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Switchball


Developed by Atomic Elbow, this ball rolling title expands the genre on Xbox Live Arcade a bit and gives Marble Blast Ultra more competition in the online marketplace. Similar to MBU, there is no story involved; just an odd theme of flying wooden ships dropping off giant marbles. The levels are grouped into sections based on a theme for each area; fire, ice, wind, etc. The presentation is very standard for a typical Xbox Live Arcade title and the overall aesthetic is generally pleasing.

Gameplay

While the core of the single player game is balanced ball movement, the developers added a bit of a twist on the formula with the addition of ball transformation stations. These stations convert the marble into a different type of material in order to traverse certain obstacles. For instance, the marble can change into solid metal to push heavy boxes out of the way and roll past blowing wind machines. It can also change into an air filled ball that gets a boost from vents and floats down to surfaces below when filled with helium The final material changes the ball into an electricity charged bolt of lightning. It offers the ability to use speed boosts and make large jumps. Itís a bit tough to control, but players should slowly get the hang of it after a few levels.

The game deals with physics very well and ties the engine into several gameplay aspects. Sometimes you have to push pieces of wood to create a bridge. Other times you are moving objects out of the way to roll through. My favorite was pushing a row of hanging metal boxes to the left and right to clear the path for my air ball, which has no pushing ability. There are also cannons in the area that can be used to shoot extra marbles or even your own marble as anything in the way. Often large collections of boxes will be stacked in the area and you are required to cannon-launch yourself over or around them to continue.

The game uses an auto-save system that works very well. The puzzles are broken into smaller legs, so falling off the edge of the board in the middle of the level doesnít kick you back to the beginning. I found the difficulty to be unbalanced comparing the first half to the second half of the single player mode. While the devs do an excellent job using the opening levels to explain how the different types of ball material works, they feel too simple. Alternatively, the final levels ramp up the puzzle factor exponentially and take 4 or 5 times as long to find the solution. I prefer a tough challenge, but the game could have used a more gradual slope to ease players into the difficulty.

The multiplayer is perhaps the weakest area of the game, but not due to content. I noticed a general lack of online players at several times during the day, co-op games especially. Co-op allows you and a friend to beat 4 extra levels not included in the single player campaign. Using voice chat, you have to time button presses to jointly make your way through the level. Itís a lot of fun assuming you have a competent partner. Alternatively, the devs also included a racing mode that really turns into a semi-demolition derby. People have more fun knocking others off the course rather than finishing the race. Online play is virtually lag-free and the backbone seems solid.

The achievements are geared toward the hardcore player and somewhat leaves the casual player sitting by the sidelines. The majority of the 12 tasks are mostly time challenges, which means you need to beat puzzles as quickly as possible to gain a gold medal. Oddly, racing through the game actually detracts from the overall experience and these speed achievements work against the natural gameplay. It would have been nice to see more quirky achievements like reaching far off places on the game board or balancing your marble on razor thin ledges for 60 seconds. Anyway, itís a functional, but boring set of achievements.


Graphics & Audio

At first glance, Switchball is an extremely polished Xbox Live title. The ball reflections are absolutely gorgeous and the gameís textures have been meticulously crafted for the old-world look to the level environments. Unfortunately, watching it perform in motion is a sad experience. There is a dramatic amount of screen tearing when playing the game in high definition. The vsync problem is extremely annoying and notably effects gameplay. The audio uses a midi-based collection of light, breezy melodies. Itís all very forgettable and overly repetitive.

Overall

While the overall quality of the game is excellent, I canít say that itís one of the more entertaining titles Iíve played recently. Itís very much geared toward a laid back style of play thatís surprisingly difficult to transition into when playing anything else on the Xbox 360. Mix in the difficulty of the endgame levels and it becomes progressively frustrating to sit for an hour solving puzzles. Folks that are into sudoku or crossword puzzles should enjoy this type of title. For others wanting a more fast paced, arcade experience, stick with MBU for now.