SLIDESHOW

Too Human: This Game Based on Norse Mythology Has Feet of Clay

Bottom line on this action role-playing game for the Xbox 360? It's a mediocre mash-em-up.

Too Human: Tedious and Out of Balance

Too Human's story is a lumbering, clanging muddle, a clumsy collision of canned dialogue and confusing narrative. On a planet (Earth?) populated by cybergods modeled after the Aesir of Norse mythology, myth meets mech. At first it seems like a riff on Roger Zelazny's Hugo-winning 1967 sci-fi novel Lord of Light, about the perils of fabricated divinity. Unfortunately, the only thing Too Human--the first chapter in a proposed trilogy by director Denis Dyack--explores in depth are the pitfalls of tedious melodrama.

With My Hammer, I Dub Thee 'Toast'

The dossier on Silicon Knights' Xbox 360-exclusive action RPG Too Human describes the game as "a nonstop barrage of action powered by the seamless integration of melee and firearms combat." At least they got the "nonstop barrage" part right. As for "seamless", this tale about a clueless son of Odin named Baldur--the character you play as--who battles machines that are out to annihilate humanity may look like a sleek, modernized Diablo clone, but it plays like a mishmash of half-baked and just plain dumb ideas. If you're up for online cooperative play with a friend, you can offset these problems slightly, but as a single-player game, Too Human is tactically unbalanced and mechanically bizarre.

Who's Who in Too Human?

A reticent Baldur wants vengeance for his wife's death, but he can't remember why she died. His brother Thor is a hammer-slinging braggart with the combat IQ of Paris Hilton. The god Heimdall seems to know more than he's saying but "seems" is all you get. Loki is up to no good because...well, just because. A few references to Fenrir, Midgard, and Ragnarok pop up but go nowhere. The mythic tropes fit like a pair of dime-store gloves. And just when the story finally seems ready to coalesce? Cue cliffhanger and credits.

Do Not Feed the Trolls, but Think Nothing of Riding Them

With a chip on his shoulder and a head full of memory holes, Baldur's just another hero who butchers platoons of cyberenemies and scoops up loot. The levels he visits change hue but little else. They're split into subsections by giant doors that slide open on approach to spill more of the same metal-armored monsters, who are flanked by more of the same pointlessly destructible nubs of glowing machinery. Even the so-called "boss" creatures--mostly trolls with multiple hotspots that you have to disable one at a time--disappoint. They get more durable but not an ounce shrewder.

I Could Use Some More Health Packs Here, Fellas. Fellas?

Too Human's problems can be summed up as lack of balance. Take the game's five starter classes. Each one is formulated around tactical abilities, broken into offensive or defensive and long- or short-range roles. In theory, you can play the game with any of these. But in practice, you have to pick the Bio Engineer, because he's the only one capable of regenerating health. Everyone else depends on health packs dropped by enemies (aka "blind luck"). Pick the tech- and demolitions-oriented Commando or the close-combat Berserker, for instance, and your most accomplished ability becomes "die like a pro."

There Can Be Only One

Talk about a nonevent: Early on, Baldur is offered the choice of either keeping his human attributes or enhancing himself cybernetically (ergo the game's title). Up until this point, each time you gain a level, you spend points on a skill tree that has three branches (these can be reset at any time for a nominal fee). Once you commit to the man or machine choice, however, a new skill screen appears, offering either more-sophisticated human-derived combos or cybernetic abilities that increase your battle damage. But that's it--no story branching, no broader purposing, no clue about what bullet points in the game's marketing materials like "balance your sense of duty and honor...perhaps even sacrificing your humanity in the process" are referring to. "Go ahead, sacrifice your humanity," says the game, shrugging. So much for narrative consequences.

Wow, That's Got to Hurt!

The game's single wide-eyed feature--nudging your gamepad's thumbsticks (in lieu of punching buttons) to drive thrusts and melee combos--offers tantalizing glimpses of what might have been as you pinball between enemies like The Flash on skates. Fiddle both thumbsticks simultaneously, and Baldur flips goblins and dark elves into the air where he can "juggle" them with his guns or launch finishing blasts that topple them in waves. Build up "ruiner" power, and you can bracket your combos with special moves that level whole swaths of bad guys. It's all for naught, though, when you encounter enemies like trolls and suicide-bombing undead, who can knock you silly with a single swipe. These are enemies you can't evade or block, enemies who stupidly ignore your teammates and pursue you exclusively, enemies who'll kill you five or six times to their one death. Did I mention that this game has balance issues?

Well, There Goes Half the Squad for the 123rd Time

Hit the bathroom or grab a coffee during the death sequences, during which luminous robotic Valkyries descend along golden ropes to haul your carcass heavenward. These animations take around 30 seconds each and can't be skipped. Afterward you pop back into existence with negligible damage to your weapons and armor (easily reparable by flipping between Aesir--home of the gods and your one-stop, access-anywhere repair hub--and the campaign itself). The penalty for dying is toothless, in other words, so defeating even the toughest opponent is just a matter of grinding away.

Talk to the Superheated Plasma-Gun, Not to the Hand

Cribbing from massive multiplayer online games like Blizzard's World of Warcraft, Too Human employs conventions such as colorized loot to signify item value; buffs or improvements (styled as "rune charms" here) for swords, hammers, guns, rifles, and various kinds of armor; cosmetic options to colorize your kit; and blueprints that let you forge some of the game's most powerful items. The level-up and inventory interface is well designed and attention grabbing, even if the rest of the game isn't.

Pop Goes the Top

Occasionally you'll encounter nodes that let you warp over to cyberspace, a series of discrete combat-free zones that you can explore at leisure to grab extra loot. Sometimes you'll visit cyberspace to unlock areas in the "real" world by solving puzzles, except that you don't "solve" anything. Instead, you just throw wander over, throw a switch, and warp back out. For instance, in certain areas you're invested with the power to push or pull objects, but all this means is that there are a few spots where you can step on a glowing stone circle and pull a trigger to open a door or lift a barrier. Other than serving as the mise-en-scene for a few puzzling story bits early on, cyberspace is brainless and tedious.

Hammer Time

Played with a friend, Too Human feels less uneven. Dying so often takes a lot out of this game. But working as a team mitigates the problem while allowing at least one of you the freedom to zigzag around the battlefield. Online levels chain together just as campaign mode does, but without the story (arguably a blessing), and all of your character's experience and loot conveniently transfers in or out of the solo campaign, giving you an incentive to revisit optional areas that you may have missed.

Smarter Than the Average Camera

For all of the preliminary concern over the game's semi-autonomous camera--you can control it only to the extent of tapping a button to recenter it behind you--it never interferes with combat, and it generally stays where you'd want it to. In addition, you have half a dozen configurable modes that move the camera in close or wide out, and you can easily switch between different modes with a tap on the d-pad as you shift between cramped or more expansive areas.

Bottom Line: My, What Long and Spindly Fingers You Have!

Should you bother with Too Human? As a dungeon crawl game, it's average with flaws. Subtract the flaws, and it's still too short (the campaign takes just 8 or 9 hours), poorly narrated, and mechanically redundant (yes, even for a hack-and-slash). With a buddy, it's better, but not quite "sixty-bucks-times-two" better. Silicon Knights designed Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, but a couple of hits doesn't make a company infallible. Think of Too Human as a warm-up game you can miss (without missing much) and wait for the second and third episodes in the trilogy.