People had reason to worry when Majesco announced it was bringing Microsoft's MechAssault franchise to the Nintendo DS. Could an Xbox-centric franchise work on the DS without being compromised to the point of being unplayable? Fortunately, Majesco wisely handed development off to Backbone Entertainment, the developer responsible for the highly-regarded Nintendo DS version of Age of Empires. Apart from the expected audio-visual downgrades, MechAssault: Phantom War brings all of the nuts and bolts of the Xbox MechAssault games to the Nintendo DS. Combat is fast-paced and explosive, there are plenty of mechs to pick from, and the single player campaign is a slickly produced narrative complete with spoken radio dialogue and full-motion video scenes. Four-person multiplayer play even made it in, although not in the online-enabled way that most players would obviously have preferred. Still, this is MechAssault on the Nintendo DS, and it basically looks and feels like MechAssault should.
Phantom War brings mech combat to the Nintendo DS.
In this third-person shooter, you can control any of 18 different lumbering mechs from FASA's BattleTech universe, as well as battle armor, tanks, and gun turrets. There's a story-based campaign, spanning 24 missions, along with a multiplayer mode, which lets as many as four players slug it out in various game types on any of eight different battlefields.
Controlling the different mechs and watching them lumber around the battlefield is extremely satisfying. Each mech has its own particular speed and armor characteristics, as well as weapons payload. Generally speaking, each carries an energy weapon, a projectile weapon, and a missile weapon, which can all be upgraded temporarily by picking up power-ups on the battlefield. Some models have jump jets that allow you to hover for short periods. The mechs walk sluggishly, and you won't be able to fire for a few seconds if you overheat, but these are the only restrictions placed on a process that otherwise involves aiming, locking on, and shooting. CPU opponents are slow to react, but you can't take that for granted because the campaign has a habit of keeping you outnumbered.
You can use various control schemes to control the mechs. The default setup employs the directional pad for movement, the face buttons for aiming, and the shoulder triggers for jump jets and shooting. The upper screen shows the view from outside the mech, while the lower screen displays the radar and provides touch-sensitive buttons that allow players to switch weapons, activate jamming devices, and initiate the hacking ability. Using the touch-screen to activate jammers and swap weapons takes some getting used to, but the default controls are otherwise comfortable and intuitive. If the default controls aren't to your liking, you can opt for one of the three other control schemes. One simply swaps the aiming and movement controls. The other two let you aim by sliding the stylus over the touch-screen, similar to the controls in Nintendo's Metroid Prime: Hunters. You have to be careful to restrict the stylus to the inner area between the touch-screen buttons, which can prove mildly annoying in the heat of battle. After a while, picking up and resituating the stylus becomes second nature, just as the case is with becoming comfortable with the touch-sensitive buttons on the lower screen.
Despite the obvious downgrade in technology, Phantom War manages to capture the basic visual qualities of the Xbox MechAssault games. The fully 3D graphics displayed on the upper screen provide a clear third-person view of your mech, the surrounding environment, and whatever enemy tanks and mechs happen to be nearby. A good number of polygons and textures were put into all of the different tanks and mechs, such that their individual moving parts and paint schemes are easy to make out. Weapons have their own accompanying visual effects, such as laser bursts, ejected shell casings, and smoke trails, which lead to nicely animated explosions that range in size depending on the dimensions of the target. The ground and mountains in the surrounding environment aren't nearly as detailed, probably because the developer wanted to devote the majority of the system's resources to the mechs themselves, but, even so, there are plenty of trees, buildings, and geological features visible in each location. All along, the system manages to display everything without slowing down and maintains a sufficient draw distance such that only very distant objects ever pop in and out of view.
In addition to mechs, you can control tanks, gun turrets, and battle armor in the campaign mode.