At last I managed to get my hands on a copy of Scrapland. And cheap too, what with it having been out for a few years an all. More likely than not, there will be very few people out there who even know this game at all. So let me enlighten you, if ever so slightly.
Scrapland is the second game to be produced by Amerian McGee. His debut title American McGee's Alice got a lot of people's attention. It was an excellent game, which put a different twist on the classic fairytale, and targeted an older audience. Besides, who wouldn't want to run around as a goth rendition of Alice with a giant butcher knife hacking up card soldiers. The voice acting in Alice gave the game that final polish, where the Cheshire Cat's emaciated look was completed by a low and devious rumbling voice. In all, it was a fresh and unique game.
That's all well and good, but we're here to talk about Scrapland. After Alice, the designer in question put out another title under the name of American McGee's Scrapland. Like Clive Barker, McGee seems determined to forever plaster his name into every title he produces, for better or worse. My expectations were fairly high after the success of Alice, and I was looking forward to a scifi themed game from this creator. Here's what the official Scrapland website promises in this title:
SCRAPLAND is a third person action-adventure game set in a stunningly beautiful and futuristic world occupied by an amazing array of robotic characters. The play experience is driven by a solidly engaging, sometimes humorous adventure narrative. The game mechanic combines proven GTA3 style emergent action with an immersive storyline, diversity of player actions, and complete freedom of movement through the world. Throughout the game the player can: transform into any of 15 character types inheriting unique abilities, build and pilot ships with hundreds of permutations, engage in explosive combat, participate in life-on-the-line races, and freely explore a truly dynamic and living world.
Wow! That sounds incredible doesn't it? I mean, with this paragraph I'm visualizing a whole Gothic/Morrowind/GTA style game, but in a scifi setting and with nothing but robots! Seriously, who wouldn't want to play something like that.
At this point you've probably noticed the slight tinge of sarcasm in my words, and I confess it's true. It would be rather difficult to deliver on what that paragraph promises. Perhaps not overly so if you're Bethesda, or Piranha Bytes, or even Rockstar for the sake of consistency. The thing is, that Alice was developed by Rogue Software which was in large part an offspring of ID Software. That's some good game making muscle there, yet Scrapland's development was apparently handled by Enlight. That company created one other McGee game thus far, Bad Day L.A., which has a terrible IGN rating of 2.7.
All of which adds up to the high possibility that Scrapland is just an awful game, doesn't it? Well, that's not entirely it either. It's just that it promises one thing, and delivers another. That's really the issue here. It made me think that it had this awesome free-roaming and expansive, not to mention immersing, world that I could have a lot of fun in. Then it only gave me parts of that, and not even in the way that I expected. That is perhaps the real crux of the matter: my expectations. As I noted above, I was basically thinking I'd get Gothic but with robots. I doubted I would find the grand scale of Morrowind in this, which is why I figured a more tightly knit experience like those of the Gothic series might be comparable.
What the game is really about though, is more honestly depicted on the back cover of the jewel case the game comes in: "Diverse game world. Combat and racing. Dynamic characters. Multiplayer Intensity." I really don't know about the dynamic characters part, but the rest is pretty much on. In fact, the greater emphasis in this game is on the action, or the "combat and racing" part. So much so, that it becomes incredibly repetitive, where you keep on having to complete virtually the same objectives over and over again. The whole game, you run around shooting at enemies, killing robots in a handful of different ways, and racing and acquiring ship plans. Every mission is just "get me these plans," or "kill this robot," or "beat this robot in a race." That's pretty much all there is to Scrapland.
Okay, maybe not all there is to Scrapland, just most of what there is. The good parts are that there is a big world, and you do get a wide variety of robots to change into. Those things would have been fun, if there there was a greater need for them. The size of the world serves very little purpose, other than providing you with an arena for combat. Unlike other free-form adventure games mentioned above, there is very little that exploration of Scrapland's world gets you. There seems to be nothing of sidequests and choose-your-own-adventure in this game. It's about as linear as you can get, which brings me to reiterate how unnecessary the this pretense of a large "diverse" game world is.
Still, the one thing that truly shines in this game is visual design. Environmental and character design in this game is beautiful, clever, and even verges on brilliant at times. This element might be what really hooked me on Scrapland's promise initially. With a main character named "D-Tritus," I was expecting cleverness by the bucket loads. Another brilliant bit of design is the Temple area. Floors in the Temple do not exist, which might make you think that you'll just fall through when you step into the emptiness, yet as soon as you move forward, transparent tiles appear below your characters feet. How appropriate for the Temple, where you must walk forward based on faith!
The story itself, which is really what would hold all of the good elements of the game together, and make up for the bad ones, certainly deserves a closer look. The hook is its film noir style murder mystery plot. The fumble is its repetitive and very un-dynamic character development. To be quite frank, I was profoundly disinterested in the characters and their plight. The reason which I believe is the cause of all this, is that you simply don't get to interact with the characters enough to learn more about them. It's all about "the mission at hand" interaction, and no further development which might give these characters any semblance of depth.
As I look back at this post, I realize to my disappointment that it has turned into somewhat of a rant. I apologize for that. Nevertheless, maybe this is a testament to just how much I cared about this game. I wanted it to be so much more, and it could have been. Had the focus been taken more into character development, more into the motivations of these characters, things could have turned out quite differently. Some side quests could have been beneficial, very much so in fact. Having to acquire the ability to turn into specific robots could have been tied in very nicely into mission objectives, as opposed to giving access to all robots right of the bat. More diversity, and less combat and repetition, and this game could have been truly great.
Ultimately, I think that people with a greater penchant for action might enjoy this title more than I did. I suppose it's more my fault for wanting depth from what turned out to be an action oriented game. Even so, the action just got old. I think it's bound to, and when it does there isn't much of a narrative to fall back on. Even if the game looks very good, the names awfully clever, and the environmental design is quite brilliant and sometimes a little tongue-in-cheek, it still isn't enough if the story doesn't hold it together. Who knows, maybe American McGee's Grimm will bring back the quality we saw in Alice.