Version tested: PC
Physics has given us many gifts. Paint cans that pelt across the room when you walk into them, fallen enemies who collapse into difficult yoga positions, see-saw puzzles, cowboy hats flying off, oranges you can throw at a soldier - physics has given us all these things. If the Large Hadron Collider does cough out a couple of black holes, on balance the end of the world will be acceptable payback for all the fun physics provided along the way.
Physics' latest, purest, and most brilliant gift is World of Goo. A game so utterly charming, so pregnant with charisma, and so simple in concept, that it belongs in another era. An era when everyone got a little bit excited about video games; when you'd find coin-op machines in your local pub, and everyone played them. An era when Pac-Man made the women put down their Cointreau, hoist up their petticoats and fling ten pees every which way but loose. An era before William's Defender arrived and scared off the lightweight with all those buttons.
So, World of Goo is simple. Levels begin with a small structure, and this is where you begin. Crawling along the struts of this structure, or sleeping around the level, are balls of goo. Pull off a goo and place it nearby and it'll eagerly attach itself to the main building. You simply repeat this process until you reach the level's goal - usually a pipe that hoovers up any balls of goo that come near it. That's it. Use goo balls to build to the pipe. Easy.
The first level is a simple, short climb - you can do it in three moves. The next level, a bridge. "It's easier than it looks," you're reassured. Pretty soon, you're learning the feel of the goo, and forging swaying structures around lethal windmills. You're bridging an impossible-looking gap, and plotting your escape from a creature's stomach. Every level, from all five chapters, feels like a learning process - but however ridiculous the challenges get, they're all still solved with that same simplicity, fairness and skill.
Look at those pictures. It's beautiful, isn't it? Everything. From the beautiful levels, which go way beyond the basic graphical expectations of "looking nice", to the charming-alarming cut-scenes, to the beautiful characterisation of those adorable goo balls. World of Goo isn't just beautiful. The world, and its surreal anti-establishment storyline, feel original and sincere. It's Tim Burton's vision of one of Roald Dahl's more amoral tales. The short music loops are fantastic, too. Alternately whimsical, dramatic and haunting. Think Danny Elfman's themes to Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands, and a few things in between. Basically, World of Goo has the soundtrack to a life I wish I lived.
World of Goo is the product of 2D Boy - a couple of guys in a tent - and while it's common to forgive indie developers a certain lack of polish, or finesse, there's nothing here to forgive; the game is slicker than most full-price commercial games. Some of the nuances are pointlessly deep. Pick up one of the goo balls. Hold it against the wall, and move it up and down. It'll rotate with the friction. Do it fast, and pull the ball from the wall, and it'll carry on spinning. It adds absolutely nothing to the game, apart from that polish, that sense of completeness. Similarly, the sound effects are perfect. Yelping, cheering goo balls make every move an event. The World of Goo, basically, is a raging pleasure to spend time in, and interact with.
Chapter Two takes place in autumn; and you're introduced to the beautiful - and sizey - female goo. The solution to getting this large girl into a small pipe isn't particularly nice, but she's docile, and doesn't seem to mind. Chapter Three is set in an industrial winter, and introduces explosive goo rocks and bombs, amongst others. The new goos you find vary in weight, the amount of connections they can form, stickiness, whether they can be re-used - and there's plenty more. I'd love to go on, because I've got these things in my head that I think you'll love. But I'll just be showing off. This is all stuff you should be finding out for yourself. Buy the game. Find out for yourself.
This is the second thing that makes World of Goo so unspeakably special. It's not a one-trick pony. If it were a pony - and we all know it's not - it'd be up some stilts, juggling chainsaws and pulling the flags of the world out of a hat made from rainbows. There's a constant introduction of new goos, and intelligently designed new ways to use the goo that you've got. No level, in any chapter, feels like you're needlessly retreading old ground for the sake of making the game longer. As a result, it's not the longest game in the world - but you'll love every minute.
So, the beauty of the game is just one piece of the jigsaw - the sense of constant accomplishment and awe at the new things you're being allowed to do is the other. It's only a two-piece jigsaw - it's amazing that so many huge development teams filter their ideas through dozens of committees, and spend millions of pounds getting it so wrong.
The progress is constant, because the basic objectives aren't too difficult. The levels can be challenging, but they present themselves in a way that gently nudges you towards the solution. And if you make a mistake, your moves create time bugs, which you can click to undo a move. Unlike, say, ooh, off the top of my head, Braid, there's no sense that you're wrestling with someone who's more keen to show off than keep you interested. But that's not to say that 2D Boy doesn't have the inclination to mess with your peace of mind.
Every level has an OCD criterion for proper completion. This might be to rescue a certain number of balls (limiting the amount you can use in your construction, or lose to the environment), or it might be a harsh time or move limit. Getting the OCD requirements gives the game a valuable replay value for hardcore types - more casual players will probably be happy playing through it again because the basic goo-building process is so enjoyable.
Which brings us to the final area - the World of of Goo Corporation. Every goo you rescue beyond the level's basic requirements gets despatched to this tower-building sandbox. It's a homage to the game's conception - a game prototype called Tower of Goo that's still popular on the Experimental Gameplay Project website. But it's also a brilliant psychological trick to get you going back to all the levels; the height of your tower in the Corporation is seen by other people as a cloud in their skyline. And you see other people's clouds. So you go back to all the levels, foraging for spare goo like some kind of oily hobo.
Let's mention a couple of bad things, for the sake of bloody-minded balance. Speed can be important on some levels, and if there's more than one goo crawling around, it can be difficult getting the one you want at speed. Other people will say it's too short, and compare the hours spent playing the game against the price, with a miserly tut. If you do that; if you've posted anywhere, on any forum, in any comments thread, that "it's a bit expensive for what it is", then please do me the service of punching yourself in the face.
If there's any justice, World of Goo will set the internet aflame and earn its creators a million dollars. The members of 2D Boy should be carried around in chariots while this glory lasts - because at some point, they're going to realise what a murderously high standard they've set for themselves, and run away forever.
9 / 10
World of Goo is due out imminently, and you can find out more - and pre-order - on 2D Boy's website. A separate WiiWare version is also out soon.