We’ve got the biggest ‘Ball’ of them all
‘The Ball’ by Toltec Studios, a mod review
I love firing virtual Glocks as much as the next guy, but sometimes, I get an itch that shooting terrorists in their ski-masked faces just can’t scratch. Sometimes, I want to play a game that involves rolling around a giant metal ball in underground Aztec caverns. Luckily, Quetzalcoatl smiled upon me, and I found an excellent mod for “Unreal Tournament 3” called “The Ball,” created by indie developer Toltec Studio.
If I were to describe “The Ball” using a series of obnoxiously hyphenated words, I would say it’s a single-player, first-person, physics-based, puzzle-solving action game. But that doesn’t say much. A much easier description would be “Kind of like ‘Portal,’ but instead of the portal gun, you get this hammer-weapon thingy and a giant ball that’s twice your size.” Confused? Hear me out.
In “The Ball,” our nameless protagonist falls into a pit while on an archaeological dig. He finds the aforementioned hammer-weapon thingy and Ball, and sets off exploring and solving puzzles in the Aztec-themed environment. The beginning of each level is punctuated by a solemn voiceover explaining a conflict between mankind and a mysterious “Them” that somehow involves the Ball. It’s hardly gripping, but it’s nice that a narrative exists.
Each location holds a linear series of puzzles, most of which involve flipping some out-of-reach switch. It may not sound special, but the game puts a novel twist on puzzles in that almost all of them involve some clever use of the game’s core mechanic, the Ball. The player manipulates the Ball with the hammer-like weapon, and the controls are simple: Right-click pulls the Ball toward the player, and left-click pushes it away.
An example puzzle would be activating a switch in a downstairs room filled with lava. Drop the Ball in and pull it along from the surface, using its momentum to keep it rolling until it hits the switch. Or perhaps you need to cross a path filled with arrows flying from a walls à la “Indiana Jones.” You can use the Ball as a shield while desperately wielding the hammer-magnet to keep it in front of you. Fortunately, there is a decent variety to the puzzles, despite the game only being about six hours long.
The Ball is good for more than just rolling over glowing switches. It’s also your best friend during the handful of combat scenarios in the game. As powerful as your hammer may be, it’s worthless in combat, only serving to push enemies back. That is to say, back into the path of the Ball, which effortlessly rolls over zombies and giant ladybugs with a satisfying squish and obligatory onscreen blood splatter.
“The Ball” isn’t quite as good as it could be, however. The difficulty of the puzzles doesn’t scale with progression, and I didn’t find myself stopping to think any more four hours into the game than I did 40 minutes in. Sometimes the game is less than obvious in its goals, such as when the player must kill a certain number of zombies without the help of the Ball. Defenseless without my precious Ball, I ran from the enemies for minutes, looking for a non-existent alternate route before my pursuers accidentally fell into lava and a glyph lit up. Moreover, combat only becomes interesting later on, when the Ball can be baked in an oven or charged with electricity, but these ideas only show up 20 minutes before the game is over.
Still, many things are forgiven when you gaze upon the true star of the show, the Ball itself. It was designed to be a massive monolith of an ancient civilization, and the developers did an outstanding job bringing it to life with a genuine sense of weight. The amount of time and effort put into the mod becomes evident on the über-detailed surface of the Ball, and even the sound of the rough, metallic sphere rolling across a wooden floor is well done. Even more delightful are later stages which allow the Ball to be augmented in different ways, such as when it acts as a rolling flashlight, anti-gravity field or the key to an ancient vehicle.
Looking at the high ceilings of Oztoc and the enormous pyramids of Hueca, it’s clear that the same amount of care has been given to the rest of the mod. The sprawling environments and dramatic lighting are simply excellent. The levels were designed by Sjoerd “Hourences” De Jong, a freelance Unreal Engine mapmaker who literally wrote the book on level design. The only blemishes on the outstanding presentation were a handful of awkward animations for the enemies.
“The Ball” is also one of the most polished mods I’ve had the pleasure of playing. Besides coming in a handy one-click installer, it features custom menus and loading screens, and in many ways, seems slicker than the game that it is a mod of. The mod is so clearly ready for prime time that the developers will be releasing it as a commercial standalone game in spring 2010. Toltec Studios promises to expand the game’s best ideas while adding new levels and features. Right now, “The Ball” can be found in its mod form at www.moddb.com/mods/the-ball. Go ahead and download it (for free) if you own “Unreal Tournament 3.” Ballsy ideas such as these deserve your time.