- Review Price: £29.98
The guns are out for Too Human, and not entirely without reason. Microsoft and Silicon Knights started hyping the game as soon as the Xbox 360 was announced, and some of the worst criticism of pre-release code has been met by Silicon Knights boss Denis Dyack with petulant outbursts on the lines of ‘the fools just don’t understand my great and innovative game’. As a result, reviewers have descended on the game in the sort of feeding frenzy that we haven’t seen since Free Radical’s astonishingly ropey Haze. Some seem to hate Too Human. Some seem actually angry about it, as if Dyack’s game has somehow offended them by its mere existence. Some just want to poke fun at the game and detail its inadequacies with an almost sadistic relish.
Me? I don’t hate Too Human, and while it does contain elements that annoy me, I can’t say that I feel any great rage or enmity towards it. I don’t really want to laugh about it, either. To me, Too Human is a sad game. It’s neither a Haze like disaster or a spineless mediocrity like Space Siege. It’s a game of genuine ambition and real class that has somehow, horribly lost its way. It might show signs of hubris and arrogance, but at least its trying to compete on the level of a Mass Effect or God of War. In fact, from time to time it threatens to be almost as great as Dyack thinks it is, only to fall at the next hurdle. And several more hurdles after that.
While it aspires to be a video-game Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or The Matrix, it’s more of a Chronicles of Riddick or – as I’ve heard it put – The Ridicules of Chronic. Like the Vin Diesel vehicle, it wants to kick off a rich and heroic new saga, but for all its epic scale and fine design it falls down on smaller, more fundamental things. Supposedly Riddick 2 and 3 are still in preproduction, but who knows whether they will ever emerge? Similarly, I suspect there are some nervous meetings going on between Microsoft and Silicon Knights over whether and in what form Too Human parts two and three see the light of day.
That’s a shame. I know others will disagree, but I like Too Human’s basic storyline and milieu. Fans of Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos will recognise the basic concept – where cybernetically enhanced mortals effectively take on the role of gods – and from there the setting updates the Norse myth with the trappings of cyberpunk and space opera, updating armour and weapons and replacing the trolls and goblins of old with sinister machines that ape their forms (a trick you might remember from Frank Miller’s superb graphic novel, Ronin).
The Norns, who once controlled the fates of the Norse gods and heroes, are now strange entities who exist in the game’s imagining of cyberspace; a fantasy realm of forest, mountain and lake. I even like the way in which the game doesn’t force all this stuff on you but sneaks it in bit by bit. That might make it a bit confusing – a charge that Too Human deserves more than it should – but it’s a more elegant and intriguing way of doing things than just dumping hours of expository cut scenes on you from the off.
While Too Human is a third-person dungeon crawler, it’s a very good looking example. For the most part Silicon Knights keeps the camera close to the action, allowing you to see your hero, Baldur, smashing his way through hordes of mechanical monsters in loving and spectacular detail. Reflective shaders and particle effects give the game the sort of rich, fantasy lustre we’ve seen in Ninety Nine Knights or Devil May Cry 4.
With one caveat which we’ll come to later, the production design of To Human is incredible. The sci-fi Norse theme permeates everything from armour styles to creature design to the huge scale architecture. It’s not quite as good as the work David Jaffe and Sony Santa Monica pulled off with God of War 1 and 2, but a lot of time it’s awfully close, and there is more than one moment where you can see that Dyack and Silicon Knights are thinking on a scale every bit as big.
Sadly, the game’s downfall comes in the most crucial area of all: its gameplay. Now, lets be clear that there are a lot of really good things about Too Human. The combat system, for example, is nearly as innovative and effective as Dyack says it is; instead of mashing the face buttons to pull of combos as you do in most dungeon crawlers, you attack by flicking or holding the right analogue stick in the direction of your nearest foe.
At first, this seems counter-intuitive, but the more you play and the more powerful Baldur gets, the more his sliding tackles, machine-juggling slams and brutal slice-and-dice manouvres take on a real grace and potency. Too Human’s fighting might not be good enough to take on action blockbusters like God of War or Devil May Cry 4, but it’s certainly better than battering the X button over and over again as you do in some comparable titles.
