Jagex, the team who took over development of Ace of Spades in 2012, is back at it with a different take on colorful shooting. Where Ace of Spades is a colorful, hectic shooter that emphasizes digging in addition to its chaotic gameplay,Block N’ Load takes a constructive-then-destructive, slow-burn approach to objective-based gameplay. Can the playful, ridiculous tone that energizes Ace of Spades also give life to a slower, more thought-based game? Jagex thinks so.
If Minecraft and Team Fortress 2 had a child and dressed it up in cartoon archetypes, that child would be Block N’ Load. Initially launched as a not-free-to-play game earlier this year, the game has since shifted to a free-to-play model. The title emphasizes building and breaking apart “blocks” on the way to destroying the opposing team’s base. Users can play as a variety of cartoonish archetypes, from a Ninja named Juan to a hamster rolling around with a cannon strapped to its hamster ball.
Matches are set up in two phases. After spending time in a lobby where they can pick their character and let the team know if they plan to play offense or defense, players are initially given five minutes to construct defenses around their base, a large glowing cube. There are several block types to choose from, in addition to traps like spikes or movement-slowing goo, and defenses like mines and turrets. Players can get creative with how to defend their base, oftentimes leaving traps hiding for their opponents behind a wall of sandbag blocks.
The second phase is destructive, rather than constructive. The barriers between teams will lift, and players must find ways around their opponents’ obstacles to destroy the other base. This allows for creative plans of action. There are a variety of ways to navigate through obstacles; some players place radar satellites and respawn points hidden deep in enemy territory, for quick access to the objective. Others will use explosive blocks to break through walls or enclosures around the cube.
Players (once they’ve leveled up) can choose from a pool of general blocks available to each hero, in addition to one block unique to a specific character. They also carry two weapons and a digging tool. My favorite character, a space cadet named Astarella, carries a ray gun and an exploding-disc launcher. I enjoy using the exploding discs to crumble defenses directly around the opposing cube, to then subsequently sneak in and place an orbital strike block that can rain damage on the opposing base.
Jagex has nailed the comedic, tongue-in-cheek cartoon-tone. Heroes will say funny things; the Russian Yeti frequently shouts “Ice, Ice, baby…as they say,” and the robot, Cogwheels, jokes about how he has no feelings. The cartoonish art style, which looks like a high-res Minecraft texture pack, pops with vibrant colors. The maps are mostly built around steel block structures or islands. This is a game that does not take itself too seriously.
This lighthearted approach lets players focus on the solid moment-to-moment gameplay. Each weapon handles and responds well. There were few times where I thought my hits on enemies wouldn’t register, and explosions, digging, and building all have a good sense of heft and physicality. Where Block N’ Load really shines is in its process-based objective design. Unlike most other objective shooters, each player must have a specific and creative plan of attack. The game injects a deliberate thought process into gameplay, and emphasizes achieving the objective over simply shooting opposing players.
The game’s free-to-play model is also player friendly, and doesn’t get in the way of gameplay. Players earn gold blocks after each match, with which they can buy hero skins and perks. If they want to buy individual heroes, they need platinum blocks, which can be bought with actual money. While pricing varies, a hero’s worth in real-world money is about $3.00 USD each. If players enjoy using one of the standard characters, they can never put a cent into the game and still be competitive.
While most of each match is never the same, the end of each one is. Usually, most of the area around each base is blown apart and players are hacking at it in order to win. The end stage of play goes from nuanced, thoughtful, and complex, to simple and rushed. The game, aside from dropping supplies every now and then, does nothing to add variety to this inevitable conclusion.
Additionally, while matches involving only one cube are relatively short (10-15 minutes, usually), matches that require each team to dismantle three enemy cubes (a bit like Battlefield’s conquest mode) can last up to half an hour. These seem to drag by; the gameplay, while thought-driven, is not exciting or hectic enough to successfully support such long matches.
Despite these lapses, Block N’ Load is a fun, colorful, and competent shooter that emphasizes thoughtful planning and creative approaches to the objective. This allows for nuanced, sometimes chaotic moments. More importantly, it is a shooter that deemphasizes attacking other players. Strategy and tactics will always be more rewarding than simply going after the opposing team, and any objective-based FPS that’s designed this way is doing something right. If you love games like Battlefield or Team Fortress 2, you’ll enjoy Block N’ Load.
Developed by Airplant and Jagex, and published by Jagex, Block N’ Load is free-to-play with DLC. Jagex provided us with a Platinum pack and a code to unlock all the game’s playable characters for the purpose of this review.