Bargain Bin Gem: Phantom Crash (XBox)

So I recently picked this up for $6 used, at Gamestop. It’s a custom-mech gladiatorial action game, released in 2003 IIRC. Having put about 6 hours into it so far, I’d say it’s a great deal of fun for very little money.

The single player campaign revolves around your character, a new “wirehead” (mech pilot) entering Old Tokyo (mostly ruins, because it’s the Future) to make your mark in the world of “Rumbling”, or mech arena combat. You start out with enough credits to buy an entry-level SV (mech, also referred to as “Scoobees” alternately in the game) from one of the three major manufacturers or, if you’re a gearhead, you can hit up the Used Parts store and buy parts to assemble your own custom SV.

Being a dedicated mech-junkie, I opted for the custom-build, and proceeded to buy enough parts to field a viable fighting mech. The parts of a Phantom Crash SV include Body (3 main types, with variants of each), Legs (2-, 4-, and 6-Leg, 2-, 3-, 4-, and 6-Wheel, Hover Legs, etc.), Right and Left Arms, Right and Left Back Parts, Internal Options, and AI Chip.

The Arm and Back Parts include various weapons ranging from Rifles, Machineguns, and Lasers, to Missile-Launchers, Grenade-Launchers, and Bazookas, to melee weapons like Chainsaws, Vibroblades, and Drills.

The AI Chip system is pretty interesting, in that each AI has its own personality and abilities, and each is patterned after an animal. For example, a typical Dog-AI is friendly, chatty, and loyal, with an average targeting reticle and lock-on time, but a high chance of it launching a Defensive Shield to protect you in combat. Alternately, an Eagle-AI has a long, wide targeting reticle, a very-fast lock-on time, but is slower to “grow on you” and improve its abilities, and very unlikely to Shield you. Matching the proper AI Chip to the right SV and your own preferences in battle is key to being a successful Rumbler.

Battle itself is fairly fast and furious. You pick from among 3 different tournaments held each day, in different sections of the city, like Shinjuku or Shibuya, with each tournament having its own parameters. These can range from rank limitations, to entry fees, to SV body type or weaponry limitations. The arenas then become mazes of city blocks, highways, and subways, where anywhere from 4 to 12 SVs fight in a free-for-all. You earn money for each enemy or arena obstacle you destroy, and can either fight until you are defeated (in which case you earn any money from kills less cost of repairs), or fight and then manually leave the arena via one of a few exits (in which case you spare yourself the cost of repairs). If you accrue enough kills, you can be declared the tourney winner and earn additional prizes.

What Phantom Crash adds to these battles that I find is fairly smart is the inclusion of Optical Camouflage (OC). Each SV is equipped with an OC unit, which provides an invisibility cloak for a limited time (a typical entry-level OC provides 10 seconds of cloak with a 2-second recharge time). The management of your OC becomes crucial because, a) enemies cannot lock on to you with normal or missile weapons while cloaked, b) cloaking immediately breaks any existing enemy lock-ons, and c) you can fire weaponry without breaking your cloak. Because of this, the game turns a regular mech deathmatch into a cat-and-mouse game of hunter and hunted, with various mechs alternately cloaked and uncloaked.

To counter the OC mechanic, you can blindfire your weaponry at the Predator-esque shimmer of cloaked SVs, or you can follow the guidance of your SVs battle sonar. Instead of a radar display, each SV can sense enemies with sonar that tells you general directions of enemies, through the use of various colored arrows around your targeting reticle. It’s far from pinpoint accurate, but you can sometimes use it to blindfire at locations to flush out enemies and detect them by their movement shimmer.

In between the cycle of battling, upgrading, and assembling, the game throws various cutscenes in involving a roster of characters including shopkeepers, other Rumblers, and other mysterious figures. Most of these are forgettable, but occasionally some useful strategic tips come up.

Ultimately, the game plays out like arena-mode Armored Core, with 1/3 the part selection and complexity, but with a much easier learning curve and more frantic action. I appreciate the relatively light tone to the campaign and game world, and although its customization may not seems as deep as ACs, there is definitely plenty there to make your own stable of personalized deathbots. The accessibility of the action, the unique twists on the combat mechanics, and the joy of constantly working on mech designs make this one a terrific game, and a fantastic value for the price.

Mostly loved the game, but the severe lack of arenas and online play really hurts it. There are only three arenas. That gets old very, very quick. The only game mode is what amounts to deathmatch against constanly respawning opponents. Once you learn where the powerups are, it gets pretty trivial. Online would have helped a bit, so that you weren’t just spamming the same tactics against the mostly braindead AIs, but it came out too early in the Xbox’s lifecycle to build that in (like Deathrow, another Xbox game that begged for online support).

Yeah I’ve been meaning to check this out for awhile; it strikes me as maybe being what I had hoped One Must Fall: Battlegrounds would be.

For those that are interested, there’s a PS2-only sequel out now called S.L.A.I.

Yeah, I was sorely disappointed with OMF:Battlegrounds, especially considering the months of fun I had with the original One Must Fall. I saw SLAI at the store, and aside from the name and platform change, it looks like they didn’t change the formula up much from Phantom Crash.

At the moment, though, I’d recommend spending the ~$6 for a used/bargain bin Phantom Crash to see how much you’d like it before spending a full $39-$49 on SLAI. Hell, by the time you finish up Phantom Crash, SLAI will have probably hit the bargain bins for <$20.

SLAI review. Sounds good. Terrible, terrible name though.

SLAI is excellent. It is also discontinued. You can get it at EB or Amazon for $20

Nice. I’ll definitely pick up SLAI then, as it sounds like they just added more of everything to Phantom Crash.

Ditto. Although I played the hell out of OMF while I was recovering from massive dental surgery and ever after there was an indelible mnemonic association…