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Astropop


Everyone looks forward to new additions to the Live Arcade, and when we learned that Astropop was bumped from February to March there was some slight disappointment. But now that it's finally available, is it worth the 800 points that it costs? In a nutshell, yes! This is one puzzler that will have you holding your breath one instant, swearing another and then breathing in that sigh of relief as you earn your next upgrade.

Gameplay:
The premise is simple, match four like colored blocks to make them explode which in turn can cause a combination of collapsing bricks and explosions. But the real trick here is the way the bricks are shuffled around the screen. From the start you select which character you want to play as, each with their own personality and upgradeable SUPA weapon. Initially only two characters are selectable, with two additional un-lockable as you progress through the "story mode" of the original two. Each character's base method of moving the blocks is the same, they pull them off the stack and hold them on their ship not unlike Klax; but it's the SUPA weapon that makes the difference. One triggers a nuclear bomb to destroy a percentage of bricks and another uses a psychic attack which allows you to target specific blocks for destroying. But in the end, they all end up somewhat similar in the fact that they destroy bricks when you need it the most.

While the initial levels are relatively easy, about a third of the way through each characters group of 32 levels the tempo and action really heats up. It seemed each level added a new twist to the game, be it the form of a power brick that would wipe out either a row or column of bricks for you, or stone that requires you to explode groups of bricks beside it to weaken and destroy it.

The biggest challenge comes in the form of poison bricks, which spread like a virus from brick to brick. The bad part is that once a healthy brick is infected, it loses its original property and cannot be destroyed by conventional means. The only way to eliminate the infected bricks is to blast them with your SUPA weapon, or in a method that is similar to the stone bricks, explode other groups near them. But as you can imagine, this soon gets out of hand and your only method is to blast them with your weapon due to constraints on available colored bricks.

A survival mode is also included, which pits you and a clock against an ever increasing in difficulty screen of bricks. The first couple minutes of this are quite simple, but the difficulty level rises dramatically and a single mistake can mean the end of game for you.

The 200 achievement points are spread over 12 achievements which range from unlocking all four characters to surviving for nine minutes in the survival mode. To unlock all the achievements you're going to have to learn to perfect the game and create massive combinations to keep you moving forward. But thankfully the game is highly addictive (it beat out Oblivion in my house on launch day) and it's actually a lot of fun as well.

Graphics:
A very colorful animation style is used here, with the actual game screens being a static screen with the bricks dropping from the top. Between levels you're treated to a moving background that shows your ship's progress through space as it advances through the loose stories. For a simple puzzle game, I was actually quite impressed with the bright colors and quite vibrant explosions that take place as you perform massive combinations.

In an interesting tweak that I never would have given much thought to, there is an option for colorblind players allowing you to put graphical overlays on the bricks to aid in differentiating the bricks. Nice job Popcap!

Audio:
Crisp sound effects, booming explosions and a nice musical score summarize the audio in Astropop. The music really fits well into the game, as well as the voice work that pops up fairly often as you play. A female voice will announce your combos in a voice that gains excitement as you increase the level of your combo. I personally found the 8x Galactic Combo to be somewhat more exciting to hear than when you reach the Max Combo for anything above 9x.

Conclusion:
I found Astropop to be a highly addictive little puzzle game that is sure to be high in my rotation of arcade games to continue playing. The achievements, while tough, are not impossible to achieve and the drive to get those points is going to help propel the desire to continue playing the game. Thanks to the different character abilities there is slight variation in how the game plays, even though it all boils down to the same thing, destroy the bricks.

Is this a killer application for the arcade? No not likely, but chances are high that if you enjoy games of this genre then you're really going to get a kick out of Astropop. I highly recommend spending the 800 points for this title, but if you are a little wary at least get the demo and see what I'm talking about.