Babel Rising Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Sony PlayStation 3 and iPhone
You are God. You look down from on high at pleasingly simplistic, colourful Old Testament towns in which tiny little humans live and work with your consent. You are all-powerful. A gentle gesture to one side or another with your almighty hand is all it takes to turn the globe so that you can keep an eye on things from all angles. You are all-knowing.
But what's this? What looked like an innocent temple dedicated to your greatness is fast shaping up to be a tower of an entirely different sort. Workers march in with blocks of stone, in single-minded determination building the thing higher and higher. But the heavens are reserved for you, not for the likes of these presumptuous beings of your creation. Something must be done.
In publishing Babel Rising, Ubisoft has taken a God-sized step away from the disclaimer that precedes the Assassin's Creed games. Apparently, Judaism and Christianity – who share the Old Testament/Tanakh story of the city and the tower – don't need such placation. The tale is distorted. In the religious texts, God punishes all humans for their arrogance by dividing them into language groups where previously they all shared one dialect, so that they can never work together so effectively again. In Babel Rising, God decides to kill them all.
In fact, it's not even you – as God – who makes the decision, but a nameless, faceless narrator type. Like the devil on your angelic shoulder, it's the narrator who bemoans the audacity of these workers and suggests your response be brutal. And if you step away, it's the narrator who draws you back to your grim task with a cry like an abandoned believer: 'Where are you? Come back!'
Malevolent demon and strictly-not-canon story aside, actually playing Babel Rising is a lot of fun. Workers wind their way up the tower to place their blocks at the top, and you try to wipe them out before they can reach their goal. You have a variety of God-like powers with which to wreak this havoc, categorised by element: earth, wind, fire, and water. Point at your victim with your dominant hand, and slapping down with your other will shoot a fireball at them, or a bolt of lightning. Thrust your non-dominant hand forwards instead, and you can use the other to guide a tornado which will gather up workers and send them screaming to their deaths.
The mix of simple and more complex powers lends itself nicely to tactical play. Bringing down a raincloud will slow the usually determined workers right down, so you can lob projectiles at them as they huddle together. There are ultimate powers, too, which are helpful when the tower is swarming with resilient load-bearers. Raising both arms above your head and bringing them down at speed sends a barrage of fireballs or gusts of wind, or a giant wrecking ball, or a flood. You'll almost feel like a total badass, except that you're a God whose ultimate moves have to be recharged, and whose normal powers even rely on having enough mana. What happened to omnipotence?
You're also restricted to two elements at a time; sometimes you get to decide which ones, but often your choice is made for you for the sake of the intricacies of the upcoming level. It's hardly representative of a truly all-powerful God, but it's probably for the best, since switching between elements is done by clapping your hands or speaking aloud, and neither of those works more than half the time. In fact – again, counter to intuitions about God – there's hardly a power which won't fail at least sometimes. Kinect will fuss at you with little messages to 'straighten your arm' or go 'higher' or 'faster', but it rarely helps. What starts as a mild annoyance turns to full-blown irritation when the levels become more difficult and varied to change up the inherently repetitive nature of an arcade game like this (though obviously repetition is to be expected in this sort of score-chasing arcade game). The introduction of priests protected against one of your elements is challenging. Cursed jars which you are not supposed to break, and which thus limit your use of ultimate powers, and mean you have to have exceedingly good aim with your other powers in order to avoid them, are infuriating.
Perhaps the truly ultimate power at your disposal in Babel Rising is the realisation that you don't have to play with Kinect after all. You've been drawn in by the title screen imploring you to select 'start' with your preferred hand, but you could have just pressed start on your 360 controller instead. I didn't realise it was an option until I was halfway through the campaign and checking out the other modes (as well as campaign, there’s a free play ‘survival mode’ and multiplayer), and the game informed me I couldn't play multiplayer unless I had two controllers plugged in. It's a shame to see the missed potential of side-by-side Kinect multiplayer, but both co-op and competitive play are still a laugh, even if the ability to combine your powers in co-op – which, on a side note, is when those powers are best demonstrated – suddenly makes a challenging game ridiculously easy. And my aching shoulders sagged in relief when I discovered that playing with a controller was an option for the single player modes too.
In fairness to them, the developers have clearly realised that most people are going to find the game much more approachable with a traditional controller in their hands, and have tried to compensate. When the workers realise you are a God no longer held back by the limitations of Kinect, they speed up, hurrying along faster to avoid your more well-placed attacks. Before it was a Kinect game, Babel Rising was playable on iPhone; there, the workers dodge your frantically tapping fingers with even greater speed. This sort of adaptation to fit with the player's chosen method of control is necessary if the less popular play style provided by things like Kinect is to become more prevalent.
Knowing that this game is a bulked-up version of an iPhone game, is it worth the extra cost? Playing Babel Rising with Kinect is tiring, and you're going to look fairly stupid doing it, but it does make you feel more involved. It's the kind of simple yet imprecise fun that a kid might like, but there's the kicker: what parent or guardian would buy their child a game that has such strong religious connotations? Most video games might involve ‘destroying’ enemies on some level, but this is mass murder at the hands of a deity; how is that supposed to make the player feel? When the sweet little work chants turn to a variety of dying screams – different ones for different powers – are we supposed to sympathise, or crow? If you're like me, you'll just start to really resent those foolhardy workers, charging through while their associates are fried or drowned to stubbornly add one more block to the growing tower. You'll experience the frustration of being the God of disobedient beings. You'll want to find new ways of combining techniques to target as many of them at once. You'll want to keep playing, to get that achievement for killing 10,000 of them, or to reach the top of the scoreboard. It might not be canon, or particularly child-friendly, but – whether you play with Kinect or a controller – Babel Rising is addictive as hell.