Thursday, August 21, 2008

First impressions: Too Human demo

Exposition:

I played a lot of Diablo back in the day, so much so that my friend Kelly and I had to play it on the Nightmare difficulty level just to gain any experience points. When Phantasy Star Online came out for the Sega Dreamcast, we could see that it was a thinly-veiled Diablo clone. I managed to max out my character's levels at 100, and really couldn't bring myself to invest any more time in it. Diablo 2 came out about the same time, but despite being more technologically impressive than the first game I just couldn't get into it, and never finished it. Later still Phantasy Star Online gained an update, but the thought of playing it to level 200 actually deterred me from the game; when a game seems more like work, then it is time to move on to something better. Bauldur's Gate arrived on the PS2 still later on, and I had every intention of playing it, but somehow I just never got around to it. I tried MMORPG's like Everquest and Lineage: the Blood Pledge, but they were so difficult to start and so boring once you got into the meat of the game that I couldn't invest in either - plus the fact that nobody really role-played in these games and the annoying presence of hax0r-speak. Everquest: Champions of Norrath for the PS2, and I was pleasantly surprised by the environments, player customization, and the fact that it supported four-player Gauntlet-style gameplay without being as inane as that older game was (we won't discuss Gauntlet Legends and its derivatives here - they're just too boring to bring up, so I'll save them for later). I picked up Champions: Return to Arms when it came out, and noticed improvements to the engine and art design, while remaining true to the style of gameplay.

Why do I bring all of this up? I have played a fair share of these types of games, so you can understand my interest in Too Human, an Xbox 360 game by Blood Omen and Eternal Darkness creators Silicon Knights. I downloaded the demo and played through it a couple of times, so now I'm ready to pick it apart.

STORY: Based on Norse mythology, the Too Human's characters and writing seem to take the standpoint that the Gods of old were cybernetically enhanced humans with spaceships instead of chariots, virtual reality instead of a spirit realm, and hot chicks in cyber-angel suits instead of hot chicks riding horses to take the dead to Valhalla. It's an interesting mix, and anyone familiar with Marvel Comics' Thor will feel right at home.

GAMEPLAY: It feels very much like a Diablo 2 clone, with skill trees, armor and weapons with plug-ins, and magical abilities. It has a fair number of cut-scenes throughout the game, but unlike most recent games the player has some interaction in them. The game also borrows from Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver in the sense that there are virtual reality areas that you character can enter to affect the environment in the "real" world. The game claims that there is online cooperative multiplayer as well, but given the limited choice of basic character models I'm curious as to how many players it will accommodate. Also, it seems that there would be little problem in including a single-system multiplayer mode, but supposedly you need Xbox Live in order to use this feature - all I can say is that the levels after the demo had better make use of a single-player-per-system environment, because the demo sure doesn't.

GRAPHICS: Not bad, but not great either. At least the developers haven't been touting this as the next big thing (like recent BioWare letdown Mass Effect). The demo level is about what you'd expect, with the stony environments lacking variety for the most part. The artists did make good use of glowing surfaces, as shown on your character and the enemies, though this too can be criticized once you run into enemies that explode upon contact - they don't look significantly different than any of the other enemies, but are much more lethal. If you were sick of the ancient futuristic look of the environments in Halo, Mass Effect, or Gears of War, don't expect to be wowed.

SOUND: No real complaints here. Everything sounds like you'd expect. Voice acting is appropriately as unconvincing as a Saturday morning cartoon (back when we had those).

CONTROL: Here's where things get sticky, and make what could have been an decent game into controller-chucking madness. It reminds me quite a bit of Phantasy Star Online, actually; the left stick moves your character, and there is a button to center the camera behind his point-of-view. The other stick is used for melee attacks, which uses automatic homing to track enemies and feels extremely unsatisfying to execute. The trigger buttons activate the use of firearms, and you can aim at multiple enemies or parts of larger enemies while doing so but you have to move the melee-stick to do this, which sometimes results in you swinging the sword while trying to fire. Because both attacks auto-target enemies this gets really annoying once you get in the middle of a large swarm of them. There is a special attack that will knock all of the enemies in your vicinity backwards, but you need to build up a combo level to achieve this, so it is not automatically available when you start the game.

My biggest issue with control is that the game doesn't always pause the action when a flashback or story related cut-scene occurs. This leads to a lot of standing around waiting for the character to do something until you realize that you're in control, and alternatively leads to the camera following some object on the wall at random intervals while enemies pound you off-screen.

The menus are easy to navigate once you know how and the level of depth involved in equipping your character and assigning skills is at least as complex as that of Diablo 2, but the menus are somewhat slow to respond to button presses (like it takes the game a moment to load between frames). This is a minor gripe to a game with some deep character customization, but I feel it is a valid one as it adds another level of frustration to a game that doesn't warrant it.

OVERALL: At least Silicon Knights offered a demo of this game, and didn't hype it to the point where its goals were unattainable (once again, BioWare's Mass Effect). While it seems like it would be a solid multiplayer purchase, the controls are so unintuitive and obstinate that I wouldn't consider paying full price for the game. There are just too many minor things wrong with the game (for example, when you die you have to sit through a lengthy sequence that has the Valkyrie will come down and pick you up. It is a long sequence, tedious to a tee, and has absolutly no bearing on the gameplay other than to make you sorry that your character is dead - and believe me, it is a frustrating wait). To the game's credit though, even when your character dies you don't go as far back as you did in say, Mass Effect (yet another example of how much I hate that game). Forty bucks, maybe, but definitely not worth sixty.
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