At the Electronic Gaming Expo in 1999, Silicon Knights announced an ambitious, four-disc project they called Too Human. Since then, the title has had a tumultuous development history, finding a potential home on Nintendo's GameCube before finally settling on Microsoft's Xbox 360 many years later.
But it doesn't end there -- after a less-than-stellar showing at E3 2006, Silicon Knight's president and founder, Denis Dyack, came out as one of the game's most outspoken defenders. He challenged gaming journalists who panned the early E3 demo, stating that it was just that: an early, incomplete representation of the final product.
Whether he liked it or not, these slightly negative previews haunted the game, with the cynical eye of many gamers viewing the game in a bad light. Then Dyack pulled the ballsiest move a developer could dare: he issued a challenge to users of the NeoGAF forums, the popular (and arguably "influential") videogame discussion board.
"Prior to the release of Too Human," Dyack wrote. "posters say whether they are 'for' or 'against' the game, judging from previews and footage they've seen."
As the "bet" goes, if the game is released to poor reviews, Dyack will wear an "Owned by GAF" tag under his username. If the game is well-received, all of those who voted "against" will have their names tagged with "Owned by Too Human." According to Dyack, he has an advantage -- he's actually played the game, and he thinks it's the bees knees.
Not long after this challenge was broadcast across the Internet, we received a preview build of Too Human, and now we also have an advantage -- we've played the game, too. We wouldn't want you to blindly throw your hat into the most heated debate of the summer, so we're going to help you out: are you 'for' or 'against' Too Human?
[IMPORTANT NOTE: Before we go any further, it has to be made clear that as with all preview builds of games, what we played is not final code. Microsoft even made it clear in a letter they sent along with the disc: "press evaluation builds are never as fully optimized as the final product." We've been around the block a few times, and we understand that; we just need to make sure you do, as well.
But by Microsoft's own admission -- especially when a game is only two months away from release -- many times these builds contain gameplay, features, and story elements that won't vary much from the final retail code. With that in mind, we have to repeat that this is not a review; any notes "for" or "against" Too Human can change when the game ships this August.]
With that said ...
You’re more addicted to leveling up than Amy Winehouse is to crack.
Whether you’re an Xbox 360 achievement whore or a World of Warcraft addict, you surely know the simple pleasures of earning experience points or pushing your character to the next level. At its heart, Too Human is all about role-playing, hack-and-slash adventure, not unlike Blizzard’s Diablo. And for experience, skill, and rare-drop junkies, Too Human delivers.
At the game’s outset, you’ll choose one of five warrior classes: Beserker, Champion, Defender, Commando, and Bio Engineer. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses, as you’d expect -- the Berserker is strong in melee and can dual-wield melee-type weapons, but has inherently lower health; the Bio Engineer can heal, but has diminished melee and missile damage; and so on.
The "language" that Too Human speaks to the player in respect to leveling up should be familiar to fans of action role-playing titles. With a level cap of 50, there’s plenty of room for self-improvement; starting at 2, each experience level will give you points that can be assigned to your character’s skill tree. As you get deeper into the game, the skill tree also plays on the game’s themes of science versus nature, giving you the opportunity to enhance your natural human abilities or cybernetic powers ("at the cost of your humanity," as the game’s instruction manual so dramatically puts it) through a secondary skill tree.
You're still mad your mom threw out your Transformers figures when you were a kid and you like to collect things.
Collectors take note: there sure is a lot of stuff to pick up in Too Human. Clearing out a single room of mechanical goblins will result in a number of random drops, including weapons, armor, runes, charms, and blueprints to create new types of armor and weaponry. Changing things like your helmet and leggings will alter the appearance of the game's lead, Baldur, so there’s plenty of room for customization. According to Silicon Knights, there are over 400,000 combinations of this crap, so they’ve got you covered for a while.
Additionally, downloadable content should add loot to your collection, which will likely reach into your wallet as well as being available via things like pre-order promotions. It should also be noted that we’ve been laughing for weeks at the awesomely random names like "Strong Viking Sword of Pounding," "Ancient Mattock of Ensnaring," and "Strong Pistols of Savagery."
You think clearing out rooms of mechanical goblins, elves, and trolls with a pal is fun.
Sure, heading into the "Hall of Heroes" or the "Ice Forest" alone (or with A.I. back-up soldiers who seemingly do nothing but die) is fun. But why go it alone when you can head online and take on mechanical goblins and trolls with a friend?
While the game’s narrative doesn’t really carry over into the online cooperative multiplayer (both characters will be playing their own versions of Baldur, after all), nearly all of the single-player areas can be handled with a buddy. During our online sessions we noticed some areas were tweaked for co-op, including enemy placement and level design (there was one cool maze-like portion added into the "Hall of Heroes" that’s particularly memorable).
