Thursday, August 17, 2006

Marble Blast Ultra review

We're on day 4 already, and this time I'm reviewing the Live Arcade title Marble Blast Ultra.

Format: Xbox 360 (Live Arcade)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Garage Games
Genre: Puzzle
Region: All
Price: 800 MS points
Where to buy: Xbox Live Marketplace

If you've ever played Super Monkey Ball then you will be familiar with the basic concept of Marble Blast Ultra. Guide your spherical object around a maze of obstacles and try and get to the goal within the allotted time. MBU does have a few differences however, such as the inclusion of gems scattered around certain levels which you have to collect before the goal becomes active, or a slightly different feel which stems from the fact that you are actually directly controlling the marble this time, rather than tilting the floor. It's your task to make your way through 60 increasingly tough stages (grouped into sets of 20). To start with you will probably just concentrate on finishing each level, but later you can attempt to be the par time for each stage, and once that's done you can still try to get to the top of the Xbox Live leaderboard.

The levels can really get quite fiendish later on.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
When Xbox Live Arcade was first unveiled most people imagined that the games would all be 2D in nature. After all there's a 50mb size limit on each game, so it would be pretty hard to fit anything 3D into that restriction. But, thanks to the bespoke shader engine that developer Garage Games have developed, not only is Marble Blast Ultra in full 3D, but it features quite detailed texture maps, and everything has a polished sheen to it. The marble itself it particularly life like. Some levels even have you rolling around on ice which looks just as you'd expect - all cold and slippery.

Everything moves along at quite a pace too - I've never experienced any slowdown in the game, even in the online mode (more on that later).

Sound and Music: 6 out 10
Functional, but not offensive is probably the best way to describe the sound in Marble Blast Ultra. There isn't really anything that will get on your nerves, but then again there's nothing astounding here either. The squeaking sound of the ball as it rolls on ice is quite cool I guess. The music is a selection of upbeat dancey tunes which again are hardly a revelation but probably won't make you reach for the mute button in disgust.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Besides what I have already mentioned at the start of my review, Marble Blast Ultra brings a few new ideas to the "Marble Madness" genre (for want of a better term). The main difference between this game and similar titles are the range of power-ups. This include speed boosts, gyrocopters for gliding across gaps, giant balls which make certain areas easier to navigate (or make it easier to smack rivals off the level), and an ultra blast. If your blast meter is full enough, you can pull of a special move which gives you a bit of extra height on a jump, or repels rivals in multiplayer mode. The ultra blast is an extra powerful version of this move which can send enemies flying off the level altogether (they do come back after a few seconds, but that can often be enough time to clinch the victory).

I've already mentioned the gem collecting earlier in the review, and this forms the crux of the online multiplayer battle mode. In this mode, gems randomly appear in the level, and the players have to race each other to pick them up. Once all of the current gems have been snaffled up, another set appears elsewhere in the stage and the players all race off once again. There are red gems worth one point, yellow ones worth two, blue ones worth 5 and probably more that I haven't seen yet. The power-ups from the single player mode all return in multiplayer and can make all the difference when it comes to winning or losing. It makes for a fast, fun game that is a great complement to the single player game, and gives you a reason to keep playing once all 60 of the puzzle levels have been beaten.

The Achievements in Marble Blast Ultra include beating the levels, beating the par times, winning online games, getting a certain score in multiplayer and so on. They aren't as inventive as some games doing the rounds but they do give you a little incentive to try and finish the game.

MBU is definitely one of the better looking games on XBLA.

Innovation & Cleverness: 7 out of 10
The basic time-trial game of getting a marble (or monkey in a ball) has been around for years, but the inventive power-ups and multiplayer mode helps set Marble Blast Ultra apart and stop it from becoming simply a "me too" title.

Value & Replayability: 8 out of 10

60 levels isn't really a whole lot compared to the 100+ plus featured in the Super Monkey Ball games, but when you remember that they cost £30 at least, and Marble Blast Ultra is only about £6, you can't really grumble. There is some replay from trying to beat the par times, and the leaderboard is a nice touch. Then you have the multiplayer mode which you can come back to for as long as you want. The great thing about this game is that it's readily available to all Xbox 360 owners that are online and is very cheap, so they'll never be a shortage of people to play against. It's a shame you can play against a friend locally, but I suppose we can't have everything.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Marble Blast Ultra is definitely one of the better games available on the Xbox Live Arcade, and I highly recommend checking it outespeciallyly if you're a fan of the Super Monkey Ball games or even the classic Marble Madness. Rather than being a rehash though, MBU does have enough new elements to make it worth having a go even if you already have those games on other formats.

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