The Art of War!
Chromehounds is a game that many people have been following even before the Xbox 360 was released and anticipation for the title has been extremely high. The premise is simple, you are a Mercenary working for the secretive corporation known as Rafzakael, a military outfit formed just at the end of World War 2 looking to establish itself in this time of reformed peace and profit on the many conflicts the future would undoubtedly bring.
Well, safe to say they didn't have to wait long. In this alternative timeline many of our real world events occured, including the Cuban missile crises, but in this reality things didn't go so hot... Well actually, that's a lie. Things got so hot that it all escalated into World War 3! Finally though this was quelled, Humanity's population having dwindled dangerously low, Europe and many other countries reforming into regions that are very different to our own today, though similarities may be drawn.
Before we get to all that though, 'why the hell didn't we break out the Nuclear weapons and get it over with!' I hear you scream. Well, the answer is simple. In 1981 an event known as the Solar Flare Enlargement Phenomenon begins. The sun basically goes haywire, rendering radio wave transmissions innoperable and therefor casting a lot of our society's groundings into a twilight zone. Think a very weak EMP field encompassing the Earth. Thus a new form of combat emerged, a developement that blossomed in the space race between the US and the then Soviet Union. In their bid to create a moving battle tank capable of traversing uneven ground, the HOUNDs were eventually born.
With this short history lesson aside, which comes courtesy of the ingame timeline and the official info filtering from the Chromehounds website, how does the game function, play and what is the objective overall?
You heard all the hype correctly! This is a fully customizable Mech combat sim, with everything that might include. This isn't Mech Warrior however, though don't turn your nose up at it quite so fast. While the games are comparable, they each focus upon different aspects of war between hulking machinations of destruction! I'll attempt to share my views here with honesty and without bias to give you a real feel of this game from a player's perspective.
I'll start with the single player, as every review needs a foothold after all! The story is split down into six different story arcs, one for each HOUND RT, or Role Type. These Roll Types include:
Soldier - The frontline combat specialist. The Solider is a good all-round Mech, boasting good speed, maneuverability along with firepower.
Sniper - The long range combat specialist. The Sniper's weapons are precise and devastating, though it does tend to be one of the slower HOUNDs on the battlefield, more used in ambush roles and bringing up the rear in an assault situation.
Defender - The armoured tank of the squad. These things are the last line of defence in any situation. Very heavily armoured, close combat is the Defender's forte, often used in base protection and escort roles.
Scout - A vital addition to the team. The scout's main role is reconnasiance, along with capturing the COMBAS (Communication Towers, more on these later) scattered around the battlefield. Very fast and maneuverable, an excellent annoyance and decoy in any operation.
Heavy Gunner - The artillary master! While innacurate, the Gunner's guess fire weapons are capable of devastation on a huge scale, their bombardment capabilites, along with splash damage, moulding them into a very important tactical asset to any good commander. Having said that, they are slow and cumbersome and will require protection from the fire of more nimble enemies.
Tactical Commander - This HOUND's prescence on the battlefield is considered a nessecity for the larger squads. While sticking out like an extremely poorly armoured sore thumb, this Mech sports an infinately useful device called the NA Maker. In layman's terms, this enables him to see any enemies entering his limited communication range and direct his Team Mates accordingly, though more on this later.
It does become instantly obvious that Sega along with From Software did not build this game to be the revolutionary Single Player Mech experience. The story, while understandable, is functional at best while the level design is questionable. While some of the missions do allow you to practice the subtleties of your chosen Role, it does become burningly obvious that very little time is lavished here. More often than not the HOUND they equip you with for the mission is slow, cumbersome and really not fun to pilot and a host of other technical niggles do tend to get in the way.
But! Where there is darkness there must be light, and this is where the game's wonderous sparkle really does start to make itself known. Each Mission you complete will unlock a host of new parts for your chosen role of HOUND. Anything other than a fail will net you one new component, while achieving the illustrious S-rank will allow you one more for your trouble. Though again we have another deviance in the design. Every mission you play through has a set number of secondary objectives that will earn you a thousand points each if you complete them. The problem is, you're never told at the start of the Mission exactly what those criteria may be and will often find the palm of your hand striking your face with bone shattering force when it finally decides to reveal just what you missed at the end of your destructive outing. Getting to that golden 3000 point mark will earn your rank to glory however, so you might just find yourself wandering back, if not for the part itself, but for the achievement unlocked with each story arc completion and gaining S-ranks on each.
But back to the task at hand! Unlockable parts of course means a Mech customization feature, and while you might say that every Mech game before now has had one, you ain't seen nothing like this!
But if I strip that, I can add...
There are two main parts that constitute a fully working HOUND. These being the Chassis and the Cock-pit. This seems pretty standard, but its the options where the depth truly shows itself! We have Bipedal, Inverse Bipedal, Quadrapedal, Hover Craft, Tank Treads, Wheeled and more. You might wonder why all this makes a difference, but its not just armour and mobility that you have to think about.
