My dad, a real nut when it comes to war machines, can never get enough of the military and their instruments of destruction. This is a man who's fascinated by footage of an M1 tank crawling through the deserts of the Middle East at 10 mph. You can imagine his delightwhen, many years ago, we went to visit his sister, whose husband was stationed at the U.S. Naval base in Norfolk, Va. Every day, Navy aircraft noisily made their rounds above my aunt's apartment. Dad just sat outside on a lawn chair and soaked it all in. The private tour my uncle gave us of his nuclear submarine capped off a holy pilgrimage for dad, and a nice summer vacation for the rest of us.
Naturally, I acquired an appreciation of military might through osmosis as a youngster (my mom and my little brother somehow resisted). Not that I didn't find the subject personally appealing, but when you never miss an air show or a war documentary, knowing what makes an F-14 Tomcat different from an F-15 Eagle just becomes second nature. It was never so easy to get dad interested in my number-one hobby—video games. The only titles that got his attention were the ones based on military conflict, but I would jump at the chance anyway, just to get a joystick in his hand. It was a trip sharing games like Combat, Battlezone, Operation: Wolf and Afterburner with him. While intrigued by the military scenarios, dad was really able to get into those games because of the simple, yet convincing action and gameplay. More recent efforts like Command And Conquer perplexed him with more complicated controls and involved strategy. As a result, my father hasn't played a video game in quite some time.
Wild Metal for Sega Dreamcast, however, would definitely pique my dad's interest. There's nothing complicated here—it's a 3D shooter that puts you in the driver's seat of a futuristic battle tank and lets you blow a lot of stuff up. While the game comes up short in some crucial areas, its tight focus on convincing tank warfare is enough to get Wild Metal noticed.
The action takes place in a different part of the galaxy—specifically three planets that have been overtaken by humanity's own creation. An armada of robotic military units, originally intended to protect the planets and their resources, have rebelled after becoming "self-aware." It's your job to as an intergalactic bounty hunter to take back the planets and retrieve the power cores which are in the robots' possession. Granted, the robot uprising theme certainly isn't new, but it would have been nice for the game itself to set-up the action. Instead, all the necessary information, back story, objectives, etc., is detailed in the instruction manual. That's too bad, because a brief mission synopsis before each level and some real-time guidance would have made the objective more urgent and all the shooting more worthwhile. But Wild Metal is more concerned with getting right to the action, and it doesn't waste any time.
You start by choosing one of five tanks of varying size, speed and strength. Each one is animal-like in appearance (hence the name Wild) and appropriately named. The Manta is a large vehicle with a wide wheelbase and low profile that makes it hard to hit and tip over. But its slow speed and wide structure also make it hard to maneuver in battle. The Cheetah, on the other hand, is a light-weight, speedy machine, but it blows up more easily due to weak armor.
Once you get your tank, it becomes immediately apparent where DMA put all of the emphasis. The game doesn't bother explaining the mission, the enemies or anything about the situation at hand. You just get in a tank and go shoot at things, and that's where Wild Metal is at its best. While the first encounters with the enemy vehicles don't amount to much, the fighting gets more interesting as the game (and the enemy AI) progresses. The line between simulation and arcade action is somewhat blurred here, but it works. There's more to it than just shooting at bad guys. Wild Metal allows independent control of a tank's main cannon, so it takes some thinking before charging into battle. Accurate firing while in motion involves skilled rotation of the cannon, while long range attacks are made possible by pointing the cannon skyward. These two relatively simple ideas make for fun battle scenarios. I really got a kick out of surprising enemies by raining shells on them from afar. And up-close, high-speed combat not only tests your skill, but your patience as well. When the fighting gets heavy, sometimes retreating to plan a different strategy is the only option. And since all the tanks have unlimited rounds for the main cannon, it's possible to get out of trouble by unleashing an uncontrolled fury of shots. In this way, Wild Metal retains an arcade sensibility, but it isn't just another dumb action game. You have consider things before shooting, and I enjoyed that aspect of it.
I also enjoyed the game's finer points, like the realistic physics model. The tanks bounce along the rough terrain and react to the environment like a large armored vehicle should. The explosion effects are very nice as well, as tanks can be jarred off-course from nearby shockwaves. Recoil from your own cannon also affects your position. If you're not careful, you can end up stuck upside-down, leaving you vulnerable to attack. For the tanks that have problems righting themselves, this can become a major problem. So in a sense, gravity and the lay of the land are just as a much a factor in battle as the enemies. Not many action games think of these things.
However, despite its thoughtful approach to simple combat, Wild Metal's lack of attention elsewhere really dulls the whole experience. The graphics in particular aren't very exciting at all, and have little to no variation from level to level. Some games can persuade you to continue playing by showing you new things, but Wild Metal keeps recycling the same rocky mountains and sandy valleys. There's no compensation for this, either. As repetitive as the game is visually, the mission objectives are positively tedious. No matter the stage, the goal is the same—retrieve the colored power cores. It's almost an insult to for a game with such solid play mechanics to have such a pointless mission. You put us in a tank and want us to pick up all the pretty colors? Please! Star Fox 64 gave us more things to do in a tank on one level than Wild Metal gives us in an entire game. Wild Metal just doesn't offer enough incentive to conquer the 20-plus levels. There's no benefit in doing and seeing the same thing over and over again, even if it means reclaiming "the future for mankind."
The other problems with Wild Metal are more minor. I found the third-person perspective optimal for this type of game, but the camera control is awkward and takes some getting used to. I also thought the role of the helicopter air-support could have been pumped up. Instead of functioning only to drop power-ups and assist when a tank is overturned, an extra dimension would have been added by letting the helicopters participate more directly in the actual fighting. My last gripe is with the special weapons—some of which are cool, but on the whole, they don't prove very useful. Futuristic, interplanetary war should involve more devastating weapons that are capable of laying waste to entire countrysides (talk about an incentive to keep playing). But we never see that in Wild Metal. The action here is merely destructive when it could have been apocalyptic.
Although Wild Metal can be a drag for a single player, the action is ideal for two players going head-to-head. The split-screen battle mode really benefits from the strong gameplay and doesn't bring any of the baggage from the one-player mode. It just plays up to the game's main draw—search-and-destroy tank combat. It's for this reason that I'm bringing my Dreamcast and Wild Metal over to my parent's house to see if dad is interested in some good-natured warfare.