Saturday, November 07, 2009

Metal Drift Review

Metal Drift, developed and published by Black Jacket Studios.
The Good: Custom tank configurations using persistent upgrades, tactically interesting weapons and abilities, strategic use of energy for speed or weapons
The Not So Good: Persistent upgrades restrict content from new players, only one mode of play, methodical pace an acquired taste, some dubious strategies, inconsistent AI
What say you? A tank-based action game that relies on varied weapons and upgrades but is tedious and unfairly restrictive: 5/8

All of those futuristic infantry-based shooters always make me wonder: wouldn’t it be safer in a tank? It might not be as cost-effective, but being surrounded by inches of solid steel would certainly make me feel more at ease. The developers of Metal Drift clearly agree, as the only combatants in their capture-the-flag-like action game are big, metal tanks (that probably drift). In addition to maximum tank-age, this title features persistent upgrades, custom tank designs, and strategic energy usage. Will that be enough to set Metal Drift apart?

Not surprising of an independent title, Metal Drift features passable graphics that suffer from extreme repetition. All of the levels and vehicles look the same and use the same set of textures; to be fair, the game is called “Metal” Drift, so the overemphasis on metal hues is not unexpected. Each level looks like the last, and the clean environments do not look like they are the setting of intense tank battles with massive explosions. The best aspect of the graphics is the in-tank display, which actually looks realistic in its presentation rather than just simply being superimposed on your view. It’s reminiscent of a flight simulation, in a good way. The weapon effects are convincing enough, with enough glow effects to satisfy most. However, the explosions aren’t terribly impressive as the tanks catch on fire slightly and simply turn black. The game’s sound design features nothing of note: just some basic announcer calls to keep you informed and appropriate weapon and explosions effects. The graphics and sound certainly do not negatively impact the gameplay of Metal Drift, which is all we really ask for in an indie title.

Metal Drift is intended as a multiplayer tank combat game, although you can create (and join) a server populated with bots. The server browser provides easy access to online matches, though the player counts seem to be off. There are only five arenas to play in, but they are designed well with multiple paths to the goal. The default game length of eight minutes is just right for the game’s pace: not too long, but not too short. There is only one game mode to enjoy: capture the ball, where you must carry the ball to the goal in the enemy base. Metal Drift features all of the online score keeping trappings, like leaderboards, achivements, and persistent player data. Statistics are used to unlock additional weapons and features, a feature I dislike to the extreme. It’s fine to have upgrades that unlock over time, but only through a single game: new players should never be artificially handicapped. As it stands, new players will have a “selection” of one weapon and one ability: a strategic disadvantage right from the beginning. I prefer having all of the content available to all players, which is what Section 8 does. You have to finish a match in order to earn experience points, a questionable limitation if you have to leave in the middle of a game. You do level up quickly, especially if you capture the ball, but you do not get to choose which weapons to unlock as they are presented in a linear fashion. Boo! What if I want the super powerful weapon the really experienced guy has been killing me with? The weapons also increase in effectiveness the more you use them, which is cool. Preventing new users from all the game offers, however, is not cool.

Once you have logged enough hours in Metal Drift, you’ll have access to some pretty neat weapons and abilities, which makes restricting the content even more disappointing. While most of the weapons are pretty conventional in first person shooters terms (pulse cannon = assault rifle, ion cannon = sniper rifle, plasma launcher = grenade launcher), there are some highlights: the temporal cannon can travel through walls (making it a great pairing with the sensor upgrade that allows you to see all tanks), the artemis cannon travels through shields (like a shotgun), and the shock cannon is a short-range bomb. The upgrades offer more tactical variety: in addition to simple stat increases (armor, power, speed), you can automatically repair of your tank over time, see the positions of every tank, invisibility, or look like an enemy tank. The most popular is hyperspace, which spawns you near the ball. See why I’d like to have access to all of these neat features from the very beginning?

