What to say about Too Human, the first in a planned Xbox 360 exclusive dungeon crawler trilogy? We've finished the single-player campaign, tested all five of the game's classes, dabbled in two-player online co-op and levelled our main 'Champion' class Baldur, the game's cybernetically enhanced protagonist God, past level 30, and we're still not sure what we think about it.
Our conundrum is this: Too Human is rubbish and mysteriously addictive all at the same time. It's not as bad as you might have heard, but nowhere near as good as it should have been. It's a game that had us tearing our hair out in frustration, had us laughing at its technical failings and bemused by its ridiculous plot, and yet we played it obsessively for five days solid, and, during that time, actually enjoyed ourselves quite a bit.
Silicon Knights' head honcho, Denis Dyack, doesn't believe a game's development, however arduous, should factor into its review, so we won't mention the fact that Too Human has been in the works for nearly 10 years, has suffered a game engine re-write and generated a ton of negative hype on hardcore forums. Hold on...
Too Human opens with a quote from post-modernist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he doesn't become one himself." Puzzled? Don't be. Set in a Norse mythology-inspired cyber-punk world, the game asks the question: would you sacrifice your humanity in order to save humanity? The problem is Too Human doesn't bother to answer its own question properly.
You play Baldur, the son of Odin and the youngest of the Aesir, a race of cybernetically enhanced humans worshipped as if gods and charged with defending the human race from an army of machines. The story begins with Baldur's rescue from Helheim, a smoke-filled necropolis where the dishonourable dead are sent to rot. We then skip forward nine months to the attack on a bar by a monstrous troll-like machine. A rejuvenated Baldur fends the beast off, dismembering its arm in the process, but not before he witnesses it drink the blood of one of its victims. Back at the Aesir palace, Baldur pleads with Heimdall, the 'watchman' of the Aesir, to allow him to investigate. Heimdall's problem is that the forces of Helheim have declared war on Aesir, breaking a long-standing pact with Midgar, the walled enclave where the last million or so humans reside. But Baldur, being the righteous so and so that he is, convinces his boss to see things his way, and so heads off into the frozen wastes with a few dozen human marines to take it to the machines. Confused? Don't worry, we were too. Too Human's plot, told entirely through around an hour and a half of high quality cut scenes and in-game narration, is bemusing, ill conceived and poorly told.
In reality though Too Human's story takes a back seat to the combat-heavy dungeon crawling. You'll get your first taste of this during the first level, Hall of Heroes, an icy tomb filled with giant stone statues of Norse gods. The game has been compared to Blizzard's massively popular PC game Diablo, and we can see why. You move from room to room clearing out endless streams of mechanised goblins, dark elves and trolls (imagine the troll from the first The Lord of the Rings movie except in robot form) until you reach the end of the level and battle a boss. Too Human follows this dungeon crawler format pretty religiously throughout its four levels, incorporating RPG tech tree based skill spending to keep you occupied as you go.
Your main motivation though is the collection of loot. In fact, for us, that was the only motivation. But that's a strong one for the right kind of gamer. If you've ever spent hours raiding dungeons in World of Warcraft praying for epic drops, you'll know what we mean. Too Human does a great job of getting into your head and forcing you to keep playing in the hope that you'll stumble upon an even better double-handed sword than the one you've currently got equipped, or an even better helmet than the one sitting on your head, or an even better pair of boots than the ones warming your feet. Whenever you land a purple coloured item an epic sounding monk choir 'mmwwhaaaaah' noise blasts from your speakers. Land an orange item and it sounds like Odin himself gets in on the act. Land a red item, the rarest in the game (expect to repeatedly crawl the game's dungeons for at least 20 hours before you see one) and all hell breaks loose. It's probably the coolest thing the game has to offer.
It's a strange thing to get addicted to, especially when you consider that you'll only be able to show your gear off to one player at any one time in the online co-op, not hundreds of jealous virtual avatars in front of the bank in Ironforge. And yet Too Human's addictiveness is unavoidable - a bit like Cherry Coke.
To get the loot you so desire you need to get to grips with Too Human's at first jarring but ultimately satisfying combat. Dyack says it's the most complex combat system ever seen in a game of this genre. By genre we assume he means dungeon crawler, because it's nursery school stuff compared with other combo centric third-person action games on the 360, like Devil May Cry 4 and Ninja Gaiden II.
