When Xbox Live was originally announced about a year after the old Xbox debuted, I was impressed by Microsoft's decision to include integrated voice chat with every Live-enabled game. This was several years ago, at a time when voice chat in online games was still quite rare. There were a few attempts to make speech an integral part of gameplay, but they were mostly cult hits like Seaman and Fire Team. Leave it to Microsoft to identify great potential and cash in, because, sure enough, the speech component of Xbox Live turned out to be a major differentiator. Many of us who've been playing online Xbox games for a while probably have trouble remembering the days when we needed to feverishly type messages to teammates in between actually trying to play.
As for me, though, despite liking the idea of voice chat in my games, I never got into in the old Xbox days. I'd use voice chat for communicating with a partner or a small team in games like Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. But I spent most of my time on Xbox Live with the headset crammed somewhere under my television, gathering dust. The Xbox 360 is forcing me to crawl out of my shell a little, though. Specifically, I have Chromehounds to thank for this. From Software's giant robot game somehow got me talking online, sometimes to strangers, much more than any game has in a while. It's been a strangely discomforting yet liberating feeling.
I still don't like getting on Xbox Live to anonymously chat with random people. If I wanted to socialize, I wouldn't be sitting at home playing games. But in a fiercely cooperative / competitive game like Chromehounds, conversation during gameplay has real purpose. Our exchanges during a typical mission often sound like they could have come from a war movie: "Got a visual on the enemy, on the hill at grid B-7. Looks like a sniper... whoa, yes, it's definitely a sniper. I'm taking fire, need backup. Any other hostiles in the area?"
We don't talk like this to ham it up. It just naturally makes sense in the context of the game. We don't take our matches with deadly seriousness, but at the same time, the relative realism and intensity of the game's combat--along with the time-consuming nature of the game--encourages us to have a serious attitude about it. Maybe this is what helped draw me into the game and continue playing weeks after my review was posted. I have a much easier time talking to people when I feel like I've got a good reason for it.
As someone who's been playing games for as long as he can remember, I freely admit that I've used gaming as a substitute for social interaction, since I'm not an outgoing person by nature. So, playing a game that forces me to talk to other people whom I don't necessarily know that well adds a significant level of challenge, and honestly, I don't entirely like that aspect of the game. But, in exchange, I also think I'm taking something valuable away from each session of Chromehounds, which I don't get from most games.
My point is this: The ability to speak to other players doesn't automatically enhance every game, and needs to be integrated intelligently, as is the case in Chromehounds. There's a negative stereotype surrounding the average game player--he's someone you wouldn't necessarily want to talk to--or at least, I wouldn't. But when tight-knit collaboration and tactical planning between several players is fundamental to gameplay, voice chat can really enrich the experience.
This is nothing new, in a sense. Clans have been coordinating through speech in online first-person shooters for years. But I think Chromehounds' slower pacing makes it a particularly good implementation of this. In Counter-Strike, I'd usually be dead by the time I could finish my sentence. In Chromehounds, there's an entire game mechanic around controlling radio stations on each map that enable player chat within those areas.
Chromehounds could have been a lot better in certain ways, but I'm prepared to call it my favorite mech sim in years. I love the alternate-reality setting and mech designs, and the action and mech building can be very satisfying. The achievements feel really rewarding when you unlock them, too. The game seems popular, so I'm hopeful Chromehounds will become a dynasty, picking up where the Armored Core series and pretty much all other mech sims left off.