The village of Molar Creek has been struck with a plague! Not the sores and boils kind - a plague of... moles! And not any old moles. These voracious critters are a deadly menace - apt to explode if treated too roughly! For many years now the villagers have dealt with the problem by means of an annual contest, with a golden trophy for the catcher of the most moles, but now something terrible has happened - a mysterious thief has stolen the trophy, and an army of moles has infested the village! In despair, the people turn to that ever-reliable line of defence - the local mad professor, who just so happens to have invented a bizarre mole-catching machine. As his (presumably expendible) assistant, you must take command of the machine and track down all those moles.
How best to describe Mole Control? Hmm. Take minesweeper, mix in a pinch of "Whack-a-Mole" and stir in a few scenes from Wallace and Gromit's "Curse of the Were-Rabbit". Take control of the mad professor's machine, dubbed the "De-mole-isher" (I know, I know...!), and sweep the gardens, park and so on of Molar Creek looking for those pesky moles. You can't detect them directly, but if there are any moles in the eight squares surrounding your machine it will display the number. As you move on, holographic numbers float in the air, so you can work out where the moles are and extract them safely. Driving over a mole will damage your machine, as will attempting to extract a mole from an empty patch of ground; you have a limited number of repairs, though spare ones can be found on some levels.
Controls are simplicity itself. Click on adjacent squares with the left mouse button to move there, and the right mouse button to extract moles. There are some nice, large buttons near the bottom of the screen that activate the contraption's "hover" mode (allowing you to fly straight to another point in the level - though it must be either paved or previously cleared) and access the journal. New entries in the journal are indicated by this button flashing. Repairs are used automatically. Capturing certain types of mole allows you to use them to your advantage - for instance, the orange mole can be used to clear a 3x3 area from a distance! If you have any usable moles, the number of each is shown along the bottom of the screen and one can be used simply by clicking on it and then on the destination.
The graphics are in a jolly cartoon style and the main game is fully 3D, though I have not found any way to rotate the view (which would be useful for the near corners sometimes). Journal entries are accompanied by some charming pictures! Each set of levels has a different theme, and there are lots of little touches like mole statues to brighten up the atmosphere. The glowing numbers are easy to read and, as your machine will obviously block the one you're sitting on, a moving display banner around it will display the number of moles around that square! I was initially disappointed that there was no indication for a clear square (and numbers will adjust downwards as moles are captured) but then I realised that the grass is subtly flattened when you leave a previously visited square!
The jolly style continues with the sound. The wide range of effects include the obvious movement and digging, of course, but I particularly liked the big cry of "wheeee!" when firing off an orange mole! They clearly enjoy the "flight"... up until the moment they explode! Each setting also features its own background music. There is no need to play with sound but it does add a lot of atmosphere.
Mole Control is very easy to play, though it is easy to get distracted and use the wrong mouse button on occasion. To be fair, this is a common problem even on Minesweeper! Sweeping large areas can be tedious and overclicking is very easy - discipline is required! As levels can be quite large, the ability to fly to a new location is very useful. I would have liked a keyboard equivalent (the numeric keypad, perhaps) to save on mouse clicking. Despite being basically a 3D version of Minesweeper it adds a great deal to the game with those limited repairs (complete with occasional extra ones to be found) and the special mole effects. The addition of a plot also works rather well.
The main game does indeed feature a plot. While each setting features three levels and the game is thus not overly long, there is the challenge of obtaining the "golden mole" in each setting. This critter pops up out of previously excavated mole holes and will provide parts of the story behind the moles and the disappearing trophy when captured. More than this, you can replay any level in an attempt to beat your time and lower the number of repairs used. A challenge mode is also available in which you play against the clock, hunting down all the moles before a minute is up (successful captures will give you more time, while damaging your machine will lose you time).
There isn't really anything bad to say about Mole Control. I had some minor installation hiccups, but that could just as easily be Windows Vista playing silly beggars. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that the game can get quite samey - there are certain tricks that you'll learn when hunting moles and sweeping can become repetitive as a result, though the odd special mole can liven things up. A determined and skillful player will probably complete this game within a few days at most, though I imagine younger players will find it more challenging - I suspect they will find it hard at first to deduce where the moles are. Perhaps I should be praising Mole Control for introducing them to logical thinking!
Mole Control is a fun, inventive attempt to liven up the basic premise of Minesweeper and the style should appeal to a young audience very easily. Whether they'll stick with it and the thinking required rather than go for something more mindless, I couldn't say. Ideally this is one to play with your children rather than leaving them to it, and I hope this charming and slightly silly game does well.
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