"Look at the games on that," says random person about Xbox Live Arcade content, "I used to love playing [Retro Classic] when I was a [certain age]." It's a statement that's hard to argue against when you consider the catalogue of titles available from the Marketplace, but are these remakes pigeon-holing the service as one for just regurgitated gems?
Naked Sky Entertainment is one developer who wants to move XBLA into a new light, by offering what many believe to be the first next-gen Arcade game, Roboblitz. This 3D mechanical platformer-cum-shooter is powered by Epic's Unreal Engine 3, which flaunts shiny graphics and real physics, better known for its dazzling display in Gears of War. Licensing such technology isn't cheap, and puts the title on wobbly ground. At 1200 Microsoft Points (GBP 10.20, EUR 15.11) it may well find itself answering more daunting questions than its cheaper brethren would receive; does it offer significantly more? Is the price necessary or is it expensive? Simply, is it worth it?
Roboblitz tells the story of Blitz, a robotic technician on the Space Cannon Facility of the Opera Point Orbital Defence Station. We'd never heard of it either, but it appears to have been put in place to defend Earth from all of the baddies in the Universe. Unfortunately Space Pirates have still managed to find their way to, and hijacked, this little slice of paradise. It's now down to the 'wheely' talented Blitz to save the day by restoring the station's various facilities, enabling the giant cannon to once more shoot into the faces of the enemy.
In total there are 19 levels to conquer, and as you progress through these you'll get your robotic pincers on 'upgradium', little money-like collectables that determine your score and act as currency for buying upgrades - as the name suggests. You can spend these on all sorts, blissfully browsing through protective armour, better jumping capabilities, a faster wheel, and new weapons.
You're also in for a treat from Karl, the mechanical chap whose workshop you obtain these bits-and-bobs from, as he rewards your hard work with a tractor-beam, probably the most essential and fun addition your robo-champion will brandish. This isn't to say your other new toys are ineffective; they all make a solid impact, and are a necessity if you want to tackle the harder difficulty.
Six of the seven different environments are split into three sections - two puzzle stages and one boss encounter. Generally the conundrums are well designed. Whether you're floating on air currents from giant-fans, magnetically traversing up the sides of massive mechanical structures, or directing powerful laser beams, the solution-finding consistently proves to be the game's most entertaining asset.
Less enthralling are the repetitive boss battles. Unlike the swathe of irritating cannon-fodder enemies, which are invisibly triggered when you solve a puzzle or wheel over a checkpoint, NOEDs can't be blasted out of the sky with regular weapons: instead there are three sequential scripted parts that must be completed if you wish to best these gun-toting flying faces. The strategies can be surprisingly varied, and Karl's hints, which are available by pressing the back arrow (and can also be turned off in the main menu), are invaluable. However, the difference between knowing what to do and actually carrying it out is one that exposes Roboblitz's weak underbelly, his 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde', the Unreal Engine 3.
The graphics are very impressive for an Arcade title, despite the presentation being somewhat bland and uninspired. We're clearly in next-gen territory, and it's nice to see the console's capabilities being tested. Yet it's the game's supposed strong point, the advanced physics simulation, that really lets the side down. At its best it can produce glimpses of the creative freedom for solving tasks that it so proudly promised, but all too often it has the inverse effect, making sections frustrating and tedious.
Navigating simple areas like corridors can feel claustrophobic, as you clatter from wall to wall, snagging body parts and picked-up objects on protruding ledges. It's lucky that the easier gameplay difficulty lets you explode into little pieces as many times as you like, as you will, and not because you didn't know what to do or because you made a grievous error. It's this added obstacle, so fundamental to the game, which makes the overall experience feel clumsy and difficult to control.
Similarly to other Arcade titles, Roboblitz has a possible 200 gamerpoints on offer. The real question is whether you will want to earn them. It is a repetitive and arduous experience at times, and you will be expected to brave the Master Technician difficulty, which sends you back to the beginning of each level when you die, if you want to earn the big bucks. Replaying sections with new gadgets to collect previously unreachable upgradium is a lengthy process, and with multiplayer and other downloadable content promised by the developer, but not yet implemented, there's not a lot here to keep you interested.
It really is refreshing to see Microsoft's downloadable service encouraging and supporting teams like Naked Sky Entertainment to produce products like this. While not as essential as a title like Geometry Wars, Roboblitz can still be a charming and enjoyable experience, definitely setting new precedents for future Arcade releases. However at times it feels a little too much like an Unreal Engine 3 tech-demo than a game in its own right, and coupled with a rather high asking price we'd argue that your money might be best spent elsewhere.
Roboblitz is also available on the PC for GBP 7.71 (EUR 11.43) from the game's website, and exclusively includes a customized Unreal Engine 3 Editor.
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