kill moving walls. It's less a competitive pub crawl with tequila and more of an excessive wine-tasting party, albeit at a rave; lots of flavors, but you're still KO-d by the end of the night.
The more you play, the more you realize different drones and super attacks work better for different levels. You're likely to find one combination that fits for most – for me, the extra firepower of the Attack drone and the wave-clearing Homing super – but sometimes the grid layout may push you to the geom-grabbing Collect drone, or maybe the score-boosting Black Hole super. That adds another layer to the inevitable, post-binge retracing of your steps, as you try to three-star each level with your fully upgraded drones and supers.
Returning to try and best each level naturally leads you back to the competitive crawl. Each level has its own leaderboards, complete with in-game friends' scores to chase down. Still, it feels like something's missing here, something that ultimately ensures GW3 doesn't fuel the same kind of rivalry that defines its predecessor. It may be the lack of an overarching, cumulative score to tie all the leaderboards together, a la Pac-Man: Championship Edition DX. It may be a simple case of less is more. In GW2, the single-player start screen displays the game's six levels next to friends' leaderboards. In contrast, the GW3 Adventure menu is a maze of 50 numbered levels with star ratings displayed, so it lacks that immediate sense of your friends egging you on from the other side of the screen.
One counter to that, apart from "less isn't more, silly," is that some of the new gameplay modes in GW3 really stand out from the pack. Sniper and Claustrophobia are limited to just two levels in Adventure, but that's all they need to shine. Sniper is a one-life mode that limits you to a certain amount of bullets, ergo each shot counts. Claustrophobia has you squirming in a grid where the walls are closing in. They may be simple twists, but it's that kind of simplicity that lends itself to depth. Sniper in particular feels like an instant classic, chiefly because it feels so unlike anything else in the game. Like the enemy-dodging Pacifism mode, it forces you to revise your preconceptions of how to play, and try to work out entirely new strategies.
Talking of classics and Pacifism, in addition to Adventure there's the Classic Mode. This is essentially the six 2D GW2 modes minus Sequence, but given the GW3 visual makeover. While it's a welcome nod to the past, it's an odd sidekick to Adventure, which riffs on those modes anyway. A more critical oddity is the soundtrack, an unobtrusive but forgetful attempt to reprise the more considered rhythms of previous games.
Then there are the new 3D levels, the component that separates GW3 from what's come before. Some levels, such as the strictly spherical ones, fit perfectly and add a deeper awareness of the grid, especially when they're combined with moving obstacles. In other levels, and in particular the cubic ones, the camera feels unhelpful when you move across the shape. Despite how the game presents what's across the border, moving from one side of the cube grid to another can be an exercise in blindfolded bravado, particularly when things get cluttered and colorful with all the visual effects.
If you're coming to Geometry Wars 3 for multiplayer, you better have interested friends nearby. Co-op is limited to a local, four-player campaign with 10 levels, which is designed well enough but doesn't add much beyond the obvious. As for the online competitive multiplayer, the boss-based Stock and control point-like Summoner offer more interesting twists. Sadly, based on my efforts on Xbox One, you'll need patience and a fair bit of luck to matchmake a full four-vs-four game.
It's not exactly what came before, but Geometry Wars 3 earns its name, riffing, mixing and adding enough to satiate a thirst for intoxicating shoot-em-up. The more progress-focused Adventure definitely loses some of that competitive edge in translation, and that's certainly a shame, but it still has that instant, stimulating, rip-roaring flavor that puts the shots into shoot-em-up. It's quick, hot, and even though it kills your thumbs you come back for more.
This review is based on an Xbox Live download of the Xbox One version of Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, provided by Activision. Images: Activision.
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