World of Goo (Wii) review
"World of Goo is a stunning example of how to build a simple physics-based puzzle game into something truly epic."
I generally don't write much about a game's soundtrack for the sole reason that I'm not particularly knowledgeable about music theory and it exposes one of my weaknesses as a writer. For World of Goo, though, I'll make an exception. That's because it has, hands down, one of the greatest soundtracks I've ever heard for anything, ever (not just games, mind you). Sounding a bit like vintage Elfman (particularly Edwards Scissorhands), World of Goo's music is elegant, haunting, exciting, and oddly uplifting all at once. I'm hesitant to throw out hyperbole like "best soundtrack ever," but it's definitely a candidate. Especially amazing is the fact that it was scored by one of the two men who designed and programmed the game, Kyle Gabler. One man should not be able to have that many talents. It's not fair, I tells ya!
Coupled with the game's astounding soundtrack is a unique visual style that seems like a cross between Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss. Sometimes it's bright and candy-colored, while other times it's completely monochrome and set against a wintry industrial wasteland. The dark storybook presentation does much to ground you into this bizarre and imaginative world (of goo).
Gameplay revolves around building ladders and bridges out of blobs of goo in order to reach a mysterious pipe. You can connect goo pieces together in a variety of triangles to build the appropriate structure to reach your goal. But be forewarned: it's never as easy as it looks. The game's physics are on-point, so that even the slightest error can send your 15m tower crumbling. To make matters worse, your structure tend to wobble quite a bit even when built sturdily. These are towers of goo after all. The good news is that you can click on "rewind bugs" that show up every few moves and can undo your last move. Things can still get tricky, though; sometimes your structure can get dangerously close to falling as you near your goal, so you'll panic and make lots of really quick moves in hopes of just barely making it. When you fail, you'll have to use up a significant supply of rewind bugs to make up for all the quick moves you just made. This creates a great risk/reward system as you choose to build quickly or go slow and steady.
Puzzles get more challenging and complex, too. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter all new kinds of goo, each with unique properties. There's the large female goo, who you have to crush into bits, the balloon goo, which are really just balloons, flammable matchstick goo, sticky reptilian green goo, gloomy skeleton goo (used as a shield, for you cannot kill that which is already dead), and a host of others.
Many levels have a specific (and often hilarious) story to tell. One of my favorites involves separating a pretty female goo from the ugly ones who have accidentally stumbled into a beauty pageant. Humorously, the ugly ones are sent to their slaughter so as to make a bridge out of their remains that the pretty one can then cross. Another level has a glamorous starlet goo thinking she's going to a premiere, when really you're leading her to her death. In theory, this should be the most misogynistic thing ever, but the wonderfully daft art style makes it all tongue-in-cheek enough that it's hard to imagine anyone getting offended by 2D-Boy's offbeat sense of gallows humor.
One backhanded compliment I would give to World of Goo is that its core gameplay is actually its least memorable quality. I can easily imagine the same game concept being executed with a rudimentary aesthetic along the likes of Chu Chu Rocket or the slightly flashier Boom Blox. If that approach were taken, the core mechanics would still hold my attention, but I'd likely play it, beat it, then never think about it again. The core physics-based puzzles here are fun, but it's really the art, music, and increasingly bizarre narrative elements that will stick with you and keep you coming back for more.
Speaking of those narrative elements, the vague plot of World of Goo is excellent, even if it's not exactly deep. When you queue up the first level, you'll go straight into the game with no explanation whatsoever. One might quite easily be fooled into thinking that this is a plotless puzzler, but play on, dear reader. Things change. Each level offers tantalizing prophecies of things to come. For example, a sign in chapter 2 will foretell that the greatest source of energy in the world lies on that island. Then a sign found early in chapter 3 prophesizes that "all will change in chapter 4." It's this sense of mystery that keeps you coming back for more, just to see what kind of off-the wall-ideas 2D-Boy will throw at you next. The final quarter of the game in particular is full of surprises as things spiral out of control.
The game is a great value, too. The main campaign took me just over 8.5 hours, not much less than most full-priced games. There's significant replay value too, if you're the type who likes to top your own high scores. Each level has an OCD (Obsessive Completion Distinction ) criteria, as well. These consist of saving enough extra goo, beating the stage under a certain time limit, or using the fewest possible moves. Most of these are very, very, hard. The game's second level asks you to save 16 goo to achieve OCD. Even after several attempts, I could only save 13. To top it all off, there's also the "World of Goo Corporation" bonus level (unlocked early on) where you can try to build the highest tower possible using all the spare goo you've saved throughout the levels. You can even see clouds representing high scores attained by other players. I wasn't interested in that part personally, but it's cool that it's there if you want it. I look forward to seeing clips of people setting new records with their towers of goo.
The main criticism I would level at World of Goo is that the controls aren't always as precise as I'd like them to be. It can be tricky to select the goo you want when multiple varieties are mingling together, plus the camera can be finicky at times. You scroll up and down by pointing the wii-mote towards the edges of the screen, but if you point off-screen, the signal cuts off. Point too close to the center and it won't scroll at all. You have to keep the cursor right near the border, which makes scrolling quickly rather cumbersome. I suspect that isn't a problem on the PC version (as the mouse cannot go past the screen), but I haven't played it to say for sure.
Another issue is that it can be tricky to make just the lines you want when your structure gets crowded. You can usually undo your mistakes, but it's still frustrating when it happens. There are lines to show where you can position goo, but strangely you can place a goo ever so slightly beyond where the lines end and they'll still connect to your structure. If you place them too far off they'll just fall, so that's one thing that could have been marked a little bit more clearly. Also, there's a whistle found midway through the game that is supposed to lure goo towards the cursor when used, but sometimes the AI seems rather dim and they won't go where you want them to.
Even with some mild control issues, World of Goo is a stunning example of how to build a simple physics-based puzzle game into something truly epic. With its unique presentation and phenomenal soundtrack, it's not a game that you're likely to forget anytime soon. It's about the same length as any full-priced offering these days, but unlike most big budget blockbusters, World of Goo can rarely ever be accused of padding its length by recycling the same material repeatedly. Every level is unique and the game gets more surprising as it goes with nary a dull moment in between. It may start out simple, but give it some time and it could rank among the best games you play this year. It's certainly the most charming.
Freelance review by Jeffrey Matulef (October 16, 2008)
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