Mischief Maker 12/9/2005 

It looks like Sunfire's robot has acquired a target!
They made a sequel to Phantom Crash!!! For the PS2! With 5 Chassis types and 7 Arenas!

Cue stock footage of crowds of teenage girls screaming and convulsing at a Beatles Concert

If you’re not in the know, Phantom Crash was the best game nobody ever played for the Xbox. Now it’s got a sequel for the PS2 with more stuff, better balance, and an unfortunate new title. If the idea of fully customizable giant robots with cloaking devices and ostentatious paint jobs zooming around a ruined cityscape at high speed and blasting the bejeezus out of each other with Japanese Rockabilly blaring in the background sounds like fun, this is the game for you. And you’d better move fast or you’ll never play S.L.A.I. either, because production apparently stopped early for this one, too.

So the games take place in the future where environmental degradation has forced humanity into protective domes. So what to do with the leftover ruined cities? Let crazy teenagers drive giant robots through them blasting the shit out of each other and make it the ultimate new X-Game sport!

So you're one of those teens. You build and customize your own robot and take it out to kick some ass. Unlike Armored Core, where you’re required to fuck around with energy supply and coolant levels and electronic countermeasures and your chances of building a robot that actually works are very low, in S.L.A.I. you pick a body, legs, 2 arm weapons, 2 shoulder weapons, a couple optional add-ons, and pick your animal-based AI targeting computer/witch's familiar. Your only restrictions are not exceeding your legs' load capacity and using parts compatible with your chassis type. Go. Can't settle on what type of robot you want to build? Build them all! If you've got the money for it, you can keep up to 8 separate mechs in your garage.

Battles use the basic Halo-style FPS controls and you can switch between 1st and 3rd person viewing on the fly. The 4 shoulder buttons fire your 4 weapon points independently (a big improvement over the Xbox controller.) You have the option of using "advanced controls," which sacrifices the ability to strafe and customize buttons in return for the ability to torso twist, but I don't recommend it. Your weight and leg type (spider legs, wheels, tank treads, hovercraft, etc.) has a very noticeable effect on your handling and speed. Jumping is the main thing that will catch you by surprise because you have no control over lateral movement while jumping, save for the dash left/right buttons. Also of note is that if you lunge at an enemy with a left arm melee weapon, they better be on your left side and vice versa. Every robot has a predator-esque cloaking device that makes you nearly invisible and prevents weapons from locking on, but enemy radar can still detect you and the slightest hit will knock your cloak out. This plays a huge role in combat both defensively and offensively because hitting a robot in the back causes huge damage bonuses.

The way the rounds work is you enter an arena where an ongoing free-for-all battle is already taking place between something like 4 mechs and a couple armed drones. As mechs get destroyed, other mechs waiting on the sidelines enter the fight. If you manage to destroy every single competitor at least once (returning mechs you've already destroyed have a skull and crossbones next to their life bar) the ranking champion enters the arena. Kill him and you win that class ranking for that particular arena. You can stay in the battles and win money for as long as you want and can run to the gates and escape as soon as you want. During the battle, cargo planes randomly fly in and drop crates with armor, ammo (which weapon gets reloaded is determined at random) or bonus money.

The best change to the battle system (at least I think this is new) is the rapid kill combo system. You may find a few pussies among the professional game review sites whining that it takes forever to make money in this game. They must not have noticed the rapid kill counter in the corner. Especially in the D ranking, you hardly get any money for killing competitors. But after your first kill you get a rapid kill counter that gives you something like 30 seconds to make another kill. Make that kill, the timer restarts and you get bonus cash. Keep making kills, your rapid kill counter increases and so does the bonus until you're raking in obscene amounts of cash. This encourages full blown balls-out aggressive playing as you destroy as much as you can while keeping an eye on your ammo and armor levels to see if you can manage just one more kill or need to bail out before you lose a limb or, worse, get your whole rig destroyed and get slapped with a huge repair bill.

If you're out of money, you can rent a mech for a fight in return for half your winnings. The danger, though, is that you're likely to end up with one that has an incomplete loadout or, worse, end up with a dinky machine-gun drone cart (which is fairly amusing, regardless.)

The best part is how, despite the game being about post-apocalyptic robot violence, the tone is silly and lighthearted. The soundtrack consists of a mix of mostly techno and punk with a splash of lounge jazz and even some country from a variety of "promising" Japanese and Canadian bands. It's highly suggested that one of the first things you do is purchase a decent custom soundtrack when starting the game because the default battle song is nu-punk at its whiny-annoyingest. Other things include the constant conversations (text based) between enemy pilots and their animal AIs during battles as they bicker over battle strategies and how they’ll get revenge on you. The AI personalities seem to fit the animal types you choose, (eg. dogs are loyal and cheer you on, mice are meek, lions are aloof) but some of them come out of nowhere (the dolphin screams at you like a drill sergeant.) Another nice thing is that you no longer have to dump an assload of money into AIs to improve them. They now gain experience towards a zillion different stats depending on what you do during battle.

The game also has quick battles, splitscreen multiplayer, and online multiplayer. Unlike Armored Core, if you don't have any friends nerdy enough to take the time to build their own custom robots to take on yours, no problem. The game has 10 pre-made mechs for them to choose from.

Graphics take both a hit and a boost compared to the Xbox original. Colors are comparatively muted and the mechs no longer have that trademark Xbox shininess, but they're much more detailed now with rattling exhaust pipes and glowing pulsing radiators and stuff.

Are there problems? Sure, plenty! The sound effects in combat are muted and almost apologetic. With 5 chassis types and the parts selection at the store changing every day, you're only going to see 2-3 compatible parts of each type at a time and rare weapons are even harder to find. The different arenas are scattered all over the world and to change arenas you have to pay a nominal fee and wait a day to have your mech shipped there. There's a noticeable load time switching between shops, mitigated somewhat with an animation of you navigating CyBeRsPaCe to get there. While damage to your mech is automatically repaired, you need to travel to the AI store to repair your AI chip. And, most mystifying of all, while you can buy paint jobs and decals at the parts store and can apply decals in your garage, you need to go to the tune-up shop to apply the paint job. And while serious balance issues have been addressed, like laser weapons now having limited ammo, I'm pretty sure the weapon/chassis balance still wouldn't stand up to a serious analysis. There’s probably a bunch of other little things, too.

But this isn't meant to be the most beautiful, or the most ground-breaking, or most elegant game of this console generation. From the cheap-ass opening FMV in which robots, badly superimposed over stock-footage of new york, grab their opponents by the throat and shoot them in half point-blank, to the tiny arenas that are just big-enough to give you a place to retreat to, but not big enough for any spot to stay safe for long, its clear that this game aims only to be fun. And it hits that mark admirably, warts and all.

In S.L.A.I., the best parts of Mechwarrior meet the best parts of Gran Turismo meet Halo multiplayer meet the style of Jet Grind Radio. If this game doesn't become a Rez-level-sought-after underdog on eBay in the future, there is no justice.

Best cheap game of this console generation.

Mischief Maker