Every once in a while, you play a game that reminds you what you're missing. In the last four years, console and PC games have grown deadly serious, awfully dark, and relentlessly grim. From the forced darkness of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
to the stiff but great Mercenaries
to the flat (but fun) MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf
, games are so much more grim and sincere than before. There still are funny games around, just not as many or as many prominent ones. In fact, there's a bit of a revolt against it all -- Psychonauts
and Stubbs the Zombie
come to mind.
Which is where American McGee Presents Scrapland comes in. Like finding a balloon artist at a wake, Scrapland has that loveable element that gems like Metal Arms and Up Your Arsenal brought to gamers' systems. Like all good humor, it's more than just funny lines or goofy-looking creatures. It's also about situations, subversive overtones, and constant poking at the establishment, whether it's society in general or the game industry in particular. With Scrapland, its fresh and humrous ideas, style, and personality win out over its often task-heavy and repetitive gameplay.
Junk, Garbage and D-Tritus
The story opens up with D-Tritus entering Chimera, an all-robot asteroid, and looking for work. All the good jobs are taken, though, and he has to settle for being a lowly journalist. (Which, because the developers have a good sense of humor, is a job that requires no skills at all.) He quickly unearths a murder mystery that will have him risking life and limb on his way to a heroic finish.
But how does a robot get murdered? There's the Great DataBase, where the matrix of every person is saved for retrieval in case of an accident, so everyone should be safe. However, someone is stealing the matrices themselves from the GDB, and D-Tritus has to figure out who, because he might be next in line. Early on, he gains the ability to hack the GDB and change into virtually any type of character -- a central hook and mechanic in Scrapland. He needs this ability to complete certain missions from time to time, as some of them have unique abilities. Beholder robots, little flying security guards, however, patrol and scan everyone, and they can catch you in someone else's skin and call the guards, who will blow you to bits. So, while in another robot's "skin," you'll have to be careful, i.e., stealthy, and smart. Or
run like hell.
Since you're in the GDB, you'll never really die, a nice little poke at the game standard of picking up extra lives. You only have a limited number of extra lives and you can buy more from a GDB bishop, three for a thousand credits, but if you run out, the game is over, forcing you to return to your last save point. In fact, since you can save anywhere, the extra life design feels unnecessary.
D-Tritus will also be able to "over-write" someone, which basically means walking up to them and replacing them where they stand. This can be a quicker way than finding a GDB station, but it also counts as murder and will alert all police in the vicinity. When you trip an alarm, a meter indicates when the pesky heat is off, like in Metal Gear Solid. The Beholders also have a similar cone of awareness. For the most part, though, it's pretty easy to escape the fuzz. While in flight, however, the police are a lot better at tracking you, and there's enough of them flying so that you often run into another just as you're about to lose the first guy.
Being a distinctive game with no real model, Scrapland is a mix of adventuring and space ship flight, incorporating space fighting and pure flying missions. Luckily, the flight model is well thought out. You can tell MercurySteam had played plenty of dogfighting and racing games, particularly Wipeout with a little Wing Commander to form their flight model and physics system. The ships fly freely in 3D, but the Xbox version offers a lock-on system that lassos the opponent ship, swinging you around and keeping you close to it. It doesn't assist shooting, just navigating, and for what it's worth, the addition helps, making things a little more manageable when a big dogfight begins.
The outdoor environments are good, with a keen eye on making everything larger than life. Imagine the ships, styles and architecture of Blade Runner meeting The Fifth Element and you'll have a good idea of what the environments in Scrapland are like. MercurySteam also made an effort to integrate organic objects into the mix. It's not just all shiny skyscrapers and roads in the sky. You'll fly through the Scrapyard, which is a huge ship cemetery shot through with cave tunnels, warrens, husks of enormous vessels, and hornet-like nests of little flying robots who don't take too kindly to you getting to close to their hives. Then there's the spot where the GDB itself is housed; it's just fantastic looking.
But, um, yeah, I was talking about flying. The cool part about the flying is A), you'll do a lot of it, and B) you can modify and upgrade your ships. Over time, you stumble upon or are granted plans for ship types, weapons, and engines. You can cobble together something pretty mean after a while, and customize the ship to maximize certain aspects while saving money elsewhere. For example, you may find yourself using the cluster missiles and chaingun a lot, but then you find the Devastator and Tesla guns. Suddenly, the old weapons aren't so neat. Well, go ahead and remove them, and add another rocket instead. Each ship type comes with a pre-set allotment of hardpoints and weight allowance, and each weapon type is further broken down into a maximum number of slots it can occupy. Weapons also have partially tracking reticules, and the swarming missiles have a quick image recognition lock. Oh, and the weapons are surprisingly powerful. Every major area in Chimera has a shop where you can tweak your ride.
