I think it is safe to say that mech games are an acquired taste and not for everyone. For the uninitiated, mech games usually feature huge hulking mechanised units which are normally bi-pedal although many other varieties are available. The mechs are normally heavily armed and the crux of why they are either loved or hated is the fact that some move with the speed of a one legged cheetah! On Xbox, gamers had the delights of the Mechwarrior series, which garnered praise from the die hard players and perhaps alienated newcomers. Mechwarrior was the pinnacle of mech games on Xbox (excluding the extremely expensive Steel Battalion complete with its unique and rare to come by controller) and offered a more arcade experience on and offline.
Well that was then and this is now and with the advent of new hardware there’s always going to be the first game in a genre and most noticeably, Chromehounds fits the bill as the first mech game on the Xbox 360. Chromehounds offers a more simulation approach if that’s even possible; however maybe simulation is the wrong term to use and so tactical is perhaps more suited. It’s really the expanded tactical element that separates Chromehounds from the Mechwarrior games.
Chromehounds offers two main modes of play which comprise of a single player campaign and an online multiplayer. The single player campaign introduces the player to the various classes of mechs that feature and it is here where players can choose a mission path for a particular mech and learn the nuances that accompany it. There are 6 mech classes which include, Sniper, Scout, Heavy, Soldier, Command, Defender. Each mech class has its own strengths and weaknesses and of course differing roles during the course of battle. The story mode basically teaches you everything you need to know about the capabilities of each class and what their primary roles should be during combat. In reality players can use their own style of play for any mech but the story simply serves as an elaborate guide line for their use.
For me anyways, the actual story was not that important although players keen on assuming the role of Mercenary pilot can learn a lot about the history and political situation in the game by taking notes of the briefings and overviews prior to and after missions. There’s also some background info available if you care to dig deeper, including a historical timeline. The story tells a tale of two great superpowers that clash and tear the world apart with war and destruction. The war brings the development of new technology and war machines known as “Hounds”. In a world in which conventional warfare is deemed useless the hounds take centre stage to become the new instruments of war. Twenty years pass and the world is still a hotbed of war and destruction as skirmishes break out across the lands. This is where you the gamer come in as you enlist in a mercenary force known as the Rafzakael, however with a greater war looming on the horizon players eventually choose which of the 3 factions (Tarakia, Morskoj and Sal Kar) they will ultimately work for in the Neroimus region war that ensues online.
During the story missions, which get progressively more complex, players undertake objectives versus AI which includes other mechanized vehicles or Hounds, foot soldiers, gun emplacements and tanks even the occasional foot soldier. The first point of learning is navigating the map and understanding how it works. Scattered across the lands are various communication towers (COMBAS) which once activated will allow units on your team to communicate with each other within the tower’s range. The effect of this diminishes in the story mode as there are no team mates as such, other than computer controlled units who provide assistance and general radio banter. There are also enemy and allied bases on the maps which when destroyed means game over; more so in the multiplayer game. Single player missions usually entail simply destroying enemy units under varying combat situations. The story mode is a great introduction to the various strengths and weaknesses of the classes and should really be a first stop for any gamer wishing to spend time with the game. After each mission you are ranked which in turn unlocks parts for your hound (more on parts later).
I think the first thing that players will notice when they begin playing Chromehounds are the large scale maps which are based on various geological regions such as forest, mountainous and even snowy regions. There are also a few weather effects such as fog, snow and rain which can affect visibility. The maps are reasonably varied and there are a number of them but in general are quite barren unless in one of the more populated maps which features plenty of destructible buildings. The second and most prominent thing that players will notice in their first foray into the game is the pacing which as mentioned earlier is a little on the slow side. Initially what players are presented with are slow moving mechanized vehicles combined with large maps and few enemies. More often than not, players will perhaps spend as much time getting from A to B alone than actual fighting enemies. At first this might sound like utter boringness and perhaps it’s this fact that will separate hardcore Mech players from the casuals; however once some understanding of how the game works (which you should have once you’ve beaten all of the single player missions) then it becomes clear why it’s set up in this way. There are speedier mechs available should the player choose to build one; however these sacrifice durability for speed making them good for scouting objectives only. Although with the right balance of weapons can still make formidable opponents.
For many players, the single player only serves as a tutorial of sorts for the real deal that is the multiplayer. Sadly for single players not connected to Live the story mode is the only option available, however players are able to create mechs and then use which ever class they desire for any of the 44 missions to try for top ranks. Creating mechs is a simple process in which players create a base for movement which can be wheels or legs, hovercraft, treads etc and then a cockpit is added followed by a generator and then finally some weapons if needed. Depending on what base is used and what weapons are added determines what can be carried and what class your construction falls under. There are various other components which can be added meaning that players can get creative with their creations and also meaning that there should be no two mechs exactly the same. When you couple this with the choice of being able to create decals and paint them on as well as messing around with colour schemes; Chromehounds certainly caters for players wishing to add that personal touch to their playing. The mech construction aspect is perhaps a little daunting at first but like the rest of the game with a little patience and understanding becomes quite clear and easy to use. I think most players will spend enough time here experimenting with the various parts in the quest to make a formidable number of fighting machines. This is a defining addition to the game and one that is most welcome as it takes console mech games to a new level.
