Astropop is yet another simple, fun game to make a seamless transition from Microsoft's original Xbox Live Arcade over to the 360, beefing up the puzzle line-up and giving us yet another game to compare high scores in the process.
Like most of the games you'll encounter over on the largely superb Live Arcade, it's easy to learn, and the sort of pick-up-and-play block-shifting puzzler that'll service the odd ten minutes of fun in between the more heavy-duty games. It's lightweight, but challenging, and has just about has enough grab factor to keep you coming back for one more go - especially if you're going for those all-important bragging rights on your friends list.
As with so many games of this ilk, the principle idea is to grab and group blocks of the same colour to remove them from the field of play - in this case a minimum of four. But rather than having to rotate or slide them, your 'man' (of which there are two to choose from at the start) can grab and stack up to six of the same colour and then place them above you on any of the columns descending towards you.
On the early levels the rate of descent of each row is quite forgivingly slow, meaning you'll have plenty of time to consider where to place each block, but after about the fourth level (of classic mode) it starts to get a bit hectic. With the threat of an impending Game Over, the race is on to grab as many of each colour as you can and place them back as quickly as possible. In doing so you'll cause explosions, chain reactions and combos to clear as much of the grid as possible before they reach your level.
To ramp up the challenge, the game starts to increase the number of different coloured blocks, as well as stone blocks that you can't pick up, and placing all manner of destructive blocks in among the regular ones. For example, some will help you take out an entire column or row, while others help give regular blocks an explosive enhancement or simply give you a points bonus.
As you progress, your chosen character's weapon charges up, giving you the ability to destroy a large portion of what's above you - and in turn the chance to recover a dire situation just in time. Every fourth round cleared unlocks new capabilities for your weapons, which helps to balance out the increase in the speed of descent and the much more complex array of blocks that inevitably follows each new level. In addition, you'll encounter a bonus level to clear within a time limit. On these occasions, you've got to remove all the blocks on an already-full screen, with nothing re-appearing to take their place. As much fun as these are, they give a hint of the possible omission of a puzzle mode - a strange decision given the small amount of content on offer already.
With each level (bonus or otherwise) over with in a flash, you'll soon find yourself having to cope with a series of increasingly frantic scenarios where luck seems to play an equal part with skill. Sometimes, a special block will appear just at the right time, setting off an improbable chain reaction that you really couldn't have seen coming. When you scrape by these levels by the skin of your teeth, Astropop gets quite exciting, but it's also quite a bind being robbed of a decent score because of the game's somewhat random nature.
To compensate, the game 'checkpoints' on the completion of every fourth level, allowing you to start over without having to play the too-simple early rounds. This is fine to a degree, but given that so many of the game's achievements are centred on your score, there's less of an incentive to make the process of clocking up a high score even harder for yourself. It's likely you'll find yourself pretty overwhelmed by the pace of the latter levels and not really want to run through the whole thing from the very start, but also mindful of the fact that starting the game from a later level isn't going to gain you the score you need to show off to your mates. Humph.
A far better idea - if you're into quick-fire high-scoring feats - is to cane the game's intense and condensed Survival Mode. Because the game kicks off at a much higher difficulty level from the word go, it's unlikely that you'll last all that long. To give you an idea, one of the main achievements is to survive five minutes (and another one at nine minutes). We managed about six, and that felt like a good effort, under the circumstances.
With so many power-up blocks thrown at you from the off, you'll find yourself pulling off Giga and Maximum combos with abandon (which the female voiceover seems delighted to announce, Unreal Tournament-style, with unwavering enthusiasm). The only issue is that half the time you'll not really know why so many fireworks are going off all over the screen. At first there's a real feeling of strategy to it, but once it gets going you're playing on instinct, luck, and no small amount of skill. If you can convince a few mates to get involved (Geometry Wars-style), there's a good chance the competition will drive you on to get stupidly good at it, but without that extra spur, the game's initial appeal can wear off pretty fast.
With no other modes to comment on, or even difficulty levels to play around with, Astropop is a fun, but ultimately short-lived experience that's missing the X factor of the best puzzlers to drag you back for long. And given the game's 800 point price tag, we'd argue that it's not the best bang for your buck compared to other games on the Live Arcade. For less than seven quid it's cheap, but maybe not cheap enough to really warrant a purchase. Download the demo for free and then decide - as ever - but you'll probably agree that crate of sugary fizzy stuff offers better value for money and a longer lasting rush.
6 / 10