Release Date: September 21, 2005
Buy 'S.L.A.I.: Steel Lancer Arena International': PlayStation 2
This one requires a little bit of setup.
When you ask people about giant robot combat games (or, as it may be, "mech games"), you're going to get a lot of people mentioning MechWarrior, Virtual ON, Zone of the Enders... and if you really know a die-hard mecha fan, possibly Armored Core. One name you typically won't hear is Phantom Crash. Released in the Christmas season of 2002 for the Xbox, Phantom Crash was overshadowed by the more popular Armored Core 3 and the more... well, expensive and large Steel Battalion. As such, it flew under pretty much everybody's radar, leaving the game in highly limited production and turning it into a monumental flop.
It's a shame, as Phantom Crash was the closest one could get to the customizability of the Armored Core games with the pure arcade-like rush of games such as Zone of the Enders. A further tragedy is that SLAI: Steel Lancer Arena International is threatened the same cult-classic fate, copies already limited and dwindling quickly as Sony seems to be trying to halt production of the title. Considering how solid a game is hidden inside, this is a monumental mistake.
SLAI is a spiritual sequel to Phantom Crash, bringing the setting 40 years further down the road. In Phantom Crash, the world was introduced to the futuristic sport of "rumbling," which was born in the 2030s as thrill seekers started using military-grade "scoot vehicles" – otherwise known as SVs or Scoobies – in large scale, landscape-demolishing death matches. It's now 2071, rumbling has exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, and the Federation of International Rumbling Association (FIRA) has set up strict regulations on the sport. Instead of piloting the machines directly, pilots guide their SVs through remote and use of an Intelligent Chip, sort of an AI partner. They connect to a wide-sprawling network, the HAVEN (if there's one thing SLAI has, it's a lot of acronyms), and from there go to buy parts, upgrade their SV, and participate in rumbles.
Really, that's all there is to the game. Like many tournament games, the entire point of the story mode is to generate more and more funds by rumbling, take out your rivals, and climb to the top of the world rankings. That doesn't mean it's shallow, however. What we have in SLAI is essentially the Gran Turismo of mech combat. At its basest, there is very, very little to the game. You take your mech, customize it, tweak it, and make it an unstoppable killing machine which you then drive about, blasting through various cityscapes ranging from Hong Kong to London and back again.
Controls are... well, they're as simple as any other mech game. Depending on control setup, one analog stick moves the SV, and the other either works as a sort of "mouse look" or pivots the SV's torso and cockpit. Each of the four shoulder buttons corresponds to a weapon seated on the SV's arms, and other buttons can be used for dodging or to toggle optical camouflage, a sort of limited-energy cloaking mode. If you've played Armored Core before, you know exactly what to expect.
The only gripe I could find in the control scheme is that jumping is clumsy, clunky, and at times strictly counter-productive. In stages like the New York arena, which emphasize multi-tiered fighting, this can be a bit of a hassle, but is never more than a moderately skilled player can handle. Likewise, there are only the slightest glitches in hit detection – namely, many of the close-combat weapons are built for solid, lunging thrusts, which seem to have an odd hitbox, causing weapons to go right through other SVs without scratching them. However, aside from that irregularity, all hits expected to land will do such, making each screw-up feel like one you made, rather than "cheap hits."
Graphically, the game is a charm. Mechs are rendered, well, as mechs should be; each explosion is crisp and vivid, and the cockpit view makes the game feel like a true first-person shooter. Somehow, this is all done without major processing power, and the online mode is virtually lag-free, although that may also be partially due to the limited number of people playing the game. Likewise, the audio is crisp and solid, with each hit on a SV ringing loud and clear as the game plays a variety of music, ranging from the typical heavy metal techno to bouncier, more cheerful J-Pop.
The difficulty is a tad steep for a novice, which might be the game's single lacking quality. If you don't know what you're doing, you're bound to be stuck, as the AI has no problems aiming at you and opening up a six-pack of whoop on your behind. Once you learn how to keep moving while holding a lock on your target, it's simple to keep running and gunning to your heart's content. Even then, it may take a bit of practice to get up speed. Repair costs are negligible for many fights, but if you find yourself blown to bits, you'll end up owing more than you have (especially in the beginning of the game) and running off of communal mecha until you can manage to get back on your feet. Again, this is annoying at most and ignorable at best.
What we have here is a game that doesn't reach for lofty goals. It doesn't try to trump MechWarrior as the king of the mecha-piloting genre; it just tries to be fast, furious, and fun while offering the player plenty of customizability in order to fine-tune his mech to perfection and give it that special personal flair. In that, SLAI succeeds with flying colors. This is, again, the Gran Turismo of mech games, allowing a bit of something for everybody. It's easy to pick up and play out of the box (granted you get used to the controls), making it very beginner-friendly, but it also offers enough tweaking and customization to keep even the most diehard gearhead happy. It's a shame this game is seeing such limited release, as it appears to be on par with even Armored Core for playability. If you manage to see it in the stores, go ahead and give SLAI: Steel Lancer Arena International a try. You won't be disappointed.