We can vividly remember seeing Hollywood director Steven Spielberg at the Electronic Entertainment Expo two years ago, but we assumed he was there as an observer. Little did we know he was visiting the booths of the Big Three in order to hatch game ideas that would eventually be born to life in an exclusive three-game deal with publishing giant Electronic Arts. Two years later, we still know very little about Spielberg's Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 project, except that it will feature science-fiction elements and that Spielberg hopes its characters will be so compellingly rendered that players will actually feel deeply for them.
We do, however, know a great deal about the other game, a Wii-exclusive effort that couldn't possibly more different than Spielberg's other concept. It's called Boom Blox and it's a physics-heavy puzzle game that makes great use of the Wii remote. By now, you've probably seen the new trailer and possibly even eyed some new screens, but you might still be wondering exactly how it all plays. We recently journeyed to EA LA's southern California headquarters to find out.
At first glance, Boom Blox looks like a psychedelic recreation of the game Jenga, but this initial impression hardly does the game justice. EA's title is first and foremost in an entirely different quality league than the already-released Wii game Jenga -- a disappointing mess -- but there is also much more to Boom Blox than initially meets the eye. True enough, you do manipulate stacks of 3D blocks (actually referred to as Blox), but you also grab them, blow them up, shoot them and even attempt to ignite chain reactions, knocking pillars of blocks over in succession. The fewer moves you make to clear a stage of blocks, the more points you gain.
Boom Blox plays so well for two reasons. First, the game smarty uses the Wii remote. To knock blocks around, you throw uniquely heavy and dense objects at them, from baseballs to bowling balls and even explosives. To do this, you simply point at the block you want to target with the Wii remote, press A, and then make a throwing gesture. The game very accurately measures the power of your throw -- a mechanic that so many developers ignore -- so that you can actually apply different degrees of light and heavy power and amazingly, it just works. Several times, we failed to knock blocks down because our throws were too weak and when we finally started hurling more powerful balls at the puzzle pieces, they reacted accordingly.
The second reason Boom Blox is good fun is that all of these puzzles come to life using the Havok physics engine. The 3D stacks all have realistic physics to them and will react accurately to your input. For example, you can actually choose to target the edge of a block, make a heavy throw, and if your aim is true, the piece might just spin outward from the angle you hit it. Alternatively, you could target the middle of a block and make a heavy throw, and the piece would more likely be pushed backward. On top of this, the different items you can hurl at the blocks also feature unique physics. For example, a bowling ball will send blocks flying even as a baseball will barely move them. There's even a bomb-ball that will detonate upon impact, exploding any nearby blocks.
Boom Blox is played with the Wii remote. The nunchuk is not necessary, but you can use it if you want, at which point you will gain access to one extra control feature -- the ability to go into a bullet-time mode and look at puzzles in mid-explosion (this is shown in the trailer). We already detailed how to make throws, but you can also control the camera simply by holding the B-trigger on the Wii remote and then pointing at the screen to drag the viewpoint. This is useful for looking at stacks from every angle, since you always want to target the weakest blocks in order to setup chain reactions. In addition to throwing, certain modes will require you to drag and remove blocks pieces Jenga style, except EA's mechanics work far better than those in the aforementioned Wii game.
There are a few more very important pieces to the puzzle, as it were. First, there is the very concept of "Blox," which describe both the 3D stacks themselves and mobile block-like characters who actually walk about levels. The objects you throw feature unique attributes and so do the blocks. For example, red blocks explode on contact, purple blocks vanish after they are hit, and green blocks ignite gaseous chemical reactions. There are more than a dozen different block types in the game and they dramatically change the way each puzzle is played. If you're smart, you will be able to string together chain reactions using fewer throws. Then, of course, there are the characters, of which there are more than 30, all with different attributes. A grim reaper-like block will walk around levels and attempt to kill any other block characters. A chicken block walks around and lays bomb blocks. The happy dog block protects good characters, so it would actually fight off the grim reapers. Beaver blocks seek out bomb blocks and detonate them. The list goes on, and you can begin to imagine the types of scenarios that these mobile characters help foster.
Boom Blox really shines as a multiplayer experience and thankfully the majority of levels support up to four players, with only a few exceptions. The IGN Nintendo team played several rounds, the goal being to knock over the majority of blocks, all of which reward points. We found that there is a surprising amount of strategy to accurately knocking over blocks and you will inevitably look at the pieces from different angles and contemplate targeting different areas of specific blocks. The Havok physics also set up a number of chances to string together chain reactions. You can, for instance, bounce a ball off one stack and conceivably into another, hitting two stacks in one throw. You can also topple one stack into anther to create a domino effect. When asked by EA if we wanted to move on to another mode or keep playing, we chose to keep playing, which is a testament to how much fun we had with the two-player experience presented to us.
Boom Blox features three different modes. There's Play, which is the single-player experience complete with a training mode and a flimsy storyline there only to introduce the different themes of worlds. EA calls the presentation of story in the game a "wrapper" meant to add personality to worlds. Quick, Flash-animation-like (but highly stylized) snippets show block characters in different situations. Themes include Medieval, Tiki, Frontier and Haunted, each with backgrounds and music befitting of their names. There are about 70 levels in the Explore Mode of the single-player affair and then another 12 (plus 12 more unlockable) in the adventure portion.
In a very welcomed move, EA's game features a very robust level editor that works hand-in-hand with WiiConnect24, enabling you to trade the stages you've created with your friends. The editor enables you to very meticulously design stacks, set attributes of pieces, align different block characters, and more. You can even choose whether or not to create throw, blast or pull puzzles and select which items will be thrown or blasted, if you so desire -- bear in mind, these all profoundly change the way puzzles are played. EA demonstrated a few quickly made puzzles to us, set up different block characters around the puzzles, and then set them off. There's little doubt that the editor will significantly extend Boom Blox's replay value. We humbly suggested that the developer follow Nintendo's lead with Smash Bros. Brawl and deliver a new puzzle every day to Wii owners by way of WiiConnect24.
Boom Blox has a lot going for it. The title really makes strong use of Wii assets and as a result is a lot of fun to play, especially as a multiplayer game. During a few scenarios, particularly in the level editor, we noticed some slowdown, which is about the only gripe we've got. Hopefully EA can smoothen out the framerate before release. Regardless, we're excited to play more of the puzzler and you should definitely put it on your radar. Boom Blox ships in May.