These Mechs are based around true physics. A four legged chassis design will provide a more stable firing platform than say a hover craft design. A decently armoured cock-pit is crucial if you don't mind sacrificing speed, but again weapon placement upon this is key if you want as little weapon recoil and after firing effects as possible.
These are just a few of the things you will have to think about in HOUND design. Of course, a war machine is of little use without armourments and the weapon selection is huge, each and every design pertaining to a different style of Role Type and play choices. While this does sound like a task of overwhelming proportions, the game does a great job of keeping you firmly in the driver's seat! The HOUND creation process is intuitive, well thought out and a text based guide may be selected to lead you through it if you're having problems. On top of this there is a very handy display at the side of the screen which lets you know what the game thinks your Mech is leaning towards, whether it be Solider, Scout and so forth.
Its not just a case of Chassis, Cock-pit and weapons though... oh no! Speed has to be balanced, stability and acceleration may be lovingly tweaked through onboard computer components, weight and load must be taken into consideration, reload times, penetration values, ammo types! The list goes on and on, this coupled with components that might simply be an aid, such as Night Vision sensors, Land Mine Detectors, NA Jammers, Additional Armour Plating... Sega's lofty claim that like snowflakes, not two HOUNDs will ever be alike suddenly doesn't seem quite so farfetched!
And even then we have more to do. Armour may be camoflouged and patterened, decals such as emblems may be applied to pretty up your HOUND, to the all important name that your leviathan of destruction might become known as and spoken in true fear within some seedy Clan tavern.
Making a Mech is a true labour of love. Gearheads might want to check this out just for that, but there is so much more...
What happens if I push this button...
After all this, the game really wouldn't be much if you couldn't take your newly built Mech into the fray and an excellent effort has been made to make the controls as intuitive as possible, simplified almost to a fault!
The Left analogue stick allows you to walk and strafe, while a handy tap will activate your headlights for night time missions. The Right stick allows you to look around and aim your weaponry, though they've done something a little differently here. The standard view, that is to say Third Person, comes lacking a cross hair. This is a strange mix of realism and arcade showing through, since at the top right of your screen is a little window showing a Cross Hair point of view. This is not derived from the centre of your Mech, but from the actual weapon firing, so therefor a weapon with a higher elevation will have less problems shooting over obstacles but will be more vulnerable as a result.
Never fear though! As a tap of the right stick allows you to control that first person POV directly, though sadly for real enthusiasts there is no in-cockpit view. The right bumper and shoulder buttons controls weapon management and firing, while the left side deals with non-weapon components such as Mine detectors etc... The D-pad utilizes inbuilt voice communication functions, though these are absolutely no substitute for the headset in multiplayer, while a handy map may be pulled off Y and zoomed with X.
The map is pretty much crucial since the battlefield areas, all 115 of them, are probably some of the most expansive maps under Operation Flashpoint. Each area is usually around three kilometers square, with some variation here and there, and all are diverse to the point of being unique, never quite the same battle twice! As you might expect, navigation can be a little tricky, though the handy grid system makes communication with your Squad Mates fairly easy along with the ability to have objectives and areas of interest waypointed to you on the fly. This of course leads us to the section...
Is that tower really all-important?
Indeed! Everybody's favorite... gameplay mechanics! Or as I like to call it, 'how the bleeding flip do I play this crazy game!'
Well, the core objectives in any fight (Apart from those set in the single player story modes) are to: a) Destroy all enemy HOUNDs on the opposing team, or b) Total their starting firing base to claim victory over the map! Sounds simple? Well... not quite.
I tossed in the phrase earlier about COMBAS. Every COMBAS tower under your control grants you a certain area of influence, or NA, and any one of your Squad Mates inside this area will be able to perform voice communication. Though should you stray outside it, apart from still being able to operate visually, you will be completely verbally cut off from your team. This is where a large part of in battle strategy lies.
There are usually around ten of these legendary structures per map, though their real use can only be unlocked by the Tactics Commander. The Command Mech carries a handy little device known as an NA maker. Not only does this function as a portable COMBAS, but the Commader is also the only person that can spot enemy and friendly movement via the map. Needless to say, you'll be listening out for his orders regularly and you certaintly need a good one behind you.
It is his job to organize the squad, create battleplans, react on the fly to enemy movements and generally direct the flow of battle while acting as a warning post for any opposing force activity! The areas you fight in are brilliantly designed, providing choke points, open ground, high plateaus for sniping positions etc, so half the fight is won not through your lone skill, but in how well you fight and function as a team.
That's right, this is a full on Team Game!
The other flavourful little addition is that there is not just one friendly and one enemy base structure on the map. The Squad Leader may choose one to spawn from leaving the others simply as decoys when the enemy comes a'calling.
The Neroimus War.
We now enter the realms of Xbox Live, the place that the fabled Holy Hand grenade might lead thy soul to salvation in little tiny bits!
Unfortunately for those without there is no split-screen Multiplayer function, but for those with an internet connection and who have invested in Microsoft's well known onling gaming service, a whole new gaming community will become available courtesy of From Network's regionalised and anti lag servers. No lag... a very welcome idea to all online gamers I'm sure!
