American McGee's Scrapland

American McGee's Scrapland

Written by Randy Kalista on 3/4/2005 for Xbox  

The curvaceous, cybertron world of Scrapland comes with a charming (if not juvenile) cast of mechanized characters. Set on autopilot in the now-popular free-roaming gameplay structure, the storyline is glued together with a rubber cement plot: some assembly required. American McGee, Mercury Steam, and Enlight Software collaborate to unhinge a robotic cinescape replete with uniquely bent graphics, off-brand humor (the hardy-har kind), and a superficially immersive world.

The city of Chimera is nicknamed “Scrapland” due to its piecemeal construction from humanity’s leftovers. The alias is somewhat of a misnomer considering its graphical equivalency to premium lakefront property: the neon-glow flyways and mammoth infrastructure look like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit was elected onto Coruscant’s city planning council. There is a visually overwhelming amount of detail poured into every square inch, layered with so much eye candy it will give you cavities.

You assume the identity of D-Tritus Debris, a self-made robot with a cable-cut ponytail and a scrap iron framework, not to mention a slack-jawed naivette clinging to a pre-pubescent C3PO demeanor. He powerslides his cherry red spacebike into Chimera’s orbital station and undergoes a series of tests to confirm that he is, in fact, not some viscous human in disguise. D-Tritus accepts this xenophobic attitude in stride, has his “persona” (if we may call it that) scanned into the Great Database, and is assigned an apparently undesirable occupation as a news journalist--zero percent unemployment is the rule on Chimera.

Despite the forced absence of humans, the robots of Scrapland are all assigned stereotypically human behaviors in keeping with their job descriptions. Bishops are ambiguously gay and sell extra lives like indulgences; cops demand bribes for their so-called “protection”; bankers are money-nabbing bastards you never turn your back on; messengers are surfer dudes flying high on helium, etc. D-Tritus gains the ability to assume over a dozen character types by accessing the Great Database. Identity theft is illegal so he will have to evade the policing beholders that will expose his criminal intent. Additionally, D-Tritus’ assimilating skills are just as effective standing face-to-face with another character, traveling from one possessed robot to the next like the demon Azazel in Fallen (with Denzel Washington).

Enlight Software is banking big on a ship-building hook--the acquisition of sexier hull specs, killer BFGs, and higher horsepower engines--and introduces this concept early in the tutorial. Rusty is the local purveyor of ship-crafting materials and initially hooks D-Tritus up with a starter model: she ain’t pretty but she’s a convincing glimpse at what’s to come. Most of the aircraft soaring about the cityscape look clamped together with leftover Legos anyway, which deserves a thumbs-up to American McGee for his off-Broadway vision. From the Tron-like gloss of the commercial district to the junkpile heaps in the scrapyard, this baby is spoiled rotten from its loving developer parents.

But murder is afoot on this deathless planet. Since all of Chimera’s citizens are scanned into the Great Database, “dying” is only a temporary setback before you are quickly reassembled from previously purchased extra lives. Mystery takes flight when Chimera’s Archbishop is permanently killed shortly after his file is erased from the Great Database. A human is suspected to have penetrated the planet’s borders and D-Tritus is hot on the case…
Or he’s at least “lukewarm” on the case. Linear storytelling in videogames is getting some undeservedly bad press in recent years, and freeform GTA-style gameplay is basking in its (admittedly) well-deserved spotlight. Scrapland, however, embraces this freeform approach so completely that it loses sight of the main story for lengthy periods of time. When D-Tritus does hop back into the narrative, he is presented with so many sub-sub-sub-plot missions that solving a murder becomes a far-removed objective. Try retrieving a tantalizing clue from the Chief of Police, but first you must defeat a high-ranking bishop in ship-to-ship combat, but first you must talk to the Crazy Gambler to improve your reputation, but first you must trick a mercenary into revealing the location of some secret ship plans, but first … and so on. The missions branch out on so many tangents that it’s understandable if you forget exactly why you’re tailgating this same forgetful merc through the entire length of the scrapyard for the umpteenth time. Then when you realize you undertook this mission before--with an identical dialogue tree, no less--the mind-numbing redundancy of missions is made unforgivably apparent. When subplots and freeform roaming are combined to mirror each other so excessively, motivational drive loses significant altitude.

