Genre: Mecha Shooter
Developer: From Software
Release Date: July 11, 2006
From Software have thrived on the success of their giant robot titles. Despite nearly a dozen releases in the Armored Core series across the three PlayStation systems, their titles have never found mainstream success in North America. Sega enlisted From Software to create an entirely new robot franchise, with the hopes that a change of platform and a heavy-duty online mode will attract more gamers to the cause. Chromehounds is the result, merging the "build-your-own-mech" sensibilities of the Armored Core franchise with the vast promise of the Neroimus War, a persistent online campaign that features three factions fighting it out for control of the country. It really does sound like an amazing concept, but time spent on the servers reveals the campaign to be little more than a standard multiplayer mode - with fancier window dressing, of course.
After a decade of designing do-it-yourself robot-building games, From Software had no problem creating a robust mech creation system for Chromehounds. Did I say mech? I meant hound! The terms are theoretically interchangeable, but Chromehounds goes to great lengths to make sure that "hound " is the only word of its type in your vocabulary. Creating your hound can be an exhaustive, intricate process - at least, if you want to do well and look stylish on the battlefield. Start with the base; legs, wheels, treads, hovercrafts, and more are at your disposal. From there, you will need to pick a cockpit, which is outfitted with three COM devices (one each for mobility, weapons, and stability). After choosing a generator, you are basically done … with the absolute essentials, but that's no way to build a hound! Customize!
You will want at least a couple of weapons. A heavy arm will weigh your unit down, though the firepower is unmatched. A slew of light arms will eventually be at your disposal, from machine guns, rifles, rocket and bomb launchers, and even a parrying blade. With all the various parts at work, you will probably need to toss a couple of spacers on there to fit everything. Armor, night vision, and land mine detectors are among the optional extras you may also consider. After you have built the hound to your specifications, take the time to make it your own; various camouflage patterns are available, along with obtained decals and user-created emblems. Building your hound can be an exhaustive process but is one that must be undertaken to survive in the online battlefield.
The control scheme in a game of this sort is essential to its success, and luckily Chromehounds does not disappoint. Your hound is largely controlled using the analog sticks, with the left stick used for movement and the right stick for rotation and camera movement. The right shoulder button changes your active weapon, while the right trigger is used to fire it. The left side is used much less often, with the button and trigger used for assist parts (such as night vision). The X and Y buttons are used to control your map, while the A and B buttons are used with only one role type (RT). It all works reasonably well, and avoids the control issues experienced by other recent giant robot games (such as Steambot Chronicles).
Chromehounds really shines on the Xbox 360, especially on a high-definition television. Everything is sharp and crystal clear, with often fantastic texture work (especially on the ground, before and after you stomp all over it). The explosions are large and vividly detailed, and the resulting black smoke realistically lingers, making it tough to hit a series of enemies in close proximity. My only complaint is that the levels fail to be distinctive, let alone jam-packed with scenery. In fact, many of the levels are very sparse, and may be desert or grassland settings. I felt like I was commanding the Mars Rover at times, with nothing but sand and rocks in front of me.
The voice work is very well done, though you will hear many lines repeated, especially in the training missions. Your character (referred only as "Mercenary") never speaks, so you can provide your own internal monologue if desired. The music, while competent, is very typical for this type of game; think "military conquest," and you may have a good idea of what I am getting at. It sounds a bit synthesized, with a definite slant toward percussive instruments (snare drums, tympanis, and cymbals abound). Chromehounds does not have a very robust soundtrack, or at least it feels that way - all of the music is very similar and therefore repetitive, though it is mostly pleasant. You may not even notice it.
Chromehounds features six distinct hound role types: soldier, sniper, defender, scout, heavy gunner, and commander. The solider RT is expected to seek out and take down all sorts of enemies, typically in close-quarters combat. The sniper RT is pretty self-explanatory: Find a spot on a hill and snipe enemies from a distance, while defender RTs are similar to tanks and feature heavy artillery with a fairly short range. Scout RTs largely avoid combat - instead, they attempt to secure COMBAS (communication) towers scattered across the map. The heavy gunner RT is impossibly slow, though it has enough firepower to level buildings from a considerable distance. The commander RT changes up the game style, focusing more on reading maps and giving out orders to your teammates.
The single-player experience in Chromehounds is fairly brief and unremarkable. Each RT has seven missions, and you may switch between the types at your discretion; the commander missions are said to be more difficult than the soldier ones, but you do not need to finish the solider missions to play the commander ones. The story in the game is very strong, though the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Neroimus is embroiled in a civil war between three factions: the Democratic Republic of Tarakia, the Republic of Morskoj, and the Kingdom of Sal Kar. Other countries have chosen sides, though some may be playing multiple sides in a bid for power. After 20 years of world war, the hounds are merely the latest in a series of weapons designed to increase the overall mayhem.
