Too Human is a name that will be familiar to the vast majority of regulars here at Electronic Theatre, for one of a number of reasons. Perhaps you have been following the title avidly over the past ten years since its original unveiling as a PlayStation title, through its life on the Nintendo64 and GameCube. Maybe it’s since the title has been picked-up as a shining-light for the Xbox360 – touted even as the franchise to make you “forget about Halo” - that your interest has piqued. Possibly, it could be because of the hoo-hah surrounding the move from the Unreal 3 Engine and subsequent lawsuit raised against Epic Games, developers of both the Unreal and Gears of War franchises. Or maybe it’s due to the recent and unprecedented amount of press coverage that has been thrown at Too Human, thanks largely to developer Silicon Knight’s President, Denis Dyack, directly responding to criticism from anonymous members of the public, whilst ignoring issues raised by the press themselves.
Whatever the reason, and whatever your opinion of the hyperbole surrounding Too Human, one factor remains significant throughout the run-up to the title’s release – few involved in the rather public complications had actually played the game.
Indeed, since the title’s first playable Xbox360 appearance at E3 2006, the backlash has been rather intense. With the videogames press citing flaws in the game from this outing, and Silicon Knights representatives responding in a rather unfavourable fashion, Too Human may well have become far too big for it’s traditional Hack-N’-Slash boots. So much so, in-fact, that there has been much confusion amongst the public as to exactly how the game would play.
Too Human is a rudimentary Hack-N’-Slash through-and-through. The gameplay evident in the title does not parallel the likes of Mass Effect or FallOut 3, as has been somewhat misguidedly suggested, but rather is more closely related to the likes of Kingdom Under Fire: Circle Of Doom. Closely related, to the extent that many Mainstream Gamers may find it difficult to distinguish between the two, aside from the Fantasy and Sci-Fi settings.
Part of the confusion has no doubt been caused by Silicon Knights’ talk of the narrative within Too Human. A war has been waging between humanity and machines – known as “Children of Ymir” – for hundred of years, decimating a once beautiful planet. Teetering on the brink of extinction, humanity’s last few survivors take refuge in the walled enclave of Midgard. The Children of Ymir prosper in the eternal winter, while humanity is left to do little but pray. The Aesir Corp are sent by ODIN to protect humanity, and amongst them is Baldur, ODIN’s favourite son. A revision of Norse mythology within a Science Fiction universe, Too Human creates a fascinating conflict between mythical and fantastical, and runs with it. Thor is an obvious attraction – and, as such, will already be familiar to many through pre-release screenshots – but the faux old tongue, that just ushers on the right side of contrived, and the ease at which the player can become a part of such a universe are easily the highlights, and areas with which Silicon Knights should be accredited with distinction. However, there are obvious limitations. The story has little more than a superficial impact on gameplay; while your route may have been set due to a story-led objective, the how-and-to of every in-game Mission remains identical throughout.
Combat is the most common – and quite almost, only – aspect of the title. Playing practically identical to Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, bar the Control System, Too Human never strays from the traditional Hack-N’-Slash formula. The puzzles are simply lifeless trudges through an area known as Cyberspace which, while being inherently beautiful, is devoid of life or interactivity, bar the occasional pre-prompted button press. At first, unlocking a door in Cyberspace mirrors that of the game’s real-world, suggesting a Light and Dark World theme will run throughout. However, this idea is quickly dismissed, and Cyberspace becomes little more than an annoyance.
The in-game real-world areas, however, are plentifully populated. With tens of on-screen enemies, the player has firearms at their disposal, firing with the L and R Triggers and aiming with the Right Analogue Stick, as well as close combat options. Close combat attacks are executed by moving the Right Analogue Stick towards the enemy you wish to attack; your on-screen avatar will then continually perform attacks against the targeted enemy until the player changes the direction of or releases the Right Analogue Stick. Small refinements to the basic attacks can be initiated by the player, such as lunging from a distance toward an enemy or performing a Finisher by pressing both Analogue Sticks towards an enemy at the same time. At first, this rearrangement of the combat controls appears rather intuitive; however it’s not long til the lack of feedback from kills sets-in, and players accustomed to the genre will be crying-out for a button to press.
The long-range combat doesn’t fare much better either: while entirely being more dependant on player skill, the frustration of the inaccurate Aiming System – which often assumes the player is trying to lock-on to the most irrelevant targets, such as corpses of felled enemies or missiles which have already been noted by the player as being of little or no threat – will often lead to many premature deaths. A favourite tactic of the enemy is to charge close combat troops at the player whilst holding ballistic reinforcements behind; a valid tactic that, should the player have been equipped with the correct tools, would’ve been a welcome challenge to overcome. However, the Aiming System simply refuses the player a lock-on to any enemies beyond the two-or-three closet to the direction your on-screen avatar is facing and, therefore, often results in a trudge through the hordes of brawlers to eliminate those equipped with missiles, before having to return to the previous enemies. Also, often is the case that when choosing to aim at a different target whilst reloading, that the game will instead launch your avatar into a melee attack at the new target.
The heavily touted Role-Playing Game element of the title is basic at best. The player has an array of Character Classes to choose from – each of which do play distinctively differently, contrary to what many other publications may have you believe – yet none of which feel entirely satisfying, and there is a great unbalancing between Classes when reaching higher Levels. The game adjusts the difficulty to suit the player’s current Level automatically and without compromise. While this may suit players still demanding a challenge at Level 50, it does result in the game playing almost identically no matter what Level, weaponry or abilities the player has managed to obtain, resulting in the essence of the genre – item hording – becoming almost totally unrewarding.
