There have been "Big Robot" games available as long as there have been consoles, but we've had a real bumper crop this year. I'm certainly not complaining, but the games in this genre typically share a number of traits, and with so many released in such a short time, it only magnifies their similarities. Don't get me wrong; I'm definitely a fan, but a greater amount of variety and divergence is needed. Robot Alchemic Drive (R.A.D.) understands this, and brings its own solution to the situation. This severely underhyped effort from Sandlot may initially appear to be like other Big Robot games, but its unique interpretation and engaging mechanics are more than enough to make it stand out from those that have come before it. Mech aficionados, I am officially informing you to sit up and take notice.
The premise: your character is the sole heir to a great scientific legacy. Your deceased father created three massively powerful robots called Meganites, and it just so happens that these automatons are the only things able to protect humanity from invading aliens bent on destruction, cue dramatic music, blah, blah, blah. It's not very original since the "youthful protagonist" theme is completely stale, and there's a lot of obvious influence taken from the acclaimed Neon Genesis Evangelion series. However, while most players won't be inspired by the storytelling, the game's greatness becomes crystal clear once you experience the fresh controls and camera view. Even without these elements, R.A.D.'s sense of scale alone would be worth the price of admission.
After watching the game's intro, players select a hero (teen male, mid 20's male or teen female) and one of the monstrously huge Meganites. These constructs are impressive pieces of technology standing 20 stories high and capable of leveling entire city blocks. Two of the three can even transform to engage in vehicular assault. One has a tank mode bristling with armaments, and the other has a highly mobile aircraft mode. The middleweight (looking an awful lot like the Japanese classic Mazinger Z) can't change into anything, but has a greater selection of physical attacks. The narrative details change depending on which combination of pilot and Meganite you choose, but the major plot points remain the same.
Rather than being the superfast, highly-evloved forces of technology conceptualized in most entertainment, R.A.D. is the first title that truly portrays the massive scale of these behemoths. They're slow, lumbering giants that don't zip around or boost anywhere. Something taller than a building and made of a hundred tons of metal, pistons and gears wouldn't be very nimble no matter how many afterburners you bolted onto it, and it's refreshing to see a game break away from that mold.
To successfully bring the size element to fruition, Sandlot has pulled off a rather intriguing and bold move that's also sure to annoy some players. The game's hero does not pilot the Meganite from inside the safety of a well-armored cockpit, but is instead equipped with an anti-gravity jumping device and a remote control that looks suspiciously like a Dual Shock 2. With these gizmos, your tiny human commands the mighty Meganites from a distance, and the camera is always behind your character. Most games try to show the great scale of mecha, but no game has ever truly pulled off the illusion before R.A.D..
With this setup, you're acutely aware of the size differential between you and your construct, and it never feels like you're stomping Matchbox cars or knocking over dollhouses. To give you an idea of how large the Meganites are, you can't see more than a fraction of your Meganite if you're standing too close to it. In fact, if you are at its feet, the camera will need to point straight up for miles in order to view its head. During battles with the equally large alien invaders, you'll usually have to perch atop skyscrapers or run a good distance away before you can fully survey the situation and maneuver well. It felt very awkward at first, but the sense of scale supported a terrific level of tension and excitement once I was used to it. Dodging crumbling towers, running to a nearby vantage point and doing my best to maintain a clear line of sight between my towering powerhouse and myself was a singular experience.
The game's control setup is just as offbeat and original as the camera system. The PS2 pad is a body double for the Meganite's remote control and handles every aspect of movement. The left shoulder buttons work the robot's left leg, the right shoulders do the same for the right leg, and each analog stick gives commands to the respective arms. Fully utilizing this scheme provides a large number of hand-to-hand attack techniques, in addition to the beam or projectile choices. By manipulating the sticks in specific ways, you can unleash devastating uppercuts, ground-splitting chops or even a wicked rocket-assisted hook. Weapons and various special functions are mapped to the face buttons, and the crosskey enables independent torso movement. In essence, R.A.D. represents the biggest R/C toy simulator ever created, and playing with it is pure enjoyment.
The downsides to R.A.D. aren't really all that bad, but there are enough of them to tarnish the game's brilliance. Visually speaking, the game suffers from noticeably rough edges. The framerate is very uneven, going from silky smooth in one level to choppy and jerky the next. It even occurs during some cutscenes. The animations for crumbling buildings are done "on the cheap" as well. I was bitterly disappointed to see huge corporate monoliths and multilevel apartment buildings break up into showers of falling triangles. This ugly and unappealing low-poly approach to destruction feels primitive and detracts from the enjoyment of spontaneous urban redevelopment.
A feature that I felt would have improved play is the addition of some much-needed location markers. While stomping through densely-packed areas, it's all too easy to flatten your receptionist's condo or granulate a vital research facility. With a constantly shifting point of view and no easy way of maintaining basic directional orientation, some type of indicators would have been helpful to let you know when you were close to wiping out something significant. As an example, I had inadvertently reduced every grocery and caf in the area to rubble so many times, my unemployed girlfriend was comically reduced to waiting tables in a strip club. If I had only been aware of where these places were, I could have easily taken the battle far away from them and spared her the stigma of a questionable reputation.
Technical issues aside, the game's real Achilles heel lies in the pedantic script. It's slow, and the plot twists are telegraphed a mile away. It's also dragged down by too many deadwood tangent missions and never manages to shake that "half-done" feeling. With the massive originality shown in the game design, it's a crying shame that so little brainpower seemed to be spent on jazzing up the intellectual side of things. If the game happens to spawn any sequels (which would be a very welcome thing) this is the area I'd most like to see improved.
R.A.D. may not have a great story or impressive graphical opulence, but what it does have is an unbelievable amount of fun and originality where it counts: the gameplay. The new perspective (pun intended) and radical approach to the genre more than makes up for any lack of polish, and provides one of the most unique experiences available on consoles today. More to the point, commanding enormous robots and laying waste to entire cities just never gets old. I don't know exactly what it is, but something about this game tickled a power-hungry and primal part of my brain. I was hooked from level one until the game's end at level fifty-two. R.A.D. successfully delivers that elusive "just-one-more-level" addiction and comes highly recommended to anyone who's tired of standard, conventional mech games.