Genre: 3rd Person Action
Publisher: Sierra / Vivendi
Developer: Swingin’ Ape Studios
Release Date: November 18, 2003
This is going to be one of those reviews. I resent its intrusion, because it forces me to think about the game, and in so doing, it makes me want to play the game some more. It is a vicious cycle, which respects no deadline and gets me in trouble.
Further, it is going to be a glowing, box-art review, of the kind that is strangely difficult to write. Something about my horrible critic's brain, the part that enjoys mercilessly mocking the multi-year efforts of a sleepless and determined band of programmers, resists the idea of a wholly positive review with all its might.
Yet, somehow, I'll find the strength to carry on.
Metal Arms: A Glitch in the System is perhaps the best third-person shooter to come out on consoles this year. It's got some competition, from Remedy's stellar Max Payne 2 and LucasArts' Armed and Dangerous, but Metal Arms has more playtime than the first, and more variety and weapons than the second. Given as how several big-ticket FPSes were postponed, it may, in fact, be the best action game to arrive this year, period, end of statement. An interesting and funny story doesn't hurt; neither does its top-notch voice cast. This is just a quality joint, all the way across the board.
You're Glitch, a custom-designed droid who's found damaged on the outskirts of Droidtown. Droidtown is the home of the rebellion against General Corrosive, the mad warlord who's been terrorizing the planet of Ironstar since his accidental creation. As Glitch "wakes up," as it were, Corrosive's forces, the slightly-insectile-lookin' Mils, have gotten uncomfortably close to Droidtown, and Glitch volunteers to help fight them back.
Following the orders given by one General Alloy, and occasionally backed up by friendly members of the droid army, Glitch sets out to do the usual shooter-protagonist things: take on entire battalions singlehandedly, wield explosives recklessly, destroy critical enemy facilities, and, eventually, come face to face with Corrosive itself.
The game I keep wanting to compare this to is Serious Sam; the only difference is one of scale. In both games, you wield large arsenals of weaponry against hordes of monsters who have you vastly outnumbered, against truly enormous backgrounds that, in terms of both scale and spectacle, dwarf their competition.
Metal Arms, you see, is big. Levels roll out before you without a sign of popup, and regardless of how many robots are onscreen with you, nothing slows down. The basic background choices don't change much, ranging from broken industrial to working industrial to desert battlegrounds, but what's going on inside them does.
Another similarity is in the type and size of the opponents you'll be facing. A few remarkably durable enemy robots, armed with machine guns, soon give way to ones wielding rocket launchers, or safely ensconced in mounted turrets. Tanks appear shortly thereafter, sometimes with close air support.
By the time you're into the fifth or sixth level, you'll have encountered the elite lieutenants, wielding a staff that sprays laser death from one end, and destroys lesser beings with one strike from the other. Get a little bit further on, and you've got your terrifying undead "zombiebots," comprised of equal parts hate, death, and rusting metal, only falling dead after the second time they're killed; further yet, and the massive Titans become a common sight, enduring hideous amounts of punishment and retaliating with salvos of missiles. Tracked guns, explosive sentries, technomancer "scientists" who can somehow summon lightning, and the occasional giggling moron with grenades round out the opposition, but by no means complete its roster.
Glitch is equipped with a varied arsenal of weaponry to fight these robots off. You begin with a weak mining laser, most readily comparable to a semiautomatic flashlight; soon, you'll find machine guns, rocket launchers, shotguns (the game calls it a "scatter cannon," but let's be serious), mining charges, Ripper sawdiscs that can sever cable or an enemy robot's limbs, a rivet gun that is effectively the game's sniper rifle, and a grab bag of creative types of grenades. Your hand weapons, wielded in your right hand, can usually be upgraded up to two steps, changing their look and function as they go. The machine gun acquires stability and range before evolving into a fully-automatic chaingun; the scatter cannon goes double-barreled, then rotary and automatic, like an invisible gravel crusher spreading out before you.
