With so many games coming out lately, it wouldn't be hard to miss a gem like Metal Arms: Glitch in the System. The game is an unassuming shooter starring cutesy robots, and on first glance it might look convincingly like a shallow children's title. But spend a few hours with Metal Arms and you'll find that the kiddie exterior hides mission after mission of surprisingly hardcore combat action. Though its balance is a little questionable at times, Metal Arms has quietly come onto the scene to offer one of the most visceral and most satisfying shooting experiences in quite a while.
The cartoony premise of Metal Arms won't exactly tip you off about the game's intense combat. You play as Glitch, a custom-built robot salvaged by a ragtag group of rebellious droids fighting against other militaristic robots in a massive bot civil war. The droid rebellion is locked in combat with the malicious Mil Bots under the command of the evil General Corrosive, and the two factions are battling it out for control of their planet, Ironstar. Since the battle isn't going so well for the droid rebellion, Glitch is sent out as a last-ditch strategy, a one-robot army tasked with taking out the Mils from the inside. There's a lot of humor and style in the struggle between Corrosive and the rebellion, from the World War II newsreel-style introduction of the conflict to the tough-talking colonel and foul-mouthed robo-mechanic that bring Glitch back from the scrap yard. Overall, the story is a little basic, but it's pretty entertaining, especially since a game like this doesn't really require much of a story at all.
Metal Arms' real meat is in its intense, dynamic combat. Mechanically, this is all standard third-person shooter fare--you run around the maps, jump, ride down zip lines, and obliterate every Mil in sight with extreme prejudice. The "Metal Arms" part of the game's title comes from the fact that Glitch can replace his right arm with a wide assortment of weapons that fit right into his shoulder socket, and his left arm (though it doesn't detach) can manipulate all sorts of secondary weapons and support devices as well. The weapons are pretty typical of shooters: There's a basic laser, a machine gun, a shotgun, a rocket launcher, and so on. These weapons are pretty weak to begin with, and they don't hold much ammo, but you can improve them throughout the game by purchasing or finding upgrade kits, and once the weapons are thoroughly powered up, you'll be able to kick serious bot butt. The secondary weapons include various kinds of grenades, a scope for zooming, and that sort of thing. The weapons strike a solid balance, and the game does a good job of presenting you with enough varied enemies and situations that all of your equipment will come in handy at one time or another.
What makes Metal Arms' combat so intense is a combination of factors. The weapons seem to pack a really hard punch, thanks to their great visual effects and sounds. The game also features some really crazy robot-on-robot violence, embodied mostly in the way that the Mil grunts die. One solid hit can tear off a robot's arm or head, causing him to run around, wildly spraying the area haphazardly with his weapon. A death blow will remove the Mil's entire torso, leaving only the legs to run blindly around the combat area. Finally, it's not all that hard to simply reduce an enemy grunt to a violent shower of parts and shrapnel. Metal Arms' combat is really dynamic, too, in that the behavior of enemies and the way a scenario plays out changes every time you replay it. Though the enemies always spawn in the same place, they're smart enough to move around fairly intelligently, and the combat feels more realistic and alive than in many other action games.
It's a good thing that Metal Arms' action is so dynamic and satisfying, because you'll be playing the same sequences a lot. To put it simply, this game is hard. Metal Arms features several difficulty levels, but even on the baseline "normal" setting you'll sometimes have to replay a given area 10 or 15 times before you can learn every enemy position and strategize a path to victory. Sometimes it feels like the enemies have an unfair leg up on you--they can often run faster than Glitch and have exceedingly powerful armaments, and some of the larger ones are unpleasantly hard to kill. But if you can bear some repetition, you'll eventually master a tough area and move on to the next one. On that 15th try, when you finally lay waste to every robot bastard in your path, the game is intensely satisfying.
There are a number of variations on the gameplay that pop up every so often and help alleviate some of the pain of the combat. In one mission, you have to drive a high-speed vehicle through a desert path and catch up with a fleeing robot in a short period of time. Another mission has you taking control of a truly massive bot named Mozer--in this level, the same tough enemies you found so vexing in the previous mission are summarily crushed under your giant boot heel. You can also take control of dumb enemy robots and make them do your dirty work, although they're quite weak, and once they're discovered, the other Mils will waste no time destroying them. The game isn't online, but it features pretty decent four-player multiplayer that contains several diverse modes, and you'll be able to unlock more maps for the competitive mode by performing well in the single-player campaign. Overall, even though Metal Arms' core combat is so entertaining, the side action bits are a nice addition that help move the game along rather than drag it down.
For a multiplatform game, the quality of Metal Arms' graphics is pretty wide-ranging across the three platforms. The Xbox version is far and away the best looking of the three--it features lots of nice dynamic lighting and some subtle textural effects on its surfaces, such as highlights on metal. The GameCube version is actually not too far behind the Xbox version--it looks almost as good in terms of effects, though its frame rate is noticeably lower. Alas, the PS2 version of Metal Arms really brings up the rear, since it lacks even much of the basic lighting that makes the other two versions look good, and it suffers from serious frame rate problems during intense battles. The character art style and level design that underpin the three games are pretty solid. All of the robot designs are cute and wacky, and they behave comically when they're fighting, which is a nice mood-lightener. Finally, the sound effects and voice acting in the game are all top-notch. The weapons, explosions, clanks, and clangs all sound great and give the combat even more impact. A lot of the game's humor comes from the voice acting, which is superb throughout--even the hilarious screams of the frantic Mil grunts are funny and never get tiresome, and the cutscenes feature voices with a lot of personality. However, Metal Arms loses points in the sound department for its amazing dearth of music, since there's hardly any in the game at all.
Metal Arms: Glitch in the System is a much better action game than you might expect just from judging it by its unassuming main character. If you can appreciate the visual style (which is contrasted by adult language and imagery), and you can handle the cycle of frustration and repetition easily, you'll find a surprisingly deep combat experience in the game. Anyone looking for an intense and rewarding shooter should give Metal Arms a try.