On one hand, Scarab is simply another mech game. Mind you, these mechs look like ancient Egyptian gods and the playing field has translucent elevators, floating ankhs, and flying supply ships. On the other hand, this is a very detailed, fast-paced strategy game that's full of subtleties. It succeeds on many levels, but falls flat on an important one: the learning curve.
There is a story - something about a war raging in silence - but it's too convoluted to explain. Even the game's designer, developer, and programmer, John Ratcliff, admits he's "not very big on storylines." Essentially, there are two opposing groups of god-mechs trying to blast each other to smithereens or build enough well-placed power towers to control the playing field. Gameplay takes place in one of seven "cities" and, depending on the scenario or number of players, can involve up to six mechs on two sides. You choose from three different mech types, each with differing powers and strategic possibilities. With three lives per game, you can start as one "god" and change to another later.
Ratcliff's inspiration for the game came from AOL's Cyberstrike (a nearly unending, 16-player/four-team strategic mech battle) and Archon (a classic EA board game that uses strategically equal but characteristically different playing pieces). As a solo production effort, supported by a solid group of artists and a musician, this is a tour de force. The 3-D worlds, with their pyramids, tunnels, soaring platforms, and brilliant colors, are beautiful. The strategic elements are too numerous to mention. But their complexities add immensely to gameplay. Each mech has distinctive limitations mixed with deep variability in customizable capabilities. As play progresses you can shed one attribute, like x-ray vision, and call upon your supply ship to send you something different, like land mines. Each mech can use radar plus it displays a power grid, showing the locations of all power towers and their changing influences. And the AI is excellent.
Mech-to-mech combat is similar to others of this genre, with a couple of exceptions. These mechs have polygonal shields with panels that become opaque when damaged. Not only does that give you a visual clue as to your shield's status, but can obstruct your vision). Fast-paced foot chases with weapons blasting are common, but if you want to take sharper aim, you have to stop moving. Multiplayer modes on Kali and Mplayer, in addition to LAN and modem play, offer plenty of variety and scenarios, including cooperative and deathmatch games.
There are a few minor annoyances. Everything is polygonal, reminiscent of Descent. On a P-90 running at full detail, the game bogs down to a slow crawl when the action gets furious. One possible, but frustrating, solution is to decrease the already claustrophobic, half-screen-sized playing window. Latency on the Internet frequently leads to untimely and unexpected deaths (an upcoming version 1.2 patch is supposed to fix this). Some joysticks don't aim properly. And all the subtleties built into the mechs' damage display and polygonal shield are wasted on the mechs' less-than-accurate aim and several weapons that simply obliterate you with no warning.
The biggest bugaboo, however, is the horrible documentation. The game's minuscule, 20-page booklet masquerading as a manual leaves out tons of critical information about weapons and their use and simply does not explain a whole host of gameplay and strategic issues. You'll encounter a litany of items scattered around the cities and have no idea what they're for. Plus don't miss the undocumented, gorgeous fly-bys of each city - click the city's image in the main window. In addition, the booklet is terribly disorganized. It looks like someone tossed the pages in the air, shuffled them together, and stuck them in the box.
You can have fun with Scarab. The multiplayer games reach resolution at a good pace and the 140 scenarios will challenge single players for a long time. But to get full playing satisfaction, you'll need to corner some expert players and hope they show you the ropes. Fortunately, the game's version 1.1 patch has an excellent ranking system, and you might be able to track down a few good players.