A real-time tactical wargame? Not exactly what one would expect on a game console, with a digital gamepad as only input device. Nevertheless, Metal Marines proved to be interesting enough to receive a port to the IBM PC platform where the developers took some interesting decisions when adapting it, so that it becomes almost a different game.
Framed by an irrelevant plot about bad warlords struggling for supremacy over the last habitable bits of Earth after a large-scale nuclear war, the game pits two generals against each other in each level. Both of them located on their own small island, the goal is to destroy the opponent's headquarters (can be several) before losing one's own. Attacks can be launched either with missiles or the eponymous Metal Marines, giant battle robots (what else, it's a Japanese game…). Defenses can be marshalled using appropriate stationary countermeasures.
Building, attacking and defending all happens in real time. Launchers ready to fire? If you happen to be occupied placing a new bunker, bad luck – valuable seconds lost may mean the end in this game. This goes almost as far as placing it borderline into the action genre.
Tactial considerations are primarily relevant in building and installation placement. The island structure being given per level, rugged terrain puts lots of constraints on the possiblities to build. From which direction will enemy missiles approach? Better place some batteries there to intercept them before they do any harm. Is it smarter to heavily defend just one headquarter or all of them equally, at the risk of being spread thin? Is it better to have a large number of missile launchers or few, but upgraded to maximum strength?
The actual fighting is as simple as it gets. Once the target for a missile is selected, what remains is hoping for the best. Send a Metal Marine off and watch it destroy things (or be destroyed). As construction, recharging of resources is only subject to time. Meaning missiles simply re-appear on their launchers after a cooldown period, money trickles in constantly to repair defenses, just like energy… some of these rates can be influenced by constructing special buildings, which, however, have to be defended as well, then.
What makes it rather fun is the gimmicky way of handling and presenting those battles. Using the Windows 3.x interface, each island is shown in its own window, plus one for communication, one for building etc. How do you launch a missile or select a target for your robot to attack? You drag and drop it from your own island to the other one. Whoosh, off it goes, flying across the window borders, but nevertheless respecting the laws of physics in its flight curve (i.e. it can still be shot down by defense batteries not in view). The higher screen resolution, the larger the benefit in objective terms, though what's probably more important is the rather cool feeling this creates.
Two-player mode, via serial link, turns into a huge amount of fun if both players have a roughly similar experience level. Playing against the computer, it's also quite entertaining, although levels turn very hard quickly. Not only is the learning curve steep, but the computer players apparently have resources at their disposal which are hard to catch up with, and even start on superior geography. One issue occurs regardless of single or multiplayer mode: interface reactivity suffers when too many things are going on.
This can be partially mitigated by reducing the detail level of animations, but it always remains noticeable in obstructive ways. Almost even more importantly, this takes away from the entertainment factor considerably. Missiles flying in the most “plain” way, causing no big explosions, buildings just appearing instead of tiny construction going on… it gets sort of dull much more quickly. The pure tactical game, boiled down to its core mechanics, is sort of alright, but honestly not much more. Metal Marines draws its main appeal from watching those little toy armies shred each other to pieces. It's a style-over-substance game which I wouldn't want to miss.
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