Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break is a carefree hop, skip, and jump through world history, art, and absurdist meme culture. One moment it's 800 BC and the set is dressed in the myths of ancient Greece, the next it's 1500 AD and the sun god gazes down on Tenochtitlan, then a bit later it's the very beginning of time and everything is spaghetti and meatballs. It never dwells, never stops to make sense of it all. Historical figures pop their cartoonish heads into view for a brief visual gag before disappearing, bit players tossed aside in a bygone round of whack-a-mole.
Fittingly, Rock of Ages 3 is best enjoyed with the same restless approach in mind. Structured as a series of discrete challenges, each hectic bout of arcade action lasting no more than a couple of frantic minutes, it feels designed to be experienced in short, sharp bursts. Don't linger. Dip in and, when you feel the frustration levels rising, dip out, move on to a new challenge, or simply come back later.
The core conceit revolves around the idea that all war, throughout all history, is essentially fought by lobbing rocks at each other. The Rock of Ages series has so far focused on one very specific interpretation of this idea: You have to roll a rock through a trap-laden obstacle course to attack the enemy castle at the end. Controlling the roll takes some adjustment. The initial temptation is to embrace the top speed of your chosen boulder and should be resisted. Move too fast and you won't have the handling to steer through the crowded tracks, let alone slow down in time to make the next corner. Rocks don't have brakes as such, and it took me some time to get used to easing off the accelerator when required and knowing when my built-up momentum was optimal to negotiate what lay ahead.
A couple dozen playable rocks are unlocked via the story mode, each sporting slightly different characteristics. Most are conventional variants--one's a bit heavier but accelerates slower, another is faster but more easily damaged, and so on. But some opt for more novel traits, like being a ball composed entirely of sheep, its uneven surface adding some extra rock to your roll. To be honest, though, as charmingly silly as it is to unlock a new rock that is literally a giant stone cube, I found the default option (he's a real all-rounder) the most suitable in almost every situation.
Courses are treacherous, too. Battering rams will bash you off the track, springboard traps will fling you sideways, cannons and catapults and tanks and trebuchets all launch their payloads in your direction, and various cows, bulls, elephants, and even people will do their best to impede your progress. Though you can destroy many of these obstacles by crashing into them at the right angle and with enough speed, you'll sustain damage in doing so and run the risk of not being able to complete the circuit.
Instead, all obstacles are best avoided by charting a nimble passage between, around, or occasionally over the top of whatever's in your way. Running the gauntlet through a particularly dangerous section of track and emerging unscathed feels exhilarating, as if you've pulled off an instinctual stunt-driving masterclass full of death-defying near-misses and escapes by the seat of your pants.
Screw up your run and that exhilaration can turn to frustration. It can be funny to round a corner and run straight into a large frog that bounces you back the way you came, or crash through a wall only to trigger a springboard trap that throws you off the track. Sometimes the only thing you can do is laugh. However, I found such gallows humour would swiftly give way to bitterness. Grievances pile up as a seemingly unavoidable chain reaction of catastrophe interrupts your flow--that frog bounces you back into an exploding barrel, the bull does its jump attack to immobilise you, and now you're an easy target for the cannon--and your entire run lies in ruins. The game's turned against you and soon every little bump is a grave annoyance, exemplary of an unjust world.
It's not that these things are capricious or arbitrary. The injustice isn't a result of a random roll. Hit that bump at the wrong angle and you know it's going to end poorly. Enter that series of S-bends too fast and you've only got yourself to blame when the sticky cows take you out. It's more that the courses are so chaotic, so congested with angles and projectiles that it's nigh impossible to calculate the correct trajectories and evasive manoeuvres on the fly. Get it right and it's thrilling, even if at times you'll marvel at how you managed it. Get it wrong--always the more likely scenario--and it's exhausting.
Not helping matters is the maddening inconsistency of the respawn placement of your rock after a fall. The paths you follow are typically narrow and always edged by sheer drops--fall off and ideally you are reset close to where you exited the track. Sometimes it feels fair, returning you just before the corner that messed you up. Other times it drops you too far back, punishing you further by having to repeat a large section of the course against the clock. Yet other times it returns you too close to the jump you missed, and you find yourself having to slowly reverse in order to gain the longer run-up required. I ended up quitting out of countless challenges because I felt the respawn had robbed me in some fashion.
Rolling your rock, in all its alternately thrilling and aggravating glory, is the primary concern of the "Break" part of the Rock of Ages 3 equation. The story mode found here serves up six variations of your central gate-crashing objective that are just different enough from each other to alleviate any pent-up frustration. Keep failing at one and it does feel like a clean slate when you switch over to a new challenge.
The Time Trial mode makes a virtue of its stop-start nature. To beat the times necessary to earn a gold medal, you have to learn the courses inside out, a knowledge gained only through countless restarts. The skill ceiling here is towering, demanding precision control of your chosen rock as well as both the audacity to identify preposterous shortcuts and the thumbstick dexterity to pull off the moves necessary to traverse them.
