Version tested: Xbox 360
Falling blocks may be ubiquitous in gaming, but Q Entertainment always manages to do something interesting with them. In Lumines, players rotate tumbling groups of four to organise overlapping square-edged shapes, which are then rubbed away for points by a sweeping vertical line. In Meteos, individual blocks tumble from the heavens and have to be sent back there by arranging them into horizontal or vertical lines of matching threes, which are then rocket-boosted upwards.
Rather than fire and forget, however, players also have to give linked blocks enough oomph to escape gravity's pull, which varies from stage to stage in much the same way Lumines' cycling environments alter the speed of blocks and lines. Helpfully, if they descend again before they clear the top of the screen, it's also possible to manoeuvre the cursor into the sky and rearrange blocks for another surge. Alternatively, a rocket-boosted chunk that slots into a line of three when it returns to the floor is also turbo-charged upwards for a second time.
Because you can only move blocks up and down, and different colours are introduced to the play area in proportions dictated by your choice of alien avatar, it helps that you can also increase the game speed temporarily, using the right trigger like an accelerator, so that you don't have to sit around waiting for blocks to fall before you start rearranging. Meteos is also a competitive block-matcher, like Puzzle Fighter, so there's an AI or human opponent doing the same thing opposite you, trying to build up his or her score faster. Accelerating the play affects both players, and any blocks that escape into space rain down on the opposition for good measure. Not enough? There's also a yellow meter that builds up during play, and filling it allows you to launch a special attack, which complicates matters further for your opponent.
Meteos began life in 2005 on the DS, and there it benefited from the stylus, which could be used to drag blocks around as quickly and accurately as you could think or scribble. Restricted to the Xbox 360 controller, the developers offer a couple of alternatives - cursor movement with left stick or d-pad, block movement with face buttons or right stick - and while neither makes a particularly good first impression, a bit of practice and use of the sensitivity sliders hidden away in the menus saves the day. Sceptical veterans of the DS version may be surprised at the results, although it's still a compromise that won't be for everyone.
Less divisive, and sadly for all the wrong reasons, is the online multiplayer mode. Using Microsoft's excellent TrueSkill ranking system for matchmaking and leaderboards, with ranked and unranked match options, it should be great; local matches are short but fast and competitive, after all. However, the dearth of opposition a month after the game's release is nowhere near as depressing as the massive lag we experience every time we do locate an opponent, which reduces the game to unresponsive slow motion, so much so that we usually succeed by simply outlasting our frustrated opponent who quits in protest. Sadly it's not considered a victory, although we do share that view.
Otherwise, there's a short single-player Mission Mode with three difficulty levels, a Challenge mode that you play for as long as you can against hastening block-fall, and a pair of time attack variants. Oddly, the leaderboards for these are only accessible by retreating to the main menu, which would have been odd even before Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 showed us the way several months ago. The absence of the DS original's unlock shop is also disappointing, but perhaps not so puzzling when you consider Q's love of downloadable content.
There's still a good game at the heart of Meteos Wars though. Once we got used to the controls we enjoyed bouncing off Challenge mode and time attack, and the local two-player is another compelling option. Dashing around the screen starting fires and maintaining rockets is precise, focused work, and, thanks to typically excellent Q presentation, avatars bounce around wearing silly unlockable accessories, and along with the diverse soundtrack and reactive sound effects it all survived long enough in our affection to see us clawing for the numerous unlockable planets.
For Xbox Live Arcade it's not quite the return to last summer's form, and there are more substantial falling-blocks puzzle games with comparable production values elsewhere on the service (Lumines Live, for instance), but if you can look past its slender framework and online issues then Meteos Wars is a decent death blow to a few otherwise productive evenings, and more proof from Q that there's life in the old blocks yet.
7 / 10