Many real-time strategy games center on massive battles between different types of tanks. Metal Fatigue takes this convention to the next level by focusing on "combots," giant robots reminiscent of those in various Japanese animated cartoon series. Metal Fatigue's concept is innovative both in its modular unit design and in its multilevel battlefields that take place in orbit, on the surface, and underground all at once; but the game's unbalanced units, as well as a few interface problems, cut it short of its potential.
The game's story is similar to what you might expect from giant robot anime such as Macross and Gundam. In Metal Fatigue, three corporate factions, which coexist in an uneasy alliance, have discovered alien technology in the far-off Hedoth system. In an initial skirmish over the discovery, three brothers - Diego, Stephan, and the treacherous Jonas - find their loyalties split among separate factions, and soon, open war breaks out. A ten-mission campaign is devoted to telling the story of each of the three "CorpoNations": the balanced RimTech, the aggressive MilAgro, and the high-tech, stealthy Neuropa.
Each CorpoNation has its own combot technologies, but during the course of a mission, it's possible to retrieve parts abandoned on the battlefield and research them for your own faction's use. What makes this possible is the modular construction of the combots themselves, as each is constructed from four components - torso, legs, and right and left arms. While the modular design somewhat reduces the visual distinctiveness of each side, it does make it fairly easy to eyeball the composition of your opponents. In fact, much of the game's strategic interest lies in adjusting your combot production to best oppose the combot designs you're facing. The array of available melee and ranged weapons can deal out either energy or kinetic damage, and the various defenses can defend against either type. In addition, torso and leg designs can provide extra armor or special abilities such as cloaking, increased hand-to-hand damage, and jump jets.
In stark contrast with the complex modularity of combot production, there are only four conventional offensive units: a tank, a mobile surface-to-air missile launcher, a modest artillery piece, and a special combot-debilitating spell unit. The conventional units are rather simple and are functionally equivalent for the three sides. The primary use for conventional ground units is to go into the subterranean tunnels that are much too small and unstable for the giant combots. Yet, as support units for your main combot cavalry, they are often little more than expensive targets. A speedy melee-equipped combot can quickly turn a tank battalion into a gutted mass of metal. The primary base defenses also seem underpowered, considering their cost and build time, though the walls and gun emplacement have the atypical, yet convenient advantage of being mobile. Metal Fatigue doesn't aspire in any apparent way toward a rock-paper-scissors unit balance, and, in practice, it rewards you simply for throwing as many multipurpose combots at a target as possible.
Furthermore, the mix of very large and very small units exacerbates the game's pathfinding issues, the chronic weak point for real-time strategy games. The game's 3D structures and units alternately seem capable of packing impossibly tightly together one minute; while in the next minute, they seem to get stuck on thin air. Though you might think that a militaristic bunch like the MilAgro could march lockstep in their sleep, its units refuse to follow movement orders sensibly with disproportionate frequency. The problem is compounded when a squad of large combots tries to walk in a tight-box formation, the only one available. Too often, a valuable combot will get stuck behind just a few tanks and will twist and turn uselessly, trying to find a way out. When a combot is under heavy fire in tight terrain, supporting tanks will without a doubt prove to be a deadly hindrance.
The concept of dividing the battlefield into three separate levels - orbital, surface, and underground - no doubt helps balance the game's otherwise combot-heavy combat. However, in practice, having the action spread across multiple levels puts undue stress on the most important resource in a real-time strategy game - a player's time - without easing the issue of multitasking. Orbital play and underground play add two basic infrastructure tasks: Carving out subterranean tunnels to connect resource-bearing lava caverns and building numerous small solar panels in orbit. Solar panels are very useful in large numbers, but they add a frustrating amount of micromanagement since they must be built as individual structures. A little more build automation or a centralized interface could have made this a much less cumbersome element in each mission.
The game's single resource is energy, measured in megajoules. Energy harvesting is a rather painless process, since your hover vehicles transparently beam the thermal energy they collect from lava pools right back to your base. A diligent pack of harvesters can cool a lava pool in short order, so it's fortunate that solar panels, deployed on your orbital stations, can provide a slow but steady stream of energy while the lava flow gradually warms back up again. The last infrastructure elements are the drill trucks that can slowly bore tunnels for your underground empire, and the cryofarms where you can warm up cryogenically stored troops to provide manpower for structures and conventional units.
The game's 3D graphics show their colors when a squad of combots engages in heated combat. The combots have quite a range of fluid melee animations, as they block, kick, and spin while wielding giant katanas, axes, and hammers to devastating effect. Moreover, edged weapons have a good chance of slicing off an enemy's arms, which can be retrieved for use with your own units. Even though the camera can be zoomed and spun around to get the best view of the action, fortunately the 3D terrain rarely obscures your vision - so it's often sufficient to simply scroll the 3D camera around, just as in a 2D real-time strategy game.
Metal Fatigue won't win many points for its artistic design. The game's 3D maps often seem to share a common pool of uninspired textures, and they generally lack the little details that might have made Hedoth a more immersive environment. Though simple colors befit the game's overall anime-like appearance, the map textures greatly overuse metallics, blues, and, in the dreary subterranean layer, browns. Similarly, the in-game music reuses its riffs with abandon. At least there's even a rather simple attempt to match each campaign's music to the personality of the respective CorpoNation. You hear fairly subdued military marches playing as the RimTech, a funky rock mix as the violent MilAgro, and airy New Age as the mysterious Neuropa.
Despite its problems, fans of anime or mech games should find that Metal Fatigue is a fun, fast-paced real-time strategy game. The missions that showcase the open-field strengths of the combots are particularly satisfying. If the game shipped last year, as originally scheduled, it might have led the current wave of 3D real-time strategy games. However, as it stands, Metal Fatigue will likely get lost beside a number of better-looking, more balanced games.