The RPG elements are also richer than you might have been led to expect. True, the class system doesn’t add that much to the single-player experience, but you do get some fairly comprehensive skill trees, a choice of two alignments with tangible differences between them and a genuinely vast selection of weapons, armour and blueprints with which you can craft new ones. Not only can you choose which sword to swing or which breastplate or shoulder guards to fit, but you can customise them further with runes, adding extra bonuses to your weapon or armour piece of choice.
However, the game could have done with a little streamlining in this respect. At first the inventory and crafting screens seem incredibly convoluted. Worse, there’s no real introduction on how to use them. Then you’ll note that you’re picking up new arms and armour at a bewildering rate, which not only makes selecting the optimum bits for your class and character tricky, but also makes each new weapon or upgrade found feel a little less special. After all, if you don’t like this sword or hammer/shield combo, another will be along in a couple of minutes. There are times, too, when you wish the game would throw in a couple of tutorial sections. The combat system, for a start, is never adequately explained, which can make the game seem like a simple hack-and-slash game when it’s slightly more intelligent than that.
Only slightly, because there is a very heavy emphasis on brawling here and an awful lot of repetition. You’ll find yourself constantly blasting and battering your way through the same groups of monsters, with minor variations, over and over and over and over again. To make this worse, there’s not a level I’ve played that hasn’t gone on way past its welcome.
You grow tired of the same old creatures and the same old architecture. You see another group of monsters in the distance and just sigh – here we go again – then hope that the next one will be the one that leads you to the climactic boss battle. This is not a good thing, and it can make Too Human feel less like the complete first chapter in a trilogy and more like an over-sized starter that spoils your appetite for the main course.
More moans? How about the way that you’re constantly bombarded by creatures with hard-hitting missile weapons, and that your own missile attacks rely on a useless and unwieldy targetting system that makes hitting the cowardy custards almost impossible. Or how about the fact that, while Baldur can’t die permanently, neither can he heal himself (unless you choose one specific character class).
As a result, you’ll find yourself constantly coughing it and returning to the last checkpoint to throw yourself back into the fray – a process that wouldn’t be so irritating were it not for the fact that each death is accompanied by an unskippable 25 second cut scene of a valkyrie descending. You will come to loathe this cut-scene by the time the game is over, but in fact this is the only really serious penalty for dying in the game (bar some minor damage to the weapons and armour which you’ll inevitably be replacing in a minute). What a way to spoil the tension.
Yet, having said all this I can still find a soft spot in my heart for Too Human. Even as I got more and more bored with Dyack’s opus, I still found something oddly compulsive about it. I wanted to know where the game was going and see what new weapons and arms it had to dish up. More importantly, the whole experience came alive when played online.
Like most people I think it was a huge mistake to trim back from four players to two, but even with just one stranger Too Human comes close to what a lot of action RPG fans want: a decent next-generation Diablo clone for the Xbox 360. Competing to see who can batter the most trolls or collect the coolest armour is enjoyable, and the spectacle of the combat puts it a cut above any clone of Blizzard’s classic seen to date.
Having help also makes working your way through the levels (and the bigger brawls) a lot faster and more thrilling. Too Human might not be perfect, but it’s a lot more fun than Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, for instance.
In other words, I wouldn’t want you to be put off buying Too Human entirely. Neither, however, would I want you to come away from this review thinking it was a flawless or exceptional action RPG. The reason that makes me sad is that it could have been one if only someone had cut back on some of the game’s excesses and just paid more attention to the minute-by-minute experience.
That damn valkyrie sequence, for example, should never have made it through testing. Too Human will, I suspect, end up with a cult following. There will be gamers out there who will push through the worst bits of the single player campaign and then keep coming back for the multiplayer. If you can live with all the bad bits mentioned above and think you’ll relish the good stuff the game has to offer, then that cult may well have another member. If not, then it’s best to leave Too Human alone.
Too flawed, too confusing and too repetitive for greatness, but too intriguing and too much fun in multiplayer to discount entirely. Too Human is worth playing, but only if you think you can put up with its longeurs and frustrations.