A futuristic pinball-style obstacle course in 3D.
Here’s a confession: I typically detest marble-rolling games. They’re too often fiddly, inexact, and demanding in terms of difficulty for my fly-sized attention span. Luckily, there exists a marble-tilting game that I can actually appreciate. Presenting itself in a distinctly different mode from the usual wooden box maze with a ball bearing in it, Aerox is more like a futuristic pinball-style obstacle course in 3D.
To elaborate: elaborate, shiny, very impressive 3D. It’s worth mentioning that aspect right off the top, because it really makes the game stand-out in the App Store crowd. Aerox presents an extremely clean, sharp-looking game world. Each level is a steeplechase-style run of concrete slabs and twisting rails floating in the sky. It animates at a nice frame rate and is razor-sharp in detail. The game adds some additional reflection and shadow effects if you happen to be running it on an iPhone 3GS or 4, and developers Synoptical Studios have committed to delivering a Retina Display-compatible version in the near future.
Control of your marble is accomplished exclusively through tilt controls, while holding the phone in the prescribed landscape orientation. The game takes a moment to do a fly-by “preview” of the maze at the beginning of each stage, and at that time also marks your resting orientation of the iPhone or iPod Touch as the base position. Tilting the phone’s screen away and towards yourself alters the speed of the marble, and tilting left and right swing the camera around. The level of finesse that is possible with this combination is impressive. It can be slightly tricky to gain your bearings at first when moving very slowly or stopped, but the game feels as if a lot of care and attention has gone into tuning the speed of the virtual camera while balancing the sense of weight conferred on the marble. It’s slightly ponderous, yet reacts quickly enough to feel connected to the player.
Where this setup suffers is in the nature of the tilt itself, which is difficult to avoid: in order to roll the marble the fastest, you must tilt the screen away from yourself at such an extreme angle that it becomes impossible to see what you are doing anymore. Likewise for reverse. A tiny tilt-sensor icon appears in the upper left corner (doubling as a pause button) which indicates the level of tilt inferred by the game on a graph. This can be handy, but also clearly highlights the problem – you can see that you aren’t going as fast as you could be, and it encourages you to actively tilt the screen away.
If you manage to overcome, or at least adapt, to the peculiarities of twisting your iPhone around (two hands recommended) then what awaits you is a fairly ingenious set of thirty levels, replete with ramps and bounce pads and logic puzzles and all manner of gadgets. Aerox also features a modern physics engine, and uses it to good effect, often requiring the player to shove ramps into place, burst through stacked obstacles, or operate simple machinery.
There are no enemies to speak of in the game, there is only the level itself. Solving a puzzle will leave it solved, even if you fall. “Deaths” are not enumerated in any way and are limitless, although when you fail, you do have to start the entire level over again – no checkpoints here. That can be a bit of a turn-off when you’re very close to the end of a stage and have a slight misstep (miss-roll?). Score is directly analogous to amount of time taken, and all attempts are included in that figure. There is a rudimentary global high score list that had some filtering options for FaceBook friends and the like.
The music included matches the mood well, being a sparse electronica track that aligns with the relaxed mood of the game. This mood is somewhat at odds with the objective, which is to reach the goal point in the shortest time possible, so there is something of a disconnect there, but the experience is best enjoyed in a thoughtful frame of mind. Like a zen version of Super Monkey Ball.
There’s something about Aerox that feels refreshing, even though it’s sporting a chrome-and-clouds aesthetic motif straight out of a 3D animation reel from the 80s. It’s extremely straightforward as a diversion, with no claim to any shell of story or setup, and there’s something to be said about that approach. The developers seem quite active in their own community and responsive to suggestions (such as a sensitivity setting, also forthcoming). It’s probably worth buying just to show off your phone’s fancy 3D graphics, but luckily there is a real game in Aerox. It certainly succeeded in convincing me that the tilt functions can offer a sophisticated level of control, despite the particular shortcoming of acceleration and screen angle.