By Evan Norris 13th May 2019 | 3,020 views
Rock of Ages II: Bigger & Boulder is a couple years old at this point, but it remains one of the more comedic, inventive titles on the market. By combining racing and real-time tower defense mechanics and setting them inside a universe where mythological, historical, and artistic figures converge, it succeeds both as a genre-twisting hybrid and as a funny subversion of western civilization. The heart of the game, Story Mode, is let down by some repetition and a collection of weak boss fights, but altogether Rock of Ages II is an enjoyable, valuable experience.
The game's irreverent story follows Atlas, who, in a terrible mix-up, dropped the Earth as God was putting on his finishing touches. Fumbling around for the heavenly orb, Atlas picks up instead Sisyphus' boulder, then heads into Earth—don't overthink it—where he tangles with over a dozen historical or literary foes. He'll go face-to-face with military commanders like Richard the Lionheart and William Wallace, and fictional creations like Don Quixote and Medusa. There's even a showdown with the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, depicted here as a skulking Gollum-esque creature that vomits impressionist paint. Overall, the story is a hilarious takedown of vaunted, serious personalities.
In Story Mode and in standalone offline and online modes, the rhythm of the game is mostly the same. Each human or AI player enters first into a building phase, where they can place defensive and offensive fixtures along each map to deter or destroy the enemy's boulder. As soon as the player's boulder is finished—it's carved from a giant block of stone in the background during the first phase—it's off to the races. The top-down tower defense perspective shifts to third-person, and players roll their boulders across the map, avoiding the opponent's defenses and, hopefully, colliding with the enemy HQ. Too many hits on an HQ and it's game over.
It makes for a fun, tactical mix of racing, jumping, and dodging on one hand and quick-thinking strategy on the other. Placing towers, catapults, and explosive barrels on the grid-based maps is easy and intuitive, and boulder controls are weighty and stiff enough to prove both challenging and rewarding; don't expect to labor up and down hills or around bends, but also don't expect to pivot on a dime.
You can unlock new boulders, traps, characters, and cosmetic items in Story Mode, which is the best, most substantial feature of Rock of Ages II. From an overland map, players visit 15 castles, from Scotland to Egypt, each with its own master and themed map. In La Mancha you'll find rotating windmills and branching paths, and in Pompeii rivers of lava and narrow, winding passes. Even with diverse locations and personalities, however, the campaign can turn repetitive. Despite new scenery and a slow drip of new weapons, you are essentially doing the same thing again and again. This is a game best suited for short bursts, not long play sessions.
Not only will you unlock cosmetic gear and new characters in Story Mode; you'll also earn stars, used to open roads to boss encounters, which are, disappointingly, dull and easy. Each one has an exciting premise—a battle with a sea monster is a clever take on Frogger and the skirmish with the Sphinx is a literal cat and mouse game—but all are shallow and virtually impossible to fail. Even the final boss battle, unlocked at the end of Story Mode, is a missed opportunity.
Outside of the main campaign, there are several other solo modes. Game of War and Obstacle Course recreate the missions from Story Mode in a set of discrete challenges, and Time Trial is a race against the clock without any obstacles or opponents (scores are uploaded to online leaderboards). There is also a Customize tab, with options for army leader, boulder paint, colors, etc.
You can take your customized avatar online and battle with up to three other players, in one of three modes: War, Obstacle Course, or Skee-Boulder. War is the traditional Rock of Ages II experience; Obstacle Course is a race to the finish minus any tower building component; and Skee-Boulder is a silly version of the classic arcade game Skee-Ball. Online lobbies were empty pre-launch, but the game is quick to pair you with an AI opponent while you wait.
Rock of Ages II has a distinct, sarcastic visual style that's a little bit Terry Gilliam, a little bit South Park. Many of the images and backgrounds in the game's story segments look torn from history and art books, redeployed in the most anachronistic, ironic ways possible. Outside of story time, the game boasts impressive physical realism and environmental destruction, thanks to the power of Unreal Engine 4. The only flaw: some tiny print in the game's home menu, particularly hard to read in portable mode.
If you like tower defense and love to laugh, Rock of Ages II is a fine choice. Its mixture of racing and real-time tactics works effectively, and its satirical take on the pillars of western civilization is a riot. While some repetition creeps into Story Mode and boss battles don't rise to the occasion, the collection of offline and online options is significant. There's a lot to like here, for folks who crave cerebral strategy, reflex-based racing, and a good sense of humor.