Scrapland would have to be, at best, yet another example of style over substance. The name of the visionary producer alone, American McGee, will have to front a reputation for Scrapland, since what personality it possesses seems to emulate the intellectual capacity of a toaster. There's a little story, and some decent action, but what's billed as a GTA knock-off is really little more than a series of empty, repetitive objectives and a story that doesn't truly drive the game.
The tale begins (and some would say, ends) with the main character, whimsically named D-Tritus (no pun intended I'm sure), a literally self-made robot. As the story goes, D-Tritus gets that exploratory itch and goes in search of other robotic life in the universe, coming across a mechanical world of lights and metal called Chimera, affectionately referred to as Scrapland by the locals. His initial quarantine/disinfection on arrival is notable as a sign of the intense aversion to humans that Scrapland has, since the planet used to be Earth until the humans, doing what they do best, destroyed it as a habitable world.
This sets the tone for D-Tritus and his further objectives, like getting a job, staying out of trouble, and solving the most peculiar murder mystery Scrapland has ever seen: robot murder by a human, as humans are simply not allowed on Scrapland. Although murder would normally be seen as a pivotal tragedy in any game, in Scrapland murder is far outside the norm and, indeed, probability. A tool called the Great Database is used to store the robotic designs of every inhabitant on Chimera, which allows for the recreation of the destroyed robot, basically making complete erasure a moot issue. D-Tritus is thrust into this confounding investigation immediately upon arrival.
One of the very first things you'll learn is how to exploit the Great Database (GDB). After speaking with a key NPC, you'll be able to log into one of the many GDB consoles placed around Scrapland and take on the form of many different robot types, each with their own abilities. Taking your first job as a news reporter for the local paper, these alter-egos become undeniably useful. This deception could be considered stealth in any situation, but there's a price: police scanners called Beholders will scan D-Tritus when he's in other robotic forms and if he stays in their line of sight long enough, he'll be found out and pursued by the cops. The play mechanic is relatively interesting: change into a cop to infiltrate crime scenes; become a smaller, more nimble robot to jump to higher places or sneak through smaller entry points.
As far as open-ended gameplay goes, the robot mimicry portion is really the centerpiece. Outside of the many possibilities available in any mission (blast through as an armed police cop or sneak by as an occupying agent?), the rest of the game really doesn't embody that openness. Scrapland is a huge world with not a whole lot of useful or interesting stuff in it. The pointed locations D-Tritus visits are the only foot mission areas, and are populated by various types of robots with nothing truly fantastic to impart. Landing outside is controlled by icon markers, designating where you can park your ship, but they're isolated areas that restrict any kind of exploration outside of the buildings, save for the ship flying. It is all very disappointing, after one takes in the complex majesty and dimension of Scrapland.
There's something about the missions that becomes old on short order. Once you've completed one mission to snap pictures of a crime scene or quintessential evidence, or even eliminating an objective in whatever means you see most efficient, Scrapland loses its flavor, relying on its vanilla inhabitants to carry the excitement. The missions do have some interesting twists, employing the player's ability to determine the best "face" for the job, but how long can that stand up to boredom, or the prospect of losing interest in the premise?
In addition to the integral plot exercises, there are also a number of little side activities to distract further from the story. Since D-Tritus' ship is his bread and butter when it comes to transport, he can also partake of some ship creation and upgrading at a mobile garage owned by a gruff but amiable robot mechanic. Acquire plans from around the cityscape and bring them back to garage in order to build and outfit them with whatever engine, weapon or hull upgrades you've earned. It's not terribly deep, but as a sidebar it works to add a bit of spice to the linear plot slog. Besides later races and dogfights, in whatever form they take, become challenging enough to warrant the effort.
The visual presence in Scrapland should certainly be considered a triumph. Characters, ships and buildings are well detailed and interesting to look at. This seems to have been the strength that Mr. McGee drew upon in his abstraction for the game, because nothing else shines through as a work of plausible, or even obtuse, distinction. Animation is smooth and character designs are different enough to be recognizable from a distance. Scrapland is a colorful world, for all that it's designed and maintained by the pragmatic manifest of robot-kind, and you can expect to see an artful edge throughout that denotes the attention Scrapland's style was created to showcase.
As wonderful as this game is to look at, the sound stands to the side and twirls its foot around, hands behind its back. I'll give some credit for the ambient music; techno bleeps and bloops reserved as background noise and which stubbornly stays there. It's not annoying or obtrusive, but nothing special either. What really got to me was the pedantic dialogue and uninformed voice acting. Sentence inflection often didn't stick with the feel of the message presented, and I heard more instances when a character being cut off mid sentence made it sound like he had completed the sentence intact. Consider the phonetic difference between the proper interrupted phrase "But I" with the very misleading and downright wrong version "But I" that Scrapland trips over. However, even given some decent voice acting, the script, which I wholly expected to be something topically or provincially humorous coming from the visionary direction of American McGee, is as dry and underdeveloped as an Anne Hathaway movie (see Princess Diaries).
How can it be that a game with such a recognizable name in marketing has fallen so short of expectations? Is this a cash in? Can Scrapland be more than just its name implies? The gameplay that Scrapland offers to its players may be more than a half-assed crack at game design and storytelling, not to mention dabbling with the very sheik idea of open-ended activities. But it definitely falls short of its potential, skimping on voice talent, mission variance and structure, and that principal fusion that makes the whole game feel like one big ball of fun. Injecting a few different types of internet/LAN multiplayer won't make up for any of that. Scrapland must be seen for its positives too, though, such as smooth game control and a very interesting usage of player character mimicry in order to complete missions. Not to mention that it's quite pretty. Unfortunately, in the end, it may leave players wondering why they're engaging in conversations with NPCs that, like the story, world and mission structure, contain so much empty air.