Tom Quirk plays a lot of video games, but when he isn't, he is reading fantasy novels and watching way more television than is healthy.
Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch,
July 21, 2020
ACE Team, Giant Monkey Robot
The Rock of Ages franchise has always been kind of difficult to fit in a box. Combining elements of platformer, racing game, tower defense and bowling, the series has so far proven to be more than the sum of its parts. With Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break, ACE Team and Giant Monkey Robot have taken the classic formula and introduced level creation tools for players to create their own courses to share online. While this third installment is still a lot of fun, the new features don’t add too much to the experience.
Rock of Ages 3 doesn’t so much have a plot as a loose series of absurdist skits to explain why everyone is rolling big rocks at one another. The single player mode follows Elpenor, companion of the Greek hero Odysseus. After escaping the island of Polyphemus, the cyclops, Odysseus is crushed by a boulder, and Elpenor commandeers his ship as it is accidentally set adrift in time by the Greek god Poseidon. What follows is a series of bizarre scenes of Elpenor meeting various historical and mythological figures, getting into some kind of confrontation, and settling it by trying to crush one another with giant boulders. Y’know, like anyone would in that scenario.
Each cutscene is portrayed in the limited animation style found in the animated bits in the works of Monty Python. The game’s absurd sense of humour, as well as its wealth of in-jokes for fans of mythology and history, also feels very Pythonesque. I found unlocking the next scene to be strong motivation to power through the story mode and find out who Elpenor would encounter next.
Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break has 6 different game modes, with the War mode being the most engaging. War is like a tower defense game where each player is attacker and defender at once. Players must guide their boulder down a linear track to break down the door of the enemy castle. Once the door is broken, your enemy leader lets out a high-pitched shriek, then you squash them flat. Each combatant can place obstacles on the enemy track. Enemy boulders become resistant if you use the same obstacle type over and over, encouraging a varied strategy.
I liked how you can choose when to switch from obstacle placement to rolling the boulder. It creates a tension between rolling the boulder as early as possible to brute force the enemy door down, or to place as many obstacles as possible in the enemy’s way and play more cautiously. The little picture-in-picture camera following the enemy boulder as it rolls right into your traps is also a nice touch.
Rock of Ages 3’s other modes include Skee Ball, Obstacle Course, Time Trial, Avalanche and Humpty Dumpty. The first three of those modes challenge your boulder rolling skills in various ways. Avalanche, on the other hand, highlights the tower defense aspect, where you guard your castle from waves of enemy boulders. Humpty Dumpty mode is something else entirely, being more of a standard platformer where you try to guide the fragile nursery rhyme character to the goal unscathed.
There was a decent variety in the kinds of boulders and obstacles you can choose from. My favourite “boulder” wasn’t really a boulder at all, but the Prehistoric Wheel, which was incredibly fast, but difficult to turn. Obstacles can also be upgraded, and range from conventional spring traps and cannons, to weirder fare, like whales and cows.
The single player mode’s difficulty curve can feel inconsistent, with some challenges being a breeze if the often spotty AI makes dumb decisions or gets stuck in the terrain. The small number of challenge types lends Rock of Ages 3 more to shorter play sessions. If a particular section was annoying me, it would often help to try a different mode for a bit and come back later.
“…the physics engine can feel often arbitrary and awkward.“
Of course, the main new feature of Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break is user-generated content. I found the level creation tools to be reasonably intuitive. However, the physics engine can feel often arbitrary and awkward. This leads to a lot of trial and error when setting up big jumps and other intricate level features.
There are already some interesting user-created levels out there, ranging from the simple to the impressively complex. That said, the tools feel somewhat limited in scope. For instance, I was disappointed that you can only create levels using one of the already existing game types. Don’t expect much flexibility in terms of win conditions or new challenge types.
I played Rock of Ages 3 on the Nintendo Switch, and it is a mostly good version. After the day one patch, the performance visibly improved, although the frame rate can still drop noticeably in the busier stages. Overall, Rock of Ages 3’s gorgeous cartoony art design and energetic rearrangements of classical music helped it look and sound great, even in handheld mode.
On the other hand, I found the tiny menu text bothersome, making it difficult to compare boulder stats. It is especially strange considering how the boulder select interface is squashed onto one side of the screen, leaving all this free screen real estate the game could have used. The shrunken menus might be excusable in local multiplayer, but not so much in single player.
Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break continues the series’ strong track record, and if you enjoyed the previous two entries, then you will likely also enjoy this one. When it works, Rock of Ages 3 is an exhilarating and strategic battle of wits and reflexes against your opponent as you whittle away their defenses with your giant boulder.
However, the experience is often marred by weird AI, inconsistent difficulty curves and a small number of challenge types. While the introduction of user-made content is appealing, the available tools lack the creative potential of, say, Super Mario Maker 2. That said, I still had fun with Rock of Ages 3, and can recommend it to anyone looking for some bite-sized entertainment that feels quite unlike most other games out there.