Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Developer: Teotl Studios
System requirements: Windows XP SP2/Vista/Win 7, 2 GHz or faster CPU (dual core recommended), 1 GB RAM, graphics card with Shader Model 3 support, DirectX 9-compatible sound card, DirectX 9, 1.5 GB hard-drive space
Genre: First-person action-puzzle
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
Sometimes small developers can provide the only avenue to deviate from dominant gaming fads, even in their very first release. First-person shooters have fallen into a rut of late on the personal computer, what with an emphasis on ultra-realistic simulation of real-life human-to-human combat. In that context, Teotl Studios—a small Swedish game developer—has released an innovative twist on the genre. Reminiscent of two Valve games—Half-Life 2 and Portal—this new release with the unusual name The Ball attempts to provide us with a decidedly different set of fun challenges.
You play the role of an archaeologist working near a Mexican volcano. After falling into a hole, you find yourself within a cavern containing an indestructible metal ball. Amazingly versatile, this ball can sometimes pull large objects around, shoot out nails, leave behind a flammable oil slick, drop land mines, become red hot or electrified, or emanate a low-level gravity field. For your survival and progress, you can use the ball creatively to protect yourself or to reach otherwise-inaccessible areas. You totally depend on it like a trusted sidekick, as you have no other weapons or tools at your disposal.
The Ball offers Campaign and Survival modes and is single-player only, a relief from the multiplayer first-person craze. The Campaign mode has eight gargantuan levels full of intriguing puzzles and ensnaring traps, and is as much about intricate environmental puzzle-solving as it is about action. You collect 35 secret statues as you proceed, providing incentive to explore and insight into the incredible mysteries surrounding the bizarre subterranean world. The Survival mode has you simply trying to stay alive as long as possible, facing nine rounds on four maps involving intense combat, with enemies whose abilities sharply ramp up.
As an indie release, The Ball is really impressive. The graphics, using Epic’s Unreal engine, have a distinctly retro look, with nice dynamic lighting and shadowing. There are great visual details and cool cavernous environments. The ball physics are excellent. The imaginative enemies include zombies and huge boss monsters, often requiring the use of special ball abilities for success. The sound effects are extremely satisfying, especially those of machinery and of the ball crunching adversaries. You easily repel and attract the ball using augmented first-person shooter controls, and a clear HUD shows your health, direction, ball distance, and interaction possibilities.
There are just a few minor downsides to this offering. Following the console tradition, The Ball saves your progress only at predetermined checkpoints instead of allowing you to choose. The number of objects that you can manipulate or interact with in the underground environments is relatively small. Control of the ball in tight spaces can be difficult. The artificial intelligence of enemies is minimal, as most just run right at you. If you don’t locate enough of the secret statues, you miss a lot of the backstory. And the ending could be more epic.
What with its short Campaign mode (less than 10 hours), bargain price, and Unreal Tournament mod origins, The Ball might seem more like a desktop diversion than a full-retail game. But I consider it a polished, lovable breath of old-school fresh air within a PC game environment that desperately needs reinvigoration. Despite its Mature ESRB rating, the developer targets both hardcore and casual players; the puzzles and fights are not excruciating, there is little penalty for dying, and gore can be turned off. It would be a true strategic mistake not to gravitate toward The Ball as quickly as possible.