American McGee’s Scrapland
Who is American McGee? If you are a gamer inclined more to the hardcore than the casual side of our hobby, you will know him as the chap who worked on the ground breaking original “Quake” and “Doom” games. He was responsible for much of the creepy and ingenious level design in them and then went on to put his name and talent to a quirky adventure/puzzle game called “Alice”, which he injected with his trademark dark approach. So, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find “Scrapland” is such a fluffy little game compared to Mr McGee’s prior work.
It is a third person adventure game, where you take on the role of a good-natured robot dumped on the Scrapland plant, which is a world made of scrap metal, where robots rule and humans or other fleshy things are not welcome. A nice leisurely opening sequence introduces all this, also showing you the basic interface and controls and the big yellow arrows that like to highlight the direction you need to go in or the button you need to press. This kind of hand-holding does seem a little strange. Having been given your job as a journalist and set loose in the city, you might be expecting to be allowed to explore at your own rate, in a way gamers have become accustomed to in these kinds of third person adventure games.
But, “computer says no….”. Big pointy map markers pop up with each new objective, meaning you will never be unsure of what to do next. As it is extremely easy to get lost in the rather confusing environment, this is probably for the best, but it does oversimplify the game somewhat. Luckily, there are a lot of quests to be done. Many are merely fetch quests, which do not always supply a reward equal to the effort spent. But, as you play, you can uncover information about goings-on of a dodgy nature on Scrapland and bonus items and, coolest of all, ship parts.
Yes, right from the start you can purchase a small hovership, which is very basic to start with. You can then store parts you buy or find, in your garage and start building and rebuilding your dream machine, Actually flying the thing is another matter, especially if you have had no prior experience of mouse-driven flying games. But once you master the twitchy controls, you will be zooming about like nobody’s business.
Another fun element is the ability to swap his robot persona by downloading new ones from the planet’s mainframe. This is a clever idea as when you start the game you are introduced to “saving” yourself onto the planet mainframe by a robot cultist. This, of course, handily doubles as saving your game. So anyone on Scrapland who saves themselves on the mainframe can be revived if they get killed, it’s a cool way of making even the simple saving of your progress feel like part of a unified whole. You can use one persona at a time and switching between them becomes necessary to complete various tasks and this is the main core of the game story too. So even if you chose to skip the optional quests, such as the Crazy Bets or Ship Upgrading, you will still get a lot of solid fun from the main game.
It is unfortunate that the hand holding the game can become so over-bearing at times, and the involvement of American McGee does seem to be little more that having his name used to boost its profile. Bizarrely in this case, as the type of player who has heard of him is not the sort that needs helping through a fairly straightforward game. Nevertheless there is a beautiful simplicity in the design for the planet and robots. The voice acting is sympathetic and feels very natural, probably the best voice-acting I have heard in a game since the game “Grim Fandango” came out . The city, although sprawling and confusing, offers plenty more to do outside of the main story which just goes to show what a huge influence “sandbox” games like Grand Theft Auto 3 have had on game design.
There is a slightness about “Scrapland” that actually appeals in this day and age. It’s now available in the budget PC range and it would make an excellent game for an older, intelligent child who you never-the-less wanted to keep away from the violence and profanity in the adult adventures of GTA 3 and the like. It didn’t blow me away when I first started playing it, but I’ve gone back to it several times and found myself appreciating the charming qualities it possesses. Nothing dangerous, nothing political, just a bit of fun.