Publisher: Majesco Games
Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: September 12, 2006
If there's one constant about video games, it's that gamers like robots, particularly giant ones. From the early days of video gaming with the dystopian Berzerk, to the NES days with Megaman and Gyromite, to more recent systems which brought with them titles about Gundams and Gears and other assorted mecha of a more Japanese flavor, robots have been prevalent in games almost constantly. Surprisingly, there have been just as many of these games coming from American shores within the past decade, as there have been games from the Land of the Rising Sun. In no small part, this is due to FASA Studio, who created the maddeningly addictive BattleTech game system, and to Microsoft, who worked to adapt it into the MechWarrior series.
While Japanese games in the mecha genre focus on flashy, almost superhero-like humanoid machines, blasting each other with generic beams of energy and slicing each other up with wannabe lightsabers, American games in the genre, such as MechWarrior and its spin-off MechAssault, tend to gravitate more towards the "walking tank" idea of giant robots. The soldiers still fight the real wars while the machines are less graceful, less poetic, and arguably twice as destructive in terms of body counts and collateral damage.
There are a few phrases that come to mind when one looks at MechAssault: Phantom War; the first would be, "There's nothing like the real thing." The second would be, "Don't fix what isn't broken." Arguably the first title in the series to come to a portable, and undeniably the first game in the series since 2004, Phantom War brings up a problem present in few other offerings, with only the PSP's Me and My Katamari coming to mind as an example: "How exactly can you manage to adapt a dual-analog control setup and make it playable with a directional pad and some face buttons?" To answer, the game handles decently, while still being difficult to get accustomed to and vaguely clunky. A lot of Phantom War feels that way, even beyond the controls, but more on that later.
Like many mech games, Phantom War controls with a simple "one stick moves, the other stick aims" method, although naturally lacking any analog sticks with which to work. Players can choose either to work with the clunky d-pad and buttons scheme like the PSP's Katamari, or with the d-pad and restricted touch-screen aiming like Metroid Prime Hunters, but even then, it can take a while to familiarize oneself with the controls. A novice's first few hours with this title will be clunky and poorly managed.
Once you get past the controls, another flaw comes your way: Phantom War gets repetitive very quickly. Playing like a mix of MechWarrior and Grand Theft Auto, you control elite mercenary mech warrior Vallen Brice, another in an increasingly long line of video game heroines who could kick your rear in a fight. Conventionally, you can take down opposition in one of two ways – either gunning it down with your assortment of functionally equal weapons (aim, lock on, shoot, repeat), or suicidally hopping out of your mech to run up to the enemy, play a little stylus-based "hacking" mini-game, and effectively hijack your way into that mech.
The problem is that neither tactic works as well as it could. The "hacking" mini-game is annoying at best and utterly counterproductive at worst. There are two variants of the mini-game, and both require you to match up cryptic symbols with rapidly scrolling counterparts. With one, the symbols drop from the top screen almost reminiscent of a puzzle game, requiring you to sift through the multiple symbols presented to you before time runs out, and with the other, symbols are shot out of a spinning sphere like some sort of demonic lottery machine, requiring you to find a needle in a haystack, again, before time runs out.
The "hacking" mini-game is different, but it gets repetitive because the story missions require you to perform the task far too often, on things from mechs to fortress gates to satellite relays. Shooting down your foes doesn't work that much better, requiring untold patience with the sluggish, vaguely awkward aiming and movement controls and the imprecision of the lock-on mechanism. Many times will you find yourself firing futilely into thin air right above another mech, fingers starting to cramp as you try to reposition while still dodging enemy fire.
However, Phantom War is more forgiving than its forefathers in some respects. Gone are limited ammo counts, replaced by a multi-tiered weapons system that allows you unlimited usage of the low-level weapons while still restricting your ammunition with the more powerful equivalents. The game also goes for quantity over quality, placing wave after wave of mechs with poor A.I. at you, mechs that know little more than "stand, shoot, and jump occasionally" as an offensive maneuver, yet still manage to gun you down with sheer numbers alone.
Graphically, the game is lackluster, though understandably so; this is the Nintendo DS, so it's not going to be as pretty as the Xbox game next door. Textures are bland and featureless, polygons are chunky and boxy, and it looks reminiscent of the very first MechWarrior game. There is a fair amount of attention put into the actual action models, however, with each mech reacting differently with increased levels of damage. Some are barely able to amble along once you're in serious need of repair.
Musically, the title sports the expected "hardcore awesome" rock tracks, though it's notable that the game has some of the best voice-acting I've heard in a DS product to date. The voice-acting holds up when compared to other American-made games with professional voice crews, despite the DS' tinny speakers. Likewise, the sounds are crisp and clear, though understandably generic. There's only so much you can do with the clank of metallic joints or the fwoosh of a plasma charge before it starts to sound like every last one before it.
All in all, as a single-player experience, Phantom War is short, fairly sweet, and utterly unremarkable. The saving grace and the final nail in its coffin come from a single point: the multiplayer mode. As anyone could tell you, one of the greatest points of games like MechWarrior, SLAI, et al., is the ability to blow up people worldwide every bit as skilled and intelligent as you. To that degree, Phantom War delivers ... in your living room. The game is multiplayer for local wireless only and requires each player to have a separate cartridge. If ever a game so desperately cried out for wi-fi capabilities, Phantom War is it. However, without those features, the game comes off as a flash in the pan. There's nothing all that astounding about it as a whole, and the flaws and the perks level out each other into a package that's fairly average.
If you're a fan of mech titles, you likely already know your place – MechAssault: Phantom War is the only game of its type on the Nintendo DS, and it's not so glaringly bad to make it worth avoiding. If you aren't a fan, however, the limitations of the portable format make this a less than ideal title, so you may be better off passing it up.
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