What do you get when you mix up one part Portal, two parts Indiana Jones, and top it off with a little hint of Pinball? You get The Ball, a first-person puzzler developed by the good folks over at Teotl Studios and published by Tripwire Interactive, makers of Killing Floor and Red Orchestra. On top of all that The Ball also achieved second place in the Grand Finals of the Make Something Unreal contest, as well as winning Best Single-player Mod Of 2008 in ModDB’s MOTY awards. With all this acclaim, it kind of strange that The Ball hasn’t been getting a lot of press.
This past weekend, Tripwire was good enough to send me a preview copy of their upcoming game, which is currently slated to arrive October 26. After spending a good deal of time playing The Ball, I have to say it’s a truly unique experience that you have to play to really get the idea of how it works.
The basic setup of The Ball is that you play as an archaeologist who is working on an excavation on the slopes of a dormant volcano somewhere in Mexico in the mid 1940′s. While exploring the dig site, you fall through a hole and are separated from the rest of your team. In order to get back to the surface with them, you need to venture deeper into the ruins and look for an alternate exit.
While exploring these ruins, you find a strange gun-like tool that actually functions like a hammer: your first hint that something strange is afoot. After venturing a bit deeper into the ruins, you also find a giant, almost mechanical looking ball. After playing with the controls a bit, you’ll discover that by left clicking you can punch the ball forward with the hammer. Right click, on the other hand, makes the hammer function like a magnet, attracting the ball to it.
As any gamer would expect, Teotl has designed each level to be full of puzzles and traps that can be solved or avoided by mastering these two functions of the hammer. At first the puzzles are pretty simple, consisting of things like rolling the ball over one button while you stand on another, but once you get out of the first level things start to ramp up. One puzzle that had me scratching my head for a couple of minutes involved getting the ball stuck to a giant magnet and hitting various buttons which would swing the giant magnet (and the ball) across a room via spinning platforms with more magnets on them. While this sounds easy enough, try thinking it through while being chased by undead Aztecs.
That’s right, you’re not alone in these ruins. As you venture deeper into the creepy ruins, you’ll find warnings written on the walls in hieroglyphs about some power locked within the ball by ancient visitors and other sorts of cryptic messages. Eventually, you start to run into monsters, namely mummified zombie Aztecs. Not only are these monsters fast, but certain ones can shoot fireballs at you, making running away pointless. On top of all this, you don’t have any weapons besides the hammer and the ball. So what do you do? You use the ball to crush them!
While some gamers may not like having to maneuver a giant boulder as a weapon, I found it fun and challenging. As I’ve said before, real horror comes from being powerless. Teotl has found a way to make you able to defend yourself, but, due to the clunky movement of the ball, you are not empowered enough to write off all the bad guys. I was frequently spooked out by these zombies despite being able to crush them.
A large part of being creeped out comes from the fantastically designed environments. At first, you will find yourself surrounded by the familiar rust color that populated almost every game nowadays. However, as you venture deeper into the ruins, you’ll stumble into some lush environments. At this point, that’s all I will say for fear of giving away some of the surprises The Ball has in store for you. Created with the Unreal Engine 3, The Ball features some pretty good visuals. They won’t knock your socks off, but they are effective enough to make the ruins feel spooky.
According to the information Tripwire gave me, the single-player campaign of The Ball will last around eight hours. So far, I’ve played about half of that and am enjoying it thoroughly. On top of the single-player campaign, Teotl has also included a survival mode. I haven’t really had a chance to play it for more than a few minutes, but from what I can tell, it will definitely extend the lifespan of this game. Not only are you trying to survive an onslaught of zombie Aztecs, but also alien/bug like creatures and giant worms. Because wielding the ball can be tough in tight hallways, Teotl has included various traps throughout each survival level. If you thought smashing zombies with a ball was satisfying, wait till you drop them down on a spike trap or crush them on a pressure plate.
When playing The Ball, I was frequently reminded of Valve’s Portal, not only because both games are first-person puzzlers, but also because of the way each game teaches you to think a certain way. In my short time with The Ball, I would frequently find myself having those “a-ha!” moments that were so prevalent and rewarding in Portal. It was almost as if you were to take out all the cuteness and charm of Portal and replace it with spooky environments and monsters, which is a good thing.
All in all, The Ball is a interesting take on the first-person puzzler genre. It has the learning curve of Portal mixed with a spooky story reminiscent of something out of Indiana Jones. Those of you who are interested should be sure to check back on October 26, when I publish the full review.