If you happen to have spent the dry summer of 2003 in north-western Montana, you might know the feeling of watching a roiling forest fire tumble down a hillside at you at 3:00 AM. It's a paralyzing breakfast combo of beauty and horror, like being stung between the eyes by a gold-plated scorpion, and I highly recommend the experience if you are the sort of person who likes having experiences. I never considered the possibility that fire might be a calculating force, driven by evil intelligence to ravage maximum wilderness. But this is what video games are good for—letting you see things from somebody else's perspective. In this case, the perspective of fire.
Scorching Earth is an intriguing turn-based puzzle game in which you control the actions of an inferno as it seeks to devastate 50 levels worth of landscape. The levels are composed of square tiles, filled with various types of terrain—grasslands, water, trees, and so forth. Your goal on each puzzle is to destroy the required number of tiles. Since you are playing the role of "fire", you must obey some unique restrictions. Basically, you gain power (represented here by "Burn Points") by consuming resources, and then spread to other tiles by expending that power.
The "Burn!" button is the end of your turn. Pressing it causes each active flame to consume part of its square, adding to your Burn Points. Some tiles, such as forests, will allow you to burn them for longer, and yield more points over time. In between turns, you may spend those points on your abilities. The one you'll use most often is "Spread", which costs 2 points and simply expands the fire from one tile to an adjacent tile. Click the flaming space, then the Spread command, then the target space. You can also call down rainstorms to put out rival fires (which are, bizarrely, purple), and meteors to strike far-away spaces and start fresh burns.
Scorching Earth is the first release from letsmakeagame.com, another petal in the current blossoming of websites dedicated to community level design. As with BonusLevel, every game that designer Rowland Rose uploads onto Let's Make a Game will feature a level editor, so that users can add to the games' growth and re-playability. If you make a popular level, it might even end up in the Community Edition of the game later on.
Analysis: This is the sort of game that can easily pass you by, because it looks so unassuming, and its mechanics are so unusual. The instruction page is really not very helpful, so expect to mess things up the first couple of times you play. If you persevere, though, you'll find a highly versatile puzzle engine chugging away. There are a couple of awkward design decisions—the flames are so large that it's difficult to tell what terrain they're sitting on, and it takes too many clicks to cancel a half-finished command—but the basic struggle of Fire Vs. Everything is gripping enough to keep you addicted through 50 levels worth of challenge and variety.
Have I mentioned that there's 50 levels enough times yet? I think it's important for these Web 2.0 games to have a well-constructed group of official levels that teach the player all the ins and outs of gameplay, rather than relying solely on the creative efforts of beta-testers. And Scorching Earth's official level set is stellar, both at introducing concepts and at challenging the human bejeebers out of you. If you're a hard-edged puzzle-holic, this is what you live for.
So it's a good, solid, innovative puzzle game. But I'm mostly fascinated by the way it makes you feel like you're actually controlling a fire. Sometimes you'll hold onto a forest for several turns, gathering strength for a last-minute push across the prairies. Sometimes you'll cut a controlled burn across a choke-point to keep the purple flames from advancing. It's fun being in charge of a natural disaster, following natural disaster rules, attending natural disaster after-parties, caring not for the ashen husk of a world you're leaving behind. It's fun, and if you've ever been close to a real forest fire, kind of grisly.