'Too Human' Xbox 360 Preview, In The Shadow of 'Metal Gear'

[UPDATE 7/2: I posted some co-op impressions at this follow-up post. Best to read the post below first!]

In previewing "Too Human," the ambitious Xbox 360 game slated for August 19 release, I can't help but think of the other game I spent a good chunk of my weekend playing: "Metal Gear Solid 4."

Is that unfair? Not totally. "Too Human" is made by Silicon Knights, the studio that last did… a re-make of the first "Metal Gear Solid." Silicon Knights' new game, like "MGS4" has been made to tell a significant story. I found "Too Human" to be superior to "MGS4" in at least one key way. But aside from all that, I just find it impossible to repress comparisons. We don't play games in a vacuum. The achievements in one affect our appreciation of the successes or failures in another.

"Too Human" nestles in between "MGS4"'s extreme tendencies, for good and bad.

It is both a story game and a gameplay game, neither aspect completely satisfying yet.

I received a preview build of "Too Human" early last week. It was accompanied with a letter that cautioned me that the game, though still set for its August date, is not yet complete. Yet I must state it for myself: the game, which has been preceded some exciting hype from its creators, still has rough edges. It is both a story game and a gameplay game, neither aspect completely satisfying yet. It's story: distinct yet less ambitiously told than that of "Metal Gear" from what I've seen so far. It's gameplay: more pure than that of "Metal Gear."

"Too Human" is the tale of Baldur, a godlike being returned from some tragedy to sit again at the long table of a pantheon of higher-powered men and women. He and his ilk are each an amalgamation of Norse mythology and "Matrix"-tech. Baldur doesn't just swing swords; he fires a laser-gun. Baldur had lost a wife and is seeking a fight against a machine-based enemy not clearly defined in the game's first three hours.

I have completed the game's first chapter. I have yet to encounter the theme of technology-skepticism that the game's lead creator, Denis Dyack, told me motivated him to nurture "Too Human" through stages of development for over a decade. The only hint was a choice given me during the end of my session, to allow Baldur to either gain cybernetic enhancements or to follow a more human path of development.

"Too Human" has been pitched by its creator as a grand tale. That grandeur is only hinted early on. Like "Metal Gear" the story is not spoon-fed. Mysteries exist, and to the game's credit, I'm looking forward to seeing them solved. Compared to "MGS4," "Too Human" has real-time cut-scenes that are not told with as dramatic a flair, but also don't appear to be set-up for plot convolutions. As a theme or milieu, cyber-Norse intrigues. It doesn't feel routine or over-played. It's familiar enough. I remember some Thor and Loki tales. In a game, they feel fresh.

Gameplay is what will likely be "Too Human"'s most contentious aspect.

Gameplay is what will likely be "Too Human"'s most contentious aspect. It is, essentially, a matter of Baldur swinging a melee weapon and shooting a gun through room after room of scampering enemies. The play itself is surprisingly reminiscent of the arcade. It's about combos and chains that lead to more potent strikes. There's no button-mashing in "Too Human." Instead there's a lot of thumbstick-leaning. When facing a crowd to combat, the proper technique is a push the right stick toward the first enemy -- Baldur will rush toward it with a swing of his sword -- and to swivel that stick and point it at a second enemy before that first strike even hits. Chaining that technique to deal with four, five, six enemies sends Baldur on a zigzag attack pattern that looks and feels like nothing else on consoles save, maybe, the twinstick shooters so popular on Xbox Live Arcade. If that particular mechanic doesn't do it for you, the game isn't for you. I was enjoying it, as it let me crunch through the action in that zen frame of mind a frenzied arcade game will let you achieve.

"Too Human" has, at its roots, more classic gameplay than "Metal Gear"'s. Hideo Kojima's game has gameplay that suits a particular scene, the rules and controls constantly changing. Dyack's game appears to have a simple and consistent rule-set (there are a few more wrinkles than I've described, allowing enemy-juggles and special attacks, but not many). It is Dyack's game that has the potential to win fans of pure play, only if the system isn't easily broken but is instead interesting to master, like a "Robotron" or "Geometry Wars."

It is a game that is meant to be paused -- frequently

Dyack's game will likely also be contentious because it is a game that is meant to be paused -- frequently. It is a game about upgrading. Every enemy drops loot: health, bounty money, arms and armor. All of it can be armed, sold, or merged with other items to create something new. The game does little of this management for the player, so only those who won't mind or who will in fact enjoy selecting the best helmet, shoulder-guards or dual-wield swords -- and repeating the process within the next five minutes of play -- are likely to enjoy "Too Human." In three hours, my Baldur, a melee-favoring Berzeker class warrior, gained much power because of how I armed him. His increase was satisfying.

The components of "Too Human" are solid. It is the combination, then, that does not yet convince me Dyack and his team at Silicon Knights are birthing a classic, There are small things that will hopefully be addressed: Why does Baldur wear whatever combination of armor I give him in the game's present in the flashback scenes that interrupt his missions? Why is the first boss battle so confusing? Why does resurrection from game-death take so long? And why does Dyack, like Kojima, not teach his players the controls through level design and experience -- did they not both work with Miyamoto on "The Twin Snakes"?

"Too Human" has the setting, the promise, the play and maybe the story to succeed. But it is too soon to tell whether it's occasional awkwardness and its less-than-broad-appeal will get in the way of many Xbox 360 owners enjoying it when it is released in August. I'd keep an eye on it.