I was able to secure a bronze medal on every course on the first or second time, but the silver remained out of reach on many, and the gold medal times still often look like witchcraft. Gradually I found I could shave seconds off my time by taking this line through those sections, by performing risky jumps to cut corners, or by clipping these pillars to help me change direction without having to reduce my speed. Mining the track for further secrets threw up several daring shortcuts I would never have noticed during a normal run, though I'm still honing my ability to execute them seamlessly. Even in the pre-release period, where the time trial leaderboards were populated only by a handful of developers, testers and reviewers, it remained thoroughly rewarding to see my new best time inch its way into the top 10.
In the main War challenge variant, you are also tasked with laying traps to prevent enemy rocks from reaching your castle. The field presents two identical courses: on one you'll be rolling to avoid the enemy's traps, and on the other the enemy will be rolling to avoid yours. Viewing the track from a bird's-eye perspective, you get a couple of minutes to lay down your traps before you and the enemy are allowed to start rolling. Three runs are usually necessary to completely destroy the enemy's castle, and so in between each round you get another chance to lay down some more traps to hinder your opponent's run.
It's a neat idea. The base course is the same for you and the enemy, so when you're on your first run you can take note of the best--or rather, worst--spots to lay traps. When you hit a snag somewhere, it's painful but also provides useful intelligence. Immediately you start thinking about how much worse you could make it for your opponent with a few cunning additions. Further, you are limited in the type and amount of traps you can lay, and there's a genuine tactical element at play here as you survey the track and make interesting choices about which finite resources you're going to deploy and where.
The War challenge can also be incredibly tense. The rounds aren't strictly defined--you have to wait for a cooldown before you can start your next run, but you don't start it automatically--so there's a clever push and pull over whether to start your run now and get ahead of your opponent, or delay it a little longer while you keep laying down traps. There's even a great siren sound effect to alert you to when your opponent begins their run, and a little picture-in-picture window showing you exactly where they are. Being able to witness the enemy roll into your carefully laid trap, or just completely mess up some innocuous jump, as you overtake them through the same section of the track is a joy that never grows stale.
More throwaway are the Obstacle Course and Skee Boulder challenges. The former has you race side-by-side with an AI rock through a course pre-populated with traps for both of you while the latter is a cleaner course littered only with points targets for you to hit and the chance of a bonus multiplier if you reach the finish line first. Neither possesses the depth of the time trials or the War challenge, and tend to expose the limitations of the AI's rolling ability. The Break mode is rounded out with two even more underwhelming challenges. The Unit Challenge is a stripped-down version of War, limiting your options of one or two prescribed traps and rushing you through its planning and rolling phases in an unsatisfying hurry. And, finally, Avalanche presents just the trap-laying aspect, and asks you to prevent a dozen or so enemy rocks from breaching your castle. The more leisurely pace is a welcome change, but it's simply too easy to beat, especially once you've clocked that the AI struggles to navigate certain traps more than others.
Away from the story mode of Break, Rock of Ages 3 also lets you "Make" in a comprehensive challenge editing tool. Here you can create your own course and, once you've proved it can be completed, upload it to the Rock of Ages 3 server to share with other players. It's basically Rock of Ages Maker.
The scope of the terrain editor is impressive. You can click and drag to carve out a track, while another click and drag allows you to widen, narrow, raise, or lower it at any point. You can even assign nodes that make it easy to branch the track in multiple directions. There are different sets based on the eras depicted in the story mode with all the environmental objects, traps and obstacles are available for you to drop in wherever you like. It's great that all these props are readily available, but it does mean the courses you build will look a lot like the ones in the base game.
Despite some fiddliness with selecting things amongst terrain of varying heights--an issue that also plagues the trap-laying aspects of the Break mode--it's a powerful tool that makes it surprisingly easy and fast to build a course. I built my first, and admittedly slightly barebones, course in about five minutes. I was able to jump in and test it at the click of a button and it was actually a blast to play, even if I do say so myself.
The Make servers are already brimming with courses to sample, drawn I assume from the beta tests run earlier this year and likely the developers themselves. While I downloaded a few courses that were clearly someone's first test level, I did play quite a few that were easily on par with anything in the story mode, though these did tend to be significantly more challenging. The only real downside of the Make tools are that they're limited to relying on the same challenge types found in the Break mode--you can't customise the parameters of the challenge or stretch the rules of rolling a big rock in more adventurous ways.
Together, Make and Break showcase the strengths and weaknesses of Rock of Ages 3 overall. At its best, it's a thrilling and often hilarious ride through an imaginative and surreal landscape. At its worst, its formula is too rigid, its challenges too rote, and it can feel like your frustration with its idiosyncrasies could boil over at any moment. Thankfully, in such times, the bite-size structure comes to the rescue, and you can roll into something new.