Review: Physics Lab (360 Indies)

Physics Lab
Developer: Danthekilla
Publisher: Microsoft Indie Games
Genre: Physics Simulator
Release Date: 1/20/2010
Price: 240 Microsoft Points/$3

The Indies service on XBox Live is hard to gauge. Some of it’s games are flat-out steals, such as the $1 Robotron-inspired I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 and the $4 College Lacrosse 2010: The Video Game, the latter of which is a fairly good game on any merits. On the other hand, there are too many crappy games to even mention all of them, and the most popular game on the service other than the zombie game is a “game” where your avatar becomes a ragdoll. Be still my beating heart. Though Matt Yeager tries to find the gems, I cannot get excited for the majority of the slop on the service.

Occasionally, someone stops trying to make avatar games or untranslated Japanese dreck long enough to at least try something new. That’s what we get with Physics Lab; someone trying to actually release something substantive on a service known for mostly unsubstantive crap. I have to give Danthekilla credit; he’s trying to put something new up, and trying to expand the service’s horizons. At the very least, he’s given us the very definition of a sandbox game.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the 360 is too limiting to give us anything worth purchasing.

As soon as the game starts, you’re allowed to go in and start creating whatever you want, but you’re not going to have any clue what to do until you watch the twelve tutorial videos. These videos are the quality you’d expect to see in Microsoft Movie Maker, and last anywhere from one to three minutes. One of them stops too soon, another one is thirty seconds of blank space, so anyone expecting something professionally produced will find the videos lacking. Due to the fact that watching these videos is virtually mandatory to get anywhere, they feel more like homework than something that anyone would do to pass their free time.

Once you’re done with the videos, you can go in and make whatever you want with your newfound knowledge of what you have available to you. To be fair, the game’s options are vast and deep. There are multiple items to create, different shapes, different layers to apply said shapes to, ways to connect your shapes with springs, ways to pin your shapes together, pin them stationary, pin them to items on different layers, make them move via motors… the amount of things you can do is plentiful considering the fact that this is a $3 game. Anyone looking solely at replay value will absolutely think of this as a way to use excess Microsoft Points.

The biggest problem affecting Physics Lab is that the game is simply not realistic on the 360. It takes about three button presses just to make a simple shape; to make anything that isn’t almost useless, it takes a lot more button presses to make the shapes, combine them, set their weight, buoyancy, layer, etc. Unless you’re very used to the game – a category of people that includes the developer, and that’s it – it’s too easy to either make a mistake (with no easy Ctrl-Z feature to easily remove a mistake; even correcting mistakes takes effort) or make an erroneous button press and end up having to go back in and change something. To the game’s credit, it auto-saves, and also does so if you leave the game. Furthermore, there are ten save slots to save your contraptions. But the control scheme for doing anything is so atrocious that it’s almost impossible to get anything done in a timely manner.

Also, the game gives you this expansive world, all the tools in it, and says you can do anything you want, but doesn’t give you any clue as to what to do. The last tutorial video is the creator making a car that shoots things, but the majority of the video – the actual creation of it – is sped up so fast that you can’t see HOW he did it. I watched it and went “hooray, he made a car” instead of saying “wow, I can make a car by doing this!”. The bigger problem is that this is the only actual hint the game gives you as to how powerful it is; there are no test schematics or blueprints to make anything else. Due to this, everything is trial and error, instead of learning a few tricks and running with it. The tutorial videos are only so good in that they teach you the basics and what you can do, but don’t give you any idea of how to theoretically put your skills together. The end result for me was that I spent most of my time trying to make things and failing miserably before resorting to flailing things around the screen for a few minutes, saying to myself “well, that’s kinda cool… almost”, and finally desperately looking for something else to play. The replayability in this game is immense, but what’s the point if it’s so inaccessible? Maybe there are blueprints in the code section, but considering the fact that I can’t find any codes anywhere on the internet, there’s no point in me looking into this farther.

Ultimately, Physics Lab comes off to me as less of an actual game or useful application than it is a programmer’s plaything. I got the impression that the programmer made such an amazing physics engine and all the tools within just to show that he could, had fun with it, put in some decent music to groove to, and finally had the bright idea to sell it for $3. That might be nice for the programmer and a few friends, but for the rest of us, there’s way too much of a time investment necessary to learn how to do anything in Physics Lab, especially when considering the inadequate 360 control scheme. This is a PC application on the 360; it doesn’t even seem right to affix normal scores to something that isn’t even really a game as much as it is a level editor.

The Scores
Modes: Bad
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Bad
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Dreadful
Appeal Factor: Awful
Miscellaneous: Below Average
FINAL SCORE: POOR GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

Physics Lab is not a game; it’s a $3 level editor with no real redeeming value outside of experimenting within the “game’s” constraints. Even for it’s modest price, I can’t recommend Physics Lab, as anyone that would be interested in this would be advised to find an alternative with touch controls and a much better interface. Give credit to Danthekilla for trying, but Physics Lab is too inaccessible and unfriendly to suggest to any but the most intrepid fans of physics engines.

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