Saturday, September 7, 2019

Metal Wolf Chaos XD

If you hadn’t heard of Metal Wolf Chaos before, no one would blame you. The game, developed by FromSoftware of Armored Core and Souls fame, was originally released in 2004 as an Xbox-exclusive, but never made it outside of Japan. Its increasing cult status would eventually warrant a remaster, named Metal Wolf Chaos XD, courtesy of Devolver Digital. Now, nearly 15 years later, Americans finally have the chance to play what is perhaps the most American game ever made. While I was excited to play it and enjoyed my time with it, I have to admit it’s certainly rough around the edges.

Near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, Vice President Richard Hawk has succeeded in a coup d’état and has wrested control of the White House away from the 47th President of the United States, Michael Wilson. With America plunged into civil and economic unrest and the establishment of country-wide martial law, President Wilson realizes that he’s America’s last hope for freedom and dons a mech suit, dubbed Metal Wolf by Richard Hawk’s regime, and, with help from his secretary Jodie Crawford, sets out to stop Hawk and his forces and restore America to its former glory.

President Michael Wilson is out to retake America from his tyrannical former running mate.

The main story is both simple and absurd, increasingly so with each plot development, but this alone plays a large role in how fun the game is. From an impossibly large particle cannon built into the island of Alcatraz to a spider-like superweapon roaming New York and fighting the White House itself, it’s hard not to fall in love with President Wilson’s quest and laugh along with the game with each new obstacle. The dialogue itself contributes to this as well, with lines on par with a so-bad-it’s-good B-movie and charmingly bad voice acting that manages to deliver memorable lines with burning passion from the main characters.

With the timing of this remaster, however, I have to admit it’s fairly easy to draw parallels with America’s modern political climate. While I don’t want to dwell too much on politics, I will say that the most noticeable connection is with the advent of fake news. In the game, Richard Hawk uses DNN, a satirical take on CNN, as a propaganda arm to spin news about Metal Wolf in his favor, making President Wilson out to be a terrorist hellbent on destroying America rather than the one liberating the country from tyranny.

Vice President Richard Hawk successfully forced his way into the oval office
and will do everything in his power to keep it away from his former colleague.

As for the actual gameplay, the player controls a mech suit that can be equipped with up to eight weapons in a backpack. These weapons come in many different varieties, from handguns and shotguns to flamethrowers and multimissile launchers. The mech can dual-wield guns, providing the player an opportunity to mix and match what they’re using, though it should be noted that some weapon types, like rail guns, are two-handed and take up two slots in the backpack. Switching weapons in the field is also a bit clunky at first. You have to press a button to open the backpack, press one of the fire buttons to switch weapons, then close the backpack before you can use the chosen weapon. Once you get the hang of it, however, it’s much easier to enjoy the explosive carnage and highly destructible environments.

A sample of gameplay as President Wilson escapes the White House.

Of course, getting new weapons to toy with isn’t easy. The way to obtain most weapons is through spending money earned through missions to invest in the different categories, then by spending additional money plus a rare metal to manufacture and unlock the guns for actual use. Depending on your spending habits, you may run out of money quickly with nothing to show for it, so it’s best to focus on two or three at a time. Even then, however, trying to unlock specific weapons, outside of collectibles or ones unlocked through other achievements, can get annoying due to a lack of any online lists to ease the process.

The game is overall enjoyable to play, but when I said it was “rough around the edges,” I meant it. Certain missions are inherently annoying on their first playthrough because of random difficulty spikes that are only overcome by cheesing bosses, finding shortcuts or dying enough times to know where the obstacles are or what weapons are appropriate for the job. The most crippling aspect about the missions, however, are the absolute lack of checkpoints. What this means is that not only do you have to start the mission all over again if you die once, you also lose all collectibles, including POWs, weapons and Energy Pods (collecting enough of these automatically upgrades your mech). Speaking of POWs, their purpose is not made perfectly clear. Rescuing musicians unlocks more background music, but there’s no indication of how increasing a level’s Technology or Economy ratings, from rescuing scientists and civilians respectively, actually affects the rest of the game. On top of this, the controls aren’t clearly explained unless you look for them in a menu (the remaster doesn’t come with a manual unless you buy the physical version directly from Special Reserve Games).

Since there's no manual, these are the default controls.

Issues also exist with the audio outside of the dialogue and voice acting, which are both charmingly awful. During gameplay and cutscenes, there are moments where the audio isn’t mixed very well, with music drowning out the dialogue. While the game does have full English subtitles, some of them seem mistranslated, as what’s written on the screen sometimes doesn’t match what the characters are saying, a disconnect that’s already annoying when it happens in other games. This doesn’t include, however, times when dialogue is cut off mid-sentence or when sound effects seem off in some way; both of these issues are likely due to an inconsistent framerate compared with the original release, which was capped at 30FPS. There's also a small confusion where the mech has a Burst value and you can pick up Burst Units, but this fuels what's actually called a Blaze attack.

Then there’s the graphics, which haven’t aged too badly. When playing through the remaster, it’s clear that they went through the effort to clean it up as much as possible, though it still screams “2004 Xbox game.” However, after looking at a comparison video between the original release and the remaster, it’s clear that some effects are completely missing. Notably, these include a lack of the same lighting, shaders, bloom and particle effects, enhancements which gave life to the original release. Without these, the remaster feels cold and lifeless by comparison, so much so that I’m hoping there’s a patch to fix these issues down the line. This sentiment extends to the audio mixing, which was also much better in the original version.

As another minor annoyance, you need to switch the HUD to Type 1 in the menus
if you want to actually keep track of your score (President Point) in real time.

I should mention here that the game does have some replay value once the main campaign is finished. You’ll have the ability to replay missions with two new difficulties, Fever! and Hell; Fever! grants your weapons infinite ammo and Hell increases the difficulty. Playing through Fever! mode often feels like the best way to obtain certain collectibles and provides a lot of catharsis with the right weapons, while completing levels in Hell mode unlocks new mech suit models to play around with.

So, is Metal Wolf Chaos XD worth playing after nearly 15 years of waiting? If you’re willing to put up with cold environments, random difficulty spikes and clunky controls, you’ll find a story with charmingly bad writing and voice acting coupled with explosively fun destruction. Your mileage may vary on the replay value, but the game itself is worth a try if you want to try out a unique cult game or if you heard that it’s the most American game ever made and want to learn why.

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