As 2004 came to a close, you were probably playing one (or more) of three games: Halo 2, Half Life 2, or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Unfortunately, many deserving games slipped under the radar due to the total market domination held by these three titles. Slick and engrossing but mostly unknown, Scrapland is a perfect example.
Famed designer American McGee lends his name to Scrapland, though only appears in the credits as Executive Producer. His magic must have rubbed off; production values run high in almost all aspects, from concept and story to voice talent and overall design. Add some wry humor and a unique sense of style and the result is one of the most solid, although not technically stunning, games of 2004.
The story opens with the main character, D-tritus, landing on the Earth of the future. Years of exploitation by humans who subsequently jumped ship for greener pastures have left the planet as little more than a derelict heap of rubbish. The name Scrapland is all too appropriate, as the robots who colonized this planet found as much material as they could ever want on a world pleasurably devoid of organic life.
They also found the Great Database, the focus of a robot religion for its ability to store the vital data of any robot and recreate them from the abundant scrap in the event of annihilation. Life in Scrapland is eternal. By extension, the most heinous crime possible is permanent destruction — malignant deletion of a robot’s file in the Database and then murder. This is exactly what happens early in the game, and not just to any robot, but to the archbishop, figurehead of Scrapland’s Great Database theocracy. You, as D-tritus, are assigned as a reporter and begin the mission-based story by investigating.
In most games, the background only serves to provide some explanation for the game’s action. In Scrapland, the story and concepts behind it are central, as if someone came up with this story first and then decided to place a game inside of it instead of the other way around. This isn’t to say it’s entirely original — the Great Database concept reminds me of the novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom — but among endless sequels and games pushed by tired play, it’s refreshing to see something that actually has a good story.
But who cares about story if the game’s boring, right? Scrapland has provoked some comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto series, not all of which are fair. While it’s true that the basics are the same, such as the mission-based play, vehicle and foot sections, and the ability to freely roam the landscape, these similarities are superficial. Calling it Grand Theft Auto with robots ignores just how refreshing this game is.
There are two branches of missions, the main plot and a series of challenges called “crazy bets,” and both will take you flying through the immense cityscape in a ship and exploring interiors on foot. Some of the various rewards are upgrades for your ship, which starts out basic but quickly offers many options like chassis, weapon, and engine upgrades. Because different configurations suit different challenges, there is no best ship and part of the game is experimenting with assorted parts. On foot, there’s a different method of confronting obstacles.
D-Tritus has the ability to copy any robot and later enter the Great Database and transform into that robot. There are over a dozen different types of robots in the game, and each has a special ability: the bankers can surreptitiously steal money from other robots; aimless staplers (there’s no paper anywhere in Scrapland) can access remote areas due to their small size; functionaries can actually slow time around themselves to escape sticky situations. Impersonating another robot is dangerously illegal, and if a beholder detects you (you can become one of them, too), the police will quickly be after you. Mastery of the different abilities is key to completing missions and finding all the secrets of Scrapland’s interiors, and often there’s more than one possible strategy.
Most of the missions are fairly straightforward, but a few are exceptionally hard, such as the buoy races. In the event you get stuck, there’s always the option of cruising around the enormous landscape, either picking fights with passing ships or going to the scrapyard where rogue robots can be dispatched for bounty. There are also dozens of hidden areas and secrets scattered in the indoor areas, only reachable by those proficient with the various robot abilities. Extra lives can simply be purchased through the Great Database, though this doesn’t make the game easy. Instead, it turns the focus toward technical and puzzle solving skills, rather than reflexes.
Scrapland delivers solid gameplay whether you’re following the story or just wandering around, but it also boasts an impressive aesthetic. It’s not that the graphics are mind-blowing (though they are excellent), but that the style is perfect and provides a real sense of immersion. The expansive city is a mix of Tron and Blade Runner; multiple tiers with their own levels of air traffic rise up through layers of bright neon and stylized tunnel and building structures. Different areas of the city reflect their purpose, with the industrial district looking, well, industrial, or the scrapyard being a forsaken wasteland of crumbling edifices and dangerous tunnels. What’s most impressive is that even on weaker systems, there’s little slowdown in spite of dozens of ships passing in endless lines of traffic. This is some trick of programming, as once one or two dogfights break out things get choppy if your PC isn’t up to the task.
The interiors are also well designed. Each space has its own feel, from the staid administration influence on the press building to the perpetual rave of the gambling den. The buildings are populated with scores of robots, though since there are only so many different types and few unique characters, there isn’t as much talking as one might find in RPG titles, such as Morrowind. All of the characters are well modeled and animated, and the stylized, futuristic techno-industrial mood carries from the exterior to the interiors.
The sound is as well done as the graphics and story, particularly the voiceovers. Every character you meet talks, and the small cast of voice talent really spread their wings to provide a variety of speech types and patterns for the different robots. As with the rest of the game, there’s a hearty dose of humor here. Sound effects are good but not great, lacking a little punch in certain departments though some of the ship explosions are excellent, and the music is unobtrusive but not award-winning.
There are complaints, however. The instruction manual is a prime example of horrible translation. It ?s so bad, in fact, that it’s difficult to decide whether it’s a joke or not. This, however, will go undetected by gamers allergic to reading. The prime complaint is that the action has a “been there, done that” quality, a valid criticism. Anyone who’s played the Grand Theft Auto series will instantly tag the mission-based play as d?ja-vu. In addition, some of the missions, particularly the races, get a bit repetitive.
As a whole, Scrapland is one of the most unique games of 2004, despite its weak points. While the missions may seem familiar, they contribute to a solid whole that’s much more than the sum of its parts. Few games hit the shelves with as much panache and style, and as an entertaining romp through an original world it excels. Those looking for something a bit different should check it out. For everyone else, there’s always the next big sequel of some popular video game.