Arriving as the first act of a sprawling sci-fi trilogy, Silicon Knights' eagerly anticipated Too Human is built around a cybernetic future steeped in Norse mythology, in which Baldur, a much-revered God of the Aesir - the sworn protectors of mankind - battles to purge The Children of Ymir, a swarming mechanical menace unleashed upon the world, while also striving to unravel the clouded and tortured mysteries of his own past.
Eight years in the making, and far-removed from its original 1999 PlayStation blueprint, Too Human offers itself up as a compelling, all-action dungeon crawler that's equal parts hack-and-slash extravaganza and progressive RPG. But, as with any media release left to stew for so long in developmental limbo, does Too Human buckle beneath the weight of prolonged expectation, or does it reflect the immense faith and belief invested by Ontario-based creator Silicon Knights?
What the pre-release demo of Too Human clearly showed was that a divided reception awaited the full retail version of the game; and it's highly likely that critical and consumer appraisal will again be split when it comes to assessing the final build.
For example, initial demo complaints will likely be upheld as many will no-doubt label the game's unique character control and battle mechanics as inexplicably shallow, clunky or unrewarding; while others - mainly self-appointed hack-and-slash purists - will bemoan the lack of intricate multi-button combat combos and the game's core reliance on a single analogue stick to determine attack moves.
However, while both points of potential detraction are certainly evident from the start in Too Human, the crux of its actual gameplay success (for it is a success) is largely dependent on the player's choice of character class and also the investment of an appropriate amount of time and effort to evolve the abilities of that particular class.
Given the five character class choices open to the player (Defender, Champion, Beserker, Commando and Bio Engineer), this reviewer would hazard a guess that most budding Baldurs will instantly opt for the promise of enhanced melee skills and extra Combo levelling that's open to them with the Beserker - and here's where patience and an unshakeable willingness to die come into play.
Specifically, while the Champion emerges as a good all-rounder, and the Defender is a walking man-tank, the Beserker's hugely advantageous close-quarter power is offset by woefully poor defence and a diminished ability with ranged weaponry (a real must-have skill for certain enemies). And, regardless of class selection, the game's 'pros and cons' trade-off structure will ultimately leave the majority of players screaming audibly at their TVs as mechanical Goblins, Dark Elves and Trolls serve up Baldur's armoured ass all-too often across the game's opening four or five hours.
For those doubting Too Human's difficulty credentials based solely on its ridiculously easy demo, challenge scales up alongside character development and helps keeps each successive battle on just the right side of testing. That being said, watching an angelic golden Valkyrie gracefully lifting Baldur's limp corpse towards Valhalla is something players should be suitably prepared for (especially when using the Berserker). Doubts about difficulty should also be put to bed upon learning that reaching the humiliating plateau of 100 player deaths even garners its own embarrassing Achievement called 'Valkyrie's Folly.'
Too Human is all about investment. Investment of game time, investment of currency (Bounty), investment of patience, and the investment of experimentation. Moreover, once a character class and path (cybernetic or human) have been chosen, the player is then unleashed across the first of Too Human's four sprawling missions, beginning their quest to evolve Baldur's abilities, his associated Skill Tree, his weaponry, armour, charms, runes and equipment blueprints. Investment is everything in Too Human and, while it's a cliché, the more you give, the more you get... it really is that simple.
Yes, the combat doesn't flow with any sense of real rhythm at first, and wrapping your head around the wonderfully organic controls takes some getting used to, but levelling up, upgrading armaments, and assigning skill points soon rectifies that as Baldur begins moving more swiftly while wielding better weaponry. And this initial rush of gameplay attachment then gives way to full-on player immersion as branches of the assigned Skill Tree begin to open and specific strengths, special abilities and secondary battle elements become available.
Yes, it's frustrating as hell at the outset, onrushing enemy hordes effortlessly swamp your character far too often, and cutting a clear line of chained attack from one foe to the next can be a futile exercise, but that's simply the game's way of telling you that Baldur isn't ready for the task at hand - it's not necessarily because you, the gamer, are failing to adapt or the game itself is failing to deliver.
If ever a videogame wanted the player to carefully nurture their character, Too Human is it. For example, the opening mission offers up absolutely no equipment upgrades for Baldur to benefit from, and as a result its boss battle finale with the hulking, man-eating Grendel is a surprisingly hard-fought affair that suggests massively testing encounters to come.
However, thanks to the ability to revisit completed missions (a la Diablo) and increase Baldur's level status while doing so, players can replay entire missions or specific sections therein over and over again, becoming steadily more deadly each time while conveniently avoiding narrative progression. This culminates in Baldur later clashing with more difficult enemies and bosses (who always remain more advanced comparatively), but results in him giving a far more impressive account of himself due to a constantly expanding Skill Tree and arsenal.
It's also worth noting that replayed missions often differ in terms of enemy placement, weight of numbers and even environmental layout. The first retread of the game's opening mission sees a snow-blown stone bridge, which was clearly devoid of anything other than enemies during the first play through, now complete with separate guiding walls that lead to isolated pockets of mechanical foes and plenty of resulting goodies. Speaking of goodies, Too Human is bursting at the seams with weaponry, armour, runes and charms that can be either purchased or upgraded through the central hub of Midgard (accessible at any time through the menu) or picked up by accessing monuments peppered across the real world and also that of Cyberspace.
