During last week's Nintendo Media Summit in San Francisco, we had the opportunity to play EA's upcoming collaboration with famed director Steven Spielberg. Known as Boom Blox, this puzzle game has you throwing projectiles with the Wii Remote to knock down towers of elaborately stacked blocks. The game itself couldn't be any more different than what Spielberg is known for, with a quirky, off-the-wall presentation replacing the familiar cinematics of Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. But after you play a few rounds of this promising puzzler, the gap between what the game is and what you would expect becomes surprisingly easy to forget.
Like most block-based puzzle games, the core mechanic behind Boom Blox is a simple one augmented by a few twists for the sake of variety. A typical level features a tower of blocks of various sizes, shapes, and point values (represented by a giant number stamped on each side). On top of that, these towers have gem cubes thrown into the construction. The gem cubes provide different reactions based on the color. For example, purple cubes quietly disappear when a projectile strikes them, whereas green ones explode on contact. Generally the object is to either knock down the tower within a certain number of throws, or surpass a certain point value by aiming strictly for the high-point but well-hidden blocks.
The catalyst behind the inevitable demise of each tower is the aforementioned projectile. Like throwing a pitch in Wii Sports baseball, you start each turn by hurling a different projectile at a chosen point on the tower. You can pinpoint where you want to throw your object by using the Wii Remote to rotate the camera anywhere you want. You simply place the targeting reticle at the block you want to chip away, hold the A button, and then make a throwing motion and release the button just as you would if you were throwing a ball.
The formula is simple, but what left us most excited after our time playing was the impressive physics engine driving it all. Each block reacts uniquely and realistically to a physical act, whether it's a nudge, smash, or explosion. There's nothing jerky or artificial about the movements; the blocks seem to tumble and teeter on the edge of falling in different ways each time. In our time spent playing the competitive multiplayer mode--in this case, each player taking a turn chipping away at the same tower while aiming for the bricks with the highest point totals--the realism of the engine allowed for a good deal of planning and strategy among the participants.
Boom Blox takes this formula and applies it to several gameplay modes. The primary ones are adventure mode, which features a story complete with animated cutscenes, and explore mode, which is a straightforward puzzle collection organized by ascending difficulty. Adventure mode is where the game's cutesy presentation comes to life. You progress your way through a vibrant world populated by block-shaped animals. Their stories are told in high-quality 2D cutscenes that lay out various scenarios for you to accomplish, such as helping a block-shaped gorilla mother find her block-shaped gorilla babies. These animals also populate the puzzles themselves, standing around each tower to cheer you on. We asked the game's senior producer, Amir Rahimi, about the purpose of these non-player characters. He told us they're basically there to add life to the puzzles, given that Steven Spielberg felt a bit lonely in the original level designs. Of course, you can also be a jerk and throw your projectile at these cutesy block critters to see them fly off the screen in a comical manner, but that would border on animal cruelty.
Boom Blox also features an extensive puzzle editor. You can use this editor to alter any of the game's nearly 400 levels, or simply use it to create one from scratch. You can assemble the block formations, add NPCs to make Spielberg feel less lonely, adjust rules such as number of throws and timer, and also choose the projectile that will be used during the puzzle. Among the options are various sports equipment such as baseballs, bowling balls, but also wacky ones you might not expect. The varied shapes and masses of each projectile affect the tower differently. Although we didn't get the chance to test the editor, the demo shown looked as if it had an impressive number of options.
These early impressions leave us looking forward to Boom Blox. The connection between the game and Steven Spielberg--who is said to have played a major role in the development process--still seems a bit strange, but that's a minor worry after seeing the way Boom Blox combines an interesting puzzle setup with strikingly convincing physics. You can expect Boom Blox to arrive in stores on May 6.