The Neroimus War is a persistant online world where players might battle for supremacy under the flag of one of three powers in the Nermoius region. The Democratic state of Tarakia, Morskoj and the Kingdom of Sal Kar. All three of these have differing stats, they're not just for looks. Tarakia specialises more in speed and suprise while Morskoj favours raw power. Sal Kar however prefers a more efficient approach, providing a slightly cleaner outlook on constructing HOUNDs.
While these differences may sound extreme, they don't really unbalance each other. New parts and components may be aquired from any of the different countries, so don't despair if you like the sound of one but are forced into another, along with the fact that your full garage from single player comes with you, which is very welcome seeing as you can bring your favourite Mech along for the ride!
The objective here is to obviously have your Country come out on top by taking the the enemy capital cities. Though this isn't quite as easy as it sounds. You can't just invite your friends into a battle, you must form a squad in order to fight side by side. The Squad may house up to twenty people, with six able to fight in any one battle, while the creation and management of your elite core of soldiers is as easy as you could wish. While this does sound a bit limiting, don't despair as there are also the Free Battle types such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and so on that anybody may join.
Everytime you log onto the Neroimus war, very handy, and very well done little updates will appear on the screen for you to keep up with current affairs. For instance, if a large battle or assault is occuring, it will tell you where and hint that you might like to join. It will also announce which Squads helped the turning point in each battle, which is a very nice little feature! It could be you one day...
There is alot to talk about and I'm not possibly going to get through it all in one sitting so I'll direct everyone's attention to a favorite little place of mine. The Online Shop! As you win battles, you will accrue money in your chosen country's currency which will allow you to maintain your Mech, pay for damages and spent ammunition, and purchase that extra little something that will give you the edge. There are allegedly over 1000 different parts and components to collect, each boasting sizeable difference from any other. Though they arn't all available at once!
As you win battles, your ranking increases, along with an overall rank for your squad. While this means the battles become refreshingly and slowly more difficult, only should you choose them to be so, you will gain access to a wider stock in the Shop. Also, as the war progresses your Country's technology level will increase allowing you to vye for new technological achievements which will hopefully become mainstream as the two month time limit passes. as the saying goes 'Gotta collect 'em all!' or along those lines anyway.
As you might be aware there are other political overtones that will crop up, though I must honestly admit I havn't spent enough time online to fully explore that side of things.
Is she steady do ya think?
Alot of people comment that this game is slow. Well, yes, it is. This is not a fast pace, ten headshots a minute shooter. This is about out-maneuvering, out-shooting and most of all out-thinking your opponents while working as a tight knit team. Everyone has their prefferance here, and while you may not be able to dodge shots by hopping to the left or right, placement becomes key! You need to be unpredicatable, force the enemy to shoot where you're not going to be in the next second or better than that, don't let him suspect your prescence at all!
The Combat is furious when it finally does errupt, though it has also been said that reaching it is a boring process of plodding across open ground until you finally see an enemy. When you play this game right, when you begin to tactically take COMBAS, secure known used routes, to truly prepare your battlelines for the fight to come, only those who truly have a dislike for this Genre will not see the magic blazing through the beautiful front end like rays of divine light!
Many comparisons can be drawn in this respect to Operation Flashpoint. You either adore the style of gameplay, or you loath it. There have been reviews with scores of 2.4 out of 10 while others have given it 5 out of 5. Personal preferance plays a huge part in determining whether or not you like this sort of game and I can't stress that enough. Though before I reach my final conclusion, I must just give some word about the graphics and sound.
Graphically Chromehounds is polished, the Mechs have a fantastic polygon count and the animation is simply spot on. The particle affects were tailored for this 360 exclusive title and it truly shows, explosions lighting up the country side, dark whisps of smoke slowly dissipating into the ether not to mention the glow effects and shadowing created by flares on night time missions. Its the little details that really make this shine, such as the 'footprints' your Mech leaves behind which never fade, but this does come at a price. The maps do have a tendency to look a little barren in the texturing department, though that is almost forgivable when you consider their sheer size and scope.
As for sound, it would have been nice to have a little more bass, though this is just a pet like. The sound effects are decent, the noises of impacts very much functional while the explosions are done well. And you'll be hearing alot of those too! My only dislike is the sparse, appocolyptic-type music. I have to admit it is growing on me, but it would have been nice to have had some rousing march for the father land!
At the present time of writing, the UK servers are suffering a few problems and so I havn't been able to get online anywhere near as much as I'd like. Though the taste I've had of the squad based, tactical battles in the Neroimus War has left me salivating for more.
Single Player can be easily forgotten, but with the multitude of components to collect, the ability to create a HOUND that caters to the need of the moment or your personal preferance, along with the sheer customisation and tweekability of nearly everything in the game, it seriously has me hooked!
Team Play honestly never looked so good, and when they sort out the server troubles, come the 11th of this month, it will be a golden treat for anyone who is a fan of this style of play!
All in all, a compelling title that will stay in your machine for a long, long time. Definately a must try then buy, but if it grips you properly, you won't ever regret the purchase. Simply put, the best online experience I've ever had!
9 / 10