The early aughts saw the twilight of a number of major names in the electronic entertainment industry, most notably Rage Software, one of the longest-standing companies of its type in the UK. With its glory days in the distant past of early 1990, the company breathed its last in 2003, pulled under by a mounting price of achieving a broad-enough distribution for their games to see success equal to their efforts. In its death throes, the studio released a number of creative, but poorly-marketed titles, including a game called Gun Metal: War Transformed; an arcade-style shooter that placed the player in control of a giant mech suit capable of converting itself into a jet fighter.
It is impossible not to see a sort of sad irony in this story given that years later, High Moon Studios would achieve prominence by building a series on roughly the same concept using the Transformers IP. Still, while it is no War for Cybertron, it’s impossible not to respect Gun Metal for what it tried to achieve. Even with its reduced scale and arcade sensibilities, it remains a fun, if difficult game; one absolutely worth your time if you have a taste for such things. You can find it on the Steam Store for $2.99, a price that should dispel any qualms you might have about purchasing it. If you’re still wary, however, read on and find out why this game absolutely deserves its status as a hidden gem of bargain bins everywhere.
Like many games of its era which made budget sacrifices for the sake of product quality, Gun Metal‘s story is primarily contained in a PDF file in the game’s folder. It’s short and to the point, though it puts a surprising twist on things that you’d never suspect if you simply played the game without reading. After ecologically ruining the Earth, humanity’s best and brightest are sent to the planet Helios to start over. Those left behind are naturally dissatisfied with the awful existence they are condemned to, and so band together to mount an invasion of the newly-settled colony world, which has naturally achieved the utopian dream. It’s like Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, but in reverse, and way crazier. The game picks up with the war having supposedly been all but lost. Enemy forces are closing in on the capital, and the last line of defense is you; a nameless mook driving the prototype Havoc Suit; a ten-meter tall battle-mech that transforms into a fighter jet at a moment’s notice.
This irony of technically playing for the bad guys is never really developed, which is odd since the game lacks any multiplayer component. Given the extremely linear nature of the campaign, you’d think the developers would place more weight on good story-telling. Then again, it’s probably too much to expect from a company who was better known for their arcade-cabinet creations. Regardless, what story there is serves its purpose well enough, which is to push events forwards from mission to mission. It’s a silk curtain over what obviously really mattered to the creators, which is the gameplay.
Gameplay and Design
Said gameplay is extremely fun, all told. Everything is executed in an ‘over-the-shoulder’ fashion similar to most modern third-person shooter games, with the exception being that you occupy the center of the screen with a 3-D mini-map taking center stage above your character, while your crosshairs can be moved about to cover anything you can see, somewhat like classic arcade ‘tank-controls’ but more complex. Swapping from mech to jet can be done at any time and with the push of a button, which is quite liberating when you get used to the controls and start skipping around the battlefield from skirmish to skirmish with the ease of…well, something fast and deadly. Really it’s hard to compare to the alternatively. The frantic and slow pacing of the fights. On the ground, your mech mode is rather slow but packs heavy firepower your jet mode lacks. Conversely, your jet mode is nimble, which is great when you’re being hammered from every direction, but is bereft of a similar heavy ordinance (at least early on).
The resulting experience is schizophrenic, yet engrossing in terms of design, with every fight a mix of harassing foes from the skies and dropping into their midst to pound them with the big guns. Combined with the recharging shields and a fixed health meter that distinguished the original Halo, it’s even more wonderful, creating a gameplay loop of attack and retreat that makes you feel both immensely powerful, yet tactically-limited (in a good way). Granted, the game starts to abuse the environmental hazard of giant anti-aircraft guns about halfway through (more on that in a second). Ultimately it’s a good blend of limits and freedom that would be superb save for the occasional incredibly wonky behavior of the camera, which feels like it’s trying to kill you as hard as your enemies, especially while making tight turns when flying.
The game’s linear story consists of fourteen missions, each with a different string of objectives, and each unlocking a slew of new weapons on completion. It is here sadly that the game experiences some troubles, chiefly in the form of poor pacing and balancing. The difficulty curve is manageable at first, with its basic defense and escort missions (even boss battles and stealth sections, as wild as that is), but it spikes sharply in the ninth mission, which saddles you with clearing mines ahead of a group of convoys. It’s harsh and abrupt, and gets worse from there, to the point that you can barely use your mech mode anymore because of the incessant hail of lasers coming in from every direction at all times. Worse, the game really starts to abuse the flight mode as well, in the form of a late overzealous application of giant air defense guns that slaughter you if you try to fly too high. Admittedly this is less offensive since it’s paired with tight canyons to encourage tricky flying, but it’s used so often that it quickly becomes annoying, especially when combined with the floating mines from mission nine.
Also worthy of scorn is the accelerated pace of weapon-unlocking, and the relative lack of balance they have. Sure, the guns all feel pretty unique, but you get so many so fast that you find yourself struggling to distinguish between them in terms of function. A few feel like straight upgrades as well, dealing more damage regardless of their unique abilities. It’s not a huge issue, but it does lose the game some replay value, since trying old missions in new ways is really the only replay value it has.
Yet for all its flaws, Gun Metal remains an intense and exciting experience that has aged particularly well. A good example of why this is can be found in the beauty of the graphics. For a product of the early 2000s, this bit of mech-driven mayhem looks shockingly good, or perhaps more accurately, it looks serviceable. Everything has a certain low-poly quality that nevertheless makes the art style endearing, in the style of old-school arcade games that didn’t torture themselves so much about rendering the pores on an enemy soldier’s face.
In this respect, the game has aged better than many of its fellows, since art style can overcome almost any deficiency in graphics if it’s executed properly. That’s not to say good graphics don’t have their place, or that the game doesn’t have issues in that respect. The sun flare effects are certainly worth turning off before playing, given the erratic camera behavior when flying can lead you to blind yourself indoors (and no one wants to explain that sort of thing. It’s too embarrassing). All in all, though, it’s a welcome blend of new and old, and a happy change from the usual GPU-straining hyper-realism we’ve all come to expect, and one suited to its subject matter.
Overall, Gun Metal is an interesting game. In practice, it feels like an arcade title, but in concept, it strikes one as an attempt to step out of the safe space Rage Studios had been living in for so long. The tragic part is they almost succeeded. If they’d dedicated the time and energy to fleshing out the weapons a bit more, touching up the pacing and most importantly, included a multi-player feature, things might’ve been different. It’s the seed of a great notion confined by the limitations of its creators and the time in which it was made. Still, while it might not live up entirely to its potential, it’s absolutely worth the few hours it takes to complete. So saddle up and mount that mech! Your planet needs you, soldier!
|+ Exciting, fast-paced action||– Low replay value, linear experience|
|+ Old-school, low demand graphics||– Balance and pacing issues|
|+ Solidly-executed, creative concept||– Severe difficulty curve|