Early in the Xbox's life cycle, Genki released a fun little robot-combat game called Phantom Crash. It earned itself a handful of fans, but didn't quite make the splash that the developer or publisher had hoped. Three years later and on another platform, Phantom Crash gives it another go, modified and renamed to Steel Lancer Arena International, or S.L.A.I. for short. S.L.A.I. maintains a lot of the same ideas from its predecessor--you start out as a cash-strapped but eager robot-jock looking to make a name for himself in the futuristic sport of "rumbling." You'll work your way up various ladders, earning cash to make more powerful mechs--or SVs as they're known in this game--with the ultimate goal of being the top-ranked rumbler in the world. S.L.A.I.'s fast-paced combat and accessible controls, combined with a lengthy story mode, make it one of the more enjoyable robot-combat games in recent memory.
Big robots. Guns. Missiles. Explosions. What more do you need?
S.L.A.I.'s story puts you in the year 2071. The new extreme sport taking the world by storm is "rumbling," or remote control combat with giant robots. The sport has seven major hubs around the world in major cities, like Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Cairo, and New York City. Each area has its own arena, and its own set of class rankings and ladders. The top rumblers from each city then take each other on in scheduled tournaments to determine the top pilot in the world. Your job is to make it to the top of each of the ladders in the seven cities, and then become the world's greatest rumbler. The characters you meet along the way, both pilots and artificial intelligence, provide a surprising amount of flavor and personality to the story.
You'll start off the story mode with enough cash to buy yourself a basic SV, and then you'll put yourself through battle school, which serves as a tutorial of sorts. Once you've finished school and earned the right to enter actual matches for rank and money, you'll need to pick a city server to start off your career. Yes, a server. You see, the back end of S.L.A.I. actually takes place in a Tron-like virtual world called HAVEN. Inside each of the servers, you can navigate your virtual avatar around and visit shops where you can spend money to upgrade your SV with new modules and weapons, repair your SV, or even pick out some of the game's catchy tunes to listen to as you play from the music shop. You can also examine the daily tournament schedule and see if you can find an appropriate level match to play in on any given day. Though abstracting what would normally be a dry menu system in this way is interesting at first, it feels more and more clunky and irritating as the game wears on. However, it's possible that forcing your virtual avatar to "navigate to a shop" is a sneaky way for the game to mask loading times for the assorted menus.
The combat model in S.L.A.I. is free-for-all arena matches. Each SV enters the arena and earns money for blowing up other SVs and also computer-controlled drone robots. As SVs are eliminated, more are let into the arena in order to fill out the match. You're actually able to escape arenas by running to an exit gate, but the tricky part is knowing how far you should push your luck before you should run away. Yes, the more SVs you kill in a match, the more money you earn. However, if you take too much damage or get destroyed before escaping, you might lose all of that money and even more on repairing your SV. The class matches you fight in complicate matters further, because you're required to kill all named opponents in the arena before the boss SV spawns in and you have an opportunity to advance in class. What's nice, though, is that you can escape an arena early in a class match, and the next time you try it, the server "remembers" which named enemies you've already defeated. This means you only need to concentrate on the new ones before spawning the boss.