Metal Max 3 - Staff Review  

The Ballad of Drum-Can Jones
by Michael Baker

60-80 Hours
+ Broad areas to explore.
+ Battle system allows for a lot of variety.
+ Final boss is brutally awesome.
- Very little hand-holding.
- Some minor menu issues.
+ Cute doggy in a tank!
Click here for scoring definitions 

   The Metal Max series is an odd duck, and moreso Metal Max 3, the fifth game of the series (due to some licensing issues about a decade back). In a genre largely dominated by fantasy verging on steampunk, MM3 boasts a setting that could only be described as if the guys at Squaresoft circa 1997 had decided to remake Fallout after a weekend full of vodka and post-apocalyptic Mel Gibson movies. It's sci-fi at its pulpiest, with raging androids bearing lasers, crazed gangs bearing machine guns and extra-padded football gear, bears bearing artillery, and genetically engineered superdogs riding around in canine mini-tanks. It's massive explosions and face-melting lasers — a game where the only real law of physics enforced is the Rule of Cool.

   If you couldn't tell, I really liked this one.

   As is normal for the series, MM3 focuses more on the setting than on any core plot, but that isn't to say that there's no story. There is a set of primary plot events that move the game along, and while these only make up perhaps twenty percent of the game's happenings, they paint an interesting picture of human interactions during and since the A.I.-directed near-annihilation of humanity some fifty years prior.

   It's a story of love, betrayal, and insanity across generations, and in the present it focuses on two major characters: Cora, privileged daughter of a reclusive techno-patriarch, and Drum-Can Jones, a young monster hunter who can't recall a thing in his life from before he woke up on Dr. Minch's revivification slab — not even his own name. In a possible nod to Yojimbo and other samurai flicks, when pressed for a name he just used the first thing he saw nearby. When a mission to escort a reluctant Cora to her future husband blows up in his face, Drum-Can finds himself on a grand quest to discover both the fate of the runaway bride and the mysteries of his forgotten past. Explosions ensue.

Caption Finding a parking space is so much easier when you have forward cannons.

   To survive in the Crater Wastes (not to mention the Sea of Trees or the Privation Desert beyond that), Drum-Can will need a few essentials: money, experience, friends, and wheels. The first two can be gained by taking on the various causes of local groups or by hunting down the vicious, misbegotten monstrosities in the wanted posters hanging in each town. This is where the second two come in. Drum-Can can have two human allies along at a time, chosen from six possible job classes, and can change the party roster at a specific point on the map. The fourth party spot is for the series' mascot, Pochi the wonder dog, and his curious canine arsenal.

   Bipedal or quadrupedal, there is plenty of firepower to be had. Each character can equip three different personal weapons to use in battle, switching freely between them as the player wishes. Some character classes, like wrestlers, don't even need puny weapons to throttle enemies into submission. Others, like soldiers, can eventually learn to fire everything they have at the same time, unleashing a veritable bullet hell upon the hapless target. Drum-Can and his fellow Hunters are able combatants with or without their precious vehicles, while Mechanics and Medics help patch things up during the worst of it. Finally, Artists can do a bit of everything, and that includes artisanal munitions crafting.

   While comrades are easy to get, vehicles are a bit rarer. Rental services are available, but at the steep rate of fifty percent of all monetary spoils from combat. There are other tanks out there, but generally they have to be purchased, discovered, or (on occasion) beaten into submission first. They can be equipped with between one and five weapons, depending on how the player decides to upgrade, and the choice of artillery runs the gamut of possible types and effects. Mixing and matching the arsenal is part of the fun, though strict attention needs to be paid to the vehicle's weight and engine strength. If it's too heavy, the tank won't move, but if there's horsepower to spare then extra ablative armor can be piled on in an equivalent to hit points. New to this particular iteration of the series, motorcycles are available as well. While not providing as much protection for the rider, they allow the use of personal arms alongside vehicular artillery, all while letting the player live out his or her own Road Warrior fantasy.

Caption In the far future, the trash takes YOU out.

   The music of Metal Max 3 is a great example of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The majority of the tracks date back to the original game of the series, but they've been remixed and upgraded so that they still sound good on the DS. The three major battle themes continue to rock, the location themes vary as greatly as the locales, and the final boss theme is appropriately boss. All is as it should be here.

   Metal Max 3 is notable in that it completely eschews the use of character portraits in all action sequences, bucking a trend that's been dominant in DS games for years. Instead, when the hero leaps in to save a girl from being crushed, a minor villain uses the last of his strength to shoot his backstabbing partner, or a grizzled veteran lets himself be swallowed by a sandshark in an act of defiance, all these events are possible because of some very adroit use of 32-bit sprite graphics. Enemy battle sprites are animated to various degrees, with the most impressive examples being the bosses and wanted monsters. The various towns are unique, ranging from bombed out shopping malls, rusting hulks, and military shelters to sunken skyscrapers, highway rest stops, and a giant parabolic antenna. Only the most minor of sites show signs of graphics recycling in the layout, and a few take advantage of the game's pseudo-3D rendering to shift the perspective to a side-view or three-fourths view.

   Metal Max 3 is not a terribly difficult game to play in many respects, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good import. On the plus side, the stylus-based control scheme of the previous DS title in the series has been completely abandoned. Some of the menus may take some time to get used to, however, as the start and Y buttons can be used to access specific sub-menus independently of the main menu. The menu for getting on or off tanks is also confusing at first, especially if one has two characters already riding vehicles and wants to get a third on board. Usually it's easiest to just have everyone disembark for a moment and then put them onto their respective rides. In the end, a lot comes down to the language barrier. As MM3 is a mostly non-linear, event-based game with a lot of exploration, the player cannot depend on the game to just carry him or her along like in more on-rails titles. NPCs may give directions to various places of interest, even helpfully pointing them out on the map, but it's still up to the player to figure out the how and the why from the information available. While knowledge of the standard set of video game kanji can get the player through a lot of the equipment and item menus, much more is needed to play this game without constant reference to an FAQ (none of which is in English, anyway). By its very format, this game is definitely not friendly to casual importers.

Caption Go-Go Pochi Tank!

   Unfortunately, this means that a lot of people are missing out on what has been a grade-A, first class RPG experience. I haven't been this jazzed over a JRPG in a long while, and the sheer breadth of the game has made the seventy-some hours I've put into it into very rewarding ones. Right up to the end, and even after it, there's always a challenge to overcome or one last spot to explore. Metal Max 3 has somehow captured that feeling I used to get playing games on the SNES and made the overall rush of achievement all the stronger. Metal Max 4, whenever it finally comes to be, is now at the top of my to-buy list.

   See you later, steel cowboy.

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