Meteos Wars
Reviewed by Rebecca Wigandt
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-01-17 Xbox 360 Puzzle E (Everyone) Q Entertainment, Inc.

I have it on good authority from Gamer's Intuition's own Didi that the Meteos series (first represented by the eponymous Meteos in 2005) has already established itself as an addictive high-speed puzzle game, best received on the Nintendo DS. The latest entry is Meteos Wars, which hit the virtual shelf last month on Xbox Live, running 800 MSP.

Put simply, Meteos Wars is similar fare to the head-to-head play found in such games as Tetris, Dr. Mario, and the like. Junk falls from the top of the screen and piles up on the bottom. Lining up at least 3 Meteos of various colours and textures either vertically or horizontally will 'launch' them upwards, hopefully up off the top of the screen and out of your hair. If one or more of your columns of accumulating Meteos reach the top, that's all she wrote.

Check your Tetris instincts at the door; Meteos is to Tetris as reading Tom Robbins on mushrooms while riding on the back of a dune buggy is to bumper cars. This primarily competitive game is fast-paced from the get-go and requires a completely different thought process. Mostly, I found myself scrambling just to survive the first few dozen games I played, both against computer opponents, even the easy ones, and the various random gamers that wander into my house and drink all my Coke.

Playing Meteos Wars, it's easy to see why this game would have had its best outing on the Nintendo DS. To get the job done, you move a glowing cursor amongst the growing piles of Meteos junk and swap two said tiles vertically, either upwards or downwards- no horizontal flipping. As I said before, matching 3 or more don't simply cause the matched Meteos to disappear - that would be too easy. No, they blast upwards taking all the accumulated tiles above them along for the ride. As you might expect, horizontal matches (across several columns) are likely to catapult more stuff away in one shot than vertical matches (one column). And here's the rub. Launches from vertical matches are stronger, giving a harder thrust to jettisoning your junk, whereas the less powerful horizontal match-based launches may very well not be strong enough under the weight of the Meteos above them to reach escape velocity.

Yes, you read right. Escape velocity. You not only have to constantly scramble to make matches, you need to make sure they aren't too heavy to get off the top of your screen, otherwise they'll begin a lazy planetfall after running out of juice, and you're still stuck with the junk (the lower layer of which is now burned, temporarily-unmatchable grey rubble which will eventually change colour).

Aside from falling Meteos junk, bombs will also fall, and have a timed detonation. If you can launch the blocks they're resting on before detonation, you stick your opponent with 'em (though I have to admit, what effect bombs have isn't exactly clear, and the documentation isn't talking).

You probably won't believe this, but I feel it's worth taking a moment at this point in our time together to discuss the story of Meteos Wars. Pretty much every game pays some kind of lip service to having a story, and in puzzle games, they're usually the simplest of contrivance to, I don't know, give us some sense of purpose. Something like "The princess is in the last of a hundred fortresses. Break down the walls of each fortress, somehow by matching the similar pictures, and continue your quest to blah blah blah." I admit there are plenty of puzzle games that don't bother with this, but somehow I'd prefer an honest approach: "This is an abstract puzzle game. Compete with your friends to match stuff quickly. It goes faster as you go along. When it gets to the top, you lose. You dork. Macht schnell."

There's a five-page story to Meteos Wars that is so convoluted that I'm instantly reminded I'm playing a Japanese game which, god bless them, have to have incredibly complex plots behind them no matter how straightforward the game task is. Meteos Wars spins a saga of desperate and nonsensical galactic struggle against, I think, a giant rogue planet which I think is supposed to be semi-sentient that produces something that seems to work like dark matter, only it doesn't cancel out other matter, it replicates itself, which I guess would make it more like amino acids or primitive RNA or something? In any event, all the various life-bearing worlds in this galaxy have struggled to develop anti-Meteos technology which takes the sophisticated form of coloured blocks, and defend themselves from all the falling random mass by binding it to their own random masses and shooting them back into space. Somehow, in the wake of dozens of sentient worlds being obliterated by falling space poop, the worlds on the front lines of Meteos space have raised this defensive strategy into an interplanetary competitive sport, where planets face off against each other to sharpen their anti-Meteos skills by, apparently, chucking this stuff at each other and flinging it back and forth. Which brings us to, I feel, the real moral point of Meteos Wars, which is that the solution to having an ever-increasing pile of destructive, life-destroying environmental pollution is to pack it up neatly and send it to someone else.

Oh, well. At least the game isn't about collecting panties from vending machines to assemble the Doomsday Sword and slay the Raspberry Pastry Devil from Dimension 34X. Seriously, I read the story a bunch of times to be able to remotely explain it here, because I figured anyone who devoted that much text to it really wanted you to get it. So here you are. No, there's no need to thank me. Your tears are thanks enough.

As I mentioned, the players (computer or human) in Meteos Wars are the various alien planets defending themselves against the falling junk, and which alien race you are has a relevant mechanic that will affect your game. Some aliens have heavy gravity worlds, where your garbage piles have to struggle against said heavy gravity to get off your screen (ie., taking more and better matches to lift off fast enough to be effective and falling back down faster if they aren't). Some, conversely, have low gravity, where matched matter jets off your screen almost instantly, denying you the ability to set off mid-air combos by rearranging the flying junk on the way. Each different race has a 'planetary composition' meter of which of the various forms of blocks are most common, which means you'll have an easier time finding matches for some falling Meteos but not others.

One of the other things each race has is their own music, and this brings me to another neat point of Meteos Wars, its soundtrack. Some really, really fun techno/EBM tunes are present in every part of the game- each menu tree has its own BGM, each planet, and so on. What's more, just as each alien has its own soundtrack, each soundtrack produces different sound effects when you create your matches and so on, and they integrate into the backbeat of your main soundtrack. For example, one of my favourite races (in large part because of their music) has a decidedly cool-jazz soundtrack, and each matching event plays a series of funky tenor saxophone 'riffs' that blend right in. It is, honest to gosh, procedurally generated music- a really enjoyable extra touch. Hell, some of the music in Meteos Wars is good enough to leave on by itself for a house party.

