After 12 million downloads, international notoriety, a plush toy line, and numerous awards and accolades, there simply isn't much ground left for the Angry Birds franchise to conquer. So developer Rovio has taken the battles between birds and pigs to the expanse of space, where asteroids, space stations, planets, and a "Flash Gordon" aesthetic serve as fertile ground for new puzzles and adventures.
Though brief, Angry Birds Space is a much more sophisticated, entertaining, and complex game than its predecessor and is everything a sequel should be.
Download the $1 iPhone version or the $3 Angry Birds Space HD for the iPad, and you get access to the the first two areas--"Pig Bang" and "Cold Cuts"--with each offering 30 levels to unlock. Though the Angry Birds physics formula is probably familiar to the majority of gamers at this point, Rovio wisely walks players through the mechanics as space does provide some new twists.
The object remains very much the same as Angry Birds and Angry Birds Seasons: Pull back on the slingshot to launch little specially-powered birds into cackling pigs in the hopes of clearing them all from the stage. If the pigs are all destroyed, you win the stage and unlock the next one.
All of your favorite birds return (save the much disliked boomerang bird) and you also gain access to an ice-cube bird that detonates and turns all structures it hits into breakable ice--very handy when trying to take down a well-fortified base.
The initial Angry Birds was about a fairly predictable physics system: In space, of course, this changes dramatically. The cleverest wrinkle in Angry Birds Space--and why the game is a truly necessary sequel--is the introduction of gravitational pulls from objects in space. Now, you're not just launching a bird at a pig: You have to contend with the gravitational pull of nearby asteroids, planets, and then the neutrality of space itself. It makes the game much more open-ended, and far more chaotic.
Often, you'll launch a bird just slightly differently and instead of watching the bird impact with a structure, you'll see it slingshot around the asteroid and hit something else on the other side. There's also the possibility of solving puzzles by not simply flinging birds at pig structures, but instead targeting nearby space debris and hoping that the wreckage gets pulled into an asteroid's gravity and does your work for you. One of my favorite moments was taking down a massive pig space station simply by knocking one of its pylons into the gravity of a nearby planet--the entire structure was pulled down in a fantastic explosion.
Taking a page from Angry Birds Rio, Angry Birds Space also has boss battles at the end of each chapter, providing a more frenetic element to an otherwise patient, deliberate game. The Mighty Eagle feature introduced in other Angry Birds offerings also returns, though eagle tokens are earned in the game, and their effectiveness is severely lessened. Instead of clearing a stage, the Space Eagle will only take out a selected area, and it's often difficult to utilize properly in stages with many gravity fields.
A great deal of the Angry Birds experience has centered on the frustration at not being able to clear a particularly challenging puzzle. Thankfully, the Space Eagles don't make the game too easy--they just provide another tactical choice.
Since your initial play through of the first two chapters will be brief, the replay value of the game is ultimately determined by how much you enjoy earning three stars on each level and finding every "eggsteroid" (Angry Birds Space's version of Golden Eggs). It's a shame that the initial offerings are brief and not as complex as you'd hope, as these birds never really feel like they soar in this new playground Rovio has created for them. Only when you unlock the Danger Zone missions as an in-app purchase do you begin to see the various mechanics begin to really click.
Like all games in the franchise, Angry Birds Space will be expanded upon with additional levels in the coming months. The initial offering feels like a protracted demo or a long tutorial, but it's still worth your time. Angry Birds Space is very much a work in progress--the iPad version in particular seems a little crash-prone at this point, especially on older tablets. But all of the key ingredients are there to hook players for another physics puzzle adventure.
Former associate editor Chris Holt remains a frequent contributor to Macworld.