Review: Giant robots mean giant fun ? but not for everyone.
By their nature, mech games are a niche product with narrow (some would say nerdy) appeal. However, MechAssault successfully opened up the genre to a wider audience with its ridiculously fun arcade-style gameplay, and even the hardcore Steel Battalion piqued casual fans' interest with its eye-poppingly massive and expensive controller.
With many Xbox owners still feeling warm and fuzzy about both of these games, they were understandably excited about Chromehounds, the Xbox 360's first mech title. Developed by Armored Core creators From Software, Chromehounds promised to bring good old fashioned mech warfare to the next gen. So did they deliver?
Well ? it depends. Ask an average gamer and they would probably say no; ask a mech fan and they will likely say yes. But first, you should know that this is nothing like MechAssault except for the simple control setup and the fact that you absolutely need Xbox Live to fully enjoy this game (there is no split-screen or System Link). This is no arcade shooter; the tactical gameplay leans heavily towards Steel Battalion's realistic simulation and deliberate pace.
That said, Chromehounds is a difficult game to pin down; it's a quirky enigma that is paradoxically frustrating and fun, dull and addicting, and further proof that stomping around in giant robots isn't everyone's cup of Tarakian tea.
Would it help if I got out and pushed?
The single player campaign takes place in an alternate timeline where solar flares caused massive communication disruptions during the Cold War, which led to a worldwide economic collapse, international paranoia and the Third World War. Twenty years later, the world emerged a changed place, with Europe and the Middle East fractured into three new countries, all on the brink of war: Tarakia, made up of former Eastern European nations and backed by Western Europe and the US; Morskoj, a former Soviet state; and Sal Kar, consisting of former Middle Eastern nations. The shady private military group Rafzakael supplies each side with huge weapon platforms called Hounds and greedy mercenaries to pilot them. You play as one of these mercenaries and carry out missions for all three nations.
Hounds are split into six Role Types (RT): the all-purpose Soldier; the Sniper; the heavily armed Defender; the weak but fast Scout; the deadly artillery-chucking Heavy Gunner; and the all important Tactics Commander, who uses a big Network Area (NA) Maker radar dish to spot enemies and whose view can be extended by capturing COMBAS communication towers scattered across the map. Each RT has its own story arc that loosely builds upon the main story, which is really nothing but a thin excuse to blow things up.
There are seven short missions for each RT, ranging between three to 15 minutes apiece. Basically, you just kill everything in sight but are often left wondering what exactly you're supposed to do since you can't review your often vague prime objectives. You also have secondary objectives that earn bonus points towards your mission grade score; the higher your grade, the more parts you can unlock to build your own custom Hound (more on this later). The problem is that your secondary objectives ? which are vital to obtaining the highest ?S? grade ? are never stated up front and feel arbitrary. As a result, your seemingly kick-butt performance may earn a poor grade, while at other times your apparent suckage will garner top marks. This pretty much turns the single player campaign ? which is really just a training session for online play ? into a repetitive trial-and-error chore.
Gameplay is dull, thanks to the stupid AI enemies which will either head right towards or completely ignore you. As well, their ludicrously paper-thin armor only requires a couple of shots to kill them, which makes things way too easy and boring. Occasionally you will have friendly AI fighting by your side but they're just as weak and stupid, except for the fact that they have no qualms about shooting you in the back but get peeved if you accidentally hit them ? which happens a lot because both enemies and friendlies use the exact same Hound models with only a minor paint job to differentiate between the two. As a result, it's very difficult to tell who's who, resulting in a lot of friendly fire and blown chances of earning a top grade. Considering the depth of the Hound building tools, would it have been so difficult to create more than four AI models for the entire game? As it stands, it reeks of cost cutting.
Even worse is the Hounds' excruciatingly slow pace, making MechAssault's sluggish Atlas move like a speedy Hackman in comparison. Since many missions require you to quickly run from one end of the map to the other, you will be grinding your teeth in frustration as your Hound crawls along with the urgent fleet-footedness of a narcoleptic snail.
