"How did that happen?" It's a question you could ask of both Metal Arms and the likes of Beyond Good & Evil. In the case of BG&E, you have to wonder how an experienced publisher like Ubisoft put a big budget behind an eccentric concept, which seemed to hold little commercial value. However, in the case of Metal Arms, the big mystery is how an upstart independent developer could put together a game with such high production values that would make even EA go 'Wow!'.
We hadn't even heard of the game until it was awarded Best Shooter at E3 2003, just months before it was due for release. Developer Swingin' Ape was apparently too busy making the game to show it off. The company was founded by Steve Ranck, Mike Starich and Scott Goffman, who left Midway Home Entertainment having worked together on Hydro Thunder. Mediocre as a racing game, Hydro Thunder at least had a lot of character and that's also why Metal Arms sticks firmly in our minds.
It follows the tale of Glitch, a mining robot who joins a rebellion against a vicious tyrant called General Corrosive. Glitch is not only a quick and agile warrior but also has a truckload of powerful weapons, including a rocket launcher, rivet gun and automatic rifle. And we all know what big weapons make - big explosions! Metal Arms had some really beautiful destruction. Enemy robots wouldn't just blow up, they'd obliterate into a shower of burning metal, with nuts and bolts bouncing and scattering across the level. It was even possible to deliberately target enemies' limbs and shoot them off. You won't often see something as funny as a group of enemy scouts missing their arms, legs or even heads.
Metal Arms seemed to have it all - big levels, vehicles, variety, beautiful graphics and likeable characters. It also had a gimmick; the ability to possess the bodies and enemy robots, and turn their abilities against Corrosive's tinpot terrors. Plenty of games have played the same card (Stubbs The Zombie, for example), but none have done it with such ingenuity and variety. It seemed like no two enemies had the same powers. Some could fly, some had massive heat-seeking rocket launchers, one could even paralyse enemies using electricity and then rip them apart.
It's a good job the game had plenty of variety, because it was absolutely massive. Metal Arms was one of those adventures that you kept thinking would come to an end any minute but then you were given another 10 levels, and then some. You started out in the mines, before driving miles across barren wasteland to find Corrosive's communication towers. Once they were dealt with, you travelled through a sinister scrapyard infested by alien-style junk monsters that would re-form the moment you blew them apart.
Then it was on to the home of the good guys, Droid Town, before being captured, discombobulated, reassembled and forced to fight in a giant arena battle.
Metal Arms never gave you the opportunity to start thinking it was becoming predictable. One minute you're doing a driving level, the next you're fighting smart AI mining bots in a clever homage to classic FPS death matches.
But the thing we liked most about Metal Arms was that it had a great sense of humour (much like BG&E). You fell in love with Glitch and his slightly wonky friends, much in the same way that R2-D2 and C-3PO first captured our imaginations all those years ago. It isn't easy giving a lump of cogs and battery acid a personality, but Swingin' Ape did it brilliantly.
Sadly, Metal Arms was the first and last game that the developer would ever make. The game received rave reviews but failed to enter the Christmas chart, which was dominated by EA's Medal Of Honor, FIFA and Need For Speed Underground. It was a particularly depressing month for publisher Vivendi Universal, with its SWAT, The Fellowship Of The Ring and Metal Arms all missing out on places in the Top 40.