With 2004 being quite a year for big name, high profile PC games, there have also been a number of "A" quality releases from smaller developers that show off some incredible creativity. One such team to watch is Spain's Mercury Stream, whose first game, American McGee Presents Scrapland, is a pretty smashing debut that's worth an immediate purchase for anyone looking for a unique twist on familiar gameplay. From the massive game world and infinite ship customization, the spectacular visuals and sounds, and the straight up fun found in the game's multiplayer madness, there's guaranteed to be something for everyone who picks this one up.
The game combines elements of action and adventure games with an inspired, funny yet deep science fiction/film noir plot that features a clever bit of casting. You play as D-Tritus, a self created robot who heads out to see the universe and meet other sentient beings. He eventually winds up at Chimera City on a robot inhabited asteroid called Scrapland, and gets a low-paying job as a photojournalist for a news station there. His first assignment is to cover the rather shocking murder of the city's Archbishop, made even more of a mystery given that until then it had been very impossible to "kill" a Scrapland robot. The criminal has somehow managed to access and delete the Archbishop's data from The Great Database (GDB), an ancient computer that stores all the robot data and can replicate any machine that's been destroyed by simply spitting out a perfect duplicate. All D-Tritus has to go on initially is that the work may be that of some crazed human, but even that theory comes into question as the "death" toll rises as more officials are deleted then dispatched.
While it sounds like grim stuff, the game has a distinct sense of often subversive and not so subversive humor and the open-ended gameplay lets you take your time in advancing the plot line as you see fit. Scrapland borrows its basic gameplay from the Grand Theft Auto series, which means you'll definitely get sent on loads of interconnected mini-missions once you make contact with certain robots in the game. While some of these fetch quests are pretty fun to tackle, it is a bit loopy that more than a few involve getting rid of another robot or gathering forgotten objects. In a way, one could say it's like an intentional flaw hardwired into the robotic psyche of population of Scrapland. These machines fear humans, but are themselves full of all too humanlike traits. Side quests or not, much of your time will no doubt be spent exploring every corner of Chimera and beyond, sometimes as D-Tritus, other times as one of 15 other robots. By tapping into the GDB, you can change into most of the other characters you'll meet in the game and use their talents to sneak past, confuse, or engage and destroy enemies. This is actually an illegal activity as it "kills" the host for a short time, which means that you'll need to do your switching when no one is looking or the police aren't around or the chase is on.
Once the police are onto you, they'll chase you relentlessly until you're destroyed or can outrun them. The best way to escape unscathed is to change into another robot when no one can see you and hope that you don't cross paths with any Beholders, the nosy little robot sentries that can see through any disguise. However, you can sneak up on a Beholder, transform into it and raise the alarm on an innocent robot to throw the law off your scent. While the cops are chasing after the poor thing, all you need do is find a safe spot and transform back into D-Tritus and go on about your merry way. Using the other characters has definite advantages, however. It's a total blast (literally) to switch into Betty and blow up a roomful of robots with her special attack, or change to Berto and use his spinning move to blind pursuers and escape. You can also change into a crooked cop robot and hold up other machines for money. But the other robots in the game operate on their own agenda as well, so D-Tritus may become a crime victim by merely bopping into the wrong place at the wrong time or standing in one spot for too long when a crime breaks out.
And that's just on foot. The game opens up even more when you start flying around and customizing gunships. Initially D-Tritus gets a borrowed cruiser with a few weapon slots, and while it's a decent ship, a few trips around the city will let you know that you're pretty much outgunned and not quite as fast as some of the other robots zipping around. Fortunately, you can find engine upgrade plans in a number of places during the game, or just steal a better ship and try to survive the chase that ensues. By the way, Rusty's repair shop is open 24/7 for all your customizing needs. You'll have a cute, slightly off-kilter robot buddy, Spoot-Nik, who can transport one of the 9 ships you can store in your hangar to almost any location, or if you just want to get to an area without getting caught in a battle, you can simply take the game's subway system and hoof it once you reach your stop; it's all up to you.
