Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Too Human

Silicon Knights

Xbox 360

Games that hide their bare-bones mechanics with flashy graphics, 2.0 shaders and pixel mapping rarely offer genuine appeal to anyone not running PC benchmark programs to six decimal places. In the locked-down hardware world of home consoles, however, even the questionable lure of FPS tests is denied to most users. It’s particularly interesting, then, that critically successful console games are those that manage to cloak basic gameplay, appealing directly to the hindbrain, with the trappings of a greater narrative.

Puzzle Quest, in its myriad iterations, took a popular jewel-matching pastime (à la Bejeweled), and built around it a gripping, if utterly clichéd, storyline. With Puzzle Quest, what had previously been a bare-bones three-in-a-row swap-and-match ‘genre’ – notable only for its ability to distract even the most hardened paper-shufflers – was suddenly clad with the comprehensive sum of all thing RPG, including methods to dramatically alter and subvert the pure luck and statistics on which the gem-matching game-type was built. The ludological component was still the same, for all intents and purposes, but with a dose of added player control and a pinch of narrative, the game became a compelling addiction.

Your typical hack-and-slash RPG isn’t typically bereft of narrative value, however, and Too Human doesn’t go against type. Developers Silicon Knights reimagined the Norse gods as cybernetically enhanced humans, their technology sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. Players control Baldur, as he fights off the hordes of mecha that threaten the world of Midgard. There’s probably a moral buried somewhere in the game about using increasingly sophisticated technology to defeat highly complex mechanical enemies, but it’s glossed over easily enough. The story simply works, although it’s plagued by pacing issues, a distractingly disjointed chronology and a tendency to confuse the hell out of anyone not paying full attention to the cutscenes. Its end-sequence is almost without par in terms of narrative value, even if it all turned a little Halo 2, in terms of setting the scene for the next instalment.

Too Human also gets the loot equation exactly right, with so many increasingly powerful items that it’s impossible to obtain in a single pass through the game. (It might seem to be a negative point, but gambling against the probability of getting your class’s best item is like pure meth to RPG fiends.) Items and weapons fall back on classic Diablo nominalism, which is a familiar touch – you count on weapons with the same prefix or suffix having the same add-on effects, with runes modifying your items much in the same way Diablo II’s gems worked with socketed items. And the myriad branches on your character’s skill tree? There are so many, it’s more like Ygrrdrasil, the World Tree. (Mythical high five!)

The game’s major departure from its genre, to my eyes, is its abandonment of button-mashing attack controls in favour of a dual analogue stick approach. It’s probably too late to remap players’ brains from using the left analogue stick to control movement, and that’s fine, but Silicon Knights have offered a convincing argument for remapping the right analogue stick to player attacks. After all, there’s no need to continually press a button if you want to continue an attack when pushing in one direction will work just as well. The approach also works when switching between the enemies swarming all around Baldur, and is particularly useful if you happen to be using a weapon with a knockback effect. The right trigger on the controller fires projectile weapons, although these are generally too slow and too weak to do much more than put an enemy off-balance for a few seconds while it runs towards you.

Given that the stunningly simple control change requires a lot of concentration while players adjust to it, it’s disappointing that the automatic camera control is so distracting, and there’s little independent control available in the middle of the action sequences, bar an auto-centre button. Players who simply need to have independent camera control should probably pass on the game, but they’ll be missing out on what could be a watershed moment for hack-and-slash RPGs. Too Human – it’s Geometry Wars meets Diablo meets Lawnmower Man. What more could you ask for?

(You could ask that a scant ten minutes into your second playthrough, your 360 console doesn’t decide to overheat, resulting in it being unusable for more than six minutes at a time. Too Human was the straw that broke my beige plastic camel’s back, and while that doesn’t count against the game itself, it’s stunningly disappointing that the hardware it’s exclusively released upon is still dramatically unstable. I’m currently hoping that future installments of the Too Human series will be released cross-platform, although by the time it takes Silicon Knights to make another full game, Microsoft Customer Support may well have come through with a refurbished console to last me another few months.)

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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