[Game On] Humanely Put Down: The Long, Troubled Journey of 'Too Human' Is Finally at an End

Well . . . I wish I could say I was surprised.

Too Human, simply put, pretty much blows—probably not a great shock to anyone who follows gaming with even a passing interest. For years now, everything seen and heard about the beleaguered title seemed to reinforce the vibe it was doomed to be gaming’s Waterworld: a would-be epic whose only achievement of scale is sheer mediocrity.

“What happened?” What didn’t? The lack of a clear concept caused the game’s development to stretch years longer than any equivalent title, with a few complete overhauls along the way. An ugly legal dispute broke out between the developer and the company that provided the game’s software engine. The press—usually quick to view any new game on the horizon optimistically—decided to mix things up by slamming the game’s WIP build. And maybe most problematic: Denis Dyack vigorously counterattacked his game’s critics, picking fights with everyone from EGM to game forum NeoGAF in what amounted to the most ill-advised, Bizarro World-version of marketing a product has ever suffered.

"You should see the other guy!"
"You should see the other guy!"

Some of gaming’s greatest titles suffered difficult beginnings but pulled it out in the end. Too Human didn’t. Now, its story will be carved into cocktail-party- and boardroom-sized chunks for use as parables about disastrous game projects for years to come.

There are a few interesting ideas here, nestled in the wreckage. For one, the controls—though clunky—are novel, melee combat handled by simply tilting the right analog stick in the direction of an opponent (a little like Geometry Wars or, less flatteringly, Grabbed By the Ghoulies); confronted by a mob of robotic enemies, it’s pretty satisfying to “point” from one enemy to another and watch your character dash from foe to foe in a blur. And using Norse mythology to structure the story is cool, or at least hasn’t been done to death yet (unlike Too Human’s dingy mechanical sci-fi environs).

But there are problems, some especially annoying since they’re so basic and have been there from the beginning. The camera, for example, is a constant irritation. Part of it is the fact the right stick—which adjusts the player’s view in virtually every other third-person game on the market—now handles combat. But more troublesome is when the camera pans away from where you’re going or what you’re doing to look at . . . nothing at all.

I couldn’t really blame it: I was having trouble paying attention, too. It’s the sort of experience that’s more compulsory than interesting: a dungeon-crawling treasure raid in which the only point of the gameplay is to collect stuff. Struggling to hold your attention by showering you with new items almost constantly, every skirmish is punctuated by a trip to the inventory screen to sort through the swag—more to make sure you’re not getting flooded with junk than out of actual enthusiasm. I didn’t keep track, but it felt like half my time with Too Human was spent sorting my character’s shit—for the Diablo crowd, that might be endorsement enough; I was ready to hang myself. And when Too Human breaks from its loot runs, it’s for stretches of dialogue that somehow make comparing 14 pairs of robo-boots more interesting.

The real shame about Too Human, though, is the way its mediocrity just further diminishes Dyack’s credibility. Amidst his defensive rants, his criticism of sacred cows such as the mainstream-gaming press and game-forum culture had some merit. But now, with a critical failure hanging around his neck, fewer will care to listen.

Too Human from Microsoft Game Studios for the Xbox 360, $60. ESRB Rating: T (for Teen). Score: 5 (out of 10).

 
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