Angry Birds Space: An inspired, flawlessly-executed, and much-needed revamp.
It might seem strange that Gaming Symmetry would review a game as simplistic and casual as Angry Birds Space. But the truth is, I, personally, hold the earnest viewpoint that mobile platforms like the iPhone and Android are in the process of changing the face of gaming. Angry Birds Space isn’t just some throw-away casual filler to appease the masses; it represent a profound change for the industry, and therefore, deserves the same attention that would be given to any other game.
Review in Brief
Game: Angry Birds in outer space with all-new gravity mechanics.
Good: New mechanics are perfectly implemented and very engaging; level design is the best the franchise has ever had; entire game is very well tied-together.
Bad: Too easy and too short — for now, at least.
Verdict: By far the best Angry Birds game to date
Rating: 8/10 (at launch)
Recommendation: At only $3, it’s a must-have for any platform that supports it.
“An inspired, flawlessly-executed, and much-needed revamp.”
Angry Birds, the bane of casual gaming haters everywhere, is back with a new installment, and it’s not lightly that I describe it as the best Angry Birds yet. Angry Birds Space is a strong and much-needed revamp of what was quickly becoming a rather stale franchise; let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how you color up the levels in Angry Birds, Angry Birds Seasons and Angry Birds Rio, you were still playing hundreds of levels of the same mechanical game with average-at-best level design.
Angry Birds Space changes that significantly by introducing new gravity mechanics (think Angry Birds: Super Mario Galaxy Edition) and much-improved level design from its predecessors. The designers really take some chances with the new levels and leverage the new mechanics very strongly. The bonus levels are more fun and better-designed, there are new birds to hurl, and there’s an overall very strong motif to the game.
The game isn’t without its weaknesses; there are a couple introductions that, in my opinion, make the game too easy, and at the point of writing this review, it’s far too short. However, overall, it’s hands-down the best Angry Birds game to date.
Usually I use this section to describe the game in objective terms, but for Angry Birds, you probably already generally know the framework of the game. So, the question becomes, what’s new in Angry Birds Space compared to Angry Birds, Angry Birds Seasons, and Angry Birds Rio?
Gravity mechanics: Gravity mechanics are the selling point of Angry Birds Space. The game takes place in outer space, so no more gravity by default: birds fly in a straight line as well as objects that were previously floating in space. There are planets with their own gravity that you can use to curve your birds in an interesting play on orbit.
New Birds: There’s two new birds to play with. The first, the purple bird, kind of replaces the yellow bird (at least, I haven’t seen the yellow bird yet). It works the same way, except when you tap, it flies directly toward where you tapped instead of just speeding up its current trajectory. The second, the ice bird, works kind of like the bomb bird, except that it freezes everything around it, making it easy to destroy with other birds.
Boss Fights: Instead of a particularly hard level with a crowned pig at the end of each episode, now there’s an actual boss fight. This involves a pig in a little space ship that you have to destroy by causing asteroids and rocks to fly into it.
Bonus Level Changes: The bonus levels for the golden eggs are different as well; when you collect one, you’re immediately transported to the bonus level, pausing your previous level. These bonus levels, so far at least, are all themed after classic games like Space Invaders and Brickbreaker, and involve some of their own physics as well.
Trajectory Guide: Instead of just the slingshot to guide you and the trajectory being mapped out afterward, Angry Birds Space shows you a little preview of your trajectory while you’re dragging the slingshot back. This is mostly intended, I think, to help you preview the effect of gravitational pull on your launch.
In my humble opinion, the Angry Birds formula was getting rather old. Not only were there three games based around the same set of mechanics with nothing but level themes interchanged between them, but it was also built on a physics kit that has spawned an abundance of games online. Seriously, search for Box2D games online and you’ll find dozens of games built on the same engine, many with the exact same concept as Angry Birds. The number one thing Angry Birds Space needed to do was reinvent itself and distance itself from this legion of similar games, and there, it succeeds brilliantly.
Excellent New Mechanics
The main selling point of Angry Birds Space are these new gravity mechanics. It seems like Super Mario Galaxy started a trend with playing with gravity, and Angry Birds Space picks up that baton and carries it faithfully. The new gravity mechanics in the game are brilliantly designed.
The excellence, though, really is in the simplicity. Like Super Mario Galaxy, Angry Birds Space takes a rather complicated idea and makes it straightforward and simple. Orbiting around planets is a complicated idea for anyone to understand, but the visualization of it in Angry Birds Space makes it very easy to grasp. Planets have an absolute line drawn around them that marks the edge of their gravitational pull, so the player can accurately gauge how to stay inside or outside that area. Within the orbit, the birds follow a fairly normal gravitational trajectory, and there are some levels where the gravitational field is so large that it effectively becomes like a regular level. There are also levels with no gravity whatsoever, allowing objects to keep flying in space indefinitely.
Despite being so unusual and foreign, the new gravity mechanics are incredibly easy to understand. Their real strength, though, is in how they facilitate more entertaining gameplay. Like I’ve mentioned, Angry Birds was getting stale, and we’d about gotten to the point where every “strategic” thing you could do had been done a hundred times. Angry Birds Space reintroduces strategy, and to a greater degree than Angry Birds ever possessed. There are now several ways to approach any given level, and it no longer feels like you’re just chucking birds at a wall waiting to get lucky. The orbit mechanics lend themselves to very interesting possibilities as far as sending birds into orbit around planets, introducing new possibilities.
I’ve already had far more memorable moments with Angry Birds Space than with any of the previous games. One moment that particularly stands out was on a level with a medium-sized planet; I launched the blue bird (which splits into three small, weak birds) and split them up, only to watch one of the birds not hit anything after one orbit… then after another orbit… finally, on the third orbit around the planet, it slammed into a wall and destroyed everything that was left. It was a moment that made me say out loud, “Woah, awesome!” (startling my fiancée, oops), and I can’t recall ever saying that about the previous Angry Birds games. The new mechanics just lend themselves to awesome new possibilities.
