Reviewed: February 16, 2005
Released: November 4, 2004
Scrapland, oh excuse me, American McGee Presents Scrapland is perhaps one of the most original PC titles I have played in the past five years. No surprise coming from Mr. McGee, the creative genius who combined Quake and Alice in Wonderland for one of the most inspired action games of 2000.
You play as D-Tritus, a self-made robot (literally) who arrives at Chimera, a giant asteroid built from scrap by robots for robots. Humans are forbidden and you must even subject yourself to a scan to make sure you haven’t been in recent contact with them.
The first thing you need to do is get a job. Since all the good jobs are already taken you must settle for becoming a journalist for the local news agency. Thankfully you learn there are other more exciting ways to make money in Chimera. Your guided tour continues to a spaceport where you obtain your first ship (a loaner actually) and a tutorial on how to build new ones specific to certain purposes like racing or combat.
Of course, with your sad little starter ship, not many options are open to you so your first order of business is to follow through the initial plot that seamlessly doubles as a tutorial that shows you the basics of flight and gives you the lay of the land, so to speak.
Once you’ve found your bearings, the world of Scrapland is yours for the taking, and what an enormous world it is. Broken up into districts, each area is massive, unique, and exquisitely crafted. The upper scale districts are bustling areas of business, glimmering with countless skyscrapers and the small ships that fill their appointed traffic routes. These zones, the entire city for that matter, is obviously inspired by movies like Blade Runner and Fifth Element.
Other areas are teaming with rouge mercenaries, who hunt in the burnt out rumble of Scrapland’s human heritage. These districts are complex labyrinths of underground tunnels and vast wastelands, where and the only highways cling closely to the walls of Scrapland’s more civilized areas.
The result is a world teaming with life that is both fantastical and believable. Inside the buildings are some of the oddest, most endearing bands of characters this side of sanity. Bloated bishops sell citizens extra lives for a small “donation.” Robotic staplers hop around in their desperate and futile hunt for something to staple in a world devoid of paper. Midget police knock up citizens for cash while nurses – floating clubs – look for errant robots that need some sensibility knocked back into them.
This is the world in which D-Tritus must make a name for himself. How? Well at first, it is simply by carrying out the orders of his Editor-in-Chief. D-Tritus is a reporter and as such, comes equipped with a camera to capture incriminating evidence. Your first real mission is to investigate the murder of Scrapland’s Arch Bishop. Unfortunately, only police are allowed at the scene of the crime.
This is where D-Tritus’ most valuable skill comes into play. Capable of hacking into The Great Database - a repository of stored extra lives - D-Tritus can become anyone at anytime and gain their abilities. In this case, becoming a police-robot will allow you access so long as you avoid the all-seeing eyes of the Beholders, sentries that can see through your facade (their cone of view is reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid).
A prime example of this ability is when D-Tritus must impersonate the mayor to extract information from the chief of police. The hitch is that the mayor and chief are already talking. However, becoming one of the aforementioned eyes allows D-Tritus to finger the mayor as a criminal who will then be chased off by the police. The resulting confusion is D-Tritus’ chance to become a duplicate mayor, extract the information he came for, and slip out undetected.
For those moments not spent on foot – making up perhaps half of the game – D-Tritus is roaming Scrapland’s massive cities in his ship, or one of his many ships as the game progresses. While D-Tritus only has a scrapper of a ship to start off which, exploring buildings reveal new blueprints for ship chassis, weapons, and engines while pitting his skills in racing and consensual combat yields weapon upgrades.
This allows the player to amass a large collection of ships, each hand built using the weapons, engines, and chassis of the player’s choosing. The system works very well with each chassis having a default hit point rating and varying numbers of hard points for engines and weapons to be installed. Over time, this garage of ships provides D-Tritus with a ship to meet any need, whether it be a ship purely for racing, combat, or a jack-of-all-trades ship.
Flying these ships is a pure joy thanks to a wonderful flight model and control system that works with mouse and keyboard or even a gamepad. I was reminded of the flight system used in Freelancer on more than once occasion. And if you want to travel the city and keep your ship parked in the garage, there is a very fast public transportation system available.
Scrapland pushes the envelope of graphical technology with some of the most stunning visuals of any PC game released in 2004 and I venture it will take a few more months before anything can touch these graphics in this or any other genre. And it’s not so much the technical splendor as the sheer creative originality of the characters and the levels.
You can zoom in and pan the camera around to appreciate the subtle reflections and bump-mapped surfaces of the textures that make up D-Tritus and any of the other cast members. You can see every individual component that makes up these robots and many are independently animated.
The first time you fly out into the city your jaw will (or at least should) hit your keyboard. The city is a virtual buzz of activity with dozens, perhaps hundreds of ships flying around, some in patterns and others interacting with each other, chasing and shooting. The cityscape is also very vertical allowing you to dive down into the misty bowels of the city or fly to the top of the tallest skyscraper.
Everything isn’t a shiny technological wonder though and Chimera has some interesting and diverse locales like the Scapyard, a very organic location full of old wreckage and decommissioned ships. And the first time you visit the home of the Great Database is another jaw-dropping moment.
If you had the pleasure of playing TRON 2.0 then you will certainly recognize and appreciate many of the lighting features used in Scrapland that give the game a very high-tech neon atmosphere. There is even a very impressive water effect with ripples and reflections.
Scrapland dazzles us once again with a solid sound package that marries fabulous voice acting, full of diverse personalities and accents, along with futuristic sound effects, both ambient and those of space ships, combat, and plenty of other quality sounds.
The soundtrack is flawless, creating just the right mood and enhancing the gameplay. There are even location-specific music cues so when you walk into the club you will hear pulsing dance music. Everything about the music and sound mirrors the visuals to create a totally immersive experience.
The world of Scrapland is huge and while the combined outdoor and indoor environments might rival the earlier GTA games in size, you aren’t exactly offered the total freedom you were in those games. Sure, you can tool around town stealing ships, racing, and causing general mayhem, but there is no real incentive to do so outside the main mission structure.
The single-player game consists of more than 100 missions and can take you upwards of 50-60 hours to finish depending on how thorough a player you are and how lost you get in the environment. No matter how focused you think you are, it is way too easy to get sidetracked and start exploring or racing in Chimera.
There is a modest attempt at multiplayer with Deathmatch and CTF modes and you get to play these matches in arenas that are lifted from the single-player game zones. Scrapland supports LAN and Internet and admittedly, there was some minor fun to be had with these modes, Scrapland was obviously meant to be played solo.
Scrapland creates a stunning new world, a setting of unique architecture and character design and hopefully marks the birth of a new franchise. I know I certainly want to return to Chimera for more adventures and to meet even more insane characters.
Scrapland is the material that makes for great movies, and while the upcoming animated feature, Robots and subsequent video game might look like a knockoff of Scrapland, there is no way that title can match Scrapland’s unique visionary style of a robotic society. In a year with so many unoriginal games, sequels, and genre-cloning spin-offs, Scrapland is a breath of fresh air.