Arena combat is fast becoming a linchpin of Xbox gameplay. Just recently we've witnessed MechAssault and Unreal Championship, both games whose staccato machine gun dialogue, sharp visuals and frantic gameplay have made them obvious early choices for the Xbox Live service. And of course where would the great, award-winning Halo be without its many deathmatch variations?
Scobee Dobee Doh
Phantom Crash is another arena combat game, and like MechAssault it focuses on walking hunks of customised metal, called "Scobees". (Trying not to say it like "Scooby Doo" is a great way to avoid feeling awkward when playing the game.) Your character is thrust into a league with these shiny brutes and forced to try and temper their metal by the dextrous use of circle strafing and machine guns/missiles/lances/other weapons.
The setting is the hollowed out metropolis of the former Japanese capital, which rests beneath a CO2 smog caused by environmental disasters. Abandoned in favour of a shelled-up Neo Tokyo in the bay area with its own breathable atmosphere, the old city is the perfect stage for the AI to wield its metallic puppets and for you to try and vanquish them.
Apart from climbing the Scobee combat leaderboard though, you will have to engage in conversation with your fellow combatants and their AI constructs (each with a different animal-based personality - think Holly from Red Dwarf at a fancy dress party), customise, tweak and replace your Scobee (or SV for short) and challenge for places in higher leagues or to become "rankers" (basically champions) for different areas.
And rather like a walking, shooting Gran Turismo with Ridge Racer plot elements, that's where it ends.
How you friend!
Actually though, a better simile would be Codemasters' TOCA Race Driver, with its endless plot-based witterings and contrived situations. Phantom Crash is also guilty of fleshing out a perfectly simple league and championship-based competition with oodles of unnecessary storyline, and at a cost. The presentation is extremely Japanese, and the plot is outlined via on-screen, MGS2 codec-esque speech bubbles. For my first 45 minutes of Phantom Crash, the sum total of my interaction with it was entering my name, five minutes of piloting a Scobee through a bland, square setting to learn the controls and a lot of reading.
And the problem is that for the most part it's an obligatory read. Unlike MGS2's 'codec moments' which you could skip through endlessly (and thus complete the game in a handful of hours), Phantom Crash requires you to pay attention to characters to learn new techniques, work out where you can buy stuff, who's the best on the circuit and so on.
And the dialogue, however well presented, is in a form of broken Japlish complete with occasionally redrawn manga character images in the background to illustrate mood. You'll learn plenty about how to treat your Scobee, but the unskippable conversations about who fancies whom, and the reams of personal advice can quickly tire you out. As the game operates on a day-by-day basis with a proper league and challenge schedule, time-sensitive rules and a constant barrage of new thoughts and opinions from your SV-riding brethren, there's little escape from the story.
One thing you can do is to bury your head in oily rags, overalls and elbow grease and give your SV a good going over. You can shop for an SV from three main manufacturers; Kojima, American Stars and Il Venturo, and the trick is to stick to one family of products. And although you can just buy a basic Scobee and graft new toys onto its shell, there is also the option to roll your own, adding projectile weapons like rocket launchers, close-quarters conversation openers like the shotgun and medieval-style lances, and souping up your SV's mobility with 80s-style roller feet or even hover legs.
Once the New Yen starts rolling in from combat victories, you can set about rebuilding your mech from scratch, and you can store several of them in your garage complex (and buy more garages, too), giving you plenty of options. You can even sell surplus parts to recoup expenses.
Fortunately, Genki has designed Phantom Crash not with mysterious physical limitations (after all, I could simply build a mech 200 feet high with the best armour and walk all over everyone, right?) but to emphasize that the semi-legal professional leagues have entrance rules. They differ for the various league classes, so you can stick to wimpy, machine gun and basic blaster-based combat for the first few rounds and gradually work your way up through C, B and A classes in your own time. This is a good thing, because it gives the player a nice progressive objective (with various rankers to usurp as well), whilst also preventing anyone from just bolting a nuclear reactor to their SV's arm.
