Jagex’s first attempt at a Minecraft-influenced shooter, 2012’s Ace of Spades, was a bit of a mess. A year earlier the game had been released in Beta form as a slow-paced, methodical blend of base-building and combat, that rewarded smart defensive fortification and planning. The 2012 release ramped up the pace considerably, shifting the balance further towards the shooter elements. This was a poor idea, because those shooter elements were a bit naff.
Block N Load
Built to kill.
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Block N Load doesn’t make the same mistake. Here there’s a finely-toned balance between base-building and blasting. There are two forward bases to defend for each team, plus a more heavily-fortified HQ structure that must be destroyed last. You start each match with a five minute armistice, during which each team furiously flings blocks together to form a defensive zone around their forward power core. The catch here is that you only have a certain amount of blocks to use at any one time; basic brick walls are cheap to throw down, but more advanced tiles, like spring traps, (it’s always a delight when you see an enemy get sproinged off a bridge into a pit of lava) turrets and team-only forcefields quickly drain your resources. You can dig for more blocks, but the timer is constantly ticking away. It’s a smart way to kick off a game, giving you just enough time to get creative, while still giving each match a firm structure.
Oh, and getting creative is lots of fun. In my time with the game I’ve seen nightmarish artillery zones, tar-pits full of dart traps, and explosive barrels sneakily masked with fragile plywood blocks. At the start of the match each team’s base seems like an impenetrable bastion offering nothing but certain death, but as the rockets, grenades and bottles of hydrochloric acid start flying, everything descends into a wonderful, chaotic mess. Bridges that lead into enemy territory are sneakily built, then comprehensively destroyed. Great holes are gouged in the earth, then filled with mines and fire traps. A solitary player manages to tunnel all the way across the map into an unguarded area, and shatters the enemy power core just seconds before his own base is overrun.
Tony Turreto the engineer is a great choice if you prefer building to shooting, though his shotgun's fairly satisfying too
Despite the madness erupting around you, you’ll certainly need to have a strategy – the best way to play is with a team of friends on voice chat, so you can really plan out your defensive tactics. Much like playing a MOBA with strangers, if you don’t have a solid group together you’re pretty much screwed from the start, which can be frustrating for new players trying to get to grips with the mechanics. Trying to force your way into some kind of nightmare playpen filled with plastic explosives, turrets and knives isn’t that much fun when you’re backed by four identical robots who seem to enjoy hurling themselves head-first into lava pits. This isn’t a criticism, teamwork is intended to be the lifeblood of Block N Load, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re a casual player who likes to play solo. When you’re not playing Ranked games, which only unlock after you’ve reached Level 20, there doesn’t seem to be any matchmaking system in place to stop you getting set up against a ruthlessly organised team who build defences brutal enough to fend off the Hulk.
Classes run the gamut from speedy ninjas that specialise in infiltrating the enemy fortifications, to snipers and my personal favourite, engineer Tony Turetto. He’s the only character that can build turrets, which means that while everyone else charges off to get shot to pieces in enemy territory, you can sit at home and plan the perfect killing field. Tar pits and turrets, that’s all I’ll say. It’s impressive just how cleverly these characters cater to specific playstyles, and there’s more on the way; jetpacking space ranger Astarella made her debut in a recent update, adding a mobile, aggressive ranged alternative.
The Soldier class stands out as being particularly underpowered at the moment, though that's something that can be easily fixed through patches
The shooting isn’t really what Block N Load is all about, but it’s carried off with respectable flair. Each character packs a couple of ranged weapons and a melee attack, and comes equipped with a special move that can turn the tide of battle if timed correctly. Guns, for the most part, feel appropriately weighty, and hit detection seems reasonably solid. Still, it’s definitely the destructible environments and building elements that are the draw here.
Each character can be levelled up as you play, earning them slight buffs to everything from build speed to skill cooldowns. These tend to be fairly minor changes, and honestly they feel a little superfluous. I think it would be better to have everyone on the same playing field from the start, and simply unlock more cosmetic items as you play, rather than gameplay-affecting perks. Speaking of cosmetic items, there are a couple of alternate costumes available for each character. These are really great. Rather than simple visual changes (though they look lovely, too), you get new voice work for each; I particularly enjoy robot Cogwheel’s pirate look, which comes with a batch of gruff, metallic nautical phrases.
Guns occasionally feel a bit woolly, but the shooting is generally solid
Balance is still being worked out - ninja O.P. Juan Shinobi used to be a terrifying nightmare to deal with in close combat, but his melee attacks seem to have been nerfed quite a bit recently, and I think Jagex is yet to find a sweet spot for him. The soldier class seems a little underwhelming too, with little in his arsenal to really change the swing of a game. Tinkering around with this stuff is an ongoing process in any class-based game though, and for the most part each character offers a fun, viable alternative way to play.
BLOCK N LOAD VERDICT
Block N Load offers an intelligent blend of tactical play and madcap carnage that hits the spot in a way that Ace of Spades never did. Despite some matchmaking issues and a couple of slightly underpowered classes, there’s a thoroughly entertaining multiplayer game on offer here, and one that has bags of potential once the modders get their hands on it (there’s no map creation tools out there at the moment, which is something I think Jagex needs to work on). Even without custom maps, though, smashing apart a level with explosives and lasers is great fun, and the sheer variety of possible attack routes means that there’s always something to surprise you. We finally have a good voxel-based shooter.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Digging for around half an hour to get in the perfect spot underneath the enemy base, then hacking away at their power core with your cricket bat while giggling maniacally.
Varied classes catering to very different play-styles
Sheer amount of destructibility means no game feels the same
Colourful style and charming sense of humour – who doesn't enjoy pirate robots?