Crispy Gamer

Too Human

Too Human is nothing if not ambitious. It could be that ambition got the best of designer Dennis Dyack back in 2006 when a poorly received E3 showing of his action/role-playing hybrid turned up more noses than it turned heads. But at a 2007 Game Developers Conference preview of the game, Dyack appeared intent on setting the past behind him. The Silicon Knights founder dove right into the game?s complex history. Set thousands of years before all roads led to Rome, the game is a mash-up of science fiction and fantasy similar to Warhammer 40,000 or Shadowrun. Norse mythology provides the backbone to the story, and everything else on the genre menu is fair game.

In an early scene, a hooded figure approaches a snow-swept town. The local watering hole is a high-tech pub that looks like one of those modular buildings where the colonists of LV-426 lived and died in the movie "Aliens." Hot pink holograms of dancing women blaze outside in the blizzard. A cybernetic raven lights upon a windowsill and peers inside, where folks tilt ale steins and strippers work poles to a blaring techno soundtrack. The scene feels straight out of "Lord of the Rings,' except imbued with science fiction trappings -- and it works. Even though many have melded the two seemingly disparate genres of sci-fi and fantasy, the meeting here in Too Human still feels original. The world may be far-out, but Dyack and company manage to sell it.

When our mysterious traveler is confronted with a giant robotic monster, all hell breaks loose. This is when we meet the game?s protagonist, Baldur -- a stocky warrior armed like Devil May Cry?s Dante, with firearms and a sword. The similarities between Capcom?s actioner and Too Human stop there; the controls are much more intuitive. The brawls feel streamlined like in God of War. Baldur attacks with the push of a stick. He can juggle enemies, throwing them up into the air with the slash of a sword or the slam of a hammer.

If there?s any game that looms over Too Human, it?s Diablo. Throughout the guided preview and the hands-on play, evidence of the game?s influence was everywhere. Loot is named and classified in the traditional Blizzard style. Skills are distributed on a class tree similar to the kind you?d see in World of Warcraft, and they can be tweaked for a gold penalty just as you?d do in Azeroth. When players start the game, they choose from five classes. Champion is a well-rounded fighter, while the Commando specializes in firearms and explosives. The Bioengineer uses nanotech to heal. Berserkers dish out melee damage and Defenders, you know, defend. Whatever classes the player chooses, Baldur slips into the role. There?s no customizing the look of your character and, unlike in Mass Effect, you can?t opt to play a female character.

The game?s missions are Diablo-style dungeon crawls. The first foray sees Baldur and a team of soldiers infiltrating a frozen fortress crawling with robotic goblins. Baldur and company cut through the hordes, scattering their corpses and loot across the dungeon floor. Among the finds are weapons, healing buffs and runes used to pimp out gear. Named mini-bosses like The Red Eye and Skull Hammer are peppered throughout. Some require special tactics to dispatch; all drop fat loot. During his guided tour Dyack bemoaned the game of ?inventory Tetris? that gamers have to play when their bags fill up with swag. In Too Human players can carry tons of junk. When their bags finally do begin to overflow, the game automatically trashes the lamest item of the bunch. Load times in Too Human, or the absence of them, are a major point of pride for Dyack and his team. The game flits seamlessly between story scenes and action. This agility seems to have emboldened Dyack as a storyteller. Too Human frequently hops into playable flashbacks, allowing the player to learn motivations and backstory in an involving and very immediate way. Baldur is also welcome in cyberspace -- a computer-generated construct that preserves the game?s verdant world before it was corrupted and thrust into an ice age by technology gone awry. Frequently Baldur pops in and out of the virtual world where he picks up skills, shoots the breeze with a coven of witches and acts in ways that will affect the real world.

With such a detailed story and deep role-playing formula, it?s pretty easy to understand why Too Human is planned to be the first part in a trilogy of Xbox 360 games -- but while we know a little about the far future of the series, many more immediate questions remain. Too Human doesn?t have a release date, and lips are tight regarding multiplayer (though the game?s wide-open areas and complimentary character classes seem to suggest that some flavor of multiplayer is on the table).

There?s no question that Dyack is aiming high. During his demonstration the designer boldly called videogames ?the eighth art form,? and he seems to be positioning Too Human as his heady proof of concept. The game opens with a familiar quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: ?He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.? If becoming a monster entails 50 levels of ass-kicking and loot scrounging, go ahead and sign us up.

This review was based on a publisher-driven demo of the game. No release date has yet been announced.