The suggested moral dilemma within Too Human is brushed aside, and has little effect on the actual game; choosing to remain Human increases your special abilities, whilst choosing to become a cybernetically enhanced character will allow the use of larger weaponry. A Menu Screen after a brief Cut-Scene lacking in any relative information is the limitation of the decisions the player has in the universe – BioShock and Mass Effect this is most certainly not. However, herein does lay an echo of the one of the title’s biggest issues, not just with its Levelling System, but with the product as a whole. Within minutes of beginning the game, the player is bombarded with customisation options with little more than a single sentence offering a description of exactly how each choice will affect your playing style. While the Hardcore may well instantly accept and acknowledge the differences between the Defender Class and Commando Class, will the Mainstream Gamer? An issue that even a small amount of playtesting would surely have raised, and one that is at a direct contrary to the Death System.
The Death System in Too Human is simply a bad design decision. Upon death, an animation triggers in which a Valkrye descends from the sky and takes your lifeless carcass to Valhalla, before dropping the player back into combat at the point which they left-off. Forcing return to the HUB would explain the inclusion in their current state, or just a few seconds shorter and the player would still retain the adrenaline produced form the previous bout of combat. However, as they stand, the sequences are simply too much of an irritation to overlook. The only encumbrance issued by death is the damage incurred to your equipment; causing the need for regular visits to the Equipment Menu. The ever increasing popularity of developing games that anyone can complete – as citied as an area of major innovation within titles such as Alone in the Dark and Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy – is obviously beginning to influence many games which traditionally would be built purely for the Hardcore Gamer. However, stating that you want players to be able to complete your game is a lazy excuse for a poorly executed difficulty curve and lack-lustre Death System.
The in-game mechanics appear to have been designed purely for the Co-Operative gameplay. With the game adjusting to suit the current status of the player, should two-players begin an online Campaign together, the game holds a lot more weight than in any other circumstances. However, with any of the options for two-player gameplay, another questionable design decision presents itself. For many years now, Silicon Knights have insisted on the importance of narrative in videogames – citied as the reason for the company ending their exclusive relationship with Nintendo during the era of the GameCube; presumably as Nintendo were gearing-up for Wii software production – and, while entirely static and removed from gameplay at all times, the presentation in Single-Player is top-notch and the story itself is intriguing, yet when faced with the task of how to cater for the fact that in Co-Operative Mode two Baldur’s adorn the screen, rather than simply ignoring this fact and continuing the story regardless, all Cut-Scenes have been removed. Given that the Co-Operative Mode will no doubt be one of the major selling points for many players, it soon becomes apparent that Silicon Knights have developed Too Human towards their own preferences, rather than those of their audience.
One of the areas in which Too Human most definitely excels, however, is that of its visuals. Immediately presenting itself as one of the best looking titles on the Xbox360 – perhaps even of our industry – yet released, Too Human features Real-Time Lighting and animation far in excel of its peers. It may well be that the lack of variety in the gameplay has allowed the horsepower to be used purely for visual fidelity, but for whatever reason, each of the five Levels looks stunning for the most part, with amazingly detailed vistas and wondrous amounts of detail in it’s oversized areas. The Cyberspace areas are beautiful and limitless in their real-world inspired detail, despite being almost entirely devoid of gameplay.
Much of the title appears as little more than set-up for the trilogy of which Too Human acts as the entry option. Characters are established and just as quickly forgotten about, enemies are spoken of but not seen, themes and subplots unveiled and left in an unwinding state and – as with the venom inspired by the lack of such a battle in Gears of War – the main antagonist of the title is not only left unharmed, but never even actually engaged in combat. While credibility can be leant to a team acknowledging that their story runs deeper than the mere five-or-so hours available here, as is the case with Mass Effect – although BioWare’s influential Role-Playing Game last significantly longer – when the gameplay itself clearly does not warrant a sequel, doubts have to be raised over exactly where the company’s commitment lies. Perhaps lending their wares to flesh-out the stories in titles produced by other teams may well be a better avenue for Silicon Knights to pursue? A sequel will no doubt be in-development due simply to Too Human’s staggering assault on the sales charts worldwide – no doubt at least partially thanks to the nigh-on daily online coverage the title has been benefit to for nearly three-months prior to release – however, in order to strengthen the franchise, with any redeeming qualities such a release may have, the title most certainly needs to arrive within the next twelve months. Releasing a follow-up even just eighteen months later would simply result in a loss of interest within the videogames community, and an even greater loss of respect for the developer. Should Silicon Knights take another four years, however, it’s doubtful the product would have any impact whatsoever on the market, regardless of whether or not a large-scale publisher such as Microsoft would be willing to back it.
Too Human is a very complex production that, despite the efforts of Dyack and co. to convince us otherwise, has quite clearly missed-the-mark. It may well be true that Silicon Knights have not spent ten years developing the title, but instead had it on the back-burner through producing the amazingly inventive Eternal Darkness and the fantastic Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for the GameCube. Should this be the case, however, Metal Gear Sold: The Twin Snakes was released in 2004 – leaving the company with four years to develop Too Human. In an age when even the biggest of games typically take no more than three years to produce, the question has to be asked: exactly what have Silicon Knights been doing with their time? Too Human appears to have moved-on very little from the E3 2006 demo, and considering the backlash received from that outing, it would be considered wise by most to have overhauled the aspects argued over the most. Producing puzzles with minimal thought required, uninvolving combat and some often terrible Camera decisions, when the only two things that separate Hellboy: The Science of Evil and Too Human are a visual style and a few million dollars, Too Human is never going to be considered a victory for Silicon Knights.