Is Rovio’s Amazing Alex a Worthy Successor to Angry Birds?

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Matt Peckham / Techland

Amazing Alex, Rovio’s touch-based mobile followup to Angry Birds (or in sequential-ese, Angry Birds Space) blindsided me. A new physics-angled game from the company that’s seen over a billion app downloads, with an estimated multibillions IPO in the offing? Isn’t there supposed to be a press event? Something with A-list celebs like Tom Cruise, the iPad and Higgs Boson?

But no, when I pulled it down (20MB, $0.99) it had a paltry five ratings on Apple’s iOS App Store and a handful more on Google Play, though when I finally set my phone down to write this review six or seven hours later, those numbers were already in the hundreds. The power of Angry Birds — lifting an upstart aloft and carrying it on brand-name wings.

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Instead of apoplectic avians soaring over tranquil panoramas or winging through outer space, Amazing Alex is about a fair-haired kid who does battle with Rube Goldberg machines, which certainly sounds like a cool idea for a game.

Fortunately it plays like one, too, though it feels like a much safer and more imitative game than Angry Birds did following its debut two-and-a-half years ago.

Chances are Pomplamoose won’t be covering Amazing Alex‘s theme song, which trades Angry Birds‘ punky electronic ear-worm for bland Saturday morning cartoon super-pop. But load the game and there’s your classic Rovio interface with cogwheel and social network buttons framing a “play” icon dead center. Click that and you’ll cue a comic-style intro depicting Alex — a kid with an almost-mullet — ditching a book to play junior physics whiz by lining up area-themed objects like balloons, scissors and billiard balls.

The first eight levels turn out to be surprisingly bland tutorials, where you’re instructed to drag items (benches, books) to unmissable positions, sketched like dotted body lines, to coax an object from point A to point B after tapping “go” and turning on gravity. Just two or three of these levels would have sufficed.

But then the training wheels come off, leaving you to properly puzzle over object-oriented conundrums by positioning and reorienting laundry baskets, sandbox pails, taped-up boxes, tennis balls and so forth. Should you stack two boxes or dangle one? Hang a trio of benches right-side up or upside down? Pin the helium-filled balloon on this side of a pipe or that one? Do you keep trying for all three stars, or settle for two?

If that sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before in games like Crayon Physics, Cut the Rope and Nexus Contraptions. In fact you’ve also seen it in Casey’s Contraptions, which this game basically is, since Rovio bought the Casey’s IP earlier this year and essentially just changed the name. But you know, this is Rovio’s Angry Birds followup, so what’s old is new again.

That said, sometimes a rehash can benefit from revision, and that’s the sense you get here, swiping through level after wacky level, chaining together bizarre bits and bobs to get some whatzit into some other thingamajig while aiming for those precious just-out-of-reach stars.

Rovio’s playing it safe but sure by making this its next release, working its charm on the sidewise physics puzzler by pushing something familiar but iterative, sort of like Blizzard and World of Warcraft gussying up the boilerplate MMO.

As in Angry Birds, getting all three stars (or even two) as the levels cycle is where the real brain-twisters lurk. But unlike Angry Birds, where qualifying for full marks sometimes felt chancy — less your angle of attack than the collision equation’s mathematical whimsy — securing stars in Alex is about tagging pointy yellow things you can see in each level, not raising a number score.

The downside of ditching number scores is that you can’t compete against friends or anyone else for sliver-thin win margins. There’s no extra bonus awarded for using fewer objects than allocated, or building one chain of events versus another. No matter the creativity behind your solution, you’ve either completed a level with one, two or three stars, or you haven’t.

There is a semi-intriguing online angle here, where you can build your own levels out of items you’ve unlocked in the solo game — 35 in all — then email those levels to a friend or upload them to the web. But the interface for downloading user-created levels feels clumsy, knocking you out of the game and into your mobile or tablet’s browser, where you have to click on a level graphic to trigger the download before auto-switching back to the game. That all could (and should) have been accomplished using an in-app interface.

No, you can’t hand Amazing Alex off to your six-year-old niece and convey the game’s fundamentals in less than five seconds like Angry Birds (fire a slingshot by swiping your finger, times a zillion), but it’s diverting enough if you’re in the mood for a set-and-run puzzler, or just want to dabble in Rube Goldberg-esque level design. It doesn’t really qualify as Rovio’s Next Big Thing, but while we’re waiting for that, it’ll do.

Version reviewed: iPhone

Score: 4 out of 5

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