If you were to list the game concepts that should be automatically awesome, going by their base ingredients, then cars with guns would have to come somewhere near the top. People like driving. People like shooting. Squish them together and, at the very least, you should have a game that ticks the box marked "Wheeee! Fun!"
With that immutable universal law in mind, it's unclear how Xbox Live Arcade game Scrap Metal has ended up as such a drab and frustrating little misfire. It's produced by Slick Entertainment, which showed an innate understanding of pitch-perfect sensory feedback with its XBLA version of N+, yet almost every element feels compromised and clumsy. It's a game that you want to enjoy, but dozens of constant irritations scratch away at you and prevent it from realising its potential.
Scrap Metal is a combat-oriented top-down racer; separate out its DNA and you'd find donated genes from R.C. Pro Am, Super Sprint and Micro Machines, but the end result doesn't even come close to their moreish genius. Balance and control, two elements key to this sort of racer, are sorely lacking and all the clichéd cartoon characters and chugga-chugga rock music can't compensate for the misshapen organs in the belly of this beast.
The single-player mode offers up a procession of tracks, each lorded over by a boss character. Complete different trials and missions on each track to unlock the next, and beat the bosses to claim their vehicles for yourself. Upgrade points are earned for placing in the top three in any event -10 points for bronze, up to 30 for gold - and these are cashed in for extra speed, armour, handling and firepower for your expanding garage.
None of this seems to have a noticeable impact on your vehicles, however, with bulldozers handling much like muscle cars, regardless of how you spend your points. Weaponry is equally underwhelming, with too many offensive options proving less than useful in the scrum of a race. Anything other than an old-fashioned machine gun proves too insubstantial in a game where accuracy depends more on luck than skill. Most of the time you simply roar around in circles and hope that another racer strays into your line of fire long enough to be destroyed.
There is at least some variety in the tasks asked of you, but this comes at the expense of much-needed attention to the core racing mechanisms. Each track is used up to ten times, sometimes for a straight race, sometimes for a demolition derby. There are even ill-advised escort missions, and pursuits where you have to keep out of the clutches of spam-happy enemies. Most annoying are the boss fights, which find you chasing around and around for what feels like hours, chipping away at their ludicrously resilient health bars until the fun drains away like the fluid in a leaky brake line.
Handling is problematic, simultaneously too heavy for instant arcade gratification, yet too slippery and imprecise to handle the curves and hairpins with any consistency. Two control methods are available, but both suffer from the same frustrations. The simplest moves the car in the direction of the left stick, the more advanced model uses the right trigger to accelerate and steering is relative to the car's on-screen orientation.
The physics are similarly off-key. Small shunts can send you skidding like soap in the bath, scenery blocks your view and it's all too easy to become snagged on debris or track-side details. The bland track designs often compound this problem, with ill-defined boundaries and soft short cuts that make it easy to slide right past a checkpoint without realising. You'll be battling the sticky inertia and wayward momentum of the game far more than the dim-witted AI rivals blundering around the track, bashing you off-course like short-sighted cattle but never seeming to exhibit any real racing smarts.
Even multiplayer, an area where this sort of racer should shine, feels awkward and unsatisfying. There's no way of carrying over vehicles from your single-player garage, or customising the slim selection attached to each track beyond their colour. The modes available would struggle to fill a glove compartment and they fail to inspire much variety in play style, all too often devolving into chaotic pile-ups and blatant griefing. Bizarrely, even though there are eight racers on the grid, only four can be player-controlled. Losing a hard-won pole position because of a head-on collision with a bot driver going the wrong way is both pointless and aggravating, yet it happens all the time.
That's the bad news, but all that is good about Scrap Metal is contained in the simplicity of its premise. Cars and guns. There's arguably still enough residual entertainment in that combination to ensure that a few splinters of fun can escape through the cracks in the game engine, and when you hit on the right mixture of car and track then there is a simple tyre-squealing pleasure to be found. Beyond that base level of expectation, however, there's precious little to cling to. Not as good as the 20-year-old games it draws from, an inexcusably steep 1200 Microsoft Point price tag puts the final banana in the exhaust pipe of this disappointingly crude jalopy.