Handy consoles may let you seize control of an enemy robot for a brief time, piloting it into the thick of the opposition to destroy it from within; you can also capture hovercrafts or tanks, or take over a turret. Thanks to Halo, I don't believe anyone's going to be leaving vehicles out of a quality shooter for the foreseeable future, and I don't object to that. The only problem with Metal Arms' riff on this theme is that, unlike Halo, it does not seem to be possible to run damnfool Space Marines your enemies down like dogs in the street. This hurts me on deep and personal levels.
If you encounter members of the Droidtown army, or use a recruiter grenade against the Mils, you can even lead your own small team into battle, although they're really just cannon fodder at best. Late in the game, if you stun an enemy or come upon them unawares, you can recruit them with a special type of grenade or a primary weapon, turning your own opponents into their worst enemies.
The basic idea here is ultraviolence, delivered engagingly and creatively across forty-two--count 'em--forty-two levels. Metal Arms has a long list of interesting levels, packed with the elements for a gamer war story and unfolding like a sadist's trap. It's not enough to invade a fortress singlehandedly, with you and your tank taking on an army of overpowered enemy mecha; no, this fortress must be well-guarded, with enemies ideally suited to maximize their fields of fire, enjoying support from both tracked vehicles and rocket snipers behind almost full cover.
Glitch can't swim, and is instantly destroyed by immersion in deep water; therefore, a deep river is bordered by narrow, improvised ledges, fused together from scrap iron and fallen robotic victims. Those ledges, in their turn, are inhabited by the zombiebots, which're among the few enemies in the game that actually try to knock you around.
The game ceases the third-person action periodically, to switch over to differing forms of combat. A level may take place with Glitch aboard a friendly droid ten times his size, wielding a massive wrench and a powerful rivet gun like a mad god, scattering Mil bits from hell to breakfast; but there are no health pickups in the level and the droid's sheer size makes evasive action something other people do.
A dash across the desert to stop an escaping Mil spy turns into a full-throttle joyride in a stolen jeep, where you must navigate a mine-strewn road while trusting that your CPU buddy in the gun turret can do something about the fifty-six thousand jeeps and bombers that've found your travel plan. You must do this in four minutes and forty seconds, or the spy escapes.
I could continue, but the point's largely made. Metal Arms, in its single-player adventure mode, is incredibly fun, with a lot of tactical options and humor. It's also unforgiving, with enemies that individually require a specific strategy to beat. What works on an ordinary Mil may not always work owing to that individual's weaponry; and what works on him will not work on a lieutenant, or scientist, or tank, or Titan. Glitch has new weapons and potent tactical advantages coming out his crude approximation of a nose, but you will need to work your tricky brain and trigger finger overtime if you wish to succeed.
There is satisfaction in this. Metal Arms never allows the player to go on autopilot; it provides you with options and then trusts you to find and exploit them. A given army almost always has some kind of Achilles' heel or vulnerability; an empty tank might be sitting nearby, or a droid control panel may be conveniently unattended. You aren't given any hints or a road map, besides the occasional gruff gameplay tip from General Alloy. It's all up to you.
If Metal Arms has a flaw, it's in its multiplayer mode. The mode itself is great; no problem there. By finding and collecting Secret Chips in singleplayer, you can unlock a variety of maps for use in multi, ranging from levels you've seen to all-new labyrinths of death.
As a splitscreen experience, it's fun enough, although, like all split-screen multiplayer shooters, it only really takes off when you've got four players and a TV the size of an ocean liner. The lamentable pity here is that Metal Arms is not Xbox Live-enabled; it is offline only. When I see a game that would've been this good online, and it's not online, not only do I cry, but so too does the very firmament of the universe. You make the stars themselves weep, Swingin' Ape! Stars!
Hm. Medication's worn off again
Even strictly offline as it is, Metal Arms is a damned fine game, combining an actual, real challenge with an idiosyncratic sense of humor and a sense of scale that's all too often AWOL in console releases. If there's to be a new version, or a sequel, at any time in the near future, it needs online play; it cries out for it in a thousand voices.
In the meantime, though, you will not find a better shooter. I like it better than Halo. Take that as you will.
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