Version tested: Xbox 360
Those of you with long memories and Bill Gates CEO Microsoft press badges might remember an exciting clip shown off a couple of E3s ago from a SEGA-published From Software title called Chromehounds. This is obviously that. And that was, it turns out, the intro movie. It's looping in the background as I type - busily telling the story of a bitter conflict between mercenaries of the future, who dart through crumbling cities in nimble but heavily armoured walking robots doing war on each other. Some scout, others clash and others still assault the enemy from the bylines - the barrels of their monstrous sniper rifles peering out of what used to be the windowframes of a bustling industrial complex. A year ago, the trailer stood out - even amongst Fighters Virtua and Hedgehogs Sonic. A year on it stands out again - against the plodding nonsense of the game it portends.
The story the game tells is of a supposedly complex fictional situation on a futuristic Eurasian landmass; where diverse nations form uneasy alliances and said giant mercenary robots flog their services to the highest bidder. Any similarity to any person or presumably robot living or dead is entirely coincidental, the game warns us, before proceeding to talk about America and the USSR and insurgents and oddly named middle-eastern countries like Tarakia, and how it all descends into war because the higher-ups want it to.
It's all themes of valour and home and "something's telling me this little incident isn't going to go away quietly", and each of the six story arcs that play out in the single-player game explore this stuff through the medium of shoddy dialogue about crumbly warriors fighting to protect their own interests. It's classic old-days, "I don't know why I'm telling you this, mercenary, but it's presumably something to do with the plot," and it's wretched, really. And what's up with all sentences...
...broken by incongruous pauses during the narration?
Another thing - how is it that these walking robots became the final answer to the question of how to wage war anyway? They have awful manoeuvrability, and they can't even look up. If one of these moaning warriors invented, I dunno, a couple of logs, the war could be over tomorrow. Have we learned nothing from the Ewoks? And surely explaining why all these robots are suddenly better than things which are so obviously more suited to futuristic war would make a slightly more interesting plot?
Fortunately you can ignore the one that is in place, and besides that the premise is solid enough and clearly works for From Software in Japan. Over there, the cottage industry for building your own robots and making them fight against a backdrop of warring soliloquies is alive and well (and Chromehounds seems to be doing rather well in their press), and even on the side of the world where Armoured Core means little and even the relatively exciting MechAssault is no longer something Microsoft's bothered about, it doesn't bode too badly.
There are six fundamental classes of mech, and they each approach battle in a certain way: soldiers get down and dirty on the frontlines, defenders are blockers with ludicrous armour and even more ludicrous weapons, scouts are used to secure advanced objectives and, well, scout, heavy gunners handle artillery, snipers are best deployed hundreds of metres from the firefight too, and tactics commanders can roam where they like, sipping from a glass of engine oil as they direct the battle.
As well as "borrowing" mechs with certain loadouts and characteristics, you can build your own in a lovingly detailed editor that allows you to graft all the weapons you could want (even several at a time if you want each weapon 'set' to be particularly deadly), and the only provisos are cost, physical restrictions and loss in speed for each addition. Certain types of mech, like scouts, can also deploy other tools like mine detectors to help them avoid mishap in the field. And, as you work through the single-player side, you gather more parts for use here - as well as camo patterns and other symbols that you can apply to your mech's armour.
The twist in all this is that Chromehounds is about co-operating rather than going alone. Really, the single-player's just there to fatten you up, but even here co-operation is key, and most of your objectives (and certainly the top 'S' ranks for each level - a full set of which bags you a neat gamerpoint bonus) are contingent on the survival of allies. Online, the idea is that full-scale war has broken out, and the action is spread across several countries and specific battle areas, or levels, where you and group of friends can represent a particular nation. You take on small, eliminate-all-the-enemy type individual missions to build up a fund of cash to spend on your kit, and there are free battles to take part in as well.
By joining or recruiting for a squad, you can engage in the main event - an actual war - pushing and pulling the lines back and forth. It's a bit more of a commitment than simply turning up one evening because you're bored, but with the right crowd it can be quite interesting. Success in battle results in substantive gain, and with three main sides it's possible to completely wipe one out and have them surrender. As you go, all sorts of damage is done and all sorts of point-heavy medals conferred - with the ultimate achievement complete victory over your rivals. Team sizes are a bit small, but it's forgivable when you're in a well-specced unit and you're up against a similarly intelligent enemy. There are various game-types, and an interesting take on the usual blanket voice-communication facility.
