How annoying must it be to work tirelessly on a game for several years only to find that it gets released to virtually zero fanfare at a time of year when literally dozens of big name (EA) games are piled high on the shelves, elbowing everything else off regardless of quality? Very annoying, we'd imagine, for the developers at least. Christmas 2003's case in point no.75, Swingin' Ape's charmingly frantic klepto-blastathon Metal Arms - yet another game you won't play this year because of the screamingly annoying practice of failing to realise that the market can't cope with 300 simultaneous new releases.
With that particularly furious bee now out of my bonnet, let us spread the good word about this psycho take on Ratchet & Clank. Starring a gun-slinging robot by the name of Glitch, it's a manic third-person run-and-gun romp through Droid City as the diminutive lump of scrap metal teams up against the Mil army under the command of the nefarious General Corrosive (groan). Predictably, he plans to dominate the planet of Iron Star (don't they all?), and you simply have to blast your way through forty levels of ever-more explosive action and, you know, save the world.
Bog standard 'bash the baddies' premise aside, something is abundantly clear: Swingin' Ape loved Ratchet & Clank, (particularly Clank). And who can blame them? Insomniac's classic (and ostensibly similar quick-fire follow-up) was among the best platformers of the last ten years with well judged gameplay, warm humour, style in abundance as well as the most insane array of upgradeable weapons we can recall in a videogame.
Metal Arms' emphasis is more on all out blasting rather than too much in the way of incessant platforming or gadget use. But what is patently obvious is that the combat mechanic has been copied wholesale, with downed enemies exploding in a mass of bolts and shards, leaving behind Washers as the 'currency' that you must collect in order to buy all-important ammo refills and upgrades from the amusing Barter Droids Shady and Mr Pockets, always hopeful of selling you a bargain in true market trader style.
It's easy to spot similarities elsewhere too. As with R&C, there is also a fairly comprehensive selection of weapons to choose from - 17 in all - most of which are forged from the videogaming vault going back many a year. Think the SPEW, Metal Arms' Flak Cannon, or the blade-emitting Ripper, or the Scatter Blaster, or the Mining Laser... every check box of weapon type you can imagine gets a look in at some stage.
Although Metal Arms sails close to the wind in following the formula into the realms of parody, it does have a few tricks of its own as well, notably the Control Tether - a device that enables Glitch to effectively hack into enemy bots and take them over, particularly useful given the fact that most enemies are much stronger than the rather feeble Glitch. He may be "the last hope" and all that guff, but he's not that tough, and dying a dozen deaths per level is par for the course as you work out their attack patterns, the most effective means of killing them and so on. One thing that obviously helps is the ability to continually upgrade your health bars by finding the batteries stowed away for you to collect, but in truth Swingin' Ape quickly tips the balance back in the AI's favour with bigger and more powerful enemies instead. Much like R&C2 with its Nanotechnology upgrades.
As you'd perhaps expect, the mechanics follow the industry standard third-person action gaming configuration; left stick for movement, right for the manual camera/aim, triggers for primary and secondary fire, with the other various action and weapon select buttons mapped sensibly across the remainder of the pad. Although the camera behaves itself for the most part, there's always this sense that the stocky Glitch is positioned too close to it, occupying almost half the height, and more than his fair share of width. Infuriatingly there's no option to pan back, and although it's hardly show stopping, we'd have preferred a less "in your face" viewpoint.
The visuals for the most part deliver an impressive degree of chaos, with easily the most over-the-top explosions we've ever witnessed. The design, animation and level of detail on some of these fearsome mechs is elaborate enough as it is, but seeing them literally erupt into a furious sea of sparks, bolts and shards with not a hint of slowdown is enough to make you want to wince. Only once calm is restored and numerous washers litter the ground do you dare return, as some of these creatures of doom rise up Terminator-esque out of their own scrap to chase you halfway around the level before they get the message!
While it might sound like a standard albeit pretty shooter, it's chock full of moments that make you smile among the carnage. As well as some exceptional cut-scenes replete with well-voiced segments, the games' humour is never more apparent than when the weaker AI enemies run away screaming Halo-style when they're taking a beating, and it's all the better for never taking itself too seriously.
The levels aren't especially inspired in terms of design, however. Being largely linear processions through rocky or metallic constructions there's that omnipresent feeling of 'seen it', but it's arguably rescued thanks to a great game engine that allows Swingin' Apes artists free rein to bring a potentially tired concept back to life with decent detail, reasonable texturing and lighting. This is multi-format, remember, but the Xbox - for once - is reportedly head and shoulders above the rest, with vastly superior effects and framerate. Throw in an exuberant procession of well crafted enemies and you'll forgive some of the more uninspired elements. Metal Arms is more about execution than delivering something fresh and new that you've never seen before.
There's also occasional variation in the endless shooting to break up the repetition, such as the time-based challenges that have you driving hell for leather across a desert, or chasing a robot across a level, or taking charge of an awesomely powerful mech to wreak destruction on all the bastards that have been making your life hell for so long. It's these sections that keep you coming back, mindful that it's not an endless slog.
The difficulty level is certainly going to be an issue for many people. It is tough, make no mistake, and almost from the word go you'll be wondering at how much harder things can get. The answer is often hardcore, with some of the general grunts feeling like mini-boss monsters in comparison to fare we faced in most games. As a result, some levels may take some players intense amounts of practice before they're finally defeated. It can be undeniably frustrating to constantly find yourself replaying the same section over and over again, but the solution is normally simpler than it initially appears once you've polished it off - like the first time you discover that you can unleash a powerful Mil bot, or pilot one of the discarded vehicles armed with rapid fire cannons. More often than not it's just a case of taking your time and exploring every possible nook to tool yourself up as much as possible before you wade in. If you want a challenge, then this is it, but it's by no means overwhelming - it just demands a bit of patience and a reccy to sniff out what there is lying around to even the odds.
On the audio front, it's your veritable, ulp, mixed bag of inspired comical voiceovers, crunchy explosions and gunfire let down by some rather anonymous musical accompaniment. Although the rattling tunes ebb and flow intelligently to match the action, we're curiously to know who'd want to download the soundtrack which Vivendi released last week for free. It's great in 5.1, mind you, and Xbox owners once again get the bragging rights as far as these things go.
Who wants to play?
The seven multiplayer modes for up to four players (split screen only) make for a pleasant, albeit non-essential addition. As per usual there are variety of Deathmatch and Domination-style modes, as well as a couple of Tag games for good measure. Cunningly, by seeking out the hidden 'chips' within each single-player level you can eventually unlock more maps, presenting a degree of replayability that would otherwise be absent - or a degree of annoyance if you really can't be bothered to trawl through each mission all over again just to unlock some sideshow maps that you might not ever be able to persuade your mates to play you at - this isn't Live enabled, remember.
All round Metal Arms is a undoubtedly a quality offering that deserves far more attention than it's ever going to get this time of year, but lacks that crucial X factor to elevate it to the top rungs. Simply put it borrows a hatful of ideas, implements them well but never truly wows you as a landmark gaming experience. Once publishers realise that releasing anything less than triple-A titles during the run up to Christmas is commercial suicide, we might start seeing games of this high standard getting the attention they deserve, but as it is, most of you will be checking an empty wallet and a growing credit card bill and shrugging at the prospect of a polished but derivative title that might be just a little too familiar for their liking and cause more frustration than most people can deal with. On the other hand, we can practically guarantee this will be in the sale racks in just a few weeks, at which point it becomes a far more attractive prospect.