Review: Chromehounds (XB360)


Chromehounds
Genre: Action/Simulation
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 7/11/06

It’s no secret around here; I’m a fan of From Software, and I love giant robot games. The former is because of the years and years of oddball titles they’ve dropped onto American soil; the Kings Field series, Shadow Tower, Echo Night, and Lost Kingdoms, among other games, instantly make From a friend to the niche gamer. The latter, of course, is because I grew up with Voltron and the Transformers, and never really grew out of that. Besides, it’s extremely satisfying to run around in a giant mech and blow shit up.

And, of course, From is also the maker of Armored Core, quite possibly THE definitive mech combat franchise in the gaming world. So, yeah, fun times.

Enter Chromehounds. From Software decided to go in a different direction with their mech concepts; instead of individuals (Ravens) running around in customizable Gundam suits (Armored Cores), we’re given squads of soldiers and mercs fighting strategic battles in customizable Mechwarrior/Steel Battalion robots (Hounds). The game was obviously meant to be a completely different experience, and while several of the concepts (governmental strife, mercenary dealings) remain consistent, the core gameplay elements looked to be in for a massive change. So, let’s take a look and see if Chromehounds has enough to it to stand on its own, or if it’s just another mech game from a company that’s full of them.


1. STORY


The story of Chromehounds is one of politics and war, which won’t be a big shocker to fans of the aforementioned Armored Core; that franchise is rife with such things. The story goes like this: during the 80’s (the Cold War period, for those who don’t remember/know), in an age where nuclear war was entirely real… you guessed it, World War III hits. In the aftermath, Russia is left a country divided (but not financially destitute as it is in our reality), the US has become an isolationist country, and the rest of the world has either dissolved into infighting or is trying to invade other countries. A small measure of peace is attained in the process, and a collective of countries known as the Neroimus region is established. Three political powers vie for control of this area: the democratic Republic of Tarakia (who are backed by the US, among others); the semi-democratic, presumably partially communist Republic of Morskoj (who are backed by the Republic of Russia, one half of the former USSR); and the Kingdom of Sal Kar (who seem to be independent, but are of Middle Eastern descent, in case you were curious). The three nations have all maintained the basic tenets of their peaceful existence up to this point, but events are conspiring to change that.

In short, war is about to come home.

The basic premise is pretty solid, largely due to the massive amount of work From put into the backstory. Between the game, the documentation, and the company website, you get the distinct feeling that someone involved really wanted to produce a solid storyline, and it shows in even the most basic details. The various nations are fleshed out in detail, as are their motivations and what they stand to gain from the coming conflict. It’s made apparent that there’s more at stake than just some property in the coming war, and this all helps to make the conflict more interesting to the player.

That said, the campaign doesn’t do too much to interest the players in the front line folks, though the attempt made is acceptable. Most missions see you in the company of a single squad for about six missions, and while you appreciate the impact that a war will have on these faceless warriors, you don’t really appreciate THEM to any great degree. To be honest, while the backstory of the game is well written and detailed, the actual campaigns themselves are pretty rote. The writing is decent, the characters are convincing, but they give you no reason to care about them, and your time with them is over before you can find a reason yourself.

All told, though, Chromehounds isn’t really about the single player campaign, so it’s excusable that the campaigns aren’t that in depth. It’s a shame there wasn’t as much effort placed in the campaigns as was placed into the actual backstory, but the game is mostly designed to establish a setting before throwing you into online battle, and in that regard, the story does its job perfectly fine.

Story Rating: 7/10


2. GRAPHICS


Chromehounds is a visually spectacular, conceptually unremarkable title. That sounds a little odd, so let me try to clarify that. While the graphics in Chromehounds are absolutely amazing, well presented, and stunning… there’s not terribly much that’s done with them that you haven’t seen before. Fields look like fields, trees look like trees, snow looks like snow. It’s all well rendered, but nothing terribly stands out and the various battlegrounds one faces are all generally “flat” in presentation.

The Hounds themselves don’t fare much better; while they animate very well and look very nice, there’s nothing special about them beyond the fact they’re pretty. The various Hound parts and their modular designs are the sole unique visual concept in Chromehounds, and that’s not anything so terribly special as to merit interest.