On a side note, because it really doesn't play such as massive role in this episode of the trilogy, Cyberspace is the home of the NORNS, a trio of inseparable, mysterious women who dwell in a strange data stream environment that exists alongside, and can directly influence, mankind's real world. Often used to aid Baldur's progress, Cyberspace is open only to the Aesir through special portal wells, and appears as a lush world awash with trees, rivers, canyons and plains, but is in fact polluted by a life-consuming power that rears up and blocks Baldur's path and prevents him from reaching certain areas and item drop monuments. The NORNS duly task Baldur with seeking to rid Cyberspace of this curse and to also activate as many wells as he can find - promising him great rewards in return.
The NORNS also intermittently help Baldur as he seeks to unravel the mysteries of his own past, but possible spoilers mean that we'll say no more about this particular aspect of the game.
Visually, Too Human won't be remembered as a standout title, but its environments do deliver a solid blend of gritty futurism and mythical grandeur, which is at its prettiest when wandering beneath the high-vaulted ceilings of Midgard, and it's most impressive when moving through the industrially-influenced necropolis of Helheim, eternal home of the dishonourable dead. Character animation is strong throughout, as are battle sequences, which manage to maintain a stable frame rate despite confrontations that throw literally 20 to 30 enemies at Baldur at any one time.
The game's audio makes up for the graphical lack of oomph. Mechanical death screams and the entertaining chit-chat of Baldur's trailing team of human Wolves provides balance against the incessant battering clash of weapons on armour, the thumping resonance of Troll hammers, and the deep reverb of hand canons, laser rifles and grenade launchers. More impressive is the soundtrack, which is wondrously anthemic from start to finish, throwing itself forward whenever Baldur engages in battle and subsiding to an anticipation-building drum beat accompaniment during each brief break in the action. Even the lilting, melancholic lament that accompanies Baldur's all-too frequent ascension to Valhalla is difficult to grow displeased with.
Despite the game's plus points, there are still a fair smattering of failings that attempt to haul Too Human down. In a visual sense, the game suffers from some pretty hefty flashes of texture popping - although not to the same extent as Mass Effect, which is perhaps the Xbox 360's main texture pop offender. Also, surprisingly ugly character models and appalling lip movement and track synch during dramatic explanatory cut scenes don't help smooth out Too Human's rough edges, which are encapsulated by Silicon Knights' apparent inability to render stiff hair that looks like anything other than filthy, matted straw.
The cut scenes themselves, while well paced and never overly long, also fail to convincingly convey Too Human's storyline, which, while serving as the opening act of a much more ambitious over-arcing plot, cannot help but be fractured and confusing due to it obviously existing as mere structural groundwork for a much larger narrative web.
While it could be attributed to imminent hardware failure (Too Human is an Xbox 360 game after all), this reviewer suffered through at least two inexplicable game freezes during cut scenes and also countless 'disc unreadable' errors upon load-up and during gameplay. The onscreen HUD also disappeared completely at one point, and wouldn't return despite having its own dedicated directional pad prompt, while the game also had a tendency to resurrect Baldur forward through an environment at times, which led to a sense of temporary disorientation at the suddenly unfamiliar surroundings.
Regardless of passable graphics and thrilling music, the core pivotal point of assessment for Too Human rests with its battle gameplay and its RPG elements, the latter of which are deep and involving, while the former rewards players willing to pump in the necessary hours that it demands.
Too Human's character-building aspects are, of course, centred on offensive and defensive combat abilities, and it offers a massive amount of options to fiddle with, actively encouraging the player to experiment in order to find the best set-up for their chosen class. For example, level points assigned to the Skill Tree can be unequipped at any time (in return for a Bounty penalty), enabling the player to pursue a completely different direction across the Tree and reap the battle benefits that come with it. It's a degree of flexibility that the majority of RPG titles lack, but in Too Human it enables welcome experimentation and drives the player to tweak and mould Baldur into the perfect all-powerful warrior.
And with 50 character levels to be reached across the game, which each unlock progressively more potent weapons and effective armour, the gameplay pay-off is well worth suffering through the initial floundering that plagues the opening hours. Plus, considering Too Human requires around 25 hours of game time to see Baldur evolved to where the Skill Tree is all-but maxed and battles are never anything short of Godly bloodletting similar to the action experienced in the demo, investment is again the key contributor that rewards the player in kind as the narrative builds to its abrupt finale.
More pointedly, once beyond level 35, players will find that slashing through the near-relentless rush of undead souls flooding from Helheim becomes almost a ballet of destruction. Baldur rushes from one foe to the next with ease at this point, a blur of unstoppable flailing blades imbued with ground-based and mid-air combinations, Battle Cry and 'Spider' support attacks, Sentient Weapons, and hugely destructive 'Ruiner' finishing moves. And, more importantly in terms of execution, all of the above can be delivered with subtle nudges and sweeps of the right analogue stick and single presses on the controller's face and (right) bumper buttons; an initially unresponsive control system rendered liquid and rewarding in every battle thanks to... you guessed it... investment.
The bottom line with Too Human is that there's unlikely to be a sense of indifference woven through its critical and consumer reception, there will be love, and there will be hate. Those who hate it will throw down the controller a long time before the ass-serving and seemingly shallow controls give way to fulfilling battles and a truly awesome character; while those who love it will stubbornly plough forward from death to death, ever-reaching for the next level, and the next level, in order to experience the sheer visceral pleasure of directing Baldur in his almost invincible dance of death.