War of the Robots.
S.L.A.I. or Steel Lancer Arena International is a game where giant robots shoot each other in large, post-apocalyptic arenas. You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of this PS2 gem, as it was barely sold anywhere despite being fantastic. The game is a follow-up to the Xbox’s Phantom Crash, a game where giant robots shoot each other in – you get the idea.
I’m not sure if it’s entirely right to call Steel Lancer a retro title, as it was released in 2005, only seven years ago. But I desperately wanted to talk about it as it’s one of my all-time favourite games and fits right in the ‘overlooked classic’ category of games. It’s also one of those games that desperately needs a sequel.
In Steel Lancer, you essentially play as yourself. Upon beginning the story mode, you enter your name and choose from a range of avatars that will represent your in-game persona. Steel Lancer’s story wasn’t exactly the game’s high point but it did serve as a nice reward for your hard-earned victories on the battlefield. As a promising young Wirehead (the name they give to players in the game), you control your very own giant mech from the safety of your home computer. Yep, Steel Lancer is essentially a simulation of an incredibly elaborate MMO, but there’s a twist. The giant mechs you control and the arenas they fight in are very real, with the sport taking advantage of society’s failings in the most badass way possible.
Eventually you’d learn that players are turning up dead, still connected to their computer headsets, and so a mystery unravels that seemingly only you can solve. Again, the story doesn’t break new ground; it’s told in between important milestones in your fighting career in the format of talking faces and text boxes. However it’s often an enjoyable read and shows the player they’re making significant progress in their career. It should be mentioned that this is a hard game. A really hard game, which makes that progress taste all the more sweet.
The core of Steel Lancer is its gameplay and how you adapt your mech to the various threats your opponents pose.
As you’d expect from a game about robots annihilating each other, the core of Steel Lancer is its gameplay and how you adapt your mech to the various threats your opponents pose. Choosing from one of seven arenas to fight in, you’re tasked with entering the arena, destroying as many opponents as you can and deciding when to get out of there before your own mech bites the dust. Your mech has a noticeably heavy feel, and one that’s initially tough to get used to. However, I feel this was a good design choice, as giant robots are never going to be as nimble as a human being. Getting to know how your mech controls is crucial to success, and your own design choices when outfitting it will often decide the outcome of a trip to the arena.
In Steel Lancer, you are given a reasonable amount of money at the start of your career to buy your mech from a range of manufacturers. There are five manufacturers in the game and they range from the fast but fragile to the slow but sturdy, with one manufacturer offering both, but not excelling in either. In truth I found it best to go heavy, as all the running away won’t save you against the really tough opponents; you may as well stick it out and see how you do.
Customisation doesn’t end at buying your mech, however, and this is where the game got really interesting, really fast. There are shops around each arena’s hub area dedicated to outfitting your mech with better parts for an improved battle performance. You can equip up to four weapons: two arm and two shoulder weapons, mapped to the controller’s shoulder buttons. There are loads of different types of weaponry, too, allowing you to really create a mech fit to your liking. As well as this, you’ll be swapping out your mech’s main body, legs, radiator, generator and miscellaneous parts to construct your desired play-style. You can give your robot spider-like legs, or have them roll around on a single, giant ball. The possibilities are vast and every part contributes to the laundry list of stats your mech has. Similarly to the Armored Core series, every part counts and you’d often have to put some serious thought into what you buy, and what parts you considered surplus or unnecessary.
The list of things to consider is vast, but it’s dealt with so intuitively that it really made you feel like a genuine giant robot mechanic!
Stats include your robot’s overall weight, speed, individual and collective weapon power, jumping power and distance, body armour, leg armour, weapon armour, how long you can engage stealth mode, how long stealth takes to cool down and so on. The list of things to consider is vast, but it’s dealt with so intuitively that it really made you feel like a genuine giant robot mechanic! On top of this your robot can be outfitted with an animal-themed chip. These chips provide your robot with a personality and give additional bonuses such as faster lock-on times, increased accuracy and extended stealth mode times. They’re another crucial part of an already complex puzzle.
The fighting itself was incredibly satisfying. The game runs on a 100-day calendar, with each day offering a different battle rank (essentially battle difficulty) depending on where you are. Your goal is to beat the Class rankers in each battle, ascending from D to A rank. Once this has been achieved in both day and night battles, you can challenge the national ranker to become champion of that arena. Eventually you’ll get to challenge the greatest players in the world.
Watching your mech ascend into the raging battleground above was a truly heart-pounding moment. You never knew what dangers you were going to face, what weapons and systems your opponents would be rocking, nor how long you’d actually last.
Controls are similar to your standard third-person shooter: twin stick control for movement, shoulder buttons to fire, and face buttons to jump, activate camouflage and perform evasive maneuvers.In essence you’ll have more trouble learning how to efficiently take down your enemies than you will mastering the controls, which are incredibly simple for a game of its type. Once you felt like you’d had enough fighting for one day (or when you’re desperately trying to escape an overpowering foe) you’d have to leave the arena via one of its exit gates. Getting to these gates when you were dreadfully low on health was incredibly tense; I’ve had horrible moments of being killed by an arena champion just before reaching one.
One thing to note is that most things in this game are expensive. In fact, similarly to Tekken Tag Tournament 2’s character customisation mode, you’d often find yourself with more money going out than you had coming in. You earn money from battles, but to earn a lot you’d really need to stick to it and have a really good game. Rising through the ranks and beating the champions offers significant bonuses, but as I’ve mentioned, this game is insanely hard. Battles not only involve killing your prey, you’ll also have to keep your ammo and health replenished via pickups on a clockwork basis. Having your robot destroyed is downright heart-sinking. Not only because you poured a ton of effort into ensuring it would be the most feared warmonger on the battlefield, but also because the repair bills are always through the bloody roof! Honestly, if you die in-game, you’ll lose around two to three fights’ worth of cash just to make sure you can cover the repairs. Your mech’s chip will also take a ton of damage, significantly shortening its lifespan.
Shop ‘Till You Malfunction
The hub area of each arena is presented as a menu, with you moving around a 3D, digital-rainy backdrop. From here you can explore the various shops Steel Lancer has to offer. You can browse the shops of the five manufacturers and visit the parts shop to improve your bot. As well as this there’s a place to fine tune each individual part of your robot (for a steep cost) to your liking. Lighter parts make a faster, but weaker robot, whilst heavily tuned parts will increase power, but will have a decreased ammo count, move slower and so on. There’s also a music shop selling tracks from the game’s licensed soundtrack for you to play during battle, an avatar shop allowing you to buy new personas, the animal chip shop which lets you buy and repair your personality chip and a “beam port” which allows travel to other arenas.
The arenas themselves are fairly lifeless, but visually distinctive from one another. There’s the hilariously mispelled Hide Park, the London-based arena that features Tower Bridge and a dried riverbed for all-out skirmishes. There’s Cairo, in which you can explore a pyramid. Stuttgart is a large open area with deep trenches allowing you to sneak up on your foes. New York features a harbour with a ocean liner. The best of all, however, is the Las Vegas stage. This circular arena is absolute chaos, and has targets that when shot, award you money, so this is a good place to start out.
Stored On The Memory Chip
Being a mech-based combat game from the PS2 era, Steel Lancer Arena International is a game that walks dangerously close to being dated by today’s standards. But it never actually crosses that line. The controls might feel a little clunky today, though this stops becoming an issue after only a couple of hours of play. With tons of customisation on offer as well as heart-pounding, edge of your seat battles, Steel Lancer is an overlooked gem that begs to be played and revisited, and with today’s online capabilities, is desperately in need of a sequel.