Now, it might sound like I’m being unreasonably harsh, so let me clarify: I’m not trying to be. Chromehounds DOES look very good. But coming from… uh, From, well, I was expecting more style from the game. This expectation aside, Chromehounds is one of the better looking titles on the console. Clipping is very minimal (and when it is present, it usually involves trees… I don’t know why), the draw-in distance is quite far out, and the various weapon effects are of top quality. If you’re looking for a visual set piece for your 360, you could do a lot worse than Chromehounds, but if you’re a From Software fan, you might be a touch disappointed in relation to their prior efforts, artistically speaking.

Graphics Rating: 8/10


3. SOUND

The music in Chromehounds is fitting and rather dramatic, if not terribly special. The music is meant, I assume, to convey the tone of the title, and in that regard, it works; it sounds like the sort of music you’d hear in dramatic war movies, and is composed well. It also stands in direct contrast to the music of Armored Core; whereas AC tended toward driving techno tunes, Chromehounds tends to avoid these sorts of compositions, which helps to keep the concept strong. And, of course, the custom soundtrack option is available for those who wish to use it, though you probably won’t pay much attention to it either way, especially in online combat.

The sound effects are also very strong and sound appropriate, and contribute to the presentation nicely. Granted, the effects consist mostly of varied explosion noises and mechs stomping around, but even so, everything from simple sniper rifle rapports to massive explosions sound appropriately powerful, so credit is due. Also, the voice acting is quite solid, though it’s not up to From’s usual standards. Still, it’s reasonable and convincing, and contributes well enough to the product. Overall, the aural presentation is good, and helps to immerse the player well enough. The most important part of the audio (the FX) are done very well, and the music and voice acting are strong enough to work with the rest of the presentation nicely.

Sound Rating: 7/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY

And this is where most of the problems in Chromehounds come in.

See, Chromehounds plays well. The controls feel solid and responsive, and you don’t feel like you’re fighting with the control layout in the least. There aren’t a lot of things to remember about the controls, either; left stick controls movement, right stick controls cockpit aiming, the usual. Your weapons are assigned to individual FCS layouts of sorts; switching weapons really just switches layouts, which may mean that you’re switching from two bomb layers to three sniper rifles or what have you. Everything you need to wage war is easily within reach, and feels natural after only a couple of minutes.

And most of the gameplay mechanics are very solid, too. The game classifies Hounds into one of six categories, each of which is suited to different tasks. Soldiers, for instance, are meant to be your front line warriors, whereas a Scout might run around trying to get a bead on enemies or draw fire, and a Heavy Gunner might carpet bomb your enemies back to the stone age. Each Hound design complements the next, and they’re variable enough that you can sit down and learn the individual nuances of each and see what’s right for you.

And the “unique” gameplay elements are all pretty cool, too. Communications, for instance, all have to take place inside communication fields that are controlled by towers known as COMBUS’s. He who controls the COMBUS’s controls the battlefield, so capturing them is a major part of gameplay, and is an interesting dynamic in combat. The Commander Hound class is also pretty interesting; aside from basically being a mobile communications array, the Commander can also identify friendly and enemy units on the battlefield from their map and direct assaults upon these targets. The class is by no means easy to play, but it’s one of the most interesting classes in the game, as well as one of the most strategy intensive.

And, of course, the online gameplay is flat-out awesome. Instead of simply taking your Hound online to blow shit up, you can join squads to fight in a persistent version of the Neroimus War, with all three sides waging war upon one another for dominance. Indeed, this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a game, period. The progression of the war is tracked at all times, so even when you’re not playing, battles are being waged, and you may well log in to find out that your nation has lost or won several key countries while you were at work or sleeping or whatever. In addition, what countries you control also dictates what’s available in the shop at various points, so if you’re performing well you may find yourself with all sorts of great equipment available to play around with. And if one side DOES manage to win the war, the map resets itself so you can wage war all over again. You can also change sides, in case you’re tired of losing (or want a greater challenge), but the game enforces a waiting period in-between changes so that you don’t simply jump from faction to faction to get the best equipment or what have you, which is a smart move. You can also just play little skirmishes if such a concept amuses you, and in either case, the game runs smoothly from what I’ve played.


