In From Software’s alternate universe, the 1980s was a period of relative peace.  In this peace was born a stalemate of nuclear proliferation in which three nations would gnash their teeth at each other resulting in a 20 year war.  Tarakia, Morskoj, and Sal Kar all turned on each other using powerful mecha called Hounds to defend their land.  This third World War, called the Neroimus War, is the focus of both the single player game and the multiplayer game in Chromehounds. 


You’ll play the game as a mercenary, seeking your payday, helping the highest bidding country in their attempts to prosecute their end of the war effort.  Sort of.  Let’s open the hood on Chromehounds and see what makes it purr, and also take a look at what makes it stall out.

The graphics in Chromehounds are, much like the overall game itself, a mixture of good and bad.  The Hounds are fantastic in detail and articulation, with servos, hydrolics, spinning sensors, and various articulated moving pieces.  They move much like you’d expect a hulking behemoth to move, especially the four legged mechs.  On the other hand, the landscapes these Hounds march across are decidedly barren and uninteresting.  If it isn’t a desert where you can’t see two feet in front of your face, it is an ice-covered plain with almost no markings.  There are a few missions that take place within cities, but these areas are practically lifeless and often repeated, so it doesn’t make a great deal of difference.  Only in multiplayer will you play on a map that truly feels like an urban landscape. There are also some wooded areas, but again they feel like window dressings, and not much at that.


The lifeless and barren landscapes do have a good side-effect – the game is almost without framerate issues.  Only when there is a great deal of fire, smoke, and debris flying is there a framerate hit.  These moments are thankfully few and far between. 


When you manage to take out enemies, they go up in a giant explosion with fire and sparks.  Unfortunately, they also simply fade away and disappear.  With a game so devoid of detail you’d figure they could leave a few dead Hounds on the field.  Sometimes you’ll see burned out tanks or bombed out buildings…I just wish the Hounds would stay there as well.  The weapons that cause the carnage are certainly fantastic to behold.  Shell casings go flying from ejection ports, and plumes of fire announce the launch of missiles.  A great amount of detail was paid to the weapon graphics. 


Overall, the game is decent to look at, and in some parts, it is simply brilliant.  Sadly though, it just doesn’t feel as ‘Next-Gen’ as many other titles.  Perhaps the sequel will see a greater amount of life and detail than this title.

Do you like repetitive female symphonic vox tracks?  Oh, then you’ll love Chromehounds.  It seems that there are all of about 3 music tracks in the game, and the primary female vox one is used fairly extensively.  While you are waiting for a mission to start, it plays this song.  While you are building your Hound it plays this song.  While you are getting your mission briefings, it plays the same song.  The fun doesn’t stop there though – the voice work is also decidedly monotonous, and because of the way the missions are set up, you’ll hear it several times as you repeat each mission several times. 


It isn’t all bad though – you do get some satisfying sound effects coming from your Hound.  The heavier Hounds sound like lumbering hulks, with a satisfying boom when they fire their heavier artillery.  Smaller Hounds, equipped with light weapons like machine guns, have a more high-pitched whine to their cannons, and their movement is often less squeaky and clunky than their heavier counterparts.  A decent effort from the folks handling sound effects, and almost no effort from the people behind the music.  Thank God for custom soundtracks.

Capcom’s Vertical Tank game, Steel Battalion, took giant mech control to the Nth degree.  Using a controller with a bevy of fully functional buttons, and dual control sticks is almost impossible to beat.  All that said, From Software did a pretty decent job approximating the movement of a giant robot with just the Xbox 360 controller.  The wheeled vehicles whip around like sand buggies, and the tracked vehicles turn on a dime.  The larger bipedal leg sets and the quadruped leg sets require a bit more coaxing to move from point A to B.  Similar to Steel Battalion, and excluding the scout, these Hounds are slow moving beasts of war, so expect that in your controls. 


The interface of the online and offline game does suffer from menu confusion.  Some of the overall interface is far from intuitive.  For instance, if you are working on a hound, there is no apparent save button.  You have to attempt to leave the garage to get the system to ask if you’d like to save.  If you work on a hound for 15 minutes, you are less likely to try to leave the garage for fear of losing that progress, making it a careful search of every menu option to try to trigger a save. 


The online interface is equally frustrating.  I logged in this morning only to be inundated with status reports about who made a donation, what areas fell, what my president wants me to do, and other things that I attempt to skip past as quickly as possible.  The storyline is so trivial and repetitive, you’ll find yourself hammering the A button once you’ve seen everything once. There is not much more frustrating than looking at 15-20 battle results, 4-5 donation notices, 3 requests for action, a message about losing the war, and then a minute and a half of slow moving text reinforcing that you’ve lost. Sadly, there is no ‘skip all’.  Future patch?  I hope so. 

In the single player game, you play the period leading up to the Neroimus War, whereas in the multiplayer game, you play this massive conflict in real time.  While it is true you are a mercenary in the single player game, you’d swear you are working freelance as you are never paid.  You get to scrounge either one or two pieces of equipment from the battlefield, but you are never permitted to purchase equipment.  You might as well be a conscript.


