Is there anything less welcome than the escort mission? This horrible specter has haunted too many otherwise excellent games, and the number of times it's worked can be summed up in three letters: Ico. Taking endless care of another being/object/companion cube is improved greatly, though, when that object is a giant indestructible force that's equal part tool and weapon. That object is the Ball.
When a faceless worker gets dropped into a cavern at a remote excavation site deep in the mountains of South America, the first thing he finds is a strange gun-like object. It turns out this device controls a relic known simply as the Ball. The Ball is roughly eight feet tall, give or take, and can be both attracted and repelled. Hitting the right mouse button causes the gun to emit a field drawing the ball towards you at great speed; though, thankfully, it also seems to negate inertia so it doesn't squish you flat. The left mouse button revs up the gun's hammer, which smacks the ball to send it flying across the rooms and endless corridors of the abandoned subterranean world created to house such a dangerous relic.
The game wants to make sure you understand its mechanics to the point of pure tedium.
Once you've got the ball and taken the ten seconds necessary to sort out the controls and figure out that blue switches require the player to touch them and red require the ball, it's off to explore. The Ball is primarily a puzzle game with some combat bits here and there, using the ball's mass to squash enemies flat and block their projectiles. The ball can even be tied to certain objects to drag them around, or rolled through oil and then flame to set things on fire.
It's not hard to figure out, but if The Ball has one major problem it's that the game wants to make sure you understand its mechanics to the point of pure tedium. The first half of the game is amazingly boring, with simple tasks linked by long sections of walking, all the while hoping for a real puzzle to show up to offset the pointless busywork. The promise of the concept gets buried completely by a game determined to make sure anyone can play by being an interactive walking simulator, with the occasional action too simple to be called a puzzle showing up now and then to break up the sightseeing tour.
The Ball finally develops a spine in the latter half, though, when puzzles that require effort to solve appear. Enemies get bigger and tougher, too, and the possibility of death by something other than sheer carelessness finally kicks in. The only question is whether or not impatience has turned to boredom, and boredom into playing anything else.
There's a good game buried under The Ball's pacing issues, but it takes several hours to find. The prettiness of the Unreal Engine's graphics help ease the relentless slog, and a couple of clever secrets per level ensure you won't be playing on complete autopilot.
By the time you get to the good stuff, though, the damage has been done and cynicism has set in, magnifying the effect any flaws would normally have. The levels get more complex, the monsters grow tougher and meaner, and the set pieces become suitably epic, but it would have been much more fun if they'd started a few levels earlier.
Still, for those with the patience to dig in, The Ball will eventually reward your persistence by slowly living up to its potential. It's just too bad it couldn't have done this from the start.