When it comes to rebooting games, building a new version of Tetris has to be the easiest thing that can be done. After all, as long as you at least have the basic tetromino-dropping and line-clearing endless gameplay mode that set the world on fire back in the 80s, you'll have a bunch of satisfied customers who just want to play the game on the newest console that they have. Going a bit further and adding new innovation can be tricky though, as we've seen with past attempts.
With Tetris Ultimate, Ubisoft have indeed provided that basic mode – entitled “Endless" here – but it's locked at the outset. To get to it, you need to beat the game's “Marathon" mode, which tasks you with beating the game's 15th speed level. That's no small ask, given the speed that the blocks careen down the screen at anything above level 10. Elsewhere, “Sprint" (clear 40 lines in as short a time as possible) and “Ultra" (score as many points as you can in 3 minutes) modes are available, along with “Battle" mode, which allows you to play against up to three other AI-controlled or human players, dropping blocks onto their grids by successfully clearing lines on your own. You can even play in co-op or team mode with three other players, with you having to work together to clear lines across a larger-than-standard grid. All of the modes work well and provide an extra bit of longevity to a game that was already infuriatingly addictive, even if none of them really veer away from the classic mix all that much.
So Tetris Ultimate is all good then, right?
Well, yes and no. The package is lacking a little something when it comes to explaining itself. Tetris Ultimate isn't just your bog-standard Tetris, but it acts like it is, seeming to think that you'll understand the new rules of the new additions without having them explained. Take the “Battle Ultimate" mode which introduces power-ups. Fire into this mode for the first time and you'll see your grid scrolling sideways, blocks exploding, and all manner of other things. Some of the tetrominos have symbols on them which activate these effects on your opposition's grids. Aside from actually dropping them onto the grid and then clearing them, the game steadfastly refuses to tell you what they actually do. The added challenge here is that to work it out, you have to actually watch your opponent's grid to see what the ramifications were, which is tough to do when you're trying to control your own grid. Or, how about the utterly confusing “Tetris Self" diagram that appears at the bottom corner of the post-game screen? It looks like a weird planetary map, but what does it mean? Surely the game will explain it somewhere? Unfortunately not. We did a little digging, and it turns out that your Tetris Self is essentially an AI-controlled version of you that your friends can play against when you're offline. That's undoubtedly a great feature for when you get bored of playing against the various levels of “Tetribot" AI players - as challenging as they are - but it's pushed to one side and not celebrated or even highlighted in the slightest.
A very limited soundtrack is in play – which becomes dull quickly as it is essentially a mellow remix of the classic Tetris theme tune played over and over and over and over and over again. There are a distinct lack of visual customisation options, too. How about a classic Game Boy-style look? Or an inverse board for players that don't want to stare at bright colours on a black background for hours at a time? The developers seem to have entirely skipped over the sorts of options that we can list off the tops of our heads.
One area where they haven't scrimped though, is the gameplay customisation menu. Do you want new tetrominoes to be selected using the “7-bag" method (which isn't explained) or the “Classic" method? Do you want to allow wall kicks and T-spins (again, neither are explained, though advanced players will understand) or not? Do you want to be able to turn off the ability to “hold" a piece for later using a tap of the right bumper? How about altering the length of time before a piece is locked into place on the grid? All of these things can be changed, alongside others. This means that you can customise the game to your liking, making it as difficult or as newbie-friendly as you'd like.
Online, Tetris Ultimate seems to perform admirably, too. Whether you're playing against your friends or enabling the “Tetris Live" mode (guess what…this isn't explained) which from what we can work out, appears to open your game up to other unknown people who are looking for a match, the game is steady and stable. We've not suffered from any disconnections or lag at all, with every game playing out just as it should. However, online play doesn't seem to have had much thought put into it beyond that. All you can do is play match after match. There are no real challenges or ranking systems in place that will keep you coming back for more, which is probably why the game's online community appears to be on life support already. Even with Tetris Live enabled, you'll find that you'll more often than not only be put into a head-to-head match as there just aren't enough people playing to fill out a public four-way battle.
Tetris Ultimate provides you with Tetris on your Xbox One. That'll be enough to sell it to most people and the game works very well. The attempts at innovation on top of the base game are welcome for sure, but the package as a whole tends to feel a little bit bare-bones, despite the plethora of gameplay customisation options. This means that if you're one of the minority that didn't really get grabbed by the bug, then this will do little to change your mind. Tetris fiends should be prepared to be addicted all over again, though. Tetris Ultimate is decent, but if you've ready access to any other version of Tetris, then there's little reason for a purchase.