As the marquee game for Xbox Live, the original MechAssault redefined the giant robots with guns franchise as a fast action, multiplayer experience. For the DS version, Backbone had to make a few sacrifices, but all the key components of the MechWarrior universe are here. It's not the ideal Mech experience, but Phantom War does a fair job of providing bite-sized chunks of combat action.
What's most notable about the experience is how well the default control scheme works. Movement is handled with the d-pad, while aiming is done with the four face buttons. Because it's a digital setup, there's an automatic aiming assist; otherwise it feels as natural as a controller with dual joysticks. Oddly, the optional analog control option (implemented via the touch screen) is slow and unresponsive. Stick with digital and you'll be busting heads in no time.
Level design is straightforward, with players running from point A to point B, shooting down enemy Mechs along the way. It can feel a bit repetitive if you sit down for an extended play session as the linear nature becomes readily apparent. In an attempt to add a bit of variety to gameplay, the developers included two hacking mini-games. These are used to hijack enemy breaks or break electronic locks. Unfortunately, they're so simple it feels like an afterthought than a feature.
Visually MechAssault is a mixed bag, with some areas looking great and others feeling rushed. All of the primary Mechs are distinctive and recognizable on sight, but secondary forces tend to blur together. Background textures are often low-res (even for the DS), leaving a world that simply feels murky. It can also be a problem in combat when you're trying to spot the trooper in battle armor, but can't see him because he's a pixel sized dot on the screen.
Where MechAssault really shines is in the multiplayer. It rocked on the Xbox and it rocks here, though there are a few obvious oversights. The first is the lack of download play. Every combatant needs a copy of the game. The second is no support for the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Local play is great, but Internet multiplayer would have made this an instant must-own.
Despite its flaws, MechAssault is a decent diversion for the casual fan, though hardcore players are likely to find it a bit on the short side. If you can lower your expectations and drag a few friends long for the ride, Phantom War provides a convenient quick-fix for the MechAssault junkie.