A lot of great people have suffered for their art: Van Gogh lopped off his ear, Salman Rushdie had a bounty put on his head for writing the Satanic Verses, and I played Chromehounds for a week. This may be a tiny bit of exaggeration on my part, although I did once slip with a razor and nick off part of my ear, but I wonder how long those two guys would have been happy to spend aimlessly wandering an apparently barren and deserted battlefield, in a vehicle boasting all the pace of a limping tortoise.
The sad part is Chromehounds starts so well. A breathtaking intro movie, once the star of E3 a couple of years back, shows giant robots crashing through a city in an epic, explosive battle that sends a tingle down the viewer's spine. "This is going to be incredible," they tell themselves before signing up for the kind of war previously only depicted in those awesome Manga flicks.
Hands trembling with barely contained excitement, they click on the Story Mode option and watch another tantalising movie that sets the scene for the action. Despite a disclaimer to the contrary ("This game bears no resemblance to real events..."), the game essentially depicts an alternate future where the Cold War ended much, much worse. Twenty years later and the world is caught in the grip of a never-ending Eurasian conflict where only the side with the biggest robots will emerge victorious. You join the battle as a mercenary ready to fight for the highest bidder in your Mech (sorry, Hound) and make a wad of cash in the process. Trust me, by now you will be at fever pitch - "I want to blow things up and bring peace to this troubled, fictional world. Just let me at 'em!"
Then the training begins and your enthusiasm for a great evening's entertainment couldn't be more swiftly quelled if your telly got stuck on a BBC4 documentary about Polish architecture. (Writer's note: Analogy based on a true, painful story - I was forced to read a book). A series of story arcs are laid out for you to choose from, each based on a particular class of Mech (sorry, Hound) - Soldier, Scout, Sniper, Heavy Gunner and, for the real warmongers amongst you, Commander, and there are a handful of missions to complete for each.
These sorties mainly serve to train you up for the real battles online, with a gradually increasing number of bad guys to blow away and more objectives to complete, but there was really no reason to make them so turgid and unrewarding. The initial missions are especially painful, with an excruciatingly slow talker of a Commander telling you to "move... to... point... E5... on... the... map." It feels like being taught Chess but without the sense you're learning something useful and intelligent. The in between mission updates hardly stir the blood either, thanks to a narrator who sounds like his previous work was recording guided meditations and the dreary animations of flags moving around a featureless map.
To be fair, the later levels are little more dramatic - with more Mechs (sorry, Hounds) and smaller enemies (soldiers, tanks) to fend off - but, even then, the vague instructions from your Commander often leave you wandering the huge battlefields, wondering where the action is. When it does occasionally work, though, like when attackers are coming relentlessly from all sides, Chromehounds is fleetingly a real blast and you can almost smell the leaking gasoline of potential for a truly great game.
The Mechs (sorry, Hounds) certainly don't help matters. While they look big and powerful, stalking one carrying anything more than a light machine gun across a vast desert can take almost all of the 15-minute mission time. Even the Scouts, with their four wheels and lower weight, only move a fraction faster, and a slight incline can bring them to a near halt. Did I forget to mention, despite previous subtle hints, not once in the game are the vehicles referred to as Mechs, despite the fact that's what they clearly are and nobody, NOBODY, calls them Hounds online. Is there some sort of copyright thing going on or does that particular noun scare the marketing folk, who would rather baffle the public into buying an obscurely titled game than pigeonhole it into a niche genre?
Anyway, building your own 'Hound' is remarkably easy once you get the hang of the in-game garage and certainly prove more fun, and powerful, than borrowing a pre-designed one. While my early efforts looked not dissimilar to Number 5 from Short Circuit, complete with guns facing in the wrong direction (not too handy on the battlefield), gradually you learn how to create a less-than-lean mean killing machine. Everything is customisable and upgradeable and, apart from worrying about weight restrictions, once you have earned enough cash by completing missions there is no limit to what you can build.
While the offline modes have hardly been earning many plaudits among players, Chromehounds has been steadily building a pretty strong Xbox Live following - though it's the Americans who seem to have embraced it the most warmly. I found it nearly impossible to find a single Brit on any of the servers, while armies of Texans (I think) kept threatening to "bonk me in the..." - well, you figure it out - for firing at them. Still, I did meet some friendly American folk to play a few rounds with and everyone was keen to help out any baffled nOObs joining the fray.
It's certainly hard to fault the game's Live ambitions. An entire war is taking place and you have to pick a faction before taking part in skirmishes to conquer the Risk-style map. The conflicts can last days, or longer, and regular news flashes pop-up asking players to lend their support to a new objective. Sadly, getting involved is a chore as you have to either create your own squad or apply to join an existing one, during which you have to wait for a response that - in some cases - will never come.
For the less serious player, there are quicker options like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, in both ranked and unranked matches. Ironically, despite the scope of the main online campaign, it's here that the most pleasure can be found. Unlike most multiplayer titles, taking down an enemy is really hard work and a successful kill is a genuine cause for celebration. There are still serious problems, though, like the endless wait before matches start, the long trundle from your spawn point to the action, and a lack of players (ten is the most I've seen at once). Perhaps this highlights Chromehounds' main failing: its sense of scale. Why give players an enormous battlefield when only a few of them can play at once, meaning the majority of the round is spent ambling around a vast desert or woodland looking for something to do.
Visually, the game definitely falls into the not quite next-gen category. The Hounds look and move pretty impressively and the explosions are suitably, well, explosive, but the maps are bland, flat terrain reminiscent of the first Conflict Desert Storm, or any Delta Force title. There are also severe vertical sync problems whenever you turn, which admittedly seems to be a common 360 glitch. Sound wise, there is a stirring yet repetitive orchestral score, but the constant clanking of metal and whirring of engines can get quite irritating after prolonged play.
A lot was expected from veteran Mech game developer From Software, of Armoured Core fame, but Chromehounds is ultimately an ambitious failure that sounds great on paper but proves to be a tediously slow, uninvolving experience for anyone less than a hardcore giant robot fan. It's simply another 360 title that doesn't have enough metal (sorry, mettle) to justify its next gen status and price.