And last, but not least, the customization options are damn cool. The Garage serves as your central Hound building location, and from here you can customize your Hound in any number of ways. Unlike most mech games, your Hounds aren’t confined to what can be attached where; if there’s a junction anywhere on any part of the robotic anatomy, you can stick something there. You can very easily build Hounds that are absolutely bristling with weaponry, and as most of the weapons are hexagonally shaped, you can stack guns on top of guns on top of guns, which is certainly amusing. You can stack on as many weapons, generators, et cetera, as your weight limit will allow, and the more of these things you stack on, the more powerful your Hound becomes (though this will slow your Hound as well). You can also build your own emblems and color schemes to completely customize your Hound as you see fit (or apply some of the various defaults, in case you have no artistic soul), and test your Hound in battle from the garage. You can also build your own FCS patterns, based on what kind of strategies you can come up with (in other words, you can decide what weapons should be enabled under each configuration, and all of these weapons will fire simultaneously when you pull the trigger). Obviously, this means you can pair up three missile launchers or five rifles together, but if you’re creative, you can build interesting firing patterns, like maybe a heat-seeking missile and two sniper rifles, or two heavy machine guns and a rocket launcher. This allows you to experiment with your own strategies, and while you might not find TOO much practical use for such a thing, it’s certainly nice to see.

No, none of these things are really problematic. What IS problematic is the actual gameplay itself, and whether you can enjoy it.

First off, Hounds move… I’m going to say “methodically”, because the correct terminology, “slow as hell” just seems rude somehow (not that such concerns have stopped me before, but work with me here). None of the Hounds are terribly fast, and even the Scout Hounds seem to crawl (and they’re built for speed, bear in mind). Taken on its own, this isn’t a problem, but when compared to other games in the genre, this is somewhat off-putting. The Armored Core franchise, Steel Battalion, and various and sundry Gundam titles have given their mechanized combat vehicles boosters and such for fast travel, or at the very least for dodging, but nothing like this exists in Chromehounds. This is something you’ll have to adjust to, because it turns close-range firefights into wars of attrition, as it’s very difficult to dodge projectiles that move faster than you do.


Second, the aiming mechanic leaves something to be desired. In most games of this type, you’re generally either provided an on-screen aiming reticule or an automatic or manual lock-on right on-screen. Chromehounds works a little differently; you’re offered the option of flipping between first or third-person views, with the former being the only real way you can target anything, and the latter being the only way you can really maneuver. You’re also provided an image of the other viewpoint in the top-right corner, so in theory you could try to use this to aim while in third-person view, but in practice it’s not terribly useful for very much. There’s no auto or manual lock-on at all, either, so you’re left entirely to manual targeting, which is certainly realistic, but considering we live in a society that has yet to create mechs, but has developed lock-on targeting, well, this seems silly. It makes for a challenge, but not a huge one; bear in mind your targets are slow moving ten-story tall death tanks. Also, several of the weapons (especially in regards to the Heavy Gunner class) are arcing projectiles, and unless you have a working knowledge of proper trajectory angles, you’ll probably miss a lot with arc weapons until you learn the ropes; the game gives you no help with them at all.

All told, Chromehounds is a game that is built in a fashion that is interesting, but not terribly user-friendly (in other words, exactly the same way every other From Software game is built). If you can acclimate yourself to the wonky gameplay and appreciate the methodical pacing of combat, you’ll find a game that’s awesome fun to play online and amusing off. If, however, you find that the controls are too difficult to manage, or “methodical” just translates to you as “narcolepsy inducing”, you’ll have to fight to enjoy the experience. It’s a shame the gameplay is so polarizing, as it’s ultimately the core of the experience, but it is what it is, so be warned.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 5/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Hm. Persistent online gameplay that involves taking control of countries, waging war against other players, managing mech assembly and working together with teammates to achieve goals that don’t evaporate after one game session. Downloadable content released in the first week of play, for FREE, with more presumably on the way. The ability to shop for new parts online to build the ultimate mech. Six different concept choices for your Hounds, so you can play a different role every time you feel the urge.

