Out of the blue
When I first heard about Clusterball, it was through a friend who had spent a four day weekend moping about the house becoming quietly addicted to the thing. He stumbled upon Clusterball.com in the dead of night on Friday evening, downloaded the game and before the end of the next morning had blown a wad of cash at the developer's website to get hold of extra arenas. Clusterball is unique amongst shareware, with marketing based almost entirely on word of mouth and a revenue structure that focuses on added extras. Players get the game for free, but initially only a few playing fields are open to them. A few pounds gets you another though, and then a few more another. So many people have now succumbed to Clusterball that developer Daydream Software have finally found a publisher and started to distribute the game through retailers. Thanks to Koch Media's Virtuoso group, the game will shortly be arriving on your local gaming emporium's shelves at a wallet-friendly price, and if you're sick to death of mind-numbingly repetitive first person shooters and real time strategy titles, you might want to give it a go. Clusterball is a future sport, but not in the classic sense. Instead of taking away your legs and giving you an orb, or putting you on skates and forcing you to play hockey with electric tazers or something, the game sits you in the cockpit of a highly manoeuvrable aircraft and asks you to collect as many floating magnetic balls as possible before depositing them in a nearby scoring hoop. After an interval, the balls respawn and the mad dash begins again. Up to eight players can be on a server at once, and to make things interesting pilots can also spend time collecting a plethora of weapons and power-ups scattered about the arena, so that if he spies wily pilot number one heading towards the scoring zone with a few balls in tow, he can head him off and pinch his load.
This simple sporting concept is backed up by flawless execution and some entertaining distractions. The cunning thing about combat in Clusterball is that you can't just blow up a ship using air-to-air missiles and laser fire, only by direct contact. You have to coax them into crashing of their own accord if you want to steal their balls. As such, most of your weapons are diversionary and most of the power-ups are turbo boosts and the like. My favourite has to be the reverse control missile - shrugging off the interests of a nearby fighter is damnably troublesome if your left key sends you veering off to the right and by pitching up you nose-dive into the deck… Generally speaking, the level design is based around hypothetical 'runs'. Each player pilots their craft along a particular route at breakneck speed, avoiding its obstacles and scooping up its bounty. The more efficient your path through the various runs the more likely you are to score, and with up to eight other players in your face at any one time, things can get pretty hectic. Add in the unpredictability of a turbo boost for instance, and you've got a fight on your hands.
Each area is superbly modelled, be it Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal or the Arctic circle and the texturing, while extremely simplistic, is also extremely suitable, because picking out your enemy or your goal against the backdrop should never be difficult in a game like this. Engaging visuals aren't really the focus of Daydream's efforts; the gameplay of the title is what determines its success or failure. And this is unfortunately an area marred by a glaring imperfection: the physics engine. Frankly, it doesn't do enough to make you feel like you are in an aircraft, and as a result the game isn't as exhilarating as it could be. You feel as though you're piloting a little chase-cam from Counter-Strike rather than an actual aircraft. This may take a bit of getting used to if you are approaching the game from a flight sim background, but curiously it's very intuitive to the first person shooter fans. Perhaps the recent slump in decent multiplayer FPS games is the major reason for Clusterball's success. The thing that really sold Clusterball though is the network code. Clusterball is not a single player game. There is nothing you can do without a network or Internet connection. Of course, a network is best in terms of atmosphere, but there is virtually no difference between network and Internet play in terms of performance. Amazingly, thanks to their new network API "Autobahn", Daydream claim that a server can be hosted on a 56Kbps modem, because clients only need 9.6Kbps to play. And lo, although it took a while to get it working, limiting my ever-dignified Pace 56Kbps modem to a pitiful 9600bps baud left me still quite capable of hooking up to a server running on a friend's ISDN. It wasn't perfect, but to my amazement it was vaguely acceptable. Slap it on the ADSL line and you could host plenty of Clusterball servers, making it the perfect game for those frustrated by the slothful rollout of broadband in the United Kingdom.
One of the biggest complaints that fans of the game have cited is the in-game advertising. It's another part of Daydream's exceedingly clever revenue structure - selling 'live' advertising in game servers (which of course can be updated during a game from new data on Daydream's servers), but it is rather intrusive, and some might argue spoils the experience a touch. Clusterball really is a success on the whole though. You can pick it up fairly quickly, and unlike a lot of recent games that threatened to be promising in multiplayer but failed due to lack of players, the Internet is teaming with interest! Clusterball.com, the centre of the whole experience, is home to thousands of users, and I've never had any trouble finding a game. Thanks to the low system requirements, low bandwidth requirements and addictive gameplay, the retail release of Clusterball should be an enormous success, and as I said at the outset, if you're bored of defusing the bomb and saving hostages, you'll find some respite here in the run up to Christmas.