COMBAS towers, which you're meant to claim by lurking next to them, are dotted around each map and create a communications bubble around them. It's only in the bubble that team comms are possible. So the only way to push the limit of your communication bubble (alright, "Network Area") is to go off and capture other COMBAS towers. Unsecured gaps can break up communications between commanders and their troops on the frontline.
Diligent use of the tactics commander mech type can help you out here though, and probably requires further explanation. TCs are rolling Network Areas, and can be used not only to identify enemy units and alert colleagues to their location through a rudimentary system of d-pad commands (or via voice), but can also bridge gaps between friendly COMBASs. TCs spend most of their time looking at the map, and it's pretty basic work - there's no zooming around in 3D like an RTS, certainly - but along with COMBASs it amounts to an interesting take on traditional mech combat, and lends multiplayer, in particular, a palpable aura of strategy.
However, there is a problem with all of this, and unfortunately it's rather a big one: Chromehounds is really, really, really boring to play.
You can forgive the story (yes it's rubbish, but it's not the point). You can forgive the small numbers of players online (I certainly can, since the game is sure to see a bit of growth right after it comes out today). But the pace is awful. Even on something relatively mobile like caterpillar tracks, if you tool yourself up with more than a bargepole to swat at people you'll take a massive speed hit, and with so much ordnance flying around you'd be ill-advised to go in under-stocked. Jumping into the scout campaign and being told of my high mobility, it was a bit depressing to discover that this basically meant walking instead of sauntering.
The single-player game sows the seeds for this slothful pace in endless brown and gold and grey fields of battle that you have to plod across for what seems like an eternity to get anywhere. Often while your commander-du-jour is busy telling you to get a move on in gratingly affected tones. Cleverly, the developers also throw in huge mountains you can't climb and rivers of mud that slow you down - you can avoid them, but usually it takes longer anyway. As for the scout missions I mentioned - some of them simply involve pootling around for a quarter of an hour in the dark. Well done.
Once you do get somewhere exciting, you can switch between up to four weapon sets with the right bumper and fire at will, clicking in the right analogue stick to switch between third- and first-person views - the latter zoomed depending on the weapon. But the combat's awful. The third-person camera is angled down slightly with no crosshair, so you can scarcely aim at anything without relying on the window-in-window first-person view - something that never came naturally while I was on the front. Played in first-person, your peripheral vision's suddenly grossly limited, but at least you can hit things; providing you can get the awkward analogue aiming to fix on a target, or your view isn't being horribly obscured (and the game slowed down) by billowing smoke and explosive effects (which still fail to mask the way certain enemies, particularly tanks, simply fade away once they're hit, rather than actually disintegrating). Tactics commanders have it a bit better, but not much - they can avoid battle, and don't have to pootle around so much, but their reward is, er, watching coloured icons move very slowly across a map screen.
It's all a bit of a chore, and even the high-resolution mech models and excellent editing suite can't help it - the latter bodes well for cyberpunk artists, but only providing they want to showcase their wares in the midst of a raging inferno. There are other problems offline, like night missions where you can see virtually nothing (and yes I did find the night vision button, although I'll freely admit that this may still be a brightness failure on my part - wouldn't be the first time). Meanwhile, mission structure often relies on noting where the maddeningly swift smaller enemies spawn so that if you do fail and have to start again, you can at least make sure you're in the right place and not spend two or three boring minutes staggering slowly toward the white noise of anguish flooding from your dying comrades' diesel-soaked lungs. Did I mention that the first thing that seems to go when you take damage is speed?
There are some plus points, certainly - control of the COMBAS towers, in particular, has a tangible importance that resonates throughout with greater effect than any of the other UT-Domination-inspired game ideas I've encountered recently. But like the mech editor, it's a well implemented idea in a fairly shonky game - and not one that I can imagine Xbox 360 players sticking with for more than a handful of hours tops, no matter how starved they are for new releases at the moment.
4 / 10