The Crazy Gambler invites variety into the play structure by setting up a multitude of “crazy bets” for D-Tritus to undertake. This bug-eyed madman rewards activities like destroying parked spaceships, defeating police officers in races, or killing citizens while disguised as a news anchorwoman, as examples. Scrapland relies heavily on this type of criminal mischief, and the payoff is usually in the form of a new weapon or engine upgrade. The Crazy Gambler’s role is by no means subtle, but it entices you to try out a million zany aspects of gameplay you might otherwise leave untried. D-Tritus’ exploits, unfortunately, go completely unnoticed in the daily newscasts--which is odd, considering that certain characters insist these crazy bets are the only reason citizens tune into the news channel. D-Tritus can likewise destroy endless squads of police officers in battle and never have his face appear on TV. The satisfaction of partaking in this living, breathing metropolis takes a hefty step backward.

The generous auto-targeting onboard every ship keeps combat fun, while a “ship-locking” feature takes things a step further: hold down the left trigger and an autopilot engages to keep your ship at a fixed distance from your current target. The ship-lock works actively to keep your enemy centered on your viewscreen as you unload a few hundred explosive rounds (or energy beams, or swarm missiles) into his hull--definitely a satisfying game feature that future developers will want to pay attention to.

The insides of structures like the bank, the temple, or the town hall are no less impressive than their external counterparts. Inexplicably chaotic floorplans of steel and glass keep your eyes torn between the stunning sights and the absolutely crucial mini-map. The puzzling lack of a completely drawn overhead map makes for a lot of wrong turns and haven’t-I-already-been-here? moments. Rooms and hallways made of steel girders or neo-Q*Bert squares twist and turn like electro-shocked intestines, opening up into vast global chambers, or getting choked out by rust and cargo stacks. Aside from giving the developers plenty of breadth to gawk over their own graphical prowess, the interiors are vast and only vast in order to provide plenty of hiding spaces as D-Tritus commits his random acts of violence.

The soundtrack injects a syringe full of techno and computerized ambience throughout, dynamically scoring the onscreen action. The chunky synths and coke-sniffing house tracks keep their finger on the pulse of the game, adding another layer of beauty and polish to Scrapland.

The multiplayer component is a dutiful arrangement of racetracks, deathmatches, and capture the flag scenarios; standard fare for the racing-combat genre. There is nothing special, but these are certainly some must-have devices in a game of this nature.

American McGee's Scrapland is dripping with charisma despite its two-dimensional characters and decaffeinated storyline. The compulsion to return to Chimera again and again is hard to resist, even if it’s just to satiate your curiosity of how good things could have been. This is a thoroughbred effort, especially coming from the Enlight development team that birthed the wrong-in-so-many-ways Joan of Arc debacle (GN score: 5.1). Enlight has definitely earned a Most Improved award, but the results of forming a trinity with Mr. McGee and Mercury Steam deserve much more for capably raising a middle finger to a few mainstream conventions. This graphical gymnast of a game somersaults with rare personality, even when the missions run out of ideas early on. Even when visiting Chimera, it’s good to buy American.

American McGee hops onto the free-roaming bandwagon with an eclectic cast of Grand Theft Autobots. Unique characters designs and mechanized mayhem soar in this No Humans Allowed world.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.


About Author

Randy bought his way onto an underground rap compilation in jr. high, lettered in marching band, dropped out of business school, got a sharpshooter ribbon in the U.S. Navy, nabbed a B.A. in English & Writing, then entered the workforce as a corporate buyer. He's played video games the whole time. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon. View Profile

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