Version tested: Xbox 360
On the surface of it, Tetris Evolution is a splendid idea - classic Tetris gameplay with all manner of variations, enough unlockable achievements to incentivise even the most jilted puzzler, and a range of multiplayer modes that allow you to face off against people online, or play with or against up to three friends in the same room. From a connoisseur's point of view, the most important option is likely to be the one that toggles "lockdown" - enabling or disabling the ability to spin a block endlessly, and even walk it over the top of the others, thus giving you time to think and effectively allowing a competent player to continue indefinitely, no matter how fast the blocks descend. Sometimes you feel like enabling it and sometimes you don't, and yet even the mighty Tetris DS - probably the best recent "spin" on Alexey Pajitnov's classic puzzle formula - chose to keep it turned on rather than allowing gamers to make the choice for themselves.
However, for fans hoping to have stumbled upon the ultimate Tetris package, that option's inclusion is a false indicator. It's there, and the "store" function (allowing you to keep a block in reserve - always a touchy subject) is absent, but also absent is any real variety, style or substance beyond the original '80s Tetris game, which even the occasional puzzler has by now played to death. (On the outside chance you need an explanation: blocks fall from above and you have to stack them so they form horizontal lines, which disappear when complete.) Here it's called "Marathon", and while it's joined by more than half a dozen alternatives, none is much more than a slight variation.
See if you can spot any similarities in these three: "Ultra" is about clearing as many blocks as possible as quickly as you can (one, three or five minutes), "Race" is about clearing as many blocks as possible as quickly as you can (10 blocks, 25, 40), and "Score" is about clearing as many blocks as possible as quickly as you can (to hit 5k points, 10k, 25k). That leaves four others, the most distinguished of which are "Cascade" and "Eraser". The former has you clearing lines so that the blocks fall down and jam into the holes beneath to form a cascade, while Eraser gives you a certain number of lines to delete (4, 6 and 8). Elsewhere "Hotline" is about clearing lines at specific points on the rectangular board, and "Go Low" gives you bonuses if you keep the top of the pile low down the screen. Compared to Tetris DS, which was effectively half a dozen puzzle games of varying quality that had been inspired by the original puzzler, THQ's offering - put together by a company called Mass Media - is indeed more of an evolution than a revolution.
It's not exactly faster-stronger-better, though, and if it survived at the expense of lesser concepts then we can only imagine how stunted they were. The most exotic thing here is the range of video skins you can put on in the background - and if all you've ever wanted from Tetris was the option to watch a giraffe munch endlessly on leaves in the background, then fill your boots. Don't imagine I'm making that up, either. Although if I could pick one thing to dispatch from the memory and pretend never existed, it would actually be all the sinister, bouncy music.
Perhaps Tetris has been done so much now that Evolution's failure was inevitable, but we're hardly going to let developers off for putting together listless tributes, hacking in a few bizarre nature shorts and then begging for twenty quid - particularly since it's easy to imagine simple ways to improve things. One would have been to make good use of the achievements. In a high-scores game their presence ought to be a real boon, driving the player to work towards obscure targets, shifting the thrust of the gameplay in ways that simple rules-variations would otherwise fail to do. Some of the best achievements are the ones that are the most contrived, like Crackdown's game of carrying a car up a skyscraper, but Tetris Evolution does little of merit in this department either. The closest it comes is giving you credit for performing "Tetris" clearances - four rows at once - back to back, or back to back to back. Otherwise it's all high scores, and most will be out of reach even for seasoned players.
Xbox Live should surely rescue the game to some extent, but no. We struggled to find any opposition for all but Marathon mode, and unlike UNO there's no camera option so it's all a bit impersonal. Fortunately there are online leaderboards, but we're clutching at straws. Put next to the (unfairly derided) Lumines Live, Tetris Evolution is clunky, overpriced and devoid of compelling new features, and with the Xbox 360 controller's directional pad putting in its usual awkward performance, it's hard to think of a reason to recommend this to anybody.
4 / 10