It’s probably easy to dismiss Chromehound’s graphics as barren and dull due to the large open maps however I think after extended play you begin to appreciate the small details. For instance trees which flatten underfoot and even stay collapsed on the ground; or during night time missions, the use of lighting becomes more apparent and looks very good indeed as explosions light up the night sky most realistically. Then there’s things like the explosions and plumes of thick dark smoke which again look very convincing. The mechs themselves look as authentic as you would expect these giant beasts to be and also animate very fluidly. The grainy viewpoint via the mechs gun cameras is also a simple effect but adds to the immersive aspect of the game especially when getting shot and static appears on the screen. There are some impressive real time shadows on every object in the game and some equally impressive physics as most if not all of the structures in the game are destructible. All of the effects in Chromehounds are impressive and help create an enjoyable playing experience and when looking as a whole, Chromehounds is fairly detailed and sharp looking. On a negative I did notice a fair bit of screen tearing which happens when turning ; however this didn’t affect game play at all and is something players should be able to live with quite comfortably.
As barren as many of the maps the sound is also rather bare with the only sounds your most likely to hear often is the sound of your mech moving, radio chatter and weapons sounds. There’s some unobtrusive music in the game and some rather haunting menu music as well however the music serves no purpose other than to fill the void of emptiness and create some sort of aural atmosphere. When players are travelling barren terrain there’s not much to listen to and I noticed that there was a distinct lack of ambient sounds. The radio chatter itself is acted to a reasonable standard and is in fact standard fare neither brilliant nor bad. In general the best sounds come from the firing of weapons and the destructive brilliance that is when you destroy tricky opponents.
Chromehounds offers a reasonable length story mode which should take players quite some time to complete and gain top marks in each of the 44 missions. The playing around with the build a mech feature again means that there’s an unlimited amount of options available for lone players not connected to Xbox Live. For those players who are connected to Live, have a whole heap of options available to them including taking part in the Neroimus War. To begin players can opt to play in 6 versus 6 ranked and unranked versus modes such as capture the flag, death match, team death match and other various team modes. Players are also able to participate in co-op missions versus the computer in a number of free missions which aren’t affiliated with the war.
The Neroimus war is perhaps the best and most interesting mode of play in the game as once players start for the first time they have to join or create a squad. A squad can be one to twenty members in size and once formed enable you to choose one of the three factions and then get stuck into conquering strategic points on the world map. Once a faction is selected players can alone or as a team take on other human players or the computer (versus computer being a very good way to practice first). The way the world map is set up is that each strategic area has a set number of points which deduct if an enemy faction attacks and wins. Once the points are depleted then the area is captured. If an enemy’s base town is captured then they are out of the game and can only participate as a mercenary. The war ends when one faction is victorious over the other two by having the last remaining base town.
The Neroimus war is fairly grand with some 70, 000 troops on each of the three factions. There’s a real sense of accomplishment especially for players on their own that if and when they win a fight versus human or computer that their actions have helped in the grand scheme of things. In the Neroimus war screen players are able to check all sorts of stats and other details to keep them up to date. There are also some neat news bulletins that appear on the world map screen which keeps you up to date with events that happen and inform you about areas that need urgent defence or attack.
The actual combat itself is a mixed bag as human players have better tactics than the computer. In a full team, players are encouraged to mix up their mech choices to give them the biggest advantage possible. Communications is also key, as teams that choose to play silently generally don’t do as well as co-ordinated teams that use the headset. With machine guns, rockets, missiles, bombs, sniper rifles combat is intense and brutal as players circle each other in combat. Ultimately Chromehounds’ multiplayer is fun, tense, engaging and this is what counts in any multiplayer game. I think with the online multiplayer, over time when players get to grips with the game a little more there will be more tactics applied making for some very intense games.
To surmise, Chromehounds is a very fun third/first person combat game if you take the time to fully understand its nuances and features. Once you get over the initial speed of the game and focus on the more tactical element then players will have a better time. However I fear that many players will lack the patience, especially if they are used to fast paced first person shooters. With its wealth of customising options and the online component there’s certainly a lot to do here although those without Xbox Live might feel a little short changed. I am enjoying the game still and feel that Chromehounds like previous mech games will have its cult following but wont be generally accepted in the same light by the masses. You really do have to invest a lot of time to get the most out of the game, especially if you are after the achievements and so for casual gamers this is another reason to perhaps not fully enjoy the game. I suggest that unsure players should rent first to see if this is their thing or not; but for anyone else looking for a decent challenge then I would thoroughly recommend Chromehounds.