Review by Shinkada MKII
"Phantom Crash 0.8?"
Released in 2005, SLAI was the attempted follow up to the cult Xbox title 'Phantom Crash'. The game suffered from poor sales primarily to the dramatic switch in targeted demographic and the usual poor advertising for the new demographic.
SLAI is, basically, an arcade-style mech game. Fans of other mech games in the vein of Mech Warrior, and even Armored Core, should be weary; SLAI is not your typical mech game. It's extremely fast, even the slowest mechs are comparable to mid-range mechs in Armored Core, and anything that's faster than 120mph, which is most mechs in the game, is comparable in speed to a blader-specific mech in Armored Core. Mech Warrior can't even be compared in terms of speed. So most important is that mech fans do not come into this thinking they're getting a mech game. While it does indeed have mechs and many series staples such as fairly in depth customization and plenty of technobabble, it may as well end there.
The premise of the game is simple. In most fights, you join an arena in the middle of a giant free-for-all fight, kill as many enemies as you can with reinforcements constantly streaming to replace the scrap metal, and then high-tail it to an exit once you decide enough's enough. There are bosses who come out once you've scrapped enough rivals, but even killing them doesn't end your time in the ring. You don't leave until you want to; in fact repeatedly killing bosses can be a good way of earning money and experience.
You have a maximum of four weapons, two arm and two shoulder weapons. Weapons vary between standard rifles and machineguns to melee weapons, bazookas, lasers and sniper rifles, though don't expect to see all this in the original batch of weapons; much is unlocked as you go, or requires some shifty buying of used vehicles to obtain. Optic Camouflage, or stealth, plays a huge role in the game and nearly all mechs are equipped with it to varying degrees; due to the
And finally, in terms of major components, you have your AI Chip. You select an animal chip from a very broad range of around 30, each with unique stats, potential, and personality. Your chip then oversees nearly all functions of your mech, and adjusts stats accordingly; everything from running speed to accuracy to lock-on speed. Depending on what weapon types you use and how you use them, your chip will then grow accordingly. People who jump often will find their ability to do so increasing, melee-ers will find their melee lock on speed and dashing distance improving, and so on. Prioritizing weapon types (such as using only missiles) with a chip that already specializes in such can have impressive results; a strong chip can close huge distances between mech ability or style.
Which is a requirement, because I'm just about to throw in the first major downfall of SLAI; the difficulty. As a veteran of Phantom Crash, SLAI's prequel, I found the first few bosses unbeatable to the point where I actually needed to abuse a well-known exploit in the system to earn mass amounts of money for upgrading. The first few Ranker fights, with the equipment you should have at the level, are comparable to the Area Ranker (ie endgame) bosses in the prequel, and it's not unusual to see 60% - or all - of your health utterly disappear before you even lay eyes on whatever enemy decided to obliterate you. The franchise has always been about speed and stealth over endurance but the difficulty is more than strict. If you have a weak stomach for difficulty you definitely should be careful about trying this game.
The customization style is, other than the Chips, no different than the prequel. Parts start at 0 and can be upgraded to either +99 (Heavy) or -99 (Light); basically you have to choose between durability, weight capacity, and damage versus ammo, shots fired (if applicable, eg shotguns), explosion radius, jumping ability, speed, and of course weight. This gives a deceptively large amount of customization since the differences are quite dramatic; a -99 Missile will explode in a huge radius, and you'll have plenty of them, but it won't hurt a whole lot. On the flipside a back-attack (3x Damage) with a +99 missile could be an instant kill on just about anything. A back-attack crit with a +99 missile is enough to take down most bosses. However due to the kill-100-enemies-per-round nature of this game, the fact that you can fire that weapon anywhere from 6 to 20 times is going to be a problem. Damage is only the obvious choice against bosses.
In short, do not underestimate the customization just because things only go two ways; I've spent many hours with calculators debating pros and cons.
Finally, in terms of actual parts, SLAI has seen both improvements and downgrades. While each mech manufacturer has less parts than in Phantom Crash, there are now five manufacturers to choose from instead of three, with, overall, more parts.
Graphics are likely one of the biggest downfalls of this game. Regardless of whether you've played the original Phantom Crash or not, the graphics are, in a word, ugly. They look among the worst of the PS2, as the lines are far too jagged. The styling isn't especially bad; the Tron-style cyber hub has some nice visual touches, but even this is too blocky in places. Especially, if you've played Phantom Crash, expect to shed some tears over the lost poly's from your Holy.
Unlike the original Phantom Crash which solely consisted of local, small-time Japanese bands or artists, SLAI has broadened its horizons somewhat. A good deal of the old music has been retained, with some new songs by old artists; however the indie Japanese stuff now only makes up about a fifth of the music. The rest is a broad mix between punk, techno, a tiny bit of metal and what the game itself labels as 'neo rockabilly'. While fans of the original game's soundtrack style may be disappointed, the game's soundtrack is no longer such an absolute hit or miss. Most people will be able to find a decent soundtrack to go perforate steel to, as the game allows you to select a lineup from its ~50 tracks to bring into battle with you.
It should also be noted that while the nationality of the music has broadened, the overall origin has not. The game still consists of nothing but local and unknown, often unsigned bands who you have approximately a 0.01% chance of having heard of. For the many who found the generous publicity gift to be praiseworthy, this approach hasn't changed.
... What story?
Another of the major flaws of SLAI is that, while a story is present, it's generic 'we put in a story so reviewers can't say it doesn't have one' fare. Unlike Phantom Crash's cast of sometimes unique but always lovable characters (How could we forget Screw, really?), the game only has a few faces that you repeatedly encounter, and these 'repeated' encounters are often far between as well as brief.
SLAI isn't as bad as its reputation. I came in expecting a terrible knockoff of Phantom Crash and instead got a faithful if sometimes misguided pseudo-sequel. If you don't have an XBox then the rating should probably be boosted to about a 9/10 (provided you're actually interested in the idea of an extremely fast-paced free for all arcade-style mech game), but if you do have an XBox or XBox360, I heavily recommend the predecessor over this. SLAI is still good and, if for no reason other than its vastly superior maps, should be played by Phantom Crash fans, but PC should just be played first. It looks better, it feels smoother and faster, each manufacturer has more weapon options, the characters actually have some effort put into them, and if the music is in the 'hit' category there's a lot more options to choose from.
And to top it all off, SLAI doesn't have Itoken. Honestly. That alone is worth about a 3-point penalty.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/12/09
Game Release: S.L.A.I.: Steel Lancer Arena International (US, 09/21/05)
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