Wreckateer: The Kotaku Review

This review of Wreckateer is a little late because I was also under siege from large stones last week, some of them burning. They were just in my kidneys. While Wreckateer may be more enjoyable than a trip to the urologist, it still involves its own degree of waiting and uncertainty, and likewise requires you to follow a strictly prescribed treatment.

Wreckateer‘s structure and inspiration is evident after the first tutorial level: You’re playing Angry Birds with Kinect. Instead of charting your shot from an elevation perspective, you’re lining it up in third person, with your Xbox Live avatar steering a straining, quivering ballista. Some shots have different powers that are activated in midair, and bombs and hazards placed about the playing field provide exploits that can amplify the destruction. In Wreckateer, your job is not so much combat engineer as it is pest control — castles all about the countryside have been overrun by flatulent, jabbering goblins, and the only way to save the buildings is to, well, destroy them.

Wreckateer‘s campaign experience comprises about 60 castles, with playlists for local multiplayer and one-off singleplayer also available. The first set of 20 castles in the campaign introduce you to the game’s firing mechanism, its speciality shots and the exploits available on the battlefield, from charges planted on walls to midair power-up icons. There’s a lot of hand-holding, but it’s instructional.


Developer: Iron Galaxy
Platforms: Xbox 360 with Kinect (required)
Released: July 25

Type of game: Physics puzzle.
What I played: About midway through the sixth of 10 worlds in the game’s main campaign.

Two Things I Loved

  • The aiming system for the ballista is surprisingly precise, allowing you to make subtle changes with your hands and your hips.
  • That smug sense of satisfaction when you take down an entire castle with a single shot.

Two Things I Hated

  • The feeling that you’re being tasked to discover and repeat someone else’s demolition plan, instead of develop your own.
  • Destruction is visually unimpressive and collateral damage is tough to trigger thanks to barebones physics.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • Wreckateer unleashes heck.” –Owen Good, Kotaku
  • “You’re probably better off going to a bowling alley.” — Owen Good, Kotaku

What was dispiriting was to see, into the sixth of 10 worlds, the game continuing to direct your shots in a manner that suggested there was only successful way to pass the level. You’re given three levels of completion — bronze, silver and gold, but around the fifth world, the difficulty spikes considerably. You’re faced with a set of special charges, from flying guided missiles to time-detonated bombs to the pointless “lift shot” (a three stage rocket, giving you three chances to completely miss your intended trajectory), and no way to reorder them. So it becomes apparent that you must use each shot on a certain area of the castle in a certain order, a liturgy that to me felt inconsistent with the creative mayhem a game like Wreckateer should seem to inspire.

It’s good that aiming the projectiles, from the ground, is very skilfully handled by Wreckateer, considering you’re pantomiming a guy pulling back the string on an enormous crossbow. With just a little practice, I picked up how to subtly influence the shot’s elevation and angle using my hands and slight shifts with my waist. The screen will also highlight objectives that are in range, providing solid help without too much handholding.

It’s midair when things break down. You’re given a set of magical gauntlets that are supposed to help you spin and curve the shot to its target. My frantic pushing and slapping seemed to have a two-steps-forward/one-step back effect, probably because the Kinect sensor was over-interpreting my arms’ follow-through. Raising your hands or spreading your arms will activate the special ability, such a split-shot that bursts into four chained-up projectiles, or the “speed shot” that kicks in its afterburners. There was a very discouraging disconnect between these gestures and actually triggering them, the speed shot especially. That shot requires the most precision because it does the least damage — it’s meant to punch through outer walls on the way to bigger objectives behind them. It’s especially discouraging when towers seem to collapse straight down all the time, instead of into other structures, and no wall seems to be truly load-bearing. The destruction itself is very mundane and unsatisfying.

The biggest brake on Wreckateer‘s enjoyment is the time required by each shot, even ones you know are going off course. Even a basic shot (no special abilities) flies at a relative crawl — it’s to give you a chance to nudge it along midair, of course. Angry Birds likewise has only one or two shots that will deliver you a perfect result. But it’s easy and quick to restart and try over. Wreckateer will give you mulligans (one shot do-overs) or a full restart (raise your right arm), but the time it takes to set up, aim, let a shot fly, steer it, activate its special powers and observe the result all make the process of trial and error laboriously unenjoyable, not addictive. The zany premise and the silly pantomiming should make Wreckateer a natural pick-up-and-play game, especially when company comes over, but it ends up anything but.

That’s because, in the end, you’re not really in charge of how you bring down the house. This dawned on me when I hit a level midway through the campaign and the game’s narrators were telling me that I should angle my shot to hit a lift icon here so that it then passes through a bomb icon there and splat kapow wham. This is in heavy contrast to the early stages, when nearly any shot hitting any wall will pass you through with a bronze or a silver medal at least.

Wreckateer is a novel implementation of a physics puzzle that’s fun to fool with for a few levels. But it’s too slow to work as a game built on trial and error, and finding the perfect shot. And it is too rigid to allow you to create your own satisfyingly destructive solutions.

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