Meteo, that evil sentient eyeball of a planet that first rained blocky destruction on the universe in a terrific 2005 action puzzle game on the DS, has now swung into orbit on the Xbox Live Arcade. While Meteos Wars has one unfortunate issue that's every bit as glaring as that massive eye, it still delivers hypnotically fast-paced action that you can enjoy losing yourself in for minutes or hours at a time.
Behind all the square shuffling you'll be doing, there's an enjoyable little story about planets being annihilated, though unfortunately the paragraphs of text you get here aren't very successful at bringing it to life. Certainly it's not necessary to have an interest in the tale of alien races banding together on a do-or-die mission to destroy the planet Meteo and stop the catastrophic shower of meteors it leaves in its wake in order to enjoy the game. But the interstellar setting isn't just a story element. Gravity, and the very different pull it has on the various worlds you'll encounter, is a significant part of what makes the gameplay so varied and compelling.
Like in many good puzzle games, the core concept of the Meteos series is extremely simple, but it lends itself to a surprising amount of depth. In Meteos Wars, you face an unending rain of blocks, or meteos, which you have no control over until they've landed. Once they touch down, you can slide them up or down--and only up or down--and each time you arrange a horizontal or vertical group of three or more of the same type of meteo, that cluster will ignite and make its way back skyward, carrying with it any meteos that may be resting atop that cluster. But gravity doesn't always make ascension easy. The heavier your rising platform, the more thrust it will need to fly up and out of your field of play to rain meteos down on your opponent. On some worlds, the meteos are light as feathers and will go flying off the screen in the blink of an eye, while on other planets just achieving liftoff requires a tremendous amount of thrust. As different as the experience of playing with different planets can be, though, the action itself is a constantly fun, relentless scramble to launch your meteos and prevent your screen from filling up. The control scheme suffers a bit in a direct comparison to the touch-screen controls of the DS games, but it's fine once you get used to it. You move a cursor around with the left thumbstick, and once you've pinpointed a meteo you wish to move, you slide it up or down with the right thumbstick or the X and A buttons.
The main single-player mode has you traveling through space on a course for planet Meteo, facing off against five other planets before you reach your destination. There's a good assortment of unlockable content--in the form of new planets and pointless but fun fashion accessories for your alien--to make coming back to this mode rewarding. (Who doesn't look better with a piping hot piece of meat on his or her head?) And the various difficulty levels ensure that beginners and experts alike should have no trouble finding a satisfying challenge. You can also play one-off versus matches against the computer to try to beat your personal best, or you can work your way up the global leaderboards in a few challenge scenarios.
Unfortunately, what should be Meteos Wars' coolest mode is instead a massive disappointment. Meteos Wars is a competitive game that should be at its very best when played against human opponents. But more often than not, the online play is plagued by such dramatic lag that the action seems like it's happening in slow motion. In a game in which an instant often means the difference between survival and defeat, this kind of lag ruins the experience. Of course, local multiplayer is also available and is great fun if you've got some friends to play it with, but it's sad to see that all of the potential of Meteos Wars to open up a whole world of competition has come to naught.
The visuals in Meteos Wars won't knock your socks off, but it still looks sharp for a game about falling blocks. The meteos themselves are colorful and easily distinguished from one other (which is extremely important when you're a split second away from a big fat You Lose screen), and the planets and star fields in the background are richly detailed without being distracting. The music is excellent. Each of the planets has its own theme, and they range from pulsing electronica to breezy jazz to ethereal Eastern-influenced melodies. The diversity of the music works hand in hand with the constantly shifting gameplay to make Meteos Wars a game capable of feeling quite different from one level to the next.
It's hard not to come away from Meteos Wars a bit disappointed as a result of the disastrously laggy online multiplayer. Aside from this, though, it's a very good game. There's enough depth, variety, and flat-out excitement to this blistering puzzler to make it well worth your while.