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.