In an alternate-reality version of the present day, three nations with conflicting ideologies and shared borders are locked in a violent struggle, waging war against one another using massive tanklike combat vehicles known as hounds. In Chromehounds, you'll not only get to build your own hound based using a large variety of different parts and weapons, you'll get to pilot it in some impressive-looking battles, and you'll even get involved in a persistent online struggle for supremacy between the warring states. It's important to note that the single-player portion of Chromehounds serves merely as training for the online component, in which players from around the world may form squads, engage in missions or skirmish against each other or computer-controlled enemies, and buy and sell all kinds of different hound parts. This online component is naturally time-consuming and caters to a relatively hardcore crowd, one that's willing to schedule playing time and coordinate in battle. But if you're willing to make that investment, Chromehounds can be a richly rewarding experience.
Developer From Software is no stranger to mech simulations, having worked on the long-running Armored Core series for many years now. Chromehounds is similar to that series in certain respects, especially in how the mechs you can build in this game don't all walk on two legs; some have tank treads, some look like mechanical spiders, some are wheeled, and some are hovercraft. The alternate-reality present-day setting of Chromehounds also gives the vehicle design in this game a rather distinctive identity--this isn't your typically clichéd futuristic warfare with all sorts of crazy plasma guns and monotonous female computer voices. Instead, the mechs in this game have a gritty, low-tech feel to them, as if in an alternate version of the future, bombers and fighter jets simply didn't exist (they're strangely absent from this game) so humankind just kept building bigger, deadlier tanks. What's particularly noteworthy about the hounds is the hexagonal frames of most of their weapons. If one long-range cannon or heavy machine gun isn't good enough for you, the hex shape of these types of guns lets you cluster several of them together, multiplying your firepower.
Chromehounds is a deep game, which you might expect from a mech simulation, but the action out on the battlefield is surprisingly simple for the most part. Typically, you just drive around while using a compass and a tactical map to guide you, then point and shoot at your targets, cycling between different slower-firing weapons. It's easy to pick up and start playing the combat portion of the game, though in one quirk, you must frequently switch between the standard behind-the-mech view to a first-person aiming view. Your weapon view has a fixed level of magnification depending on which weapon is currently at the ready, so long-range rifles automatically let you see targets from farther away, while a shotgun won't help you spot a mech bombarding you with a heavy mortar from miles away.
You can visibly tell as your opponents take damage, and overall, the visuals of combat look great, especially in HD. Details like the sleek effect of switching to and from weapon view, how trees shed leaves or tip over when caught in crossfire, and the intensely white-hot tracers of machine gun fire all help make Chromehounds by far one of the best-looking mech games to date. Some of the scenery appears very plain--all hills and tress and such--but there are some nice-looking urban environments and impressive weather effects to be found as well. The city maps are particularly entertaining because no building can withstand much of your firepower before collapsing in a heap of dust and rubble; which not only looks cool, but also is tactically significant. The game's audio is characterized by booming, bass-heavy footsteps (if your hound has legs), the creaking of machinery, and weapon fire that sounds fittingly powerful. It sounds like a tank battle, and it fits Chromehounds very well.
Your options when building your hound are satisfyingly extensive. In terms of weapons, you've got plenty to choose from, including missile launchers, mortars, howitzers, rifles, rocket arrays, and even close-combat weapons designed to puncture enemy armor. While the hound-assembly process initially looks intimidating, it's pretty easy to feel your way through it and get comfortable in about an hour. Your mech just needs a base, a cockpit, and a generator, and the game lets you easily snap these pieces together almost like a jigsaw puzzle. Then you start adding guns and things, paying close attention to your maximum energy supply and weight limit. This becomes an intuitive process. If you want a speedy little roller skate mech, suitable for quickly scouting out your enemy's position, you shouldn't expect to be able to mount six long-range cannons on it (you might be able to squeeze in one or two, though). It's yours to decide which weapons go where, and you need to decide whether to conserve a little extra weight to add armor plating, or to make it lighter on its feet by not packing your hound to the gills with guns. The interface could have been a little easier to use in some spots, but overall, the mech-building portion of Chromehounds is a very well done, fun, and interesting part of the game.
Ironically, you can go through the entire single-player experience of Chromehounds without ever setting foot in the hound-assembly garage. This is one of the several reasons why the single-player portion of the game is pretty disappointing and not worth the price of admission taken on its own. You don't even get to see some of the best-looking environments in the game during this portion. For what it's worth, Chromehounds' single-player mode at least is up front about the fact that it's really just a series of story-driven training missions and combat scenarios designed to familiarize you with different hound roles. There are six discrete "role types" in the game: soldier, sniper, defender, scout, heavy gunner, and commander. If anything, the game is a little misleading at first to suggest that these are rigidly defined roles. In reality, you define your hound's role by virtue of the parts you use to build it; you don't need to create a highly specialized hound if you don't want to.