It takes a while to get your bearings straight in Metal Drift due to the control method: aiming is done with the mouse, but movement is done with the trusty old WASD keys, so you can be facing in a different direction then you are moving. While this makes combat easier, it can be disorienting; the game does allow you to re-center your view using the middle mouse button, however. Tanks have a poor turning radius and generally travel slowly, as you would expect gigantic metallic objects to do. Most of the weapons have low damage and excessively long reload times; since it takes a while to get to cover, combat typically has long pauses while either side reloads their weapons. This really emphasizes working together in groups, which the AI certainly does not do. Personally, I dislike the balance between damage and how often you need to reload, but I believe that the game was balanced for teammates who actually work together. The HUD is quite informative, displaying ammunition levels, speed, energy, upgrades, and armor, in addition to displaying the ball location and repair pads clearly. The mini-map is also useful for locating enemy and friendly units beyond your field of view.

Energy earned by hitting (but not necessarily killing) enemy tanks serves a dual purpose: slightly more powerful weapons or increased speed. This intriguing tactical decision is strongly slanted towards increased speed, as the tanks move quite slowly and a small speed boost can quickly move you away from enemy tanks. In addition, the weapon damage increase seems quite small and not really worth it unless you are finishing off an tank about to score a goal. Slow movement in general makes it difficult to intercept when you are out of position, and the maze-like levels make this task even more tricky. This places a lot of emphasis on using energy for speed boosts. Weapons don't do much damage and require long reload times, making the game very slow paced. Metal Drift is also subject to some suspect strategies: you can camp at ball spawn location since positions do not reset after a score. So that point you just fought hard over? Useless since the other team can just park a tank at the spawn location and speed it into goal before you can react. That’s why so many high level players use the hyperspace upgrade, which, of course, isn’t available to beginners. Also, it's actually almost better to not kill enemies in your base, since they will respawn close to your goal when you counter-attack. Games can commonly be ruined by these cheap strategies. The AI is competent but not great: they ignore you a lot of the time, especially if they do not have the ball and they are facing in the opposite direction (they could theoretically spot you on radar, as a human player would). Sometimes they simply do not shoot unless shot at even though they are facing you. The AI does not make a proper substitute for human opponents and teammates that would provide thoughtful competition and support planned attacks.

Metal Drift is an average tank combat game with some interesting features that are not available to beginning players. The game is intended for multiplayer, as the bots are too inconsistent to be enjoyable: they will carry the ball to the goal, but they only respond to you some of the time, making them an easy target. The game’s only mode, capture the flag ball, does offer some interesting gameplay thanks to the level design; although there are only five maps, each level contains multiple paths to victory. The game’s persistent stats are a nice feature, but it restricts new players too much as they cannot access all of the game’s neat weaponry until they have logged sufficient game time. You should want to play a game because it’s fun, not because you need to unlock additional weapons to become competitive. Section 8 had it right: hide nothing from new players, because doing so immediately puts them at a greater disadvantage, in addition to simply being novices at the game. While individual weapons do upgrade according to usage, you cannot choose your future unlocks, sticking to the distressingly linear path chosen by the developers. And there are some interesting weapons: weapons that travel through walls, shields, and short range bombs make for some great tactical decisions. You also need to decide how to use your bonus energy: for speed or for increased weapon output. It’s too bad you can’t make those great tactical decisions the first time you play the game. The HUD is quite informative and controls are standard fare; it does take a couple of games to learn how to move your turret with the mouse independent on your movement using the keyboard. The game’s slow movement, long reload times, and low damage emphasize team-based play, for better or for worse (the latter if playing with the AI). Metal Drift allows for some questionable strategies, like camping at the ball spawn location or purposely not destroying an enemy so they can't respawn near your goal, which reduce the fun quotient. All of the hard work in making that goal is wasted by the lone wolf on the other team speeding towards their goal. Unfortunately, Metal Drift’s strong points are overshadowed by locked content and other assorted shortcomings.