The surprising success of Nintendo's Splatoon can be chalked up to its creative and accessible twist on the competitive shooter. Its colorful world of kid/squid warfare gives players something to do during every moment—even when they're not trading shots with well-armed opponents.
Jagex's Block N Load goes for a similarly inspired approach, though with the complexity you'd expect from a PC-only (at the moment) shooter. Rather than being a straightforward deathmatch-style game, BNL borrows the grid-based building mechanic of Minecraft for matches that are equal parts constructive and destructive. Originally released for $15 in April, Block N Load went free-to-play at the beginning of October—an incredibly smart idea for a game looking to expand its player base.
Like Team Fortress, Block N Load offers a variety of characters who lean towards either "attack" or "defend" styles of play—an intent you make clear before starting a match. Defenders can be useful in combat, but their unique skills are best used to lay traps, dig tunnels, and figure out creative ways to protect your team's core: If the opposing team can figure out a way to reach and dismantle it, your side loses. Attackers, obviously, are best used on the front lines for combat, and to make headway into the enemy base, though even they possess some basic building skills. Regardless of who you choose, the character in question will at least have some basic competency in all of BNL's essential actions, though beginners may want to stick with attacking roles until they witness enough defense strategies in action to understand what kind work best.
Block N Load's matches aren't quite as snappy as Splatoon's, though, since the first five minutes of each one is spent on a combat-free build phase to prep your base for an upcoming attack. "No game the same" stands as BNL's tagline, and based on what I've seen in these pre-match periods, it's pretty much true. Some defenders fortify their bases by building thick walls of blocks around them, while others love to dig trap-filled trenches along with stairways or bridges that lead enemies directly into them. These build phases are also vital for throwing out (and hiding) radar devices, which make your enemies appear as red silhouettes through the geometry, as long as they're in range. Since the whole Minecraft aspect of BNL gives its arenas a lot of potential verticality, knowing an enemy is tunneling hundreds of feet below you can either make or break a match.
This "go anywhere" mentality of Block and Load also provides creative solutions to what could amount to boring matches spent fighting over the same bottlenecks. I tried the traditional route of fighting my way into the enemy's base with my attack-focused character, then realized a bit of sneakiness would make for a much better strategy. So, I dug an extremely small tunnel into their turf, popped my head up, destroyed a few radar dishes, and made a hasty retreat. Some players are a little more elaborate with this process, though: In some matches, I witnessed a few my teammates jump to the ground below and immediately start tunneling towards the enemy's core—and I eventually had to fight enemies sneaking into our turf via their own elaborate tunnels. Playing well in Block N Load means knowing which of the many, many possible options to prioritize at any moment.
And it's this element that makes BNL much more hardcore than its cartoony atmosphere lets on. With the amount of characters, skills, perks, traps, blocks and weapons available in the game, there's no way for the developers to really prepare you for every possible scenario. To their credit, BNL contains a brief tutorial, and some explanatory videos for each character, but the real way to learn is to get your hands dirty—and by "get your hands dirty" I mean "lose miserably." Your first few matches will be completely overwhelming, and since constant contact with your team is important—as it is with any complex shooter—it really helps to play with people you know. Playing with strangers wasn't a terrible experience, but I often found myself to be the only English-speaking player on my team. Thankfully, BNL's free-to-play status means it shouldn't be too hard to find some Steam friends willing to take the leap.
Even though I haven't been doing a whole lot of winning in Block N Load, it's been a worthwhile experience so far—one more robust and complex than the simple gimmick it could have been. And even if the whole "free-to-play" concept makes you bristle, opting out of this aspect won't affect things all that much: Honestly, each of my matches has been so different from the last that I don't expect to grow tired of the out-of-the-box characters anytime soon. If you're looking for a diversion this weekend, don't be surprised if Block N Load keeps you up in search of the best way to troll your enemy. In this game, it's practically an art form.