Of course, all the great mechanics in the world are irrelevant if you don’t have level design that leverages them, and in the past few Angry Birds updates, the level design had started to get a bit stale. But fortunately, Angry Birds Space has…
Inspired Level Design
It’s probably largely driven by the new possibilities made accessible by the new mechanics, but Angry Birds Space has some truly inspired level design. Aside from some of the gimmicky levels, I’m hard-pressed to remember a single level from the previous games. I can remember abstract themes, but few specifics. In Angry Birds Space, there are several levels that lead to truly unique experiences.
There’s one level, for example, where you sent a space station-like structure of pigs crashing down to a planet. There’s another where you loop birds around three different planets to reach their targets. There’s one where you assault the pigs more with debris than with your birds themselves. There are, of course, the two boss fights, which manage to mix up the classic formula without completely departing from it as games with contrived boss battles sometimes do. And there are, as mentioned, truly unique and fun bonus levels for collecting the golden eggs.
The levels are fun and different, and you never open up a level, take a look, and groan about the lack of anything unique about it. What amazes me about Angry Birds Space‘s level design is something I also said about Super Mario Galaxy 2: no level feels “default” and “normal”. In most games like this with so many levels, a significant portion of the levels are the “standard” levels who serve to spread out the more innovative ones. In Angry Birds Space, everything is interesting and innovative. There were no levels that felt like they were phoned-in or included just to pad things out. The level design is truly engaging and inspired.
When you’ve made four games in the same series and they’re all on the same hardware, it can become tempting to borrow portions of past games for the new games. Angry Birds Seasons does this, I believe, borrowing heavily from everything that was originally in Angry Birds, to the point where it comes across more as a glorified level pack. Angry Birds Space, on the other hand, is incredibly internally cohesive; what I mean by that is that it definitely stands alone from the other Angry Birds games, and everything within it plays into the outer space motif.
It’s one thing just to have the levels themselves involve planets and gravity mechanics, with asteroids and starscapes in the background. Angry Birds Space goes further by infusing that motif into the score screens, the level-select screens, and everything else in the game. Even the tiniest little things are redesigned to fit the new space motif. The birds themselves are given subtle makeovers, the pigs have outer space-themed details, and the level select screen mimics the same space motif as the levels themselves. If I were to consider the Angry Birds franchise like a normal gaming franchise, I would consider Angry Birds Seasons and Angry Birds Rio to be spin-offs of the original, while Angry Birds Space is the true Angry Birds 2.
I’m writing this review approximately 10 hours after the game was released, and chances are, the two bad things I’m about to mention will disappear with time. When they do, this review’s score will probably rise from an 8 to a rare 9, a score I’ve thus far saved only for Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Final Fantasy Tactics (although in fairness, when you only cost $3, it’s a lot easier to earn a 9 than if you cost $50). However, for the time being, there are two significant knocks against Angry Birds Space.
My first knock against the game is that it’s just plain too easy. I beat the entire game in a little over an hour. That’s partially a product of the next criticism as well, but it’s partially because of some details of the game design itself. I can’t beat two episodes of Angry Birds in an hour, so to be able to beat both episodes (60 levels total) of Angry Birds Space in an hour is a bit of a letdown.
Part of this isn’t a bad thing. Angry Birds Space gives us more flexibility in what we choose to do on a given level than any of the previous Angry Birds games did, which naturally means that it’s easier to find a good way to beat a level. That part on its own is fine and desirable. I’m glad that Angry Birds Space doesn’t have any of the absurdly hard levels from the previous games. The problem, though, is that at least half the levels can be beaten easily in one attempt, and I didn’t have to take more than four attempts on any level at all. More challenge would be nice.
Of course, that might be a product of there only being two episodes right now. It could be that as they add more levels, they’ll make sure to add some challenge. What I’m wary about, though, is that the ease of the game can’t be blamed solely on the level design; there are actually a couple decisions in the game’s core mechanics that make it rather easy. The purple bird is the main one of these. This is a bird that will fly directly into anywhere you tap on the screen as long as you can give it a clear trajectory. That’s a really powerful option to have (and represents the first bird whose in-flight action isn’t binary).
So, more difficult levels might come out in the future, and maybe they’ll find a way to use the purple bird that doesn’t make the level a piece of cake. It’s hard to tell right now because the other problem with Angry Birds Space is that it’s…
As of release, Angry Birds Space comes with two episodes of 30 levels each. The good news is that Rovio is very good about releasing new level packs, and I don’t doubt for a second they plan to release several for Angry Birds Space. When the original Angry Birds was released, it contained only 63 levels, whereas now it contains over 300. Still, though, I’m writing this review on release day, and on release day, it’s too short at only 60 unchallenging levels. That will likely change with time, though.
Angry Birds Space is without a doubt the best game in the series. It doesn’t represent just an iterative improvement, it represents a wholesale reinvention of the series that retains the same appeal while distancing itself from the legions of similar games out there. The new mechanics are flawlessly executed and add a much-needed level of variety and fun to what was quickly becoming a bland, stale series. The level design leverages the new mechanics perfectly, giving the player plenty of opportunity to play around and see what they can do. Most importantly, the awe-value is back in the game, with numerous moments that just feel awesome, quite an achievement for such a simple game.
Literally, the only bad parts about it are things that I’m reasonably sure Rovio will fix in time. I’ll update this review to reflect that when the time comes.
Easily one of the best iPod/Android games yet released. At only $3, it’s a must-buy for anyone with a capable device.