Nothing divides Xbox 360 owners as much as Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service. Constantly derided for its lack of original output and for lazy ports of old arcade games that no-one liked that much when they were released five hundred years ago. And last, but not least, the fact that many of these titles are available for free on the PC.
Well, luckily enough, Switchball falls into exactly none of the above categories. It's original, it certainly isn't lazy (for the most part) and, although available on the PC, the price is pretty much the same on both formats. So there.
The premise is a simple one: navigate your way across the various maps, guiding your marble with the right stick. The execution, on the other hand, is interesting, challenging and very rewarding. The puzzles are well thought-out and certain parts had me stumped completely. The amount of thought poured into this game is breathtaking at times - 'innovative' simply doesn't cut it, in fact no superlative does. Suffice to say Switchball contains some of the most ingenious level design I have come across.
You can morph the marble into various other types of balls all with different properties designed to help you progress past the numerous entrapments that Swedish developer, Atomic Elbow, has laid in your path. For example, there's the Metalball which is useful for moving heavy blocks around, an Airball, which, when pumped with a healthy dose of helium, gives you the ability to float short distances - and, being very light, is handy for traversing weight sensitive ledges and see-saws. The Airball however, is utterly useless for moving objects, while the Metalball is far too heavy to climb steep slopes. After a few minutes of play, it becomes apparent that all the balls in the game have their strengths and weaknesses, and it is up to you to work these out and utilise them accordingly.
The single player game has five beautifully rendered worlds containing six levels of increasing difficulty. Complete all six levels, and you move onto the next world. The first two zones act as an introductory walkthrough to the main event, which is from the third level onwards. It is here the game becomes controller-breakingly difficult, as not only do the puzzles seem impossible to crack, the amount of hazards the game throws at you double. Just staying on the designated walkway becomes a challenge in itself.
However sleek the graphical presentation is, what really can't escape the eye is the amount of tearing - this is where the aforementioned laziness comes in. In a game that heavily relies on atmosphere by way of a melodic soundtrack and soft, dreamy colours, the v-sync tearing takes you right out of the experience and I'm baffled how it was allowed to get through testing. Make sure you download the demo first and see for yourselves.
Switchball's multiplayer offerings, meanwhile, add some more life to this title and offer a welcome break from the difficult single player campaign. There are four specifically designed co-op levels whose puzzles are only solvable by working together, and are a perfect demonstration of how to utilise Microsoft's Live service, as talking to one another and plotting your route are paramount. There's also a race option which pits you against up to eight players on four maps and much hilarity ensues as it becomes more about knocking your opponents off the course then it does about winning.
The Achievements are reasonably well spread about but many of them are concentrated around completing the levels as quickly as possible. This goes somewhat against the grain of the gameplay in my opinion. To me, Switchball is that lazy afternoon game akin to the Sunday Times crossword - not something to race around at break neck speed. Marble Blast Ultra, Switchball's nearest comparison, was much more geared toward this sort of gameplay, as many of the levels were built around flow and gradual acceleration. The Achievements do however add more life to the game and the completists among you will no doubt glean many more hours out of the game trying for those elusive gold medals on each map.
Xbox Live Arcade, no matter what side of the fence you sit on, is certainly a better place with a game like Switchball in it. At 800 Microsoft Points which equates to a couple of Big Mac meals and a side of chilli cheese tops, it definitely offers the kind of quality that some say is lacking at the moment at a more than reasonable price. However, do be warned that the game gets insanely difficult half way through and although the multiplayer modes are fun, it's fleeting. Although Switchball ticks all the right boxes in terms of things we like to see from an XBLA title, it won't be the unifier that it so easily could have been.