Your first ship, practically a loaner, will only have a couple slots for swarm missiles, and a chain gun mount, but not much else. But eventually you'll have a beast that can mount multiples of pretty much everything. Interestingly, the order in which you find engine upgrades is a little disorganized, and the secretly-laid plans of a few high-end items are accessible virtually from the moment you begin the game. It doesn't necessarily detract from gameplay, but the design here isn't as strong as it could be. Further, the upgrade interface isn't completely intuitive. It took me a while to figure out how to build upon a different ship type, and took me longer to figure out that I could put different types of rocket engines on multiple mounts. Naturally, the heavier the ship is, the slower it moves. The more armor you add, the longer it will take for your afterburner boost to bring you to full speed, and so forth.
The flight and combat model, while on the twitchy side, is nonetheless solid and fun, with lots of eye candy effects giving you the sensation of speed, rollicking explosions, and super science weapons. Inertia on the heavy ships makes it difficult to get through the racing segments easily, but your hangar of sorts has plenty of space for multiple vessels. You'll also have a R2-D2 kind of buddy who'll be able to summon your ship to any parking space in the game -- provided it hasn't been destroyed in combat.
This is the rub, because reconstructing your ship costs the full price you paid to begin with, and that gets mighty expensive. Money isn't hard to come by in Scrapland, and man, it can go just as quickly. Considering how easy it is to get your ship blown to itty bits, it would be nice to be able to get the ship back for a reduced price, or buy extra lives for it like you can for yourself. Many times I found myself stealing a vessel and flying that instead of risking my precious and expensive beast.
Robot in Motion
It's not necessarily that the weapons in Scrapland are powerful -- it's that it's really difficult to shake somebody. Every weapon comes with a potentially useful countermeasure -- something you can drop behind you to frustrate or damage the enemy -- but there isn't a lot of speed delta from one ship to another, and the afterburner only gives you a one-shot burst of speed followed by a recharge phase, instead of steady velocity. Every location is scattered with "speed gates" so to speak -- thresholds appearing as a ring or short tunnel that traffic is flowing through -- and those apparently increase your speed and keep it there until you bump into something or thrust sideways or in reverse. These are handy for getting away from people or for quickly reaching scattered targets, and it's also fun to go fast.
But one of the player-friendly things about Scrapland is that you don't have to fly all the time anyway to get from point A to point B. The whole asteroid has a subway system that will take you to almost all the major locations in a little more time than it takes to load the area.
Unfortunately, MercurySteam appears to have applied the "larger than life" idea to these on-foot locations. From the police station to city hall to your press building, these places are just too darn big. There's a lot of just plain running around to find someone, who's usually deep within the complex. They're marked on your compass, so there's almost always easy to find, but it's kind of a hassle when you have to run all the way over to them, talk, then find your way out again. There aren't any side missions to stumble on, interesting conversations to have, or cool and useful items to pick up (aside from the occasional hidden plan), so it just feels tedious, especially when you do a lot of communication with a video phone.
Here's a rule: when I have a phone, I want to be able to use it when I want to simply call someone instead of physically tracking them down. People are always calling me in Scrapland, so I end up feeling like a bit of a gofer, particularly when these face-to-face conversations almost always end up with me having to perform a few tasks before I can gain some information that will allow me to continue the investigation. The denizens seem particularly paranoid, since these missions they make me do are almost always a way of proving my trustworthiness and invariably involve making a hit on somebody or blowing up some vessels.
In fact, when you think about, D-Tritus is a pretty chipper guy for all the death and destruction he leaves in his wake. I would have much sooner had the bulk of these missions converted to optional side quests, because there's a lot of "before I can talk to this guy, I gotta do this thing that will allow me to get in here so I can get this item that will convince this guy to talk to me so that I can yadda yadda yadda."
Sound and Vision
The art style is varied, imaginative, and rivals the upcoming Psychonauts or the PC MMORPG, World of Warcraft, for sheer personality. Light fixtures are given the subtle "bloom" treatment you may recall in Tron 2.0, where the edges are fuzzy and natural. Sound also gets high marks, with extensive and professional voice acting across the board, a host of cool sound effects, and a polished, techno-oriented soundtrack that kicks in dynamically.
The Xbox version adds a tiny bit of slowdown when you initially enter into large areas, and the framerate is hampered a bit here and there. Plus, there is something about the Xbox version that makes it feel all a little unstable. The imaginative architecture, ship, and character models, however, still make up for a lot of the game's rather rough finish.
Scrapland has a highly imaginative, shiny, and charming art style, plenty of humor, and a hefty amount of play time, but it would have benefited from making the on-foot locations quite a bit smaller and from reducing the amount of required combat. Chimera is a very open environment where you can just bomb around, cause havoc and steal ships, but you won't stumble across any additional game content, even though the design is ripe for it. There also isn't as much mission variety as there could be.
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