The downsides of Meteos Wars mostly have to do with accessibility. While competitive puzzle games often wear the 'casual game' T-shirt, I wouldn't even ask my mom to look at Meteos Wars; her head would explode. The fundamentals are much, much more complicated than Tetris or Bejewelled, games that often seem to be the gold standards for this genre, and they're not always intuitive. The on-screen instructions (as a downloaded game, Meteos Wars does not grace you with a manual) are extremely sparse; the five-page screenplay dedicated to making us care deeply about matching falling blocks seems to have eaten up all the writers' attention spans. Reading the 'how to play' and watching the tutorials, I quickly learned the basics- match at least three blocks horizontally or vertically and the stuff gets launched, make it too heavy and it falls back down, vertical matches launch harder than horizontal ones, etc., but there are a good number of other principles that are completely unexplained and not readily apparent- the game moves too fast and you can lose far too quickly to sort it out by controlled experimentation. For example, the documentation explains, 'when your meter is full, press Y to launch Planet Impact,' and goes on to explain that there are four different neat-sounding Planet Impacts (Armageddon, Gambit, Sentinel, and Tempest) that have various effects. HOW does your meter fill? I saw it go up a few times, then go back down again, and then at other times I would angrily press my Y button in mid-game and see a Planet Impact attack go off when I had NO IDEA my gauge had, apparently, been filled. It also isn't completely clear to me what determines WHICH Planet Impact attack you have access to, or can use at any given moment. Mostly, my approach to Planet Impact now is to pretty much do what I was going to do during the game anyway, and hit Y every now and then to see if I've earned one.

Oh, and launching a Planet Impact (you or your opponent, and the computer obviously employs them to best effect, which is to say they know what's going on) drops you out of the game to show a little Limit Break-esque cutscene of your stick-figure alien and its planet firing a big beam or spray or wave of light or flame or root beer or something at the opponent's planet, THEN drops you back into the game. As you can probably imagine this completely screws you out of whatever mental and visual momentum you'd had up to that point and distracts you long enough that you'll probably have forgotten what particular chunk of fast-falling poop you were dealing with beforehand.

Meteos Wars is, by the producers' own admission, essentially an Xbox 'version' of the venerable predecessor, and there are ways that it's obvious the game design was shoehorned into "360 style" from its prior DS incarnation. As I said before, it's clear even to people who don't get to play a DS often (me) that a stylus would make the game MUCH easier- moving a glowing cursor a pixel at a time across the fast-moving, constantly-changing playfield can be maddeningly stiff (even if you crank the scroll speed up in the game options). Being able to act on groups of blocks as quickly as you can see them is essential, and while that facility isn't there, the game is no more forgiving.

The contrivance of Planet Impacts is new to Meteos Wars, evidently to make up for the absence of 'Fusion' on the DS version, in which all the types of Meteos you successfully blasted into orbit were saved in your profile and used as points to unlock a huge variety of stuff (power ups, music, etc.). Since we all know that every 360 product has to have unlockable content or else be branded some kind of twisted, freakish pariah consigned to eating lunch in the teachers' lounge, Meteos Wars lets you unlock stuff by finishing levels against the CPU or by making various 'accomplishments' (playing 10 games, playing 20 games, using a bunch of Planet Impacts, making me a sandwich). You can unlock new planets/aliens to play as (each with a unique set of attributes), or 'badges' for your aliens to wear, which are little line-drawing doodles that get stuck roughly on the head-equivalent of your line-drawing doodle alien.

Chances are you'll mostly play Meteos Wars against friends, since the CPU modes (a time attack, personal-best attack, and story mode) are fairly vanilla and playing a solo game isn't much fun except as practice to sharpen your skills. The online challenge mode utilizes Matchmaker and is often horribly laggy, which is as much of a critical hit to this mode as a big, luscious, pulsating, flowering wart is to the nose of a prom queen. This probably isn't completely the fault of Meteos Wars' own code, but it's frustrating enough to make me not bother.

The Female Perspective:

Gender parity is pretty much a non-issue in this game. If the aliens have genders, they're not telling, and I respect their right as squiggly two-dimensional organism to self-determination. The game is basically non-violent, or at least what passes for violence is so abstract that I'd certainly deem the game kid friendly. Probably more than friendly, as I suspect a hyperactive 10-year old could probably mop the floor with me. I personally would like to see more puzzle games out there with a cooperative as well as competitive mode of play, but that sort of mechanic would probably be close to impossible with a game like this.

Summing Up:

Meteos Wars costs 800 MSP, which translates to USD $10. This fits my 'cheap date' heuristic, which is to say I'm able to spend two hours on it, eventually get good enough to cobble together a big lump of Meteos poop to shoot at my roommate's screen and howl 'up ya go, bignose!' to laughs from all concerned. It isn't the most addictive or cerebral puzzle game I've ever played, which is fine, as Meteos Wars is clearly aimed at the reflex puzzle gamer. It has a few innovations for its genre in the form of variable gravity and changing game physics, though it doesn't really bring anything to the table that its precursor didn't. You'll have to figure out most of the advanced mechanics of Meteos Wars yourself, since the documentation will not prepare you for anything but the basic elements of scoring. If you're a raver kid strung out on caffeine, or just wanna be one, Meteos Wars has enough fun music, pretty colors, and high-speed competitive play to keep you entertained long enough to get your money's worth.

Special thanks to Kyoko Yamashita and Q Entertainment for providing a copy of this title.