Despite what comments I may make in this review, The Ball is an iconic game. It’s impossible to review this title without explaining (for those of you that might not know) the history of The Ball and its significance.
Up until recently the video game industry has one great, big, major roadblock. That was that the license costs for game engines and builders were astronomical…at least for average Joe. Many aspiring game devs (myself included) waded through the muddy backwaters of the internet to try and find engines we could build games on. The Unreal engine (which I’m sure you most commonly know from the Unreal Tournament titles and recently a vast number of releases including Gears of War, Enslaved and Darksiders to name a few) released its development platform 100% scott-free. You can legitimately grab yourself a copy and get building; the launch was the aspiring game dev’s wet dream. You could fully develop a game and pay the commercial licensing to Unreal only once it’s finished…it is, to all in intents and purposes the holy grail of Developer software. So where does The Ball come in to this?
Unreal launched a massive campaign to champion its new free platform, the winner of the competition being none other than The Ball. At that time the game was the shining icon of Unreal development, as well the example of what people could now do for free.
So a long time later Teotl Studios released The Ball as a full blown commercial game. This is what I thought….
The Ball really started life as a small indie project. It’s transformation to retail was arguably a leap too far. Unfortunately, the gameplay elements that make The Ball a potentially brilliant game cause many of its downfalls. The premise is fairly simple- you have a ball you can control, either by pulling it to you or firing it away from you. It can attach to objects you can then move (and it also comes in handy as a weapon).
One thing I did enjoy was the ingenuity of some of the puzzles. Many of them were really challenging and a lot of time I had to tip my hat to Teotl. I definitely didn’t know a ball could so many neat things and, for the most part I really felt as though the developers sat down and thought through these tasks carefully. Some of the interesting elements were ones which added water. You had to start thinking not only in linear way but start focusing on layers above and below you. Given the physics, which were mightily impressive, you really needed to consider when and where the ball (and you) would go.
The team at Teotl did a great job conjuring up puzzles and tasks to complete with the ball and I can really see why a lot of critics want to compare this to the brilliant Portal title. Unfortunately, the similarities between controlling an environment altering object with a hand held super-gizmo ends there. If you’re going to compare The Ball to the Portal then there’s a bunch of elements The Ball seriously falls short on. One of my biggest gripes was that it’s incredibly easy to lose the ball. Worse still, there’s no way of easily locating the ball. There’s a distance counter, although if your ball is stuck round a corner and you can’t pull it towards you it’s about time to start searching. The game seemed to have a huge amount of dead-ends in its mazes. I constantly found myself asking “why the hell is this tunnel here?” There was nothing to discover or collect in these tunnels, really these dead-ends slowly ate away at my sanity until I developed a nervous twitch every time I was unfortunate enough to go down one. There was only one fate worse than getting lost down these passages though…..losing the damn Ball down one. I’ve already explained that if you do lose the ball it’s not always easy to get it back. Straight on to the creatures and combat- well, there’s not much to tell. The combat system is really, really basic. You just grab your ball and smash, simple. There wasn’t a fight where this wasn’t the case and the ingenuity of all the puzzles was lost on the creatures.
Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if all these underground creatures were former players who’d slowly lost their minds getting lost in the tunnels. I was pretty tempted to join them at some points.
I’ll admit, it felt satisfying mauling waves of creatures with a giant rolling ball. Grabbing the ball and waving it about like a wrecking crew was definitely entertaining, but, it kind of loses its appeal after you do it 9,000 times. At times I think the addition of the creatures was more of an afterthought, something the developers added in, hoping to spice up the gameplay. In some ways it did, if only to keep your mind from focusing on the nightmare of navigating each level.
Presentation and Difficulty
Beautiful! This game just bursts with polished textures, gorgeous ambient lighting and tight models. There’s a reason this game won “Make something Unreal”. On the face of it The Ball is a perfect poster boy for the Unreal SDK; Teotl really goes to town with everything the Unreal SDK had to offer at the time of release. It’s not often I find myself really impressed by the environment around me but damn, in my opinion Teotl could teach the hard hitters in the industry a thing or do about environment design. So how difficult was The Ball? Well, it was ok. I think if you’re going to contrast The Ball to any other “similar “game, it really doesn’t stand up to say- Portal. The game elements certainly became a bit more diverse and interesting through the progression of the campaign, but it didn’t necessarily become harder. There were certainly occasions where I would think “well, that new approach is nice” but I never once found it much more challenging. Perhaps this says something about how intuitive the game was? I’m not sure whether the game got more diverse or just more….bearable. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
There have been a lot of criticisms dropped here about The Ball. And I think that Teotl may have done better to leave their title as the Unreal Mod that won them so much acclaim. Perhaps in putting a commercial sticker over their title they’ve (sorry for the pun) dropped the ball on this one. As I said at the start of this review- The Ball is a paragon of the Unreal development kit. Whether you know it or not, it stands as an extremely important landmark in the video game industry. I tried to put aside its legacy when I reviewed this title and judge it toe-to-toe with other fully commercial releases. I’ve come to conclude that The Ball (the game) treads the fine line(s) between indie, tech and commercial- and really falls short on all of them. I’ve also come to conclude that The Ball (the Unreal Mod) is a champion of the industry and well, we should all just take a moment to reflect on what it means. No? Just me…?
7/10 (for the art+ the significance of the game).
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