The unusual aiming system also takes some getting used to because the standard view is in the third-person but there is no targeting reticule; instead there is a small picture-in-picture in the top right corner with a first-person view and crosshairs. This is your gun camera, which changes perspective as you switch to your various weapons. Clicking the right stick instantly zooms you into the gun camera view (with the third-person view now in the picture-in-picture) for more accurate aiming at the cost of greatly reduced peripheral vision. It's awkward at first but overall, works surprisingly well.
Most distressing, however, is the nagging feeling of ?if only? ? if only the AI were more challenging; if only there were more variety in the gameplay; if only the Hounds could move even a little
bit faster. It feels as if the developers blew a lot of opportunities that could have made this a great universal game instead of the quirky niche title it turned out to be.
In fact, the list of quirky, odd and paradoxical things about Chromehounds could fill a book since in virtually all areas where the game does something good, it is offset by something bad. Take the graphics, which are a mixed bag. The Hounds look incredible, made up of various shiny parts that move together with smooth mechanical realism. The explosions and smoke effects are very impressive, as are the night-time lighting effects where your headlight and flares create stunningly realistic dynamic shadows.
On the flip side, the plain and barren landscape looks like it belongs in an original Xbox game with only a few ugly angular trees and cardboard box buildings scattered about. This is next gen quality? Almost everything is destructible but even this is done poorly; trees simply keel over, building walls fold in like a house of cards, and killed enemies simply disappear in lame old school style. The outrageous Hollywood-style explosive destruction of the four-year old MechAssault is still far more satisfying.
Chromehounds tries to be realistic and immersive but constantly reminds you that you are still playing a game. The weapons ? which consist of machineguns, rifles, shotguns, missiles, cannons, howitzers and grenades (there are no energy weapons) ? fire along a realistic arc with gravity affecting your trajectory. That's good. However, your massive 100-ton Hound will literally bounce back off of a little tree and sliding down a small hill will cause a ridiculous amount of damage. Bad.
The ethereal music is quite cool but the sound effects are very weak. The Hounds make a nice metallic clanking but their massive guns sound like toys with little of the aural impact you would expect. The same sound effects are repeated for different weapons (which again feels like cost cutting) and the repetitive sparking ?damage? noise and the low throbbing hum of your night vision are very annoying. The voice acting is competent but the dialogue is laughably over-dramatic at times.
The manual also leaves out a lot of important information, forcing you to find things out on your own. The menus are very clunky, convoluted and unintuitive, resulting in further confusion and frustration as you click through several unnecessary pages in a desperate search to find what you're looking for.
Yet bizarrely, while the gameplay is dull, boring and frustrating it is also enjoyable, addicting and fun.
Pimp my Hound
If you loved Lego or Meccano as a kid, then you'll slobber over the Garage, an extremely fun custom Hound building tool that will provide many hours of entertainment. You first select your mobility base, which consists of treads, wheels, hover, and two- or four-legged chassis. Then you add your cockpit, power generator, weapons, ammo type and assist parts like night vision, thermal vision, NA jammer, missile countermeasures, mine detector, smoke grenades, extra shielding and so on. System mods can improve your aiming stability, turning speed and most importantly, your speed and acceleration. While no amount of tweaking will give you a truly fast Hound, you can at least make it significantly less slow than before. You can then take your creation for a test drive, modify it, or just break it down and start over.
Gun freaks will be tickled to know that you can assign up to four weapons to each of four different weapon slots, for a maximum of 16 weapons per Hound. Nice! You can also ?link? together every weapon in a slot to fire simultaneously for a devastating attack. Of course, this all assumes your Hound is capable of carrying this much weight; every component has a weight and energy rating so if you exceed your Hound's capabilities on either one, you will have to start trimming because otherwise it won't work.
The Garage is amazingly deep ? heck, you can even create your own paint job and decals ? giving you almost unlimited build combinations. I've seen some very cool and interesting designs, ranging from the purely functional to true works of art.
But like the rest of the game, the Garage is quirky. Saving different Hounds is a bit convoluted and you have to remember to set your weapons, otherwise they won't fire ? a mistake virtually every player has made at least once.
Overall, however, the Garage is very addicting; in fact, you will find yourself constantly thinking about how you can improve your Hound. And it's not just about personal satisfaction because having a good Hound is vital for online multiplayer.