It seems that the local multiplayer craze of the past few years has hit a peak recently. The genre has expanded out far and wide, and many games that would have been praised before are now plagued by obscurity and fighting amongst their talented competition. ClusterPuck 99 had been out for some time on Desura before hitting Steam at the beginning of 2015, one of five games bearing the genre’s tag released in the month of January. Steam in 2015 can be a vicious marketplace, which is why I was pleased to see ClusterPuck come out on Xbox One earlier this month. I had found the game on Desura ages ago, was eager to see what improvements had been made in the meantime, and what console specific fun I could have with the title. For better or worse, I found that ClusterPuck 99 has stuck to its roots as an insane multiplayer arena that requires swift aim and a roomful of friends.
ClusterPuck 99 asks the question of what an extreme version of air hockey would be like. You loosely control a paddle of your own design and glide towards a puck in the center of the map. Maps vary greatly, but most include turbo boosts, spike traps, and revolving doors to impede your progress. This doesn’t account for the other team, who are gunning for the same puck that you are, making holding a play and navigating to the goal a tricky proposition. Individual rounds are typically best when they’re short affairs, although they can be set to end at a certain time or score limit. Games can also range from one on one duels to full blown chaos, with support for up to eight Xbox One controllers at a time.
You’ll need all those controllers of course, because ClusterPuck 99 is dedicated to only local multiplayer, with no online modes to speak of. This is one of the major problems I have with the game, especially on the Xbox One, which is a device built around having an active online connection. The game really shines when playing with three or four humans, but that is hard to achieve for many players out there, limiting the game’s appeal significantly. In addition, the game’s unique controls and physics make it harder to pick up and play than some other multiplayer favorites, and by the time a player could get into a rhythm, the party itself might move on to another title.
If you do want to play alone, there are a few things you can do. The game does have extensive A.I. opponents to challenge, although I found them to be too adept at the game to truly learn the ropes against, even on the lower difficulties. The game also features a quick set of challenges with a few bonuses to unlock, but these also seem designed for someone who is already intimately familiar with the game’s mechanics. The fact that each one must be cleared in turn, including the nonstandard “break the targets” style games, make it so that many players will more than likely get frustrated before unlocking anything there.
Finally, there is a level editor that is confusingly exclusive to consoles as of this writing. It is a welcome addition, but limited in scope considering the lack of online functionality and the controller requirement. The mode could be improved upon on PC with mouse support and a Steam Workshop full of custom levels. That doesn’t exist as of now, even though there is an update in the works to add it to the PC version according to a post on the game’s Steam page written in July.
Extra modes aside, the game really does shine at its intended purpose, and yelling at friends while checking them into spikes or sending them flying is a great way to spend an evening. There is some clear influence from early Xbox titles like Halo: Combat Evolved, including the customization of your paddles, goofy emblems to add to your profile, and an array of unusual names for the AI. Each map plays completely differently, allowing for different strategies and requiring different skill sets. The games move rapid fire, helped along by the unique soundtrack that really gets you in the zone while playing. This isn’t a game that should be played for long stretches, but it’s perfect for picking up and playing every once and a while.
However, outside of that limited occasion, there isn’t much that ClusterPuck 99 can offer. If there was some sort of online multiplayer, or even an arcade ladder that unlocked new customization options, then I would be so much happier with the end result. As it is now, the game fails where many of its peers in the local multiplayer scene succeeds, giving new players limited options at learning the ropes and advanced players no real way to show off their skills. If you regularly game with a large group of people, ClusterPuck 99 fits right in alongside the Towerfalls and Gang Beasts of the world. If you want to game in any other capacity, then your soccer/hockey time is better spent jetting around Rocket League, even if it does have an inferior soundtrack.
ClusterPuck 99 was reviewed on Xbox One with a key provided by the developer. Additional testing was done on the Steam version, which was purchased by the reviewer.
ClusterPuck 99's gameplay is solid and engaging, but difficult for new players to get a handle on. With limited modes for anyone but a local multiplayer junkie, it's hard to recommend.