Chromehounds: The Neroimus War
Release: July 2006
Format: XBox 360
Genre Keywords: Tactical Combat, Shooter, Giant Robot, Online
Chromehounds started out on the wrong foot. The game was rated and hastily reviewed as a single player game when its core and heart are multiplayer. The reason? The drought of XBox 360 titles made most review sites jump at the chance to be the first - and so the poor reviewers ended up playing the single player campaign and dissmissing it as a lackluster clone of Armored Core.
Which is deserved - the campaign AI isn't very smart, the objectives are poorly defined and communicated, in some missions the translation is faulty and little mech customization is available (you play in premade Hounds). Reading the list like that, it's pretty easy to see why the game got lousy reviews. All those things missing from the single player - great opponents, a reason to fight, and mech customization - form the heart of the actual game.
Chromehounds takes place in in a world at war - three neighbouring nations of Tarakia, Morskoj and Sal Kar fight it out over 22 territories. These nations' chosen weapons are Hounds (because they hunt as a pack, y'see), advanced all-terrain configurable battle platforms - the rest of the world knows these as battlemechs™, of course. You, as a part of a squad (of 20 people maximum, 6 per battle per side) of mercenaries - are paid to fight for a country. Your squad deploys on a contested territory (the game keeps you updated with a realtime map) and fights another faction's squad. When enough wins are accumulated by a side, the territory is secured and the winning faction has a choice to advance. The back-and-forth shifting of control goes on until one victor remains, at which point the Neroimus War reboots and starts from a virgin state. You can check out the current state of the war at Sega's Chromehound page.
In order to fight, you have to create a Hound. You'll choose from a leg part (anything from nimble hover to ponderous quad legs is available), a cockpit, the sturdiness of which represents your health, and a generator to power your hulk. Every choice will steer your Hound towards a certain role, and the game will tell you if your speed makes you a better scout, or your weapon choice means you should consider the sniper mentality. These are merely suggestions and you can deploy however you like, but the role suggestion grid is a useful tool for novice pilots.
Once you have the basics, it's time to get creative with all sorts of shooty toys. Shotguns, dumbfire rockets, cannons, sniper rifles, artillery, close range machine guns and even pneumatic rams for face-to-face combat - it is entirely up to you what to pick here, and the only restriction is the weight limit. You can choose to go all offense and pile on guns; you may choose to go half and half and protect your weapons behind plate armor; or you can equip yourself with nothing but smoke mortars and go sneak about behind enemy lines, popping smoke and retreating when spotted..
This building bit is where you'll spend a significant chunk of the game - building, rebuilding, scrapping and redoing, tweaking ammo counts and leg parts to get the optimal build. As soon as you find your perfect Hound you'll get your ass kicked, or witness some spectacular strategies and realize you wanted something else all along. For example, I've been through this process 5 times and I haven't even touched the scout mechs, although the high speed antics of my fellow warriors do have me pondering that particular build.
Chromehounds, like the Armored Core series, caters to your design fantasies by providings lots and lots of parts - and if you're short on inspiration it lets you purchase complete Hounds as well. In addition, you have 3 nations' worth of style and weapon fetish to sample from as well, so you'll most likely change allegiances multiple times. Finally there are coloring options where you can decorate each part separately, and slap on decals wherever you like.
The other part of the game is the combat, and there's simply not much I can say here except that it feels and plays like the Mechwarrior games of yore. There is a real sense of weight to every Hound, every weapon feels like it has appropriate recoil and audiovisual effects, and the playgrounds you battle on are littered with burnt out hulks, buildings ripe for blowing up, friendly and enemy emplacements and various types of obstructions. Terrain ranges from flatlands, urban and mountain settings, each with its own pitfalls (literally) and each favoring certain types of mechs over others. Finally, every battle takes place in slightly accelerated realtime, so if you start out at dusk, you better remember to bring your nightvision.
There are some geeky tech bits in the game that will please any mech fanatic upon discovery. Things like the nightvision fading out at long distance, and its sensitivity to light; things like the momentary loss of signal from your gun cameras as you get hit; things like being able to reduce your heat signature by adding radiators (and thus foiling heat-seeking missiles) and having to balance your weapon groups on either side of your mech to cancel out the recoil - all of these are modeled and add to that feeling of being there.
This section wouldn't be very large if the problems didn't all lie in a sensitive area - the Live connectivity, i.e. the portion of the game you'll be in constantly. Where to start ...
For one thing, the squad size is limited to 20 people. The problem with this is self-explanatory, as it forces any larger community to fragment itself. Most MMOs are familiar with this problem - the more people online, the easier it is to schedule a group outing. With only 20 people, the odds of finding a full house on a daily basis decrease astronomically (especially amongst the older, fulltime working crowd). Choose your squad carefully - those few hours of difference in timezones may be crucial.
Second, there is no ability to queue up squad invitations - this means that a squad member has to be online and in the lobby to respond to a request. Of course you can just make your own squad and play as a squad of one, or invite complete strangers, or hook up with a random squad from the list of squads currently online but all of these options are about as much fun as going to the dentist (pain, screaming, long uncomfortable wait with weirdoes in the lobby, etc...).
There are various issues with squads segmenting into separate lobby instances after returning from a mission; there are issues with communicating with other squad members while they're in missions; there are basic interface issues with squad member awareness. For crying out loud, you don't even know who's online if you happen to jump on when everyone's in a mission! Twelve people could be online in your squad, but you won't know it just by looking in the squad lobby.
Finally, there have been reports of losing sides disconnecting before the score can be counted (i.e., cheating). While I certainly wouldn't want players with connection problems to receive penalties for their lousy hookup, I would certainly like for my winnings to be counted. I'm quite surprised that this problem even came up in this era of Punkbuster and commonplace online transactions.
Still, these things are mere nuisances, not showstoppers; the only reason they're significant is because they directly impact the multiplayer core of the game. It's still comparatively easy to get online, hook up with some squadmates and launch into a battle and once there the pure explodey goodness smoothes over any ragged edges in the match interface.
The bottom line is that if you're a fan of giant robots and tactical combat, you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you pass this one up. It is this generation's mech combat offering, and it is good.