It's not really in the room yet, but playing through a near-finished build of Too Human, Diablo III is certainly an elephant on the horizon. Cruising around the universe as a cyberpunk Norse myth splattering tinsel-covered robots with a big blue hammer, something Blizzard's Rob Pardo said the other weekend springs to mind: "If there were a ton of games out in the market that are the isometric action-RPG model, then we probably would have more seriously done a different approach." Too Human is trying to be something like that - a mixture of hackandslash and shooter and customisation-heavy RPG, with an isometric camera among the various automated options - but if this had come out a year ago would Blizzard have looked elsewhere for its next big reveal?
Too Human is the story of the Norse gods - who in Silicon Knights' thoroughly articulated fantasy are cybernetically enhanced humans - and their struggle against a machine army. For the single-player campaign, you play Baldur, Odin's son, and split your time between chatting and tinkering with your weapons, armour and augmentations back at home base and smashing up massive hordes of robots in gigantic dungeon fortresses.
Initially it's the latter that's more pronounced. Using the left stick to move and the right stick to attack, with other buttons for jumping, rolling and specials, you build up combinations by moving fluidly between opponents with gentle analogue swipes, juggling them into the air and building up combinations with directional gestures on the two sticks. Baldur's packing, too, so you can build gunfire into your combos, pulling the triggers and targeting enemies with the right stick, locking on to some extent. Successful chains, calling on both skills, feed a special meter that lets you unleash a devastating multi-target ground-pounding stun attack.
There's depth here, but it's the RPG elements, which announce themselves gradually over the opening hours, that draw you in with greater urgency. There aren't that many enemy drops, but there's a mountain of loot to recover on your violent adventures, some of which can be applied and re-crafted through the hub level's cybernetics lab, or simply invested in new equipment, and there's an elaborate skills tree to explore, which differs depending on which of the five character classes you chose at the outset.
The interface for this looks complicated, but always signals which items are the best at any given time, and there's a healthy mixture of logic and choice behind the decisions you make on these screens. For instance, armour items often have slots for runes, which have modifying properties that may suit your play style, and after a couple of hours you're invited to choose one of two broader progressions to pursue: cybernetics or refined, combo-heavy human attributes.
You have to pay attention to get to the core of the game's expectations, though, because while you're getting your head around all this you're being thrashed constantly with head-spinning in-engine cut-scenes plotting the machinations and politics of Too Human's elaborate fiction. There's your dead wife to consider, and a god on trial, and Thor's secret feelings for Freya, and whether the mystical three-bodied NORN spirit (part wench, part crone, part tranny) is right about your Wyrd. There's lots of shouting about who gets to go on missions, and lots of traipsing around the hub between cinematics.
Despite Silicon Knights' very public spat with Epic about Unreal Engine 3, the developer's dragged a lot of vast, detailed environments out of the Xbox 360 for these scenes and the hackandslash combat to occupy. Dungeons are cavernous fortresses of ornate stonework glistening amongst pulsing blood-red technology; lifts between levels hide behind massive carvings that fold away from crackling torches and relentlessly impractical masonry; and dozens of bowing NPC soldiers (you're a god, remember) and shiny robot adversaries can inhabit the same space without the engine belching any discomfort.
The developer's proud of its fiction too, and waves its hybridised cyber-Norse flag at every opportunity. Thor takes a seat at the dinner table by plonking his hammer down and cracking the glass surface, which gradually reconstitutes itself as you stare through it from below and admire his hulking crossed legs, and death is punished by an unskippable animation of a robotic valkyrie descending out of a white light to scoop you up to the heavens (or more accurately to a save checkpoint a hundred-or-so feet in your past).
The occasional pop-in texture or pause before a door opens are the noticeable costs of the game's epic construction, but the rather more grating one is the absence of environmental interaction, with invisible movement buffers around jagged edges and rather a lot of walls you have to walk around rather than jumping over.
This isn't a massive problem in a genre where tinkering and whacking are the key components, but it does frustrate a little when the game over-elaborates certain sections with long treks to out-of-the-way smashables (usually harbouring bounty or red orbs, which are the only in-game health pickups), and in the sections where you step through the water into the NORN "cyberspace" and do something to affect the real world. "Puzzles" would be too strong a word in most cases; you often walk to a designated spot, push a button, and then watch a cut-away scene that shows what you just did, allowing you to trek back to that point and take advantage.
But while this sort of thing is forgivable (not to mention optional), our real concern with Too Human is that the combat and plot struggle to carry you between the bits you like: most often the RPG character-customisation elements, which are arguably meant to be the supporting act in the first place.
There's a lot you can do to your enemies on the battlefield, but there doesn't seem to be a lot they can do to you - and certainly not a lot you'll struggle to get past. The analogue controls are a little groggy and the combo system takes a while to accept, but despite this and despite an automatic camera that seems to be in league with the opposition whichever option you choose, you're not in any lasting danger. The checkpoints deposit you back in the action with no more enemies to face than when you expired, so if you can't get the measure of a situation you can always watch a few death animations and eventually advance through weight of respawns.
That said, enemies rarely do more than take up basic roles against you, so you prioritise the pesky ranged ones then despatch the rest in a close-quarters frenzy, which is borderline button-mashing until you learn or decide to restrain yourself. Gunplay feels like an afterthought throughout. More exotic, boss-style adversaries usually have various components to target, but in the absence of a party to back you up there's little strategy to enact.
The original idea was to have drop-in/drop-out four-player multiplayer, which would have made sense given the different classes available (there's a tank, a healer, a ranged attacker, etc), but this has been reduced to two-player over Xbox Live. With no local play that we could uncover, we didn't get to test this, but reports abroad suggest that there's no change to the forgivingness of the death/respawn cycle, so in theory there's no need to fight together to survive, just another greedy inventory to feed with loot.
For all its scale, gizmos and Norse namedropping, there's little personality to the places you visit and the people you encounter, either. Soldiers in the dispensable human wolf pack that back you up banter back and forth but it's frat-boy mercenaries on a road-trip. The dialogue throughout is part daytime soap opera, part school play, and the sets - far from giving the game a sense of place and atmosphere - are just bizarre. Okay, you're meant to be gods, but does this really mean the boss's office should be in a sort of whale ribcage construct with giant sparrow statues suspended over a mountain range accessible only by a magic floating platform? After witnessing what BioWare achieved with Mass Effect a few months ago, it's all a bit pantomime.
Which is a shame, and hopefully something the game conquers as you cast off the stabilisers and get stuck in properly. We've deliberately avoided racing through what must be a near-final build so as not to prejudice the review too much, so there's still the chance for it to surprise us later. The problem is that after a handful of hours in Baldur's shiny, customisable armour, it really would be a surprise. There's a nice resource management and skills-chasing sub-RPG lurking in the menus, but the rest is repetitive, overly forgiving and quickly forgotten. In answer to our original question, then, we suspect the elephant would have pitched up anyway. We'll see next month.
Too Human is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 on 29th August.