Game Review - by James Allen
When the U.S. Military developed the early versions of the Internet, they envisioned a community spanning the entire world where people could connect with each other and subsequently shoot people. Taking a less violent approach than most online franchises, Clusterball is a futuristic sport where combatants fly around, collected colored balls, and then return them to a central receiving ring. This game has been available for play for quite a while, but it's now available in boxed form from Canadian publisher Strategy First. Clusterball stresses family friendly entertainment, a strategic game, and low lag. Will Clusterball obtain the magnificent title of Cluster King, or be relegated to the lower realms of Ball Boy?
Clusterball is primarily an online game, and, as such, most of the features of the game revolve around this idea. Within the game itself, there is a training mode, which pits you against AI opponents to learn the ropes and get used to the flight model, or you can view (but not interact with) a training video that highlights the ideas of the game. The AI opponents are pretty good, and put up a great challenge to get you ready for real human opponents. There is an in game browser to observe and join all the current Clusterball games around the world. If nothing strikes your fancy, you can always host a game for other players. The official website for Clusterball features an online ranking system (I am currently #3096; the leader has played over 3000 games, about 21 days of continuous play) which shows how bad you really are. I had some problems with my CD Key and unlocking all of the venues available with the boxed version, but the developers were quick to remedy the situation (but I sure was mad that first night).
Probably the most impressive feature of Clusterball is the net code. The developers of Clusterball (DayDream Software) pride themselves to the fact that you can play the game with a horrible ping in a seamless fashion. Now, I have one of the worst connections available (a 26400 bps which likes to stop every so often), so I was reluctant at being able to play this game, let along on servers located in, say, Germany. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. I never had any noticeable lag (except when my connection crapped out, but that was my fault, not the game) at any point in any game. This is pretty amazing, because almost every other online game would be unplayable with my Internet connection. That's something to be proud of.
The sound is fairly basic in the game of Clusterball. An announcer calls balls and strikes (you'll see what I mean), and you engines are noticeable. The various weapons have an auditory acknowledgement when you acquire them, and all fly away once dispatched. The crowd cheers around the return area, and you can hear the magnetic field at work while traversing the tracks. When a missile weapon is dispatched to destroy you, you can hear the ever increasing beeping of your radar, which is much more effective than any visual system could be. Clusterball even has its own theme song! All in all, we are presented with an average effort in the sound department.
Initially, learning the nuances of the Clusterball flight model is hard, but practice makes perfect. Normally, in most flight simulators, you only land on surfaces once in a game, rather than continuously taking off and landing for ten minutes. Learning this system takes a bit of time, but it's by far the hardest aspect of the game, which means everything else is easy to discover. The flight controls can be customized to your liking, using several presets or going in and changing strabilizers, leading edge sharpness, roll blaster, elevators, brake flaps, and roll protection yourself (if you are into that sort of thing). The tradeoff in the presets is ease versus advanced maneuvers. I guess at this point we should state the point of Clusterball: you fly around, collecting balls situated on magnetic tracks (which keep you glued to the turns and twists of the tracks, assuming you don't exceed escape velocity) and returning them to a ring located in the center of the venue. Balls are worth one (red), two (blue), or three (yellow) points; higher point balls are located on the edges of the tracks, since it's harder to land there. Of course, the game would get old extremely quickly if you just had to fly back with no resistance, so a myriad of weapons are available. Each of these are available at a depot (building) or quickstop (platform). Your basic weapons is the smoke puff, and unguided shell which acts like a machine gun, disturbing your opponents and maybe knocking off some of their balls in the process (insert juvenile joke here). The WFL (weapon for losers) is the ball snatcher, which takes all of your opponents collected balls and flies back to you, so you can collect the points for them. Inflators propel ships skyward like a hot air balloon, inverse control switches the axes all around, backdraft puts ships into a serious reverse, spaghetti string attaches a ship to the ground by a tether, tractor beams can be used to guide enemy ships around, gravitators weigh ships down, shockwaves act as a small blast, tossing ships around, and superboosts gives short bursts of speed. Your ship can take a finite amount of damage by running into things like the ground, and will explode once damaged all the way. The trick to winning is effectively using and avoiding the weapons in the game. You can deploy decoys by using some of your ball clusters to detract incoming missiles, and then speed away and try to lure the missiles into solid objects other than your ship. There are eleven different tracks to choose from, which is actually a good selection, as it takes some time to learn the best ways around each one. Matches can be played on teams or individually. There are several different styles of play, which affects the amount of weapons and balls, and the regeneration rates of each: most servers online have Universal Clusterball, the most chaotic selection available. I'm partial to Local Clusterball, with medium amounts of balls with fast re-spawn times and little equipment with slow re-spawn times. Clusterball takes a simple idea and makes it a compelling game that is very fun to play. Although everyone seems to gang up on me.
The graphics are very average in Clusterball (like the sound), and this becomes a problem when the graphics inhibits the gameplay. The big problem has to do with drawing distances. In the interest of those with slower computers, a fixed drawing distance is used in the game, with buildings and object gradually coming into view from the ever-present fog. Sometimes when you are sufficiently far above a track surface, you cannot spot whether balls are present on it or not, until you come a little closer. On top of this, the wipe effect of drawing in more detail is very unappealing. The highlight of the graphics in Clusterball has to be the moderately detailed ships (although not when they crash). The rest of the gaming world is just passable as a realistic environment: for example, the water is just as solid as the land surfaces, which detracts some potential realism there. The graphics will do in Clusterball, but they won't impress anyone.
So Clusterball may not have the best graphics or sound, but it's really, really fun. The flight model is initially very challenging, and it takes some practice to learn how to effectively land on the magnetic tracks, but once you master the basics, Clusterball is quite fun. The only downside is that most of the online opponents have played many more games (initially) and will embarrass you, but at least they are nice about it. Clusterball is definitely different, and it ends up being quite a great online game that should be on many people's lists. So, I'll see you on the tracks!