Machines Of Loving Grace

   17/07/2006 at 09:07       Phil May       8 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.
-Sun Tzu, the Art of War

So, that Demo then...and also the lack of any pomp and hype surrounding this game. What to make of it?

To set the record straight, Chrome Hounds was never going to be seen in a favourable light based on the Xbox Live Marketplace demo. Imagine going to see James Cameron's underwater opus "The Abyss" at the cinema, when it was originally released. Fine, great film, lovely effects, superb drowning sequence with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Then some years later you watch the Director's Cut and realise that though you liked the film enough, the entire subplot and storyline's strengths had been ripped heartlessly out.

So it is with Chrome Hounds. A game concerning the Neroimus War between three opposing factions, The Democratic Republic of Tarakia, the Republic of Morskoj (Yay!) and the Kingdom of Sal Kar. Storylines are unimportant here, but the faction whose mast you nail your colours to is. Allegiance to any one of these factions becomes like supporting your favourite football team, something of an obsession.

Dealing with the LIVE aspect first, the war is persistent and ongoing. Once you have assembled your squad of 20 goons, you're ready to take part in the online campaign - a campaign that never sleeps until the war is won. You can take part as a squad, or you can even go solo and still contribute to the war effort (though given the toughness of the enemy AI, this is not advisable for noobs till you've built a mech that can truly kick ass). This is one of the most exciting aspects of any game on the 360 and one that several other developers need to take a good long hard look at. Your squad's home room becomes almost like an officer's club. You login to live, check out the state of the war, receive news broadcasts from the central servers and you can twiddle with your Hound, a huge three storey tall Mech with interchangeable parts. It's worth looking at this part of the game separately as it does provide some of the most enjoyable moments.

Bring war material with you from home, but forage on the enemy... use the conquered foe to augment one's own strength.
-Sun Tzu, the Art of War

Mech Building in Chrome Hounds is utterly superb. Once you have the measure of the user interface for the "Garage" part of Chrome Hounds, you can start the fine art of balancing out enough weaponry to keep your arse covered in battle, with enough agility to ensure that your Mech isn't going to be a slouch. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and many battles have been lost by me because I've gone for some overblown long range weaponry on a pissy little chassis not man enough for the task.

There is a truly stunning array of parts on offer, enabling even the most diehard tweaker to produce a Hound that's unique and well balanced to their own abilities and tastes. At present, I'm going for the lightweight "hit and run" style of Hound, but if you're well nested enough with your squad, it soon becomes apparent that balancing a good squad out with a mix of different mechs with different abilities is the only way to win the battle, if not the war. As well as parts earned in the single player campaign, you can use your hard-earned mercenary money in the shop to buy extra parts, and even more deliciously, you can enter a daily lottery to either win scavenged parts from the battlefield, or grab experimental parts from your own labs. This is an absolutely superb addition to the game, and often means falling out with your squad mates when the greedy gits always win the bits you had your heart set on!

Anyone with even a passing interest in all things big, stompy and robotic will be twiddling with their mech's load-out for hours. Paint jobs and insignia can also be added, so you can tailor your squad to look like they belong together which is not a bad idea, given the amount of friendly fire incidents in the game. It gets that tense that you find your trigger finger twitching and you do end up loosing off a few rounds at your buddies from time to time, so an instantly recognisable paint job is a good start (unless you play night missions and use your night vision, alas everyone looks the same sickly shade of green during those!)

The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I'll touch on the single player modes a little, though again I make no apologies for stressing that if you're never going to take this game online, you might as well not bother. Single Player consists of a story mode which covers the various Hound disciplines, from the elite all round soldier mech, to the specialist snipers, defenders, commanders and scouts. Each particular mech type depends on the sum of its parts, so as you can imagine scouts are lightweight, loaded to the gills with sonar and other electronic surveillance devices but poorly armed. Snipers specialise in long-distance combat and stealthy tactics, whereas Defenders are like war elephants, slow and heavy but crammed to the gills with mech-busting armaments. You will develop your own particular favourite but it's worth playing the single player modes even if you're a die hard LIVE player, just to get a feel for each mech type and also to win useful parts you can bolt on to your own mech design.

There are single player modes in LIVE play also, in fact you can choose to work through several sorties which will garner you cash with no overall contribution to the war effort. Again these can almost be treated as training missions if you've just built a new mech and want to test it out on something slightly meatier than the test field. To be brutally frank though, I'm left wishing that FROM hadn't bothered with single player at all. It sounds harsh to say it, but I would've preferred a more rounded LIVE experience at the risk of sacrificing the rather tedious storyline. I found myself skipping it as quickly as possible to get back into the action.

The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.
- Sun Tzu

My last words of advice for anyone interested in this game are to talk to people who've played it in depth. Unfortunately at the moment Chromehounds is receiving a few pretty mediocre reviews, largely based on the single player experience. During an intense online battle, the outcome of which could swing the tide of war one way or another, there are very few games on any console that can match the levels of tension. In fact in some ways Chrome Hounds almost seems too ambitious a title for consoles, it feels more like a deeply strategic PC game. Gameplay may be simple - a case of either capturing communications towers, killing all the enemies or destroying the enemy's commander or command centre - but it is strangely addictive and satisfying and if you've got a decent squad you will find that the game just eats hours and hours of your time (particularly if you're into mech-envy and you want to put together a Hound that will make your squad mates jealous).

Graphically the game has some truly jaw dropping moments too. As you'd expect, the Hounds themselves are wonderfully clanky, huge and robotic and look the part (none of your rubbishy smooth-lined curvy japanese mechs here thank you very much, these babies look like they're built to make someone's life a misery!) One moment had me in awe, I'd managed to somehow submerge my mech underwater - it trundled along the bottom of the river before emerging on the other bank, and as it did so the water slowly trickled from my display in such a realistic fashion that it felt like coming up for air after a dive. Truly stunning. And needless to say there are some quite spectacular explosions in the game too, particularly if your squad unleashes a salvo of rockets onto a command centre and the thing explodes satisfyingly in flame and billowing smoke.

Sound is minimalist, militaristic and does nothing more or nothing less than set the scene albeit rather atmospherically (the in-game music gets on your tits after a while so you'll find yourself killing it off).

I've only really scratched the surface of this game and I'm aching to get back into the fight. I've covered the main points here though, and I would urge anyone who even had a glimmer of enjoyment from the demo to pick this up. Those who hated the demo outright, complaining that the action was too slow need to try the full game too as once you put together a speedier scout mech things do get a lot more intense. There is such sheer variety in what you can build that there's definitely something for everyone here unless of course you're a bit of a solo maverick, in which case it's probably best not to bother.
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