World of Goo may ship in a plain-Jane box that makes it look exactly like the usual third-rate dreck that takes up space on a back shelf in your neighborhood department store, but this physics-based puzzler is one of the most innovative and addictive games to hit the PC in years. Independent developer 2D Boy has hit the jackpot, turning what appears to be a simple building game into what could just be the next casual-gaming obsession right up there with classics such as Tetris and Lemmings.
Actually, World of Goo's concept owes a big debt to Lemmings, the early '90s sensation that involved guiding suicidal green-haired goons across 2D levels loaded with hazards. The objective here is rather similar, although instead of guiding lemmings to an exit in each level, you're leading globs of goo across similarly dangerous terrain to pipes that suck them up. This rather odd task is accomplished by selecting the cute, gibberish-spouting blobs and turning them into nodules in framework buildings that reach for the sky and stretch across yawning pits like sticky scaffolding. When your wobbly structure is close enough to the level exit pipe, all of the goo balls that haven't been used as makeshift building blocks then roll over their former buddies to freedom.
Well, at least to as much freedom as can ever be offered by getting slurped into PVC plumbing. Each level requires you to "save" a set number of goo balls to succeed and move on, so you have to be economical in the amount of goo used as construction material. If you pass enough goo balls through the exit pipe to the glass beaker waiting at the other end, you win to gather goo another day. If you fall short of the required number, you do it all over again, trying to get your goo to safety in a more ecfficient fashion. Final scores are based both on the number of goo balls rescued and the amount of time you spent in the level.
Real physics and the demands of gravity always have to be taken into account, which makes this one of those easy-to-play, hard-to-master puzzle games that gradually takes over your entire life. Goo towers need to be carefully balanced so they don't become top-heavy and collapse into a pile of slime, whereas bridges have to be carefully reinforced underneath so they don't come tumbling down. At times you even need to use special items such as balloon goo to help compensate for the height or length of a structure and keep it standing. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Considering that you're dealing with, well, goo, buildings in the game are inherently unstable and tend to jiggle pretty much constantly. To compensate for this, you need to build by degrees, carefully balancing one side against the other to prevent the whole wobbly contraption from teetering over. Exit pipes are typically a long way from the beginning point of levels, requiring you to really think before you start erecting ridiculously tall skyscrapers or long, arching bridges. Knowing that your entire building could collapse at any moment adds an incredible amount of tension. The feeling is a lot like building a house of cards or playing Jenga. By the time you get within a few meters of the pipe, you're often a nervous wreck.
Goo placement is extremely tricky to handle, especially as you move farther into the 48 missions that make up the game's four chapters and epilogue. (Goo collected here is also transferred over to the World of Goo Corporation sandbox mode of play, in which you build the tallest structure you can.) Many levels are incredibly devious. Goo-killing giant windmills and machine gears have to be avoided or built around. Froggy swamps await bridges that aren't balanced properly. Spike pits lining the tops and bottoms of levels lie in wait to kill goo balls tumbling from a collapsing structure. Some tasks are quite surreal, such as the one in which you have to help goo escape from a stomach by scaling a throat and then using eyeball balloons to float away. Just about every challenge here is much tougher than it looks. You typically start a level thinking that it won't be that bad, then spend 20 minutes or more figuring out how to get past the various hidden pitfalls without either causing a structure to fall or using up too many goo balls. That said, you can succeed without being perfect. Clicking on the limited number of time bugs that flit around most levels turns back the clock on your last move, giving you a second chance if you want to reverse something disastrous.
A handful of different types of goo have special abilities, all of which have to be carefully used. For example, black goo is rigid and cannot be moved after being placed. On the other hand, green goo can be moved around after initial placement, so you can rearrange structures on the fly. White goo hangs down like long water drips. Red goo can be deployed to act as helium balloons to help keep long bridges in the air over treacherous pits. Yellow goo can stick to vertical surfaces while Skull goo is impervious to being popped by spikes, for example. New goo is introduced early on in each chapter, and subsequent missions progressively ramp up the challenge and force you to put it to good use. This, along with wildly varied levels, keeps play feeling fresh throughout the entire game, even though you're always repeating the same basic task of guiding goo to exits.
Just a couple of minor flaws interfere with the gelatinous goodness on offer here. Controls can be a problem on some levels in which speed is of the essence. The basic drag-and-drop mechanics often aren't nimble enough to handle those occasional moments when you need to quickly move goo into place to prevent a collapse or some other horrible catastrophe. Given that the goo all bounce around together, it's way too easy to grab the wrong ball when time is of the essence and consequently cause a structure to crumple. It's also too easy to accidentally click on a time bug, seeing as how they tend to buzz around awfully close to your structures. There is no multiplayer, which is a shame because real-time goo building against an opponent could be great fun. At least the game does have something of an online presence, courtesy of the ability to post scores online at the end of every level and see how high other players have built towers in World of Goo Corporation mode. (Clouds float around with the names and nationalities of other players currently online.)
Visuals are a little blah for such a light-hearted, cartoony game. There are a lot of dark, dreary colors, and enough black that the hue actually gets in the way and prevents you from seeing black goo on some levels. Brighter, cheerier graphics would have added atmosphere and been a better fit for the surreal Dr. Seuss-like art style. More colors would also have better suited the peppy soundtrack, which does a fantastic job of blending jazz and pop. This music is switched up with every level, as well, further ensuring that you never get bored by lending each level its own distinct personality.
All in all, World of Goo plays like you're messing around with a slimy, virtual erector set loaded up with real physics and gravity. Don't miss one of the most original and addictive gaming experiences to come along in years.