Reviewed: April 29, 2005
Released: March 4, 2005
After playing Alice, with its pleasantly twisted sense of Wonderland, stunning graphics, good story and style in spades, I eagerly anticipated the next release from American McGee. What I expected was another macabre action/puzzle game that would be pulled off with sufficient panache to make it an enjoyable little foray into the minds of madness. What I got was Scrapland.
So, instead of a Burton flavored adventure I get a neon-industrial inflected cross between GTA and Blade Runner. I got bright colors, robots with fiber optic hair, flying cars, and a neat little murder mystery in a town where you can’t die.
It is always a pleasure to see a game explain “meta” activities within the context of the game world. Particularly here, we are told that you can’t die because of the Great Database, which stores copies of every citizen on Scrapland and should you “die” a copy will be made of you. For a fee you can buy more lives from bishops of the Church, but even without lives you are just reconstituted in prison and must escape. Also, should you be in need of some assistance in completing some missions you could always use some of those extra lives to hire mercenaries.
Stocked with a complement of spare lives you’re ready to set out and explore Chimera, the city which spans all of Scrapland. In order to do so you’re going to need a ship to help you get around, win races, and reduce your enemies to bright balls of smoldering debris. Fortunately there is an elegant ship building/customization interface to get you started. This allows you to not only select what weapons to outfit your ship with, but also select the kind of chassis, engines, and hull thickness you would want.
Once you have your dream machine built it’s time to tear up the skies, in search of clues, money, and crazy bets (more on these later). The flight controls are a little tricky, but once you get the hang of them, you’ll find yourself zipping nimbly around like a pro. The trick is that both sticks control flight, but not like you might expect. Instead of each stick controlling one wing or engine so you have to use them in tandem to go straight, or alternate directions to turn, here the left stick controls the direction you’re flying (up, down, etc) while the right can be used to alter your flight path, think directional thrusters that will push you in the direction you push on the right stick.
This means that if you have a tight turn, not only can you decelerate to make the turn, but also “slide” around the turn by using the right stick, or you can use this control style to grab ammo, or race buoys, that you otherwise would have missed by just using the left stick. The only real problem with this control style is that the sticks are linked and either both inverted, or both not. It was a little awkward wanting to juke upwards but having to hit down to do so.
Ok, so you have your piloting skills down and can fight the cops until the acid rain stops falling. Guess what – you’ve only mastered half the game, because in addition to the all of this piloting action there is also a bit of leg work to accomplish. Outside of your ship you must use a rather illicit ability to creatively accomplish your job. This ability allows you to “overwrite” other characters and use their identities and special abilities in lieu of your own.
The good news is that this can get you into secure locations, allow you to scam money, and get you back to full health every time you do it. The bad news? If you are even remotely in a public place the cops come after you immediately, and switching with them on you doesn’t throw them off the trail. Switching also gives you access to a wide array of weapons and skills that are unique to each character; my personal favorite being the bureaucrat who has a slow time capability.
Now you know what you can do, and how you can do it, but what are you going to do with all this power? You could just head out and follow all of the main plot quests to find the killer, but what fun is that. What you’re really looking for is some action, and for that you’ll have to go see the Crazy Gambler. The Gambler controls all of the betting in Chimera, and when you go to see him he will set you up with three crazy bets (side quests), which usually involves blowing up a specific number of parked flyers, or killing a certain number of cops.
While these are generally pretty easy to accomplish, the pay off, and the real challenge, come when you complete all three of the crazy bets. Then the Gambler will let you participate in a Super Crazy Bet. This is either a race or a battle and if you manage to win it you will receive an upgrade for your weapons.
As you would expect after seeing Alice, Scrapland is a beautifully crafted game. The visuals just for in game graphics are amazing, with light shows, lens flares, explosions, and fantastic character models. Where Alice was perfectly in synch in both story and style, Scrapland seems a little disjoint. The character models in many instances look as if they had originally been designed for a younger audience, with lots of bright colors, goofy eyeballs, etc.
The story does have a sort of crazy flavor that does go along with this feel, but the amount of swearing and just the over all tone of the story makes you feel like you’re in Disneyland on Disgruntled Costume Character Day. Think too cute and not enough cleaver.
Despite this though, the graphics are entirely up to giving your Xbox a good work out. Not only are all of the characters highly detailed (down to the glowing ends of your fiber optic dreadlocks, and your flyer’s vanity plate), but most of the environments are as well. There are several sections to the city of Chimera and each is rather true to its theme. Downtown is neon and high rises, while the Industrial zone is smoke and grit filled, with pistons pumping and gears turning. These aren’t tiny zones either, each has plenty of twists, turns, and other places to get lost in, not only that, but you are flying, so you have lots of room to run up and down too.
Don’t expect that going inside will give you a drop is quality either. Every building is crawling with extras just waiting to be over written, and when one of them finally is the alarm goes off, precipitating a seizure inducing light show large enough to satisfy even the wildest raver. Other effects don’t get back seated either. Explosions burst, glitter, and fade just as your pyro inside hoped, and the “overwrite” looks like a high tech file transfer.
Any game that can make you feel like you’re in the middle of a thumping dance club while still sprawled on your couch gets good marks for sound. The music inside the Gambler’s place aside, many of the tunes in the game are highly atmospheric without being overwhelming.
Voice acting is usually something that is difficult to pull of in games, though that is changing; it is not often you get a good voice cast. Scrapland is one of those games that has managed to pull together a good cast, although this too is prone to the problem of this game having not made up its mind on its audience. It’s either for younger kids or adults, and instead of choosing one it just settled on an awkward combination of both. You do get an appropriately blustery mayor, grating chief of police, and sneaky sounding bankers so it’s not all bad. Just try not to think too much of a Saturday morning cartoon if you close your eyes.
Though there is a fairly small cast of characters – most of the characters are generic – this works wonderfully into the idea of a robot populated planet, and a good in game excuse to have a small number of character models. Also there is a huge amount of dialogue that is plot related, and fair number of incidental interactions.
Scrapland is challenging enough that you won’t be disappointed spending your 29 bucks on this title, however it does get repetitive. After about five or six hours you have run through all of the basic options for game play, but have barely scratched the surface of the plot. The repetition is mitigated by the fact that while the missions are substantially similar, they are not exactly the same, and you do get ship hull, engine, and weapon upgrades so you still have a goodly amount of monkeying around to do under the hood.
Scrapland is a good title that most people have probably missed till now. There is plenty of challenge, good graphics and great story and style. While the game does get a little repetitive in what you do it will at least keep you occupied enough to get your money’s worth, and look pretty while doing it.