All it took was seeing one demolition derby to hook me on car combat, but in video games we haven't seen much in the way of this for awhile. Scrap Metal's here, and running unopposed. Is it still a winner?
Variety Car-crashin' Land: In single-player, you get a campaign of eight tracks and more than five dozen missions, and though most break down along familiar dynamics they're tweaked enough to keep things curious. Outrun missions will have you running from cops, or from a paparazzi van that blasts you with lightning bolts. Escort missions will have you crushing enemy assailants, or chasing your target and lobbing health at it. There's a monster truck car crushing race that was a little skimpy in execution but still reasonably entertaining. And these were the one-offs; there's plenty of running and gunning to be done in eliminator and demolition derby missions and straight up races. Three medal positions allow you to advance and unlock future missions without finishing first, although you'll probably want to go back and do that with a better car just for the upgrade points. Multiplayer, for which most will probably buy this game, offers three base competitions - Derby, King of the Hill and Race, with two variants on the derby (a tank battle among them) and three on the Race (including races with open-wheel cars and swamp air boats.) With enough humans in the games (up to four can be accommodated) you can lose yourself in the mindless violence for a good hour.
Camera and Control: I can't for the life of me imagine why anyone developing a racer for a console whose gamers have used a controller with two analog triggers for nearly a decade would do anything other than put the f***ing gas on the right trigger and the brake/reverse on the left. But like fax machines, copiers and credit-card pay terminals, everyone has to introduce their own useless and frustrating variant on what by now should be an intuitive process. The game's "easy" control has you driving the car with the left analog stick - and braking with the left trigger. It's like playing a left-hand piano solo, and for a game where managing drift and slide are critical, completely inadequate. The "challenging" control set is more reasonable, but only if you have experience racing video game cars RC style. If you don't I still recommend learning and/or coping with the RC controls. But both will still be paired with a balky camera that's even more difficult to handle in combat-based missions. It may very well be that this view is the best you can do in this kind of game. Scrap Metal does a decent job with icons indicating off-camera power-ups, objectives and foes. But your car moves too fast for you to really plan ahead, and given the unforgiving, infuriating track physics (every track was a skating rink for every vehicle, regardless of traction upgrade) your introductions to new courses will be brutal. The scenery, while nicely rendered, can obscure your car or enemies in the derby missions. Against the bosses, you'll realize you're not fighting against an AI racer or gunner as much as you are battling the game's tunnel vision and awful handling.
The Grind: Scrap Metal took a great idea - build your custom fleet of four cars, and boost them as you see fit - and absolutely neutered it in execution by introducing a grind necessity, whether intentionally or not. Many boss battles and even most races simply won't be winnable without a car souped-up to the max. So when you get stuck, it's back to the minor leagues to poach upgrade points. But when that car is inevitably outclassed as the mission difficulty ascends, and you have to replace it with a higher-class racer, you get no value back for junking it. You simply start over with a new vehicle that will require even more upgrade points to be competitive. And the payout is a stingy 30, 20 or 10, every single race. So if you're buying this for singleplayer, here's a tip: max out a level 3 custom cruiser with a machine gun and keep it in your fleet at all times. You'll need it because going back to gun down Billy Bedhead another five times in the tutorial level is a lot more cost-effective for upgrading your fleet than going back to race legitimate challenges to gold medal status. It was really off-putting to find that this was essential to advancing in the game. It was even more off-putting to find that I was wasting my time upgrading a car to kill a boss, only to find that there was some other hidden way to complete the mission.
Scrap Metal is a reasonable tide-me-over for the somnambulant car-combat genre; but as it is built more for racing than combat, hardcore fans expecting a Twisted Metal experience will come away disappointed. The single-player has its moments, but they're punctuated with bland boss characters who are either stupefyingly easy to beat, or maddeningly tough and elusive, providing many eff-it moments that the game won't pass. I'm fine with mindless violence, but not with a pointless challenge.
Scrap Metal was developed and published by Slick Entertainment for the Xbox 360 on March 10. Retails for 1200 Microsoft Points on Xbox Live Marketplace. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.