I don’t have anything bad to say about Clusterpuck 99. It’s a well-designed local multiplayer title that’s a lot of fun to play with a group of friends, and that’s really all a local multiplayer game ever needs to be. Clusterpuck 99 is two parts hockey, one part soccer, and one part pinball, and if you like any (or all) of those things, you’ll probably enjoy the latest from PHL Collective.
So why do I find that I’m conflicted? I previously played Clusterpuck 99 at Gamercamp in Toronto and I had a blast during my brief exposure. Though it’s essentially the same game, my home experience was a bit more lackluster. It’s a lot harder to scrounge up volunteers for a review than it is to grab random passersby at an arcade, and Clusterpuck is the kind of game that isn’t much fun without a critical mass of players.
That’s not the game’s fault, but it does make it more difficult to appreciate. Though Clusterpuck is currently available through Steam, the game is designed for a controller and the keyboard controls don’t work terribly well. That’s fine – and it’s not an insurmountable obstacle in 2015 – but it does require more startup capital than many similar titles. Clusterpuck would be great on a console. On a computer it can be frustrating until you’ve synced enough controllers to your laptop.
My ambivalence lies somewhere in the space between good game design and consumer advice. Though I do have some minor gameplay critiques, none of them significantly detract from the experience. The AI, for instance, is suspect when it comes to defense (and the limited single player features are similarly lacking), but that’s not an issue if you’re playing with friends.
I just don’t how many people will actually be playing in those optimal conditions, which makes Clusterpuck seem like a game without an audience. I almost feel bad writing that. Clusterpuck is a good version of exactly what it wants to be so saying it should be something else is like criticizing Skyrim for being long. But that is the sort of thing that potential buyers often want to know.
In the era of tablets, Netflix, and convenience, how a game is played is almost as important as what is played. That’s particularly true in a local multiplayer space that has become more and more competitive in recent years. If you’re hosting for the night, you don’t want to spend a lot of time setting up every game. You just want to jump from one to another, and that’s a lot easier on a PS4 loaded with Towerfall, Pix the Cat, and Sportsfriends than it is to scrounge up a round of Clusterpuck.
It’s a shame, because I genuinely like the design of Clusterpuck. The ‘game’ elements work quite well, rewarding skill but incorporating just enough chance to make the game accessible for newer players. The concept and mechanics are basic and intuitive – you have to shoot the puck into the goal – but there’s considerable complexity to be mined from strategy and teamwork. Each stage has a unique shape that demands a different approach, and it’s fun to navigate obstacle courses lined with bumpers and spikes that yield a satisfying squelch whenever you check an opponent into the boards.
Those subtleties give the game much of its charm, making Clusterpuck easy to learn but difficult to master. Clusterpuck is at its best when teetering on the knife’s edge of ‘next goal wins,’ and the game builds and releases that tension as thrillingly as any other entrant in the genre.
I just don’t think I’ll spend much more time playing it outside of visits to pop up arcades and other game related event where I’m more likely to find the group needed to push the game over the top. Without that minimum, it’s a desktop icon that doesn’t make up for a lack of friends.
I’ll still enjoy a few rounds of Clusterpuck should the opportunity present itself. That’s doubly true if it ever gets ported to consoles. Until then, it’ll be sitting in my Steam account waiting for me to invite people back to my apartment instead of meeting them at the bar.
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