259w ago - I played through Too Human, Silicon Knights' upcoming action RPG for Xbox 360, this weekend. The game has been the subject of heated controversy: A disappointing early version shown at E3 built up an army of vocal detractors, and Silicon Knights' outspoken President Denis Dyack has fired back some volleys of his own.
The near-final version that I played won't do much to settle the issue one way or the other: Too Human has a lot of redeeming qualities, but it isn't for everyone.
I'm caught in the middle -- I enjoy Silicon Knights' storytelling, but although some well-done narrative is certainly part of Too Human's overall package, that's not the focus. The role-playing gameplay is the star here, and it took a little while to grow on me. There were some frustrating moments as I learned the ins and outs of how to control and manage the growth of the main character, Baldur.
But just as I came to grips with the gameplay, and just as the story seemed as if it was starting to ramp up into overdrive -- the game ended. If you're so inclined, you can slam through Too Human's campaign in a little more than 10 hours, and the story of cybernetically enhanced Norse gods ends with a cliffhanger.
No, Too Human is not the story-driven Silicon Knights title that we, the long-suffering fans of Eternal Darkness, have been waiting for these last five years. Too Human does have a story, and it's told well. Baldur's interaction with the rest of the pantheon of Norse gods and goddesses never fails to be riveting, mostly because of judicious editing. The story scenes are not especially lengthy, but the writing is tight and the plot takes some very intriguing twists and turns.
Sadly, one of the game's main story hooks -- the fact that Baldur is torn between keeping his human characteristics or cybernetically enhancing himself -- doesn't get a whole lot of screen time. In fact, the choice between human and cybernetic is presented to the player as a very clear choice between two different character-customization options quite early in the game.
If you choose the human path, your fighting styles will be more combo-focused rather than just doing more damage in battle (which is what you get on the cybernetic path). That's the extent of the choice you make -- as far as I can tell, it doesn't affect the story one bit.
The vast majority of the game time is spent in combat. There are four very lengthy levels in the game that take a couple hours each to complete; massive juggernauts of enemies with a few story scenes sprinkled throughout. Combat is largely handled by tapping the right analog stick. This will cause Baldur to slide (or leap elegantly) toward the nearest enemy character and start wailing on him.
Double-tapping the stick will launch the enemy into the air, and you can follow it up there by jumping with A. You can finish off this little combination with standard attacks, or use a powerful Finisher move by pressing the left and right stick in the same direction. You can also do these on the ground.
Too Human starts you off with squadrons of enemies that are so weak that you can pingpong back and forth between them, sliding with the stick and building up big combos that let you use a few different special moves like the Ruiner, a wide blast that wipes out a whole area around you. But stronger enemies soon follow, and you'll have to do more of those jumping combos, which have the added side benefit of taking you into the air, away from other enemies' fire.
This is how you'll play a good deal of the game if you pick the melee-focused Berserker class, like I did. You can also choose a Commando, who is much better at ranged weapons. Berserkers can also fire guns but Commandos do it significantly better. You can split the difference and choose a well-rounded Champion as your class. Or you can go to the two other classes, which are much more extreme and therefore difficult to play as: the Bioengineer, who is weaker but can heal himself, and the Defender, whose attacks are weaker but who is much more immune to damage.
All throughout the combat, you'll constantly be jumping into the pause menu to tweak Baldur's stats. Every time you level up, you'll earn Skill Points that can be dropped into a wide variety of different areas that enhance your powers or open up new ones. And you'll constantly be picking up a garbage bag full of different pieces of armor and items from fallen foes and treasure chests, so you'll be going into the menu to change your equipment quite a bit.
The game doesn't do a great job on its own explaining how all this stuff works, though. If you don't read videogame manuals, you might want to start with Too Human's. Things can get a bit frustrating because of this gap between what Baldur is capable of and what it's possible to figure out on your own. This is especially true when you're going up against bigger baddies, like giant troll-robots, which will very probably kill you a great deal before you work out some effective strategies. And even then they'll probably kill you quite a bit.
Luckily for Baldur, there is almost zero penalty attached to death. When you die, a robotic Valkyrie descends from the sky and carries you up to Valhalla, and Valhalla sends you straight back a few steps away from where you bit it. The penalty is that your weapons and armor take damage, and if you die too much they will be useless -- but even then, you can repair them later, and there's always more armor and weapons to be had.
As I said after watching the game's opening sequences at this year's Game Developers Conference, Too Human is technically a very well-done game. All the loading times are concealed. The frame rate is generally smooth. There's no pop-in, there's no gaps between the story and gameplay. Everything runs seamlessly together and looks very nice. The humans are perhaps the one exception -- although I like the design of many of the characters, they're still stuck deep in the uncanny valley.
Eternal Darkness had an excellent camera, which in 2003 was like finding a unicorn. Too Human tries something interesting, splitting the difference between user customization and directorial control. At times, the computer will take over the camera and give you a dramatic view of the action; at others, it stays behind Baldur and you can recenter it by clicking the left bumper. You don't have to constantly babysit it, but I did need to adjust it a few times, so it's not an entirely hands-off system.
Steve Henefin's music is wonderful, although I felt like it barely got a chance to shine. I'd love to see a soundtrack release like the masterfully crafted Eternal Darkness music CD, which, rather than just stacking up all the in-game music tracks one after the other, blended them all together into an extended, polished, highly listenable whole.
And just so I can reference Eternal Darkness one more time, let me say that Too Human's "cyberspace" sections are as close as the game gets to recreating its predecessor's vibe. Every now and then, you'll enter cyberspace, which is described as being a virtual representation of what the world used to look like. It used to have trees, mountains and bodies of water -- in short, a verdant paradise. (Now it's just buildings, darkness and robots and stuff.)
Although your first trip into cyberspace introduces some very light puzzle elements, these drop out quickly, and trips into the trees are primarily for storytelling and item collection -- some of the best items in the game are tucked away in here. But it was while wandering in the chilly silence of cyberspace that I started to get that eerie feeling of meddling in affairs I didn't belong in, of some grander story behind the scenes that I was just a puppet in.
It's clear that something sinister is going on, but Too Human doesn't even begin to address it. Just as the story is ramping up and we get a big revelation about Baldur, the game's over. I was genuinely shocked when the credit roll began, as I felt sure there was so much more left. I was just getting to grips with the combat and had some nice new armor and items that I had spent a bunch of cash to craft.
It's ironic, considering that one of my favorite "sanity effect" tricks that (ahem) Eternal Darkness pulls on you is when the game suddenly stops after a few hours and you see a message that reads something like, "Thank you for playing! Continue your adventure in Eternal Darkness 2, coming soon." Five years later, Too Human does the same thing -- except seriously.
Now, those who have enjoyed their time in the world of Too Human up through the story's conclusion will have plenty to do if they want to keep building Baldur. By the time you finish the campaign, Baldur will likely only be at level 25 of what I believe is a maximum of 50. He'll have some decent armor and weapons, but there will be lots more out there. You can begin a new campaign with the same character you finished with, and the enemies will scale up accordingly so the challenge can continue. You can even jump into alternate versions of each level with more and different enemies and drops.
You could also, of course, pick a different character class for even more replay value. And there's the two-player online cooperative mode, which I haven't tried because there is only one of me.
But for that sort of player who enjoys playing through a game once to see the story and get the experience, Too Human will end long before its time and with not nearly enough payoff for all the story exposition. And it's an uneven 10 hours at best: Sometimes I had a great time mowing down enemies and racking up combos, but sometimes the gameplay just felt frustrating and/or repetitive.
Too Human will be available Aug. 19. I expect that it will garner a very wide range of review scores.
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