The single-player mode consists of six different story arcs, one for each role type. After training, you'll go through a half-dozen missions, each of which is pretty short and generally not that difficult or interesting. At least there's something to the story. In each story you play as a mercenary serving under one of the three nations occupying the region of Neroimus. These nations are respectively based on America, Russia, and the Middle East, and Chromehounds sometimes does a pretty good job of getting you to feel emotionally invested in their different perspectives. But the stories are just too short, and the missions too straightforward, to make the single-player portion of Chromehounds particularly compelling overall. It's still well worth playing through, though, because you'll unlock many new hound parts as you go, and you can transfer these and the piloting experience you've accrued to the online campaign. You'll be done with the single-player portion of Chromehounds after about 10 hours.
The Xbox Live portion of the game is the real meat of the experience. All of it is couched in a persistent campaign called the Neroimus War. When you begin playing online you have to choose which of the three nations you want to be allied with. Then, you're taken to a tactical map that shows the entire Neroimus region, with icons showing you who owns what, and where the war is being fought. The goal of the war is for one nation to take over the capitol territory of the other two nations. If your nation has been annexed, you can still participate in the war as a guerilla fighter, or you can seek asylum from another nation and continue fighting.
If you just want to join a quick battle against other players you can do so, but you still need to get past the tactical map of Neroimus, and your actions in the free battle mode will have no bearing on the outcome of the war. The interface for all this could have been a lot better. The game makes you load up your saved progress each time you access the online mode, and there are frequent, though brief, interruptions as the game communicates with the host server. You may also need to skip through a bunch of repetitive status reports about the war from time to time, which may not even seem relevant to you. All the while, a brief music loop plays incessantly. It's a pretty-sounding, solemn military march that's great for the first few hours, if that.
Once you build up a tolerance for this clunky layer of the game, and provided you're willing to play for a good stretch at a time during a typical session, Chromehounds' persistent campaign can be appealing. You can't participate in the Neroimus War missions until you either start or join a squad of like-minded players, up to six of whom can jump into a territory at any given time to fight for your country, either against other players or artificial intelligence-controlled enemies. The fact that you are forced to become a part of the squad means that Chromehounds demands a higher level of player organization than your average online multiplayer game. However, that extra effort pays off substantially, as your squad will receive rewards for each mission successfully completed. On the other hand, if you find yourself on a team that just can't seem to get it together, you'll quickly lose all your money because you have to pay every time you fail a mission. In this way the online play can be incredibly rewarding or incredibly frustrating, depending on whom you're playing with. The whole Neroimus War premise is essentially a fictionalized ladder-matching system, allowing player teams of similar skill to go up against each other, and fostering competitive teamwork within teams.
The other issue with this setup is that, since all multiplayer Chromehounds gameplay apparently must filter through the game's main server, occasional server downtimes may prevent you from playing when you want. For example, since Chromehounds had already shipped in Japan and Europe prior to North America, players in those regions couldn't access the multiplayer portion for several days leading up to the North American launch. The manual cautions that such lapses in gameplay may occur whenever the outcome of the Neroimus War is decided, an event equivalent to the end of a season of league play. It's too bad that you can't so much as get into a quick skirmish without going through the Neroimus War filter first, though the nature of online games such as this is that they may change and evolve over time. A lot of careful thought was clearly put into many aspects of Chromehounds' online mode, so one can only hope that the interface and occasional technical glitches will gradually be worked out. Thankfully, the global availability of Chromehounds means you've already got plenty of people playing online trying to earn their way into dozens of different unlockable achievements, many of which demand a lot of time and effort, if not a lot of skill. And for what it's worth, online performance seems to be pretty much lag-free.
To help foster teamwork (if not force it), one interesting aspect of how Chromehounds missions are designed is that communication is limited to spherical areas surrounding radio towers spread out across the land. Your team gains control of these towers automatically if one of you stands near one for a while, but the enemy can take it just as easily, silencing all of you in one swoop. Furthermore, commander-type hounds--which forgo large weapons for large radar arrays--act as portable communications stations and may even see nearby enemy units on their tactical maps. But it's then the commander's responsibility to relay enemy movements to the rest of the team. This is an elegant system that comes into play during most Chromehounds missions, although there are a variety of different match types you can engage in, including ones in which communication isn't really an issue. Capture-the-flag missions, survival missions that reward the last hound standing, and missions that task you with blowing up everything in sight faster than your opponent are among the variants to the standard team-based, destroy-the-HQ mission type.
Chromehounds is likely to be a love-it-or-hate-it game for most of those willing to give it a try. Players expecting a conventional mech sim may be put off by the relative simplicity of the combat and will probably wish that there were more to the single-player portion of the game, especially since the story sets up a compelling conflict. At the same time, the online multiplayer portion of this game, while absolutely the highlight of the package, is fairly dense, even if all you want is to jump into combat. Nevertheless, Chromehounds is an example of a game that asks you to put in more time and energy than a typical gaming experience would expect of you, but gives you back more in return.