Review: FLOCK! (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Proper Games
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: 4/08/09

Recently Microsoft has shone a spotlight on Xbox Live Arcade in the form of the Days of Arcade, with each week leading up to the release of a potentially great arcade title. These titles include The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, Outrun, Lode Runner, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, and Flock!. The point of the Days of Arcade is to demonstrate the strength in the quality of the titles for Xbox Live Arcade. Is Flock A good demonstration of what Live Arcade has to offer? Read on.

In the game you control a UFO and the objective is to guide the UFO around a level and chase as many barnyard animals into the mothership, known as the “ËœMotherflocker’. Sounds simple, right? I’m sure moving around different blocks in Tetris sounds simple as well. It’s based on this uncomplicated objective that Flock builds upon and creates a well structured puzzle game.

The game is more about just leading animals into the motherflocker, it’s about how you go about it. While controlling the UFO there will be a beam of light that shines from the UFO onto the ground. The animals are afraid of this light and will run from it. You use this to push the animals towards the motherflocker. Except each level has a variety of obstacles in-between to overcome, which is where the main challenge in the game lies.

Some of these obstacles are built into the levels themselves and come in the form of different gates, doors, boulders, holes, fields, etc. The other half of the puzzles come from the different animals, each of which have unique characteristics. The animal you start out with is the sheep, which are easy enough to herd about a level, but can’t go over fences. But the sheep will shrink if they get wet, so it’s just a matter of finding a waterspout in order to shrink them. Once they’ve been shrunk it’s easy enough for them to pass through a fence.

Then there are the cattle. The cows can be made to stampede, and are big enough to knock over fences that get in the way or to crush fields that might distract other animals. The chickens are different because they can glide short distances if they get herded off of a ledge. The pigs are round balls that can be bounced off of bumpers and rolled around quickly.

Of course there are some downsides as well due to environmental obstacles. If there is mud, the pigs like to roll around in it, which can make them harder to roll out of, but if they are already going a certain speed then they’ll zip almost too quickly. Chickens can glide but they’re a little harder to herd and they will not cross over piles of animal poop.

While trying to control the UFO and herd the animals to the motherflocker, it is vital to take advantage of the terrain, which is sometimes set up like a Rube Goldberg puzzle. You move the chickens onto a spot, only to drop a boulder down a hill, which triggers a catapult that launches the chickens closer to the motherflocker. On top off all of that, it is timed so every second counts.

As mentioned the primary way of herding the animals is by chasing them with the light from the UFO, which repels the animals. A similar example of such gameplay can be found here. This method works fine, but it can also lead to frustration since you have a wide area of light and are trying to guide animals across some very narrow ledges. The pathfinding AI of the animals is nearly non-existent, which means if you push an animal towards the edge of an area by mistake, it will run right off of the cliff. This can lead to failing a level because a certain requirement of different animals is required in order to move on.

It seems the developers understood this since while there have been one or two frustrating levels, most of them are pretty forgiving and only take one or two times at the most to beat. The game also does a great job at introducing new aspects of gameplay. In the first few levels the game will introduce you to some basic concepts such as bridges and shrinking sheep, then there will be a level that draws on the earlier lessons. The game does a fantastic job of easing the player into it’s challenges, so much so that it all becomes natural and towards the end of the game it becomes second nature to do some of the things that weren’t even available in the early levels.

At the same time this is also Flock‘s biggest problem. While it does a good job introducing new concepts, the way it ties those concepts together aren’t particularly challenging. Flock has some great ideas and all the design elements for there to be some truly mind bending puzzles that feel rewarding when you complete them, but at no time during the single player mode will it take more than one or two attempts to clear a puzzle within the minimum time limit, and even the later ones just don’t feel like they take advantage of all of the different elements introduced throughout the game.

While all of the puzzle elements may not have been taken advantage of to full effect, the game exudes charm from every corner. The graphics are bright and colorful, and the art style is great. The levels in the game look almost like patchwork quilts and the barnyard critters look like hand-stitched stuffed animals. The UFO’s look more like an art and craft project than advanced alien technology. The sound effects add to the charm as well, from the catchy background music to the squeaks of the sheep. Or at least those squeaks are initially charming; as time goes on they become annoying.

The graphics are also sharp and vibrant. The whole game has a level of polish to it that I’d frankly like to see out of more Xbox Live Arcade games, you can tell by just watching the game that it was made by people who really cared about the final product.

Aside from the single player game there are also additional Co-Op levels that are an exercise in frustration. There are far less Co-Op levels, and the Co-Op levels assume both players are already familiar with the gameplay mechanics that are slowly introduced through the single player game. Herding animals with two UFO’s can be more difficult than just guiding the animals with one UFO. Both players can run into each other and a simple mistake can mean the difference between guiding animals along a ridge and pushing them off of it. The single player just feels more fluid than the multiplayer, though there are some creative puzzles in the multiplayer mode that only work with two players.

The game also has a full creation mode. This mode is something you will want to jump through only after tackling the single player mode for two reasons: you need to play through the single player game in order to unlock different parts for the creation mode, and also you get a far better idea on how to lay out puzzles by playing through the single player mode. I’d go as far to say that at times there are single player mode levels that feel like a tutorial on how to use certain pieces in the creation mode. The level creator in Flock is very deep, so deep in fact I wish they had included more of a tutorial on how to use some of the creation tools. It may take a few minutes to get adjusted on how to use the different creation tools, but once you do, it becomes fairly simple to create your own levels by starting off from scratch or by using one of the levels in the game as a template.

Uploading and downloading user created levels is quick and simple. At the time of this review, there are over 130 different levels already available to download, though they are of varying quality. If you play one of the user created levels, you can afterwards rate that level out of five stars.

Please Microsoft, please. I’m begging you, set something similar up for the Community Games on Xbox Live. Flock has such a well set up system for downloading user created content, uploading, and rating that content that I’d like to see other games with user created levels use the same type of system.

Even though Xbox Live Arcade has plenty of different puzzle games, Flock is a unique approach to the puzzle genre with charm to spare, and with 50 different single player levels, Co-Op levels, and a full level creator that already has more than 100 levels available to download, Flock certainly has plenty of content to keep people coming back to either try out a new created level or to try and beat a high score on an old one. Yet I still have trouble justifying the price tag. At 1,200 points it is hard to recommend Flock over several other cheaper titles. But it’s worth at least playing the demo to see if the quirky charismatic style and different gameplay are enough to draw you in.

The Scores:
Modes: Great
Graphics: Great
Sound: Good
Control/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Incredible
Balance: Decent
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal: Good
Miscellaneous: Very Good


Short Attention Span Summary:
Flock is a fun game that is deceptively charming. The level creation tools and easy to use system for uploading and downloading new levels add a lot to the replayability. I can’t make a full recommendation to purchase the game for $15, but keep your eyes on Amazon. The game has already been on sale once for $10, and I think that’s the perfect price for Flock.



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