It’s refreshing to discover that, once you strip away all the self-consciously weird stuff (the Gilliam-inspired animation, and the veneer of historical slapstick) Rock Of Ages is still pretty strange. ACE Team’s latest is best categorised as a strategy bowling game – and it’s both as unusual and as instinctive as that suggests.
With links to both Wii Sports and Desktop Tower Defense, Rock Of Ages casts you as Sisyphus, challenging you to roll a huge boulder over most of Western civilisation, taking out everyone from Plato to Marie Antoinette in the process. The problem is that Western civilisation likes to fight back, so while you steer your rock through their castles and keeps – the ultimate goal of each level is to bash down the door of your rival’s fortress – they’re steering their own rock through yours.
In the cooldown between each assault, you can switch to an overhead view of the symmetrical tiled course and place defences protecting your own fortress. Your mission is to find each level’s racing line, and then muddy it for your enemy. The weapons at your disposal are fairly limited, but they’re good for strategising and work well in concert. Placing elephants right near your own door may dissipate any speed your foe has picked up on his descent, but wouldn’t it be better to play dynamite pinball during bottlenecks in the hope of shattering rival boulders outright?
Complicating things is the fact that, once you’ve placed an item on the map, you won’t be able to use that tile again, and this gives matches a kind of cumulative claustrophobia. It’s not unlike the slow deformation of a Motorstorm course, only Motorstorm doesn’t have track furniture by Breughel, and it doesn’t greet each victory with Mozart’s Dies Irae. (At times, Rock of Ages sounds needlessly high-brow, but there’s an idiotic joy lurking in the way that millennia of art is recycled for a lo-fi Punch and Judy show.)
Boss fights are an unnecessary annoyance, however, and the game doesn’t grow steadily more entertaining as its courses become increasingly complex. It’s also possible to sidestep the strategic fun a little too often by relying on simple speed to win the day. Equally, as multiplayer beckons and the campaign heads into the Renaissance and beyond, you might catch yourself pondering whether squashing Leonardo is really that different from squashing Leonidas.
It’s possible, regarding this sense of perpetual, unchanging carnage, that ACE Team has simply stumbled on a splinter of dark historical truth – but if Rock of Ages eventually runs out of variety, it never runs out of charm. The game has a magnificent sense of momentum throughout, tugging you downhill towards the enemy’s gates and upwards through the strata of Western culture. It is an oddball offering in every sense.