In the single player game, you get a brief narration about the results of your current actions, as well as a general overview of what you’ll be expected to accomplish.  When you join the mission, you’ll be given more specific instructions by a commander in the field.  I couldn’t readily name any character in the game, despite completing the single player game.  The commanders and compatriots you’ll serve with in the game are flat and lifeless, and you don’t spend enough time with them to grow attached to them in any way.  In fact, thanks to the often confusing, vague, or flat-out wrong objectives, you’ll get pretty frustrated with them.  They’ll run off and get themselves killed, all the while expecting you to accomplish multiple objectives simultaneously.  There was obviously no balance work here, and since you’ll get a part if you get a D rating or an A rating, there is little motivation to do well.  If you eek out an S rating, you’ll get two parts.  These parts are often less powerful than anything you can buy or scrounge online.  To add insult to injury, you can’t repeat any prior missions, so if you score less than an S, you’ll be stuck with the results permanently.  Thankfully, you are provided with a Hound to borrow from your patron country, and these are often balanced enough to accomplish your objectives handily. 


The single player is broken up into 6 sections.  These sections correspond to the 6 Hound types available in the game.  They start off easy with Soldier missions; a Soldier Hound being a heavy gunner suited to close combat.  They move forward through Sniper missions, Defender Missions, Heavy Gunner missions, Scout Missions, and Tactics Commander Missions.  The Defenders are the heavily armored bulldogs of the game, whereas the Scouts are the high speed spotter units.  Heavy Gunners are long-range artillery vehicles, although you won’t see them online very often.  Often, a Hound you create will actually sit somewhere in between all of these archetypes.  The one Hound that is vastly different than the others is the Tactics Commander.  This vehicle supports a heavy radar dish and antenna array which will allow you to link up with radar stations called COMBAS, allowing you to use radio communications, give unit commands, spot enemies and friendlies, and provide overwatch to the mission as a whole.  If you are playing online, it is almost necessary to have a Tactics Commander in your crew, as it will help prevent your Squad from being flanked and destroyed. 


The online game is truly where Chromehounds shines brightest.  You can form a Squad of up to 20 players, marking your hound with a custom-made squad emblem, and you can engage in a persistent online battle with thousands of other players.  Put simply, this is the online robot-battle game we’ve been waiting for.  Engaging in a persistent war with 20 of your friends, and being able to affect the outcome of the war in a meaningful way creates an interactive world.  You can deploy 6 members of your Squad at a time and engage in a Risk-style territory battle against A.I. opponents, or against human targets. Taking out the enemy bases, Hounds, and capturing COMBAS arrays helps win this war of inches.  Given that the AI is exceedingly good at deploying well balanced Hounds, the challenge level remains high.  The war will continue until one country has defeated the other two, or when two real-world months has passed.  At this point a victor is declared and the world is ‘reset’.  If your capital is smashed into oblivion, you don’t have to give up.  You can either try to fight your way back, or you can declare your loyalty to one of the remaining countries and continue the battle. 


By winning battles, you will receive pay.  You’ll have to deduct money from that paycheck to pay for repairs, ammunition, and fuel used.  Assaulting and capturing portions of the country can result in a windfall of cash in your direction.  As your country rises to power, this means you may have access to new weapons and gear.  Overall, the rich get richer.  As you complete mercenary work, you may be called upon to provide donations to the war effort.  In exchange, you’ll get a shiny medal and achievement when you donate over a certain amount. 


The real fun comes from creating Hounds.  It is akin to LEGOs or Erector Sets – you can build almost to your heart’s content, and there is no rulebook to say what is right and wrong.  Want to put heavy spacers on the side of your generators and mount huge guns on the side, making a very wide Hound?  Knock yourself out.  Want to make a really tall Hound that can peek over the top of hills?  It is your call.  Customizing and creating these monsters of metal and mayhem is very satisfying, but one-upping your squadmates is even more fun.  Trying to make the best Hound possible out of parts you’ve scrounged, parts you’ve acquired through battle, or parts you’ve won through the special part lotto system, is just a ‘collect-em-all’ bit of addiction.  I will make a suggestion though – paint your Hound an outlandish color, or risk shooting your friends in the back in the heat of battle.  We chose a radioluminescent green with camo striping.  There is no chance you’ll miss the GT Goonsquad on the battlefield.  We don’t blend.

The major contributor to the incredible longevity of the game is the multiplayer war.  If I’ve not made it very clear by this point, the single player is almost pointless, but the multiplayer is a blast.  One GT Goonsquad member has logged over 70 hours, and the addiction doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon.  For all of the game’s faults, there is no doubt that this game is a lot of fun.  I hope they make some of the much-needed interface corrections and tighten up the netcode a little bit.  Even with random disconnects, and people joining limbo online lobbies, the game is so close to being worthy of the $60 dollar price point.  The forum effect says “Buy this game”.  I’m telling you to buy it only if you have Live and want to join the persistent war, and can handle a few sticky interface issues. Every console needs a giant mech game.  Chromehounds is a great initial effort in that regard.  Sure, there are issues with the game that detract from the overall experience, but they are outweighed by the addiction of the multiplayer game.  You need to be aware that this is not the high-speed game like Virtual-On, or Armored Core tends to be, but more of a giant robot chess match.  If you are up for that sort of war, we’ll keep a spot open for you on the GT Goonsquad.

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