There are some games that you just know are bad as soon as you run them for the first time. When I first ran Gunmetal from Mad Genius Software, I thought I had uncovered just such a title. A few days (and two patches) later, however, my initial distaste for this first-person shooter mellowed quite a bit. While this game is certainly no Shogo or even Descent II, Gunmetal does have some good points and a boatload of potential.
Gunmetal is set in the 23rd century, a fairly typical futuristic setting where megacorporations control everything. You begin the game as a new recruit in the service of the Nataka Corporation's Imperial Armored Cavalry. In order to protect Nataka interests on a multitude of planets, you must pilot a series of custom-built hover tanks - or RPVs - via remote control. You begin with a line of credit and the ability to piece together a basic but formidable RPV. After some basic training, your first mission - a routine patrol of a peaceful world - erupts into a nasty firefight as forces of Nataka rival Argus Industrial launch an all-out assault on the planet.
The rest of the game unfolds around the ongoing campaign between Argus and Nataka, as the war rages from planet to planet. As you make your way through the 26 missions, you'll uncover more information about the Argus attacks and the reasons behind them. You earn money towards additional equipment and better RPV chassis by accomplishing missions and recovering salvage from enemy units you destroy.
Gameplay is reminiscent of the Descent series, with the notable exceptions being that your tank does not move up and down (at least, not of its own accord), and most of the action takes place outdoors. The enemy units in the game are heavily reminiscent of Descent, as are the tactics they employ to make your life miserable. The AI in Gunmetal is impressive - enemy tanks, drones, and gun droids will bob and weave all over the place, making it quite difficult to get a bead on them, and quite necessary to keep moving. One of the cooler features in the game is the fact that computer-controlled units will duke it out whether or not you're in the area. The only downside to this is that the enemy units will all focus their attacks on you when and if you finally do hit the scene.
For the most part, the level design in Gunmetal is very good. The locations are varied, they include plenty of neutral units and impressive scenery, and most of the maps are just the right size. Also, on several of the maps, you'll run across some billboards and other scenery that's pretty amusing. One of the game's biggest weaknesses, however, is the fact that too much rides on the ridiculous placing of important items. These are typically your red, blue, or other-colored keys, and they are often in the most bizarre, hard-to-reach spots on the map. Now, it's all fine and good to make these items difficult to retrieve, but to put them in locations that simply don't make any sense just doesn't... well... make any sense. For example, on one of the early levels, you must obtain a blue key in order to refuel a blimp and send it on its way. In true Doom fashion, the Gunmetal designers placed this item in the most difficult and unlikely of places - deep in a sewer system behind some large crushing doors that serve no other legitimate purpose but to destroy your interloping RPV. The key to strong level design is to maintain a sense of reality, as far as the context of the game is concerned. As far as key puzzle items are concerned, Mad Genius seems to have tossed this idea out the window.
The game has a few other flaws, with the graphics engine chief among them. While Gunmetal looks pretty good in 3Dfx mode at 800x600, the interface graphics and even the HUD instrumentation during gameplay are straight out of an old DOS VGA title. Graphics do not a great game make, but nowadays there just doesn't seem to be much excuse for pixilated, low-res images in a first-person shooter. The radar screen is particularly annoying, as blips leave trails on the screen when you rotate your RPV - the resulting mess makes the radar more confusing than helpful.
Gunmetal's multiplayer support is also dubious. Though the game offers LAN support via IPX, it does not include IP support of any kind (at least, not as of the 1.31 patch). A split-screen mode enables two players to battle on the same PC, but this well-intentioned idea fails miserably in practice (particularly if both players prefer to use the mouse).
One of the most annoying things about Gunmetal is that the mouse settings reset themselves every time I loaded the game. This wouldn't have been such a big deal except for the fact that the default mouse sensitivity settings were so low as to make the game unplayable.
As I mentioned in the opening, however, Gunmetal has some good in it, and it does have the potential to improve substantially if its most glaring weaknesses are addressed. I don't look for a patch to solve the level design and graphics problems, but if Mad Genius follows up this game with a sequel, Gunmetal may be an action game franchise worth following.