Melee attacks are directed with the right thumb stick, which sounds simple in theory but takes half an hour or so to get used to. By pointing the stick in the direction of an enemy Baldur will slide toward it and attack with his currently equipped melee weapon (swords, staves or hammers). You can either keep the stick pushed toward the enemy and continue hitting, or direct it towards another nearby enemy, causing Baldur to slide toward that and start attacking.
The idea is to aim towards a new enemy just as Baldur strikes a killing blow, causing him to seamlessly slide from goblin to goblin and rack up combo bonuses. Against more powerful enemies it's a good idea to double tap the stick, causing Baldur to hit his enemy high into the air. From there, rekindling memories of DMC's Dante, you can jump (A) and use the stick to combo in the air. Then, as you fall back down to earth you can whip out your ranged weapon (pistols, rifles or cannons) with the right trigger and finish them off before they even touch the ground.
At its best Too Human's combat feels incredibly smooth, satisfying and oddly therapeutic, especially when there are tons of cannon fodder goblins just waiting to be sliced up. Sliding from one enemy to the other at speed looks great and, once you've wrapped your head around it, feels more like Bizarre Creation's incredible analogue-based 2D shooter Geometry Wars than, say, God of War. It's just a shame that it's let down by bouts of frustration, boredom and technical failings.
Let's go through each of those criticisms one by one. The frustration comes from constant death and the 'tear your hair out' camera - because the right stick is reserved for attacks the only control you have over the camera is centring it directly behind Baldur with RB. You will die in Too Human. A lot. In the game's last two levels we died more times than we could count. What's worse - when you die an angelic Valkyrie appears from Valhalla to resurrect you. This cinematic takes about 15 seconds to complete, but, when you've died for the 10th time in five minutes, it feels like it takes a year.
The boredom comes from the repetitive nature of the combat. While there are only four levels each is huge and can take hours to wade through, especially if you fancy exploring. And because there are only three base enemies to fight things can feel very samey (you can climb on the back of trolls and one hit kill them). The environments certainly have their moments (the World Serpent level, set inside a massive, mechanised sea creature frozen in the ice is of particular note), but the bosses are incredibly anti-climactic and the Cyberspace sections - pointless puzzle sections set in Too Human's version of the internet - are sleep inducing.
And finally, the technical problems. Silicon Knights originally planned for Too Human to support four-player online co-op play but dropped it down to two. You'd think that would be to ensure a quality experience but the game still feels unfinished. The frame rate can drop to absolutely shocking levels, especially when explosions fill the screen. Baldur's animations are poor - his jump particularly bad. It's even worse in co-op. We know this is a dungeon crawler and so a linear experience is implied, but we haven't seen this many invisible walls for years. It's puzzling. We quite like Too Human's art style - the game's main hub, from which you select missions and visit weapon, armour and cybernetics shops is beautifully designed, as are very specific sections of the game's levels - but on the whole there's little to grab you, smack you in the face and demand your admiration.
To a certain extent we can forgive Too Human these failings, if only because we're suckers for loot. But what we can't forgive is how the game completely ignores the philosophical question its title suggests forms the cornerstone of its story: would you sacrifice your humanity in order to save it? At no point does Too Human ever ask the player to tackle this interesting question as anything other than a statistical consideration.
When you hit level 10, which happens pretty quickly, you're asked to choose an alignment - human or cybernetic. This, we thought, would be where things would start to get interesting. But all the decision amounts to is a choice between two different tech trees to add to the three your class already has to pump skill points into. The story is not affected in any way, and neither, at the end of the day, is Baldur's character.
This is the most disappointing thing about Too Human. Not the repetitive combat, or the technical issues, or the frustrating, endless death, but the plot. While the issue may be explored further in the next game, we expected more from the first. It's a big let down.
It took us just under 10 hours to complete our first run through of Too Human (the ending is particularly underwhelming, neither whetting our appetite for the next game or resolving any of the plot's twists). Ultimately it's a game that has failed to deliver on its promise or reach its potential, but it does plenty of things right, there isn't anything like it on the 360 and it retains a certain addictive quality we rarely experience.
We're a bit worried for the sequel, though. Bar allowing you to transfer your Baldur over and raising the level cap, we're not sure what Silicon Knights can do to drastically improve the core gameplay. Perhaps four player co-op will do the trick.