There's an argument for using games to escape the everyday grind or work and the drama of real life. Video games offer you fantastic worlds to explore and over the top action to take part in. You can relive all of your favorite sports moments and slay a dragon all before you go to bed. Video games can take you to the deepest part of space or tell you about Earth's alternate reality. That's what video games are good at. For those few minutes while you shoot at Nazis and run from the fuzz, you are able to escape the horrible truth that your girlfriend hates you, you just lost your job and you're woefully overweight.
If you're one of those people who needs the sweet, sweet escape of video games, then let me be the first to tell you: Don't even think about buying Flock, Capcom's newest herding simulator.
It's not that Flock (officially FLOCK!) is a bad game, because it's an amazingly addictive puzzler that manages to feel fresh in an otherwise crowded arena. Instead Flock ends up feeling more like a real job than an escape from the real world. Outside of the UFO angle, this game has the makings of a repetitive 9-to-5 minimum wage job.
You see, your job is simple: Herd as many animals as you possibly can. To do this you take control of a small flying saucer, the type you might have seen connected to a piece of string in some cheesy 1950s midnight movie. Your very presence is enough to make the livestock scatter, so what you need to do is scare them in the direction of your much, much larger mother ship (the motherflocker).
Of course, this is going to be easier said than done. Each level puts up a lot of obstacles to overcome. In some stages you will have to catapult the animals from one side to another, in another stage you will have to shrink the sheep with water, and in yet another stage you will employ the cattle to knock over walls. As the game progresses, you will need to use all of these tactics (and many more) in order to finish all 50 levels.
It starts out simple enough, showing you the ropes and getting you used to steering your hovering UFO. But after a few levels they are throwing more and more complicated puzzles in your way, including mazes that are straight out of your nightmares. I'm not sure who would leave these poor animals out in the middle of nowhere, but they should be ashamed of themselves. Many levels are nothing more than islands, which doesn't seem like the most practical place to keep a bunch of sheep. What's more, the idea of making the animals jump through hoops doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you think about it.
The chickens are a perfect example of the absurdity of the level designs. Since chickens have wings, these are the only animals that can glide over large gaps. While this is useful from a gameplay point of view, I fail to understand who would keep these chickens in locations that would requires them to fly long distances just to be herded someplace useful. Why not just keep them close to the barn?
Of course, while none of this makes real world sense, it all works out as a game. The game's mazes are absolutely crazy, and just when you think you've seen the craziest level, the next one raises the bar even higher. Herding these animals requires some real strategy, especially when you have to move them over large gaps and land obstacles. And to make matters even worse, the game keeps throwing new obstacles in your way. But don't fret, just as long as you're paying attention to the rules you should be able to get through your day on the job.
Thankfully the game gives you a bunch of extra moves along the way. At first it's something simple like the ability to fly around the level faster. However, as you make your way through the game you will have the ability to pick up items on the level and move things about. Not only do these new abilities make it easier to progress through the game, they also give you a reason to go back and play through some of the earlier levels you didn't earn gold on. The game is full of surprises ... well, as much as a game about a UFO herding livestock can be surprising.
The problem with the gameplay is that no matter how many abilities you get, you're still basically moving a sluggish UFO around the screen. Don't get me wrong, the idea of a UFO herding sheep is novel and I would usually give it the thumbs up. But it's too easy to accidentally make all of your animals run in the opposite direction simply because your ship is too slow to move. I found that I had to go out of my way to avoid all of the animals just so I could line them up correctly. It's not that the controls are bad; they just are a little sluggish and not as sharp as you would want for this kind of precise job.
The game does have one other large problem; these animals simply have a mind of their own. It doesn't matter how good your herding skills are, you are always going to be at the mercy of a group of livestock that simply doesn't want to go along with your plan. I suppose this is no different from real life herding, but it can be a real pain in the butt when you're constantly having to redo a level because a chicken didn't want to go in the right direction and fell off the level or the sheep got stuck on a wall. If you do not have patience for computer-controlled characters that work against you every step of the way, then you should not play Flock.
I personally didn't find the busywork aspect turned me off of the concept of the game. However, I can just as easily understand why some people might not understand the appeal of a game that so closely resembles a real job. Couple this with the unpredictable nature of these animals and you have a real hit-or-miss experience. Given the game's amazing level designs and quirky sense of humor, I say it's a puzzle game worth going through. However, if you don't find the first few levels to be fun, then chances are you're going to hate the next 40.
Regardless of what you think of the gameplay, there's no denying that Flock is a visually charming game. The art direction is fantastic, from the patchwork grass to the adorable animations linked with each and every animal. The graphics are simple, but they are definitely effective. The audio is also strong, including a number of strong tracks sprinkled throughout the game. The music doesn't miss an opportunity to play homage to all kinds of different eras of incidental music, from sci-fi to westerns.
On top of the robust single-player mode, you can also play with a friend over Xbox Live. The game even allows you to create and share your own levels from the pieces you earn by playing through the "story" mode. It's hard to imagine how much crazier you can make some of these levels, but I'm sure there will be a few master designers that step up and prove me wrong. Throw in a cool medal system that ranks your progress and you have more than enough reason to go back and play this game over and over. Don't be concerned about the $15 asking price, there's more than enough content here to warrant the fee ... assuming you like the game in the first place.
Flock is not for everybody. What I love about the game is something that many people won't care for, so don't make the mistake and take my word as fact. Go and play the game yourself. If you like the first few levels you're going to have a great time from beginning to end, but if you don't then you're going to hate every minute of it. I'm here to tell you that there's a lot of content in this package, so play the demo and decide whether you want to take a chance on this quirky (yet frustrating) Xbox Live Arcade puzzle game.
Flock has an amazing sense of style, humor and quirky appeal, but it's definitely not for everybody. If you're the type of person that likes to herd computer-controlled animals, then you're in luck. Everybody else should probably try out the demo first!