One of the great pleasures in a guilty layabout's life is watching telly while playing videogames. It feels like multi-tasking because you're doing two things at once, but you're still not actually achieving anything at all. It's only possible with mediocre TV programmes that don't require much attention (so The Practice, not The Wire), and repetitive videogames without a narrative (Bejeweled, not Final Fantasy XII).
This month I have mostly been watching Wire in the Blood while playing Zuma's Revenge. Or rather, Zuma's Revenge!, as PopCap excitedly insists on calling it. Turns out this is an excellent combination. Zuma's Revenge! requires just the right level of concentration to occupy the left-brain, leaving the other half to jog along with the predictable plots of Wire in the Blood. The result is simultaneous absorption and total relaxation. There's something strangely soothing about enjoying the endless plink and pop of coloured balls while Robson Green shouts, "WERE THEY ALL ANALLY PENETRATED, CAROL?"
Or perhaps that's just me. The point is, Zuma's Revenge! is gently engrossing and quietly addictive, just like all the previous instalments in the series. The problem is, Zuma's Revenge is just like all the previous instalments in the series. That's only an issue if you're a veteran, though - if you haven't played a Zuma game before, you're in for a treat.
For those who aren't familiar, you control an Aztec frog who fires coloured balls from his mouth. He's surrounded by a string of more coloured balls which are scrolling towards a skull-shaped trap. The idea is to destroy balls by matching them up. Fire a single red ball into a group of two or more, for example, and they'll explode. Let's say there are a couple of purple balls on either side - when the red balls disappear, the purple balls will match up and also explode. In this way you can set up chain reactions and trigger multiple explosions.
Matching up balls adds more juice to your Zuma meter. Once it's full no further balls are released, so completing the level only involves eliminating the balls already on-screen. If at any point the end of the string reaches the skull trap, it's game over.
In the original Zuma there were four power-ups, each one activated by destroying balls with the relevant symbol. One caused the string to move backwards for a few seconds, while another temporarily slowed down its forward movement. The least exciting power-up indicated exactly where the next ball would hit, allowing you to shoot more accurately. The most exciting one caused an explosion, obliterating all the balls within a small blast radius.
All the above power-ups are present and correct in Zuma's Revenge!, along with a few new ones. Laser Frog shoots a powerful laser beam from your frog's eyes which can destroy individual balls. Fire the Lightning Colour Nuke at the ball of your choice and all other balls of the same colour will explode too. Finally, there's the Tri-Shot. This lets your frog fire three cannonballs which are powerful enough to destroy everything in their path.
All the new power-ups are fun to play with and handy to have at your disposal. The Laser Frog is particularly useful for tactical play, as it can be used to set-up bigger chains for later on. The other two are satisfying to see in action and can be invaluable for getting out of tight spots. It's a bit of a shame, however, that there are only three new power-ups to try out, and that none of them add any significant twists or layers of depth to the gameplay.
Other new features include the introduction of boss battles. These usually involve trying to make holes in the string of balls so you can get a clear shot at the boss, who fights back with various minions and projectile weapons. Makes a change, if not a radical one. The boss battles are enjoyable enough, despite the fact none of the first few take more than a handful of attempts to complete.
But the difficulty level ramps up considerably once you get above level 50 - not just with regard to boss battles but when it comes to regular levels too. The string seems to move more quickly and there are fewer opportunities to match at every turn, leaving you with many more odd-man-out balls to deal with. As a result you're forced to play strategically and think ahead in order to win, and casual players could lose interest at this point. Serious Zuma players should enjoy the challenge, though.
If you do manage to play through all 60 levels and the six boss battles, you'll unlock the two new (allegedly) modes in Zuma's Revenge! First up is Iron Frog Gauntlet, which features 10 specially designed levels. Each one is extremely tough to beat, with very little room for error. Iron Frog is billed as "the ultimate test" for Zuma veterans and it's certainly impossible to win without total concentration - you might even want to turn the telly down.
The other new mode, Heroic Frog, isn't really a new mode at all. It's the same levels you've played through in the regular Adventure, only now they're a bit harder - the balls move faster and you don't seem to get as many fortuitous colour combos occurring naturally. Dressing it up as something new and exciting is a bit cheeky.
So let's do a quick tally of what's new in Zuma's Revenge!: three power-ups, one extra mode and a bonus difficulty level wearing a different hat. The game has also been given a graphical overhaul - there's now a 1920 x 1200 option, 3D particle effects and widescreen support. Which is all very nice, and there's no doubt this is the best-looking Zuma game yet, but the appeal of match-three games has never been stunning visuals. Does anyone really care if the frog looks shinier? Or that PopCap has swapped the Aztec theme for a Tiki one? You could replace the diamonds in Bejeweled with potatoes and it would still be Bejeweled. Although the name wouldn't work as well obviously.
The overall result is that if you've played previous iterations of Zuma, it all feels instantly familiar. In a good way, like when you put on a comfy jumper. All the same, it's hard not to be disappointed that there's very little in the way of fresh ideas here.
Keep playing, though, and Zuma's Revenge! will suck you in just like the previous games did. After a few hours of play, which will feel like about 40 minutes until you look at the clock, you'll realise you're hooked all over again. PopCap may not have mucked about with the original formula much, but who can blame them? It still works and Zuma is just as addictive as it's always been. Put it this way, you don't hear junkies complaining that their last hit of heroin was a bit samey.
If you're a newcomer to the series, this iteration is well worth the investment. It's a highly polished game with instantly accessible gameplay, a smooth difficulty curve and some fun new power-ups. There's scope for both long-term strategising and mindless ball-blasting. It's also ideal for playing whilst watching grisly ITV1 crime dramas and wondering whatever happened to Jerome, anyway. It may not be a whole new ballgame, but Zuma's Revenge is certainly a fun one.
8 / 10