It is a very intriguing, highly political narrative, and a timeline is thankfully provided via the main story menu. However, I have significant issues with the presentation. You will meet several characters over the course of the missions, and they will talk excessively about the war, how it is affecting people, and how they are dealing with it internally. Key problem: I don't know who these people are! They are only represented by a text box and a voice over, and as far as I am concerned, they could all be the same person. If you jump randomly between the missions, you will never be able to separate story details. It really is a shame - some visual flair would have made it infinitely more compelling. Also, since your own character never speaks, it all comes across as a very one-sided narrative without any sort of intellectual conflict.
Despite the large number of missions, they can be completed quickly and without a whole lot of difficulty. It should only take a dozen hours to finish everything, though I do think it is time well spent. Not only will you acquire many of the pieces needed to build a better hound, but it also trains you to use all six role types and tosses you into a variety of situations. Still, it has been made clear by previews and PR reps alike that the main focus of the game is its multiplayer modes, which are large in both number and scope. In the Free Battle mode, you can choose from a number of basic game types. Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Keep the Flag are among the gametypes here, which can be played pretty easily, either ranked or otherwise.
After sampling these game types, I was off to join the Neroimus War. I would fight for my country (Kingdom of Sal Kar) and wreak havoc on hundreds and thousands of enemy hounds! But first, I had to join a squad, and joining a squad was a very miserable experience. Creating my own squad seemed like a long-term endeavor, and I just wanted to fight. Upon pulling up the list of available squads, I had to start mentally removing the ones I could not or would not join: password-protected squads, squads for established clans, and squads bearing the name of a drug reference or pro wrestler. I found myself a bit limited, but I went ahead and applied for a squad that looked all right. Instead of sending a message of intent and getting a response at another time, I was forced to sit and stare at my screen while my application was being discussed. I waited, and waited, and waited … and thought something was wrong.
After hitting up some message boards, it seemed like things were working all right, so I gave it another shot. After 15 minutes of waiting, I applied to yet another squad. Cue 10 more minutes of waiting, followed by a voice message telling me I was declined. I finally found a squad and was able to play with a couple of nice guys for a while. I asked them to set up the match and tell me what they had figured out so far; the menu system can be very confusing and is not streamlined in any way. At this point, I am frustrated but glad to be on the cusp of fighting the good fight for my nation. I am about to become a hero in the Neroimus War, where I will fight heaps of enemies in intense battles to the death ....
Such was not the case. According to Chromehounds, large-scale wars in the future are decided by six-on-six battles on isolated maps. I was shocked! You can have up to 20 people in a squad, but only six can fight in a single battle, and against up to six hounds from other squads. The overall goal is for your nation to take over the country by winning small-scale battles in each of the available maps. It was a huge disappointment – as far as I could tell, the battles are no different from the standard game type available in Free Battle. The only difference is that they count toward a bigger cause than topping the leaderboards. Unless you have a group of friends who are willing to play this on a regular basis with you, chances are that you will struggle building up enough will power to care. Sure, you can earn medals and donate money to your nation, but in the end, it is just a series of squad battles displayed on a world map.
That said, there is nothing bad about the multiplayer in Chromehounds; I just found it to be much less than I expected – and slightly misleading. Squad battles are very strategic and will require each player to do their role, be it as a soldier, scout, or defender. Some people are going to fall hard for this type of game: Chromehounds rewards the dedicated player with medals, achievement points, and potentially a sense of worth. Those of us who prefer to jump from game to game will not find enough to keep us compelled outside of the first week or two. It will be very interesting to see how many people are still online in three months. Sega is already giving away new weapons via Xbox Live, but I am hoping they use the downloadable content feature to expand and improve the Neroimus War.
Chromehounds is a well-built game that comes up short in both the online and offline modes, but for different reasons. The story mode is well worth playing if you want to build a great mech and be a better player, but the presentation of the narrative leaves much to be desired. Conversely, joining the Neroimus War online campaign is a time-consuming, occasionally annoying process that ultimately does not pay off. The most enemies you will see at any given time are six, which seems like a misuse of the concept. It's as if the game designers are saying, "Well, just imagine that you are fighting in a huge war." With that kind of attitude, I hope that they are able to imagine me still playing this in a month – because I certainly won't be.
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