Nuclear reactors may be a step far, but you can tool your mech with up to four unique weapons. On the battlefield, the analogue sticks combine in Halo-like fashion to achieve movement, you can strafe-dodge quickly with the black and white buttons, and you can boost up briefly using X (and boost back down quickly by pressing it again in mid-air). Meanwhile, left and right triggers control your left and right arm weapons (e.g. a lance and a machine gun), whilst the Y and B buttons handle your shoulder-mounted offerings (e.g. rocket launcher).
You can also camouflage yourself. The technology is considered frail, but as long as you don't take a hit and your power doesn't burn out then you can remain cloaked, sheathed in a Predator-esque veil of heat haze - very useful in combat, and arguably the most beautiful in-game effect.
And the combat in Phantom Crash is mostly excellent, too. Considered use of your various weapons (using rockets to force the enemy to boost into the air and then machine gunning them, for instance) is very valuable. Combined with lots of circle strafing and an eye for camouflaged SVs, you can be almost certain of a decent result. The AI does a good job of controlling your competition, piloting them around the landscape, tucking them away in nooks and grannies to ambush you and giving them enough path-finding AI to track you behind two skyscrapers, past a dilapidated church and through a pile of armour pick-ups.
Combat isn't perfect though, for several reasons. First of all, encounters drag on for far too long, with enemy forces replenished by constant reinforcements. Of course it's a free-for-all, but that doesn't seem to stop them ganging up. And although you can differentiate between skill level by the colour of their health bar, it's still more or less impossible to avoid engagement in PC's cramped arenas. And that's the second problem - despite claims of a whole cityscape, ala MechAssault or even Murakumo, PC's levels are square-edged playpens with half-ruined buildings and crumpled masonry spread around.
After a while boosting over small buildings, hiding in dark corners and jumping off usefully placed ramps, you won't be able to escape the feeling that you're trapped in a virtual sandpit, and you and your opponents are just toying with one another. The peculiar lives structure, which sees you come back at a cost even when dead (often having benefited to the tune of many thousands of dollars anyway), means that there's no real urgency to the gameplay either. Fun though it is to boost around duking it out with the AI, the vast storyline and its disengaging presentation aren't really enough to keep you playing.
Out on your own
All of which brings us to Phantom Crash's most fundamental flaw - it doesn't support Xbox Live. Now it might seem harsh to criticise it so heavily for the absence of a just-this-second-launched feature, but we've played MechAssault online and it really is fantastic. Add to that that MechAssault looks much sharper than Phantom Crash with much more detail and less bland grey texturing, the fact that its arenas are much bigger and the way the single player game is the action-packed Splinter Cell to Phantom Crash's Japlish text-heavy Metal Gear Solid 2, and there's only one way to put it.
As a game for single players who frequently find their friends seated beside them, pad-in-hand, Phantom Crash and MechAssault sit very closely together. Both trade on largely the same premises, but PC offers more depth of customisation. Meanwhile, MA delivers a greater ferocity of gameplay and arguably a much wider variety of mechs. And once your mates have departed the split-screen arena, both games offer fun, challenging single player games.
But MechAssault offers a proper, growing narrative with villains and multiple objectives. At times, Phantom Crash feels like Quake III Arena without the online segment, and endless deathmatching won't last you forever.
If you need to own an Xbox mech game, but haven't made your mind up yet, then you need to consider a couple of things: firstly, do you have, or do you intend to get Xbox Live? If the answer to that question is 'yes', then MechAssault is your only option. If no, then ask yourself whether you want a short Western sci-fi with a great split-screen multiplayer, or one big, ongoing Japanese botmatch with mech customisation and a long, detailed story. With all that out of the way, you should be in a good position to pick a mech. Us? Sorry, but we'd take MechAssault.
Phantom Crash screenshots (Xbox)
Phantom Crash preview (Xbox)