This top-down racer offers both thrills and frills, but it gets some of the basics wrong.
- Varied single-player challenges
- Multiplayer King of the Hill is a lot of fun.
- Difficulty curve is all over the place
- You unlock 20 vehicles but have only four garage spots
- AI opponents aren't always convincing.
Games like Scrap Metal aren't nearly as common as they used to be. Many modern racing games focus so completely on realism that even with hundreds of licensed vehicles on their rosters, there's no room for vans equipped with rocket launchers, muscle cars that come with four machine guns as standard, or even hover cars sporting twin flamethrowers. Scrap Metal features all of these and more. It also affords you ample opportunities to put all 20 of its vehicles through their paces in varied campaign missions and multiplayer races that can be raced either locally or online. The action is frantic and fun, but it's also flawed and frustrating enough that the 1,200 Microsoft points asking price seems steep.
Oddly, there's no option to set up individual single-player races in Scrap Metal, so if you're playing solo, your only option is to jump into a career. Your base of operations in this mode is a garage adjoining a junkyard, and given the title of the game there are no prizes for figuring out where your vehicles come from. A small beaten-up buggy equipped with a submachine gun is the first ride that you retrieve from the scrap pile, and after taking a little time to repaint and accessorize it, you're ready to race. The first track you race on is a simple oval, so the only thing you need to worry about while familiarizing yourself with the uncomplicated controls and top-down camera is remembering to turn left every now and then. Well, that and putting your submachine to good use against opponents whose vehicles are similarly equipped.
Vehicle handling is extremely sensitive, so you often need to make only minor adjustments with the analog stick when you're steering. When you get used to the controls, racing in a monster truck, an airboat, or even a bulldozer is a lot of fun. The problem is that this fun can quickly turn to frustration if you fall foul of an opponent's attack or happen to connect with a trackside object. Vehicles in Scrap Metal feel very light, and it's not uncommon for them to be sent spiraling into the air by an attack and then come crashing down elsewhere on the track. If that happens, you can either lose significant progress or bypass a checkpoint and have to go back for it. Environmental objects are also a cause of frustrations because the game's treatment of them is inconsistent. You might be able to drive straight through a tree or some other large object in the middle of the track, but a seemingly innocuous collision with a small barrel could cause your vehicle to roll onto its roof, for example.
With so many small physics-enabled items scattered around, even simple track layouts can be tricky to navigate, and the camera doesn't help matters either. The top-down viewpoint is just fine once you memorize a track, but because it's zoomed in pretty close to your car in the center, you can't see far enough ahead. On some tracks, the camera also has a nasty habit of obscuring your car completely behind buildings and the like, which isn't a big deal if you're racing down a straightaway, but it can be very irritating if you get spun out and have no idea which direction your ride is pointing in as you attempt to recover.
Your garage is another source of irritation. It only has room to accommodate four vehicles, but by the time you beat the 60-plus single-player challenges, you have access to 20. Prize money is used to upgrade a vehicle's speed, grip, armor, and firepower ratings. And given that Scrap Metal is a challenging game, purchasing the right upgrades for the right vehicles is sometimes the only way to progress. As you unlock new vehicles by completing certain challenges or by destroying them during races, you inevitably need to take others out of your garage to make room for them, at which point all of your hard-earned upgrades are lost forever--even if you decide to recall the vehicle from the junkyard later. It's possible to hang onto a favorite vehicle or two throughout your entire career if you choose to, but the first thing you want to do when you unlock a new ride is take it for a test-drive, and there are several challenges that force you to use vehicles that you might otherwise ignore.
Those challenges include a monster truck car-crushing event and a number of class-specific races designed for airboats, buggies, semitrucks, and open-wheel race cars. On paper, the amount of variety offered by Scrap Metal's single-player missions is impressive, but in practice, some of the event types don't work nearly as well as others. Boss fights in which you go head-to-head in a fight to the death are a real letdown because, more often than not, the two of you end up just circling each other with guns blazing until one of you explodes. Not all boss encounters play out in this way, but even those that require a modicum of puzzle-solving aren't much fun once you figure out what you need to do. And without wishing to spoil any details, the vehicle and one-off challenge that you unlock for defeating the final boss really isn't worth the effort--especially because there's no way to take unlocked vehicles from your garage into multiplayer events.
Regardless of whether you're playing multiplayer online or locally, your ride choices are extremely limited; you often have just two or three different vehicles with similar performance ratings. There's still some fun to be had in multiplayer, though, largely because other players make much better opponents than the often-questionable and occasionally downright stupid AI. Demolition Derby and Race events play out in much the same way as in single-player mode, but where multiplayer is at its best is in King of the Hill mode. In these races, you earn points for destroying opponents and for passing through checkpoints in first, second, or third position. These timed events are great because if you're in last position on the track, that just means you potentially have more opponents in your line of fire, so there's never any reason to feel like you should just give up.
Also impressive are Scrap Metal's visuals, which are nicely detailed and have a down-and-dirty feel about them that's entirely appropriate. Furthermore, the frame rate never falters even when you're in an extremely fast ride and the action onscreen gets especially hectic. The rocking soundtrack that you hear a little too much of in single-player really grates after a while, but elsewhere, the audio is hard to find fault with, though it would be nice if driving a police car didn't mean that your sirens were turned on the whole time.
Scrap Metal has a lot of positive things going for it, including varied single-player challenges, a decent roster of very different vehicles, some good track designs, and an enjoyable multiplayer component. The problem is that it doesn't get the basics right; vehicles feel much too light, the game is much too unforgiving after crashes, and while some weapons (grenade launchers, machine guns) are overpowered, others (chainsaws, flamethrowers) often feel ineffective. Weapons that can target vehicles behind you are also in extremely short supply. This is an easy game to pick up and have some fun with, but with so much potential for frustration, it's equally easy to put it right back down again.