In terms of control, Scrapland's flying and combat model is pretty impressive and realistic, and you'll certainly feel the handling difference in the assorted classes of ships as you're going through the game. Upgrading is pretty flexible (once you get used to using the interface) and very much like tinkering with a hotrod. There are hundreds of possible body, weapon, and engine combinations, and you can recycle ships you put cash into but don't like for a refund if necessary. With a number of things to take into consideration such as armor weight and engine power, you'll spend a load of time fiddling and tweaking. Weapons also make a huge difference, as dispatching enemy ships in as brief a time as possible makes for a more satisfying experience (and a less expensive repair bill). You'll definitely get blown out of the sky on a number of occasions even after you get that ship of your dreams, and replacing a destroyed ship isn't exactly cheap. The good thing here is that collecting money isn't really a huge problem in the game, unless you try to rob one of the bankers or even worse, the main bank branch in the game- try it once, and see what happens.
You can "die" in Scrapland, but with the combination of a save anywhere system and the ability to purchase extra lives, the game rarely feels frustrating. Sure, it's occasionally pure hell to have your expensive new ship blasted into pieces by a well-placed shot or three, or have a bunch of armored cops literally roll up on you as a Beholder blows your cover and screeches away, but it's safe to say that you'll jump back in and retry every single time because the game is so much fun. You really do get the same vibe as the first time you popped GTA III into your PlayStation 2 and just cut loose for hours on end with no regard to time passing in the real world. All I know is that when this game makes it to the Xbox next year (with at least one tweak, an auto-lock system for ship combat), I'll be spending as much or more time playing it when I should be doing something else.
On the visual side of things, Mercury Steam's artists and programmers have come up with an absolutely gorgeous living, breathing virtual world teeming with visual detail. Every area has a distinctive look and is so beautifully lit and colored as to be almost overwhelming for the first few hours of gameplay. There are obvious nods to films like Blade Runner, and The Fifth Element, but as the look of these films drew from other sources, Scrapland also goes a bit deeper in its visual style. Of all the game's different areas, I loved the creepy junkyard with all of its potential for hidden riches and quick destruction, but the overall impression of the game is that it's one of the best virtual worlds to date. In terms of sheer scope, the game is actually too big, especially when you're looking for one or two robots in some of the mall-sized indoor areas. You'll almost feel as if you're playing a MMORPG at first, but then you make the odd connection that the robots who built the city were probably a lot less concerned with how a human would see things. Then again, when you're zipping around Chimera in one of the game's many racing or combat events, you'll no doubt appreciate that scope all the more. The robot designs are all humorously stylized and full of personality quirks, and the writing goes a long way in helping the robots come off as likeable or unlikable where need be. All the voices are great, and equal praise goes to the solid techno-ish mix of tunes that don't distract from the action onscreen at all.
As for on-line play, with a LAN or speedy broadband connection and some poking around for suitable opponents, you'll find the ship based Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Flag Hunt, Team Flag Hunt, One Flag, and Team One Flag all feature areas form the game and are quite a lot of fun. If you're getting creamed left and right, you can swap out ships from your Garage during matches, but you'll need to either get blown out of the sky or quit and restart before the changes appear (just make sure you're not hosting a match when you do this, or your opponents may come after you in real life). As enjoyable as the multiplayer game are, what Scrapland really needs at this stage are more people playing it on-line.
Other than the not too busy multiplayer action, the one major issue with the game is that it could use a bit more mission variety. With such a huge world to explore, I could see a download with more content at some point that adds even more missions and perhaps a few new characters to transform into. Even without these additions, there are dozens of hours of addictive gameplay here, and that sort of freedom is always a welcome touch on any platform. In the end, Scrapland not only comes highly recommended, it's also a game that deserves as wide an audience as possible so that we can see more games from this truly talented team.
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