Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved, the free update to last fall's Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, is a tale of two radically different tapes. On the first tape, you have a twin-stick shooting level design and potentially supernatural reflexes pushed to their limits in beautiful, technicolor harmony. On the other tape rests some of the most punishing, unfairly designed boss fights this side of a SNES side-scroller. That Geometry Wars 3 remains a great game despite boss fights that transformed me into an apoplectic, rage-fueled, profanity-spewing monster is a testament to just how much Lucid Games has perfected its score-chasing, polyhedral exploding craft.
Let's talk about the first tape. The first time I saw the score required to pass "Super Sequence," the penultimate level of Geometry Wars 3's new Hardcore Mode, I let out a weak laugh. 20 million points … I consider myself to be an above-average Geometry Wars player, but 20-million-point runs tend to be reserved for my best Pacifism performances. My laugh was premature. It should have been reserved for the level itself. Countless swarms of purple pinwheels, yellow flowers, pink twin cuboids, magnetic blue octahedrons, and yellow rockets filled my screen in a flash of color that would make the opening credits of Enter the Void blush. And I died. I died very quickly.
But, as Geometry Wars has always shown, there is a pattern to this madness. The pattern involves dozens of enemies coming to life at once and forcing you to channel your inner "Luke Skywalker on the Death Star run" persona while playing more aggressively and dangerously than you ever have before. Geometry Wars gave me the tools to survive, though, and after far fewer attempts than I would have ever guessed, I breezed to 50 million points, which was still 100 million points shy of a two-star score (and 250 million points shy of a three-star run). Surviving pushed me to my very limits in a way that few games ever have, but I felt satisfied that I had earned my victory.
Let's move on to the second tape: "Aventurine." Oh, "Aventurine." I will remember your name for the next 10 years. One of the most maligned elements of Geometry Wars 3's original release last year was its boss fights. Dimensions Evolved only makes it worse. "Aventurine" is the second boss fight (of four) in the game's "Ultimate" campaign, which adds 40 new levels to the Adventure Mode. I'm ranked in the top 50 in the world right now on that level with a score I obtained without ever even beating the boss. Similarly, I'm ranked 27th in the world for a run on the final and only boss on Hardcore Mode, and I still haven't beaten it. I suspect I never will.
It took me multiple hours to conquer any given boss in Geometry Wars 3's Ultimate Mode, but "Aventurine" was my own personal Rubicon. I spent over four hours with the spawn location and attack patterns of every single damn enemy on that level memorized -- which occurred after about half an hour or so -- sitting straight up and staring at my TV with such intensity that I saw explosions in the back field of my vision any time I looked away. Geometry Wars had burned itself into the essence of my vision. But I couldn't beat the son of a … word that's inappropriate for a family-friendly publication. When I finally did persevere -- after escaping from near collisions and deaths by mere pixels -- I didn't feel like Rocky toppling Apollo Creed, ecstatic in my triumph and hard work. I felt like a war-torn veteran crawling out of the foxhole after months of nightly bombardments. I never want to fight that boss again. I never want to play any of those boss fights again.
I would rather fight Bloodborne's Cleric Beast with just my fists and no blood vials than ever touch "Aventurine" or Hardcore Mode's "Topaz" ever again. Yet, despite the most agonizing video game bosses I've ever forced myself to overcome--minus "Topaz" because there's only so much I'm willing to let my blood pressure rise for the sake of a video game achievement--Geometry Wars 3 is better than ever before. Dimensions Evolved has all the content of a minor expansion pack at the price of a free update. This is the standard version of the game moving forward, and minus the abysmal boss fights, Geometry Wars 3 is better, more dynamic, and bigger than ever before.
Hardcore Mode addresses the second biggest complaint that long-time Geometry Wars devotees had with the base game: unlocking drones. Drones and drone supers marred the inherent purity of Geometry Wars' scoreboards. Players who spent more time upgrading their drones had an advantage when trying to reach higher scores. Hardcore Mode does away with drones so only you and the phantasmagoric-colored battlefield determine your performance. Many of these levels were designed with drones in mind, however, so the game supplies plenty of super states to help level the playing field in your favor, which you'll appreciate when well over a hundred enemies are on the screen at once. With the exception of the last level, "Topaz," the 20 remixed Hardcore levels send a jolt of adrenaline right into the veins of long-time series fans.
Ultimate Mode is a larger addition, featuring 40 new levels and a host of new level types and enemies. While the continued presence of drones in Ultimate Mode may displease fans who can't abide that gameplay addition, the excellent level design should soothe most other fans’ concerns. Whether you’re on the level that plays out like an old-school, bullet-hell, Ikaruga-style shooter with fatal red walls pushing you ever forward or playing the new "Scorpion" mode, which feels like Centipede on steroids, Ultimate Mode constantly pushes the play palette of the series forward while maintaining the breakneck challenge and pace the series is loved for.
I put more than a dozen hours into Dimensions Evolved, but I already fear the dozens of hours more that I'm going to dump into Ultimate and Hardcore Modes as I try to best my own scores and those of my friends. The boss fights remain a titanically poor decision for a series focused on lightning-fast, frenetic gameplay, but when the rest of the package has only gotten better and more varied, they're a frustrating but small price to pay.