Fans of Big Robots are in for a real treat if they happen to own the Xbox console. For some strange reason, Microsoft's black behemoth will be host to a virtual armada of mecha-themed games quite soon. With upcoming titles like Murakumo, Phantom Crash, Robotech: Battlecry and Steel Battalion (to name just a few) there won't be any shortage of missile-launching, jet-boosting, laser-sword-slicing fury. I'm really a bit mystified as to exactly why there will be so many on the Box as opposed to the other two consoles, but whatever the case, the invasion's first wave has just hit.
A chrome-plated harbinger of things to come, Gun Metal is a third-person action game featuring a large, transformable combat vehicle called a "Havoc". When in Suit (humanoid) mode, the Havoc moves with the left stick and aims with the right. The triggers handle weapons fire and you are free to change into the "Havoc Jet" at any time, with no limits or restrictions. After entering flight mode, the left stick handles your path of direction and the right stick becomes a basic throttle. Besides that, the Jet's controls are the same as the Suit's, and the setup for both is very smooth and comfortable.
Initially, it's not quite obvious what advantages each form offers, but it soon becomes clear. The Havoc Suit is able to take advantage of a special force field that effectively doubles your life bar. With this extra layer of protection, you can become a slow but sturdy ground-based attacker. The Havoc Jet is more fragile, but has superior mobility and is capable of launching hit-and-run strikes. There are about 24 different weapons altogether, with each mode having its own discrete set. The Jet stocks things like napalm and heavy bombs, while the Suit has a few one-hit-kill projectiles and some close-combat items. Lock-on missiles are common to both modes. Knowing which arms are best suited for various situations is sometimes helpful, although the difference between many of them is negligible.
Looking at the big scheme of things, Gun Metal's strongest asset is the transformation gimmick. Simply put: it's fun. Ever since the appearance of influences like Transformers and Robotech, what kid hasn't wanted to pilot his own combination of transportation and whoop-ass? There's just something undeniably cool about watching a big metal figure change into a car, plane, vending machine, or anything else you'd care to imagine. Naturally, the same essence of cool translates nicely into Gun Metal's Havoc. As an added bonus, the way it transforms almost looks like it could work if the thing were actually built. There's a bit of polygon fudging during the change, but it's pretty hard to avoid grinning the first few times you see it twist, rotate and unfold before your eyes.
Play-wise, the game achieves what it sets out to do, although that's not to say that the goals were set very high in the first place. Having achieved their shape-shifting robot, the designers of Gun Metal seemed content with a standard, by-the-numbers play formula that could work almost interchangeably with any one of a dozen action games. As an example, most missions feature nothing more complex than "Defend The Base" or "Kill All Enemies". It seems to me that with the Havoc's unique abilities, the missions should naturally be more interesting or creative in taking advantage of them. Sadly this is not the case, and all the game's levels tend to play drably alike.
This feeling of sameness is compounded by the game's slapdash "story". While pretending to be something about colonization and interstellar warp gates, it's not even half-hearted pretense. There are no human characters unless you count the gruff, disembodied voice barking orders at you between missions, and there aren't any cut-scenes or situations to create emotional involvement or even the most rudimentary level of dramatic tension.
Besides those complaints, Gun Metalis basically competent in most key areas except for the frustrating difficulty. Since you're doing your best to be a one-man army (despite the fact that you actually HAVE an army), the way the developer stacks the odds so heavily against you is ridiculous in the latter half of the game's 14 missions. With no mid-level saves, the only way to succeed is to repeat stages over and over and over again until you memorize enough to pull off a successful run. Is it possible to finish the game? Of course. Is this kind of "bang your head against the Xbox" play structure enjoyable? That's questionable.
One particularly distasteful mission involved destroying missile warheads tucked away inside dead-end canyons that just happened to be fortified with more defense units than the entire free world could produce. If you've seen the original Star Warsfilm, imagine Luke Skywalker flying four consecutive Death Star runs back to back, and then capping it off by taking on Darth Vader. This is a rough (okay, VERY rough) approximation of how excessively hard the difficulty has been set, but I think my point is clear.
The majority of the game doesn't even present an honest challenge since many of the missions don't have repair stations, and it's rare to have teammates lending any kind of support. It doesn't help that your radar is barely worth a damn, either. Games that throw logical military strategy out the window irritate me. No commander worthy of the title would ever approve a plan made up of a string of suicide missions, but that's exactly what the last half of Gun Metal feels like.
All told, Gun Metalis a very simple game with a few good ideas and a lot of wasted potential. While it does deliver action-flavored goodies on the most basic level, the concept just wasn't taken far enough and lacks both the sophistication and depth needed to turn it into a real contender. The developers were lucky that it was released so early in the Xbox's life cycle since the library is still relatively small. Gun Metal is the only game in town now and the transformation gimmick is enough to ensure a few hours of fun, but there's not enough substance here to save it from being eclipsed and forgotten.