Online play was smooth between Baltimore (where we were) and Canada (where Silicon Knights were), and it’s important to mention that you’ll use the same character online as you would off. That means any loot and experience gained in a cooperative online game will carry over into your single-player experience. Players can also swap items, so if your friend actually likes you and picks up a "Furious Hammer of Fury and Furiosity" that’s just perfect for your Berserker, you’re in luck. (Note: We made that weapon up, but we’d gladly pay 50 MS Points for something with that name.)
We cry because there's no offline cooperative play; we seem to remember Silicon Knights promising four-player cooperative, and the game only has support for two. But we had enough fun with our cooperative game that we're willing to give them a pass.
You’ve been waiting nine years for this.
Do you still have a pre-order at GameStop for the PlayStation version of Too Human? How about for the GameCube? Hey, they still have your five dollars, and it’s actually -- for serious -- coming out this August. Finally, a game to play on your Xbox 360; there certainly haven’t been enough of them. Bottom line: you’ve invested too much of your life waiting for this game, and throwing your name into the "against" hat is just too painful. It has to be good.
You’ve earned skill points! Press the "start" button to … navigate through a bunch of menus?
For a game that’s so heavily based in items drops and earning experience, you’d think Silicon Knights would go to great lengths in order to make the menu system intuitive and easy to navigate. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Example: after a heated battle that ends in you picking up a ton of sweet items, you level up. You want to take a breather to check out your new loot, and distribute some of your new skill points. The top right of the screen alerts you that you’ve leveled up and have accrued said skill points to distribute; the "start" button icon appears next to "Skill Point!" text that’s displayed on the screen. So you hit start.
This is when it happens -- the game brings up the standard pause menu, a wheel menu that gives you access to control options, your equipment, the ability to save and quit the game, and ... oh yeah, your stats are in there somewhere. So here’s the problem: why -- when the game knows I have skill points to distribute and has even yelled at me to press "start" to do something about it -- am I not brought directly to the skill distribution screen? Considering that you’ll be leveling up quite frequently for your character’s first 10 to 15 levels, this gets irritating rather quickly.
Too Human features a pretty decent "auto-salvage" system that will organize your gear and dump your more useless crap behind the scenes, which is helpful. But why stop there? It’s disappointing that menu navigation isn’t more user-friendly, and even hardcore gamers will agree that a more seamless in-and-out between gameplay and back-end maintenance is key in a console game of Too Human’s nature.
You’re a control freak, and Silicon Knights has your camera but doesn’t really want to give it back.
When Silicon Knights dropped Eternal Darkness on the GameCube, it introduced some interesting ideas in how the camera and its angles could be used in game. By taking most of the control away from the player, Silicon Knights was able to deliver dramatic sequences that took place in-game, where both the player and the developer had equal share of what was happening on screen. The results were varied, but mostly successful for the survival-horror gameplay of Eternal Darkness.
In Too Human, Silicon Knights attempts to employ a similar system, but we’re not sure if we’re fans of it for a game that’s basically a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. The camera will switch to dramatic angles mid-game, triggering what can best be described as interactive cut-scenes where you’re still given control of your player. In a few instances, it works. But in too many, it’s jarring and confusing, and sometimes takes you out of the game more than it enhances the experience.
Additionally, because the right analog stick is reserved for melee combat (holding the stick or flicking the stick will result in different types of attacks), what would normally move the camera about draws your swords instead. It can be confusing at first, and takes awhile to get used to, and wouldn’t be a huge problem if the game’s camera acted more intelligently on its own. Action in Too Human can get pretty fast and intense, with enemies often on all sides of you and sometimes (frustratingly) off-camera.
The game offers a few different camera styles: close, near, standard, back, and far. All give you a different perspective on the action (having the camera pulled back "far" was most helpful in large groups), but we like being able to see where we want, when we want once in a while.
It’s 2008, and you don’t like your games to look like first-gen Xbox 360 titles.
Okay, this one might be a little harsh, but it has to be said -- when compared to the wide breadth of next-generation titles on the market today, Too Human ain’t all that in the visual department. Sure, the art style is interesting and inspired, with its not-so-subtle cyber-mythical beings and environments. But anyone looking for a mind-blowing visual tour-de-force may have to look elsewhere.
Silicon Knights (now famously) turned around and placed blame for development delays on Epic’s Unreal Engine 3.0, which was to originally power the long-in-development title. In the end, Silicon Knights built their own engine from the ground up, and the results are ... well, the game’s done, right?
An Unreal Engine 3.0-powered game like Gears of War still impresses with its visuals nearly two years after its release. Too Human’s graphics have some of the next-gen bells and whistles that you might expect, but the animation and textures (particularly prevalent and slightly embarrassing during the cut-scenes) may let some more discerning gamers down.
You’ve been waiting nine years for this?
It’s up for debate as to whether or not any game is truly perfect; considering how long this game has been in production (and how much Silicon Knights has set themselves up to prove), perhaps Too Human lacks the expected polish. Should gamers be harsher on the title because of its history? Answer: maybe.
So now that we've armed you with some first-hand information, will you be "for" or "against" Too Human when it ships on August 19?