Few developers have carved out a niche as singular as Q Games has with their PixelJunk series of high-resolution PS3 oddities. Four games into the franchise, they’ve developed a signature approach to graphics and gameplay that is instantly recognizable: Take familiar designs, mess with the mechanics until they’re barely recognizable, then layer crisp, minimalist 2D visuals and nearly ambient background music that perfectly complement the action. It’s not particularly surprising that PixelJunk Shooter adheres to this formula as closely as the other three games in the series. What’s surprising is how much better it actually plays.

That’s high praise, given the success of 2008’s PixelJunk Eden, a game which had you collect pollen while piloting your tiny “Grimp” through a series of extraordinary electro-futurist gardens. But where Eden offered a more leisurely, open-ended gaming experience, its successor is far more directed. In Shooter you take control of a subterranean rescue vehicle in search of survivors in an alien-infested mining colony. Your job is to cut through the alien invaders to seek out wayward colonists and collect them with your projectile claw before moving onward to the next level.

It all sounds pretty simple, until you encounter Shooter‘s hook: The cave system in which you find yourself is in a constant state of flux. Lava pours from ducts in the ceiling, forming impassable pools that slowly overheat your ship as you approach. Elsewhere, ice creeps through winding watery tunnels, threatening to trap you in a frozen tomb if you don’t escape in time. Too often physics engines are only put in the service of making bigger explosions and more realistic corpses, but Shooter‘s fluid dynamics offer more than just eye candy: They let you alter the environment in a way that feels intuitive and natural.

The basic mechanics are easy to grasp: lava turns to rock when cooled by water, ice melts and evaporates when hit by lava, and oil turns into combustible gas when exposed to water. But the way these substances interact varies wildly from level to level. In one level, you might shoot a rock outcropping to drop a bit of lava into a cloud of gas, thereby igniting it and removing the ice barrier blocking your path. Elsewhere, you’ll create bridges of rock to direct the flow of lava into obstacles. Each level has a different gimmick, and the fun isn’t just in figuring it out, but in skillfully executing it as well.

Shooter is fun to play alone, but it’s even better in two-player mode, when you can explore the cavernous environments with an ally. In most respects, it’s identical to the game’s single-player campaign – the environments are the same, as are the number of enemies and their spawn patterns. But because so much of the gameplay revolves around altering the environment, it becomes important to communicate with your partner to make sure you don’t inadvertently splash lava onto his ship or trap him inside a freezing pool of water. And the way Shooter handles power-ups further encourages cooperation: Instead of simply granting you extra abilities, power-ups replace your default missiles and claw, which forces you to rely on your partner rather than recklessly forge ahead.

Bottom Line: The fourth installment of the PixelJunk series is also the most polished, propulsive and downright playable.

Recommendation: Buy it. For $10, you won’t find a more entertaining treatise on the laws of thermodynamics than this.

Score: [rating=4]

Jordan Deam is a little embarrassed that PixelJunk Shooter is as close as he’s come to doing science since high school.

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