About two-thirds of the way into Metal Arms: Glitch in the System (warning: minor spoiler), I found myself standing outside a coliseum about to be sent to my death. My captors—the evil Mil robots—allowed me to carry just one weapon into the arena. I selected the machine gun-like SPEW (Small Projectile Emitting Weapon; the gags in the game are generally decent, but this one is among the lamest). Once the coliseum gates rolled open, I saw in the distance a pair of dreaded Titans—huge, terrifying robots that always made my blood run cold—along with a host of lesser enemy bots. I employed my usual hide-and-seek strategy—peppering my enemies with SPEW bullets, never straying too far from shelter—a strategy that had served me well in previous levels. But it was all in vain. Against the awesome Titans I couldn't manage to survive longer than a minute or two. After a half-dozen try-and-dies, with frustration beginning to set in, I decided not to bring the SPEW, or any weapon at all and instead chose the Control Tether, a device which allows me to hijack enemy robots. Through some careful maneuvering (along with help from an EMP grenade I found hidden in the arena), I managed to commandeer one of the Titans, and then used the hijacked Titan to obliterate every last enemy robot in the arena.
While laying down a steady stream of Titan rockets and chaingun fire, sending robot after robot skyward, I felt a supreme, near-dizzying sense of gaming bliss. After I'd won the day, having overcome impossible odds, I stood at the center of the smoke-filled coliseum, the crowd cheering wildly, the in-game camera spinning around me, Glitch's stubby robot arms raised in victory. By god, this is why I play videogames, for moments like this.
Too bad I had to get through 30-plus sometimes decent, sometimes brutally difficult, but largely mediocre levels in order to reach this wonderful moment. Around the game's halfway-point (there are an exhausting 42 levels in all, some requiring more than an hour to complete), a weary feeling of dj vu set in as I realized that I was basically fighting the same battle—albeit in different settings, under different circumstances—over and over (and over) again. Metal Arms: Glitch in the System is solid, spirited game, with many good moments, even a few great moments like the one mentioned above, but ultimately it suffers from being far too long for its own good.
The game centers on Glitch, a mustard-yellow droid with a mysterious symbol branded on his helmet. It's the symbol that distinguishes Glitch—not unlike the Master Chief in Halo—as a kind of Chosen One, an über-robot who has a knack for performing heroic deeds. At first glance the game appears to be standard third-person action fare—left stick controls Glitch, right stick controls the camera—but in spirit it's actually closer to a first-person shooter. With auto-save checkpoints, emphasis on reloading weapons, sequences that involve fighting in the company of other droids, and vehicles (three in all, including the Warthog-like RAT, the Ghost-like Loader, and a tank), the developers at Swingin' Ape Studios have borrowed heavily from the Halo handbook here. Think of Metal Arms: Glitch in the System as Halo Jr. (as Brad aptly dubbed it on the boards).
While the game obviously shares gameplay elements with Halo, the tone of Metal Arms: Glitch in the System is entirely its own. It's a witty, playful, and—know that I don't say this lightly—genuinely funny game. When Glitch returns to Droid Town after a challenging battle, his chest puffed with bravado, the gruff Colonel Alloy (the leader of the droid rebellion) says with a poker face, "Well, let's not break out the joy lube just yet." The Colonel also dubs two of Glitch's companions "Hosed" and "Screwed," and sure enough, true to their names, the two bots don't make it beyond the second level. And Krunk, the foul-mouthed mechanic, has his dialogue bleeped out more often than Madonna does during one of her guest appearances on Letterman.
Beyond the gameplay and humor, it's the refreshing concept of hijacking robots and turning the tables on enemies that make for the most compelling moments in the game. I'd spend several levels vexed by a certain class of robot (like those aforementioned Titans), then suddenly find myself with an opportunity to hijack that very brand of robot and use it in any way I pleased. In a particularly nice touch, each hijacked robot handles differently, and "driving" the robot always required a bit of initial experimentation on my part. My monkeying around with the controls almost always aroused suspicion among the Mil bots. They'd give me cockeyed looks and say things like, "Are you feeling okay?" and "Hmm… Must be your first assignment." Whenever operating a hijacked robot, I'd feel a sense of reckless giddiness, similar to the way I feel when I drive a rental car. This vehicle doesn't belong to me, I inevitably think, so who cares what happens to it? And forget that hide-and-seek strategy I normally used with Glitch; inside the chassis of a hijacked bot, I always dove headfirst-and-rockets-blazing into battle. With a stolen robot, no longer was there any need to conserve ammo and health; all my gameplay worries were, very briefly, left behind. Indeed, these moments provide a thrilling, cathartic ying to the more conservative, count-your-bullets-and-seek-cover yang that's required to get through much of the game.
Like books and films, games need editors, someone capable of trimming the fat and excising the padding (Metal Arms: Glitch in the System has a great deal of padding). The game could arguably be half as long—say, twenty levels instead of 42—and be twice as compelling. A skilled editor could have stream-lined the experience, bringing the game's essence to the surface. Considering the great number of things Metal Arms: Glitch in the System gets right, it's a shame that the game is ultimately sullied by its gassy length (it doesn't seem to know when to end) and often sadistic difficulty (did anyone play-test it?). The game has—or I should say had—the potential to be one of those unheralded where-did-this-come-from titles, one of those buried-on-the-shelf gems that gamers hunt for and covet. Instead, Metal Arms: Glitch in the System gets off to a promising start—one of the most promising starts I've seen in awhile—but finally commits the unforgivable crime of forgetting to quit while it was ahead.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.