About the only thing I can hold against the replayibility of Chromehounds is the fact that the single player missions, aside from attaining “S” rank, don’t really merit returning after the first playthrough. But then again, Chromehounds wasn’t designed as a single player experience; it was designed as a multiplayer one, and taken in that perspective, it’s nearly perfect. If you’re only looking to play on your own, however, take off a few points… you probably won’t play this much after you’ve beaten the campaigns.

Replayability Rating: 9/10


6. BALANCE

Most of the single player missions seem to be evenly balanced, and can usually be won outright, if not after some trial and error. The enemy AI is reasonable enough, though it’s not incredibly intelligent, and most of the loaner Hounds are sufficiently equipped to complete the missions as they’re presented. Online, the balance is quite solid, largely due to the massive amount of customizable options available. More experienced teams with better equipment are obviously going to fare far better than newbie teams with default Hounds, but with a little ingenuity you can build an awesome Hound that will take you far, so long as you have the skill to pilot it. Overall, if you jump into battle against veterans you’re going to get destroyed, but you’ll find it pretty easy to learn the ropes enough to hang with most squads, and the single player campaign will help immensely in that regard.

Balance Rating: 7/10


7. ORIGINALITY

On one hand, From has been doing the “giant robot FIGHT~!” genre since the PS1, and even outside of that, giant robot battles are hardly anything new. That being said, real-time action-based tactical mech squad combat is relatively uncharted territory (Steel Battalion is the only game I can recall that did such a thing), and the online war campaign multiplayer is seriously innovative. All told, Chromehounds is definitely something different from a company that’s known for constantly producing just that, and it’s definitely one of a kind.

Originality Rating: 7/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

The single player campaigns aren’t terribly addictive, but multiplayer more than makes up for that. Defending your territories from invasion, invading enemy territory and blowing everything to hell, all to claim the land for your country is incredibly addictive, and the fact that the campaigns advance independent of your involvement will make you feel like you’re missing life-or-death battles whenever you’re away from the game. Any game that can keep you wondering about what you’re missing when you’re NOT playing it definitely ranks as “digital crack” in my book, and hey, unlike an MMO, there’s no monthly fee involved. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks.

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

As we draw further and further from the “dearth of new titles” stigma that the 360 held in its infancy, we’re coming to the point where we can’t say that players are looking for just anything to buy. And in the case of Chromehounds, that works as a disadvantage of sorts. While it’s a good, solid title, it’s most likely only going to appeal to niche gamers (AKA Armored Core fans) looking for something up their alley. Mech combat titles don’t tend to be huge sellers (unless they’re Mechwarrior), so unless games like Steel Battalion or the Armored Core franchise interested you, you might not find much to interest you here, either. That said, these games DO have fans, and if you’ve even a passive interest in the aforementioned titles, you might find Chromehounds to be something appealing to you.

Appeal Rating: 5/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


There are no notable bugs that I could uncover in my time spent with the game, which is certainly positive. It’s also nice to see that From intends to support the title on XBox Live, and for their first time handling an online American release, they did a bang-up job of it. It’s also nice to see a persistent world in something other than an MMO, and Chromehounds implements this concept quite well, which is impressive.

And hey, I happen to be a fan of the Armored Core franchise as well as an owner of Steel Battalion, so it’s not like they had to do much to interest me. Impress me, maybe, but not interest me.

Chromehounds is a very involving experience from start to finish, and what the game might lack in single player variety it more than makes up for with multiplayer depth. If you’ve read this far and you’re still unsure of what to think, I’ll put it this way: if you can adjust to the controls, and you’re a Live subscriber, Chromehounds is something you’ll probably end up playing for months. If that’s not reason enough to pick it up, I don’t know what to tell you.

Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10

The Scores:
Story: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Sound: 7/10
Control/Gameplay: 5/10
Replayability: 9/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 8/10
Appeal: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 8/10

Overall Score: 7.1/10
Final Score: 7.0 (GOOD).

Short Attention Span Summary
Another niche winner by From Software. A limited single player campaign and some… interesting controls hurt the game somewhat, but the overall execution and the online gameplay more than make up for it. If you’re looking for something different with some long term appeal, you won’t find much better of a title than Chromehounds.