It Came From the Bargain Bin: Too Human

Jul 12, 2009
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:It satisfies the urge to acquire loot.

Cons:The camera, the frustrating controls...the valkyrie.

The Bottom Line: Too Human is tragically flawed--and yet I keep playing it, so that must count for something.


Someone, somewhere, said that Too Human was "the worst game they ever loved". I wish I'd written that line-just with the "loved" changed to "liked". The long-awaited, much debated hack-and-slasher from Silicon Knights is an enigma to me-one of the worst games I've played in ages, yet compelling enough that I keep coming back for more even after finishing it. Discussing it before a podcast taping, the conclusion was that playing it was like being in an abusive relationship. The game hurts me at every turn, but I get over it and come back for another round because I love it in some twisted and strange way that makes no sense to anyone who listens to me curse in rage as I play it. I've become Tina Turner and Too Human is my Ike...what's love got to do with it, indeed?

It didn't start out this way. My relationship with the game wasn't exactly love at first sight (the cheesy opening cinematic-one of many to come--would ensure that) but I didn't start off hating the game either. We had an odd courtship-there was a "getting to know you" phase, a very brief love affair, and then the hurting started. Like any classic abusive relationship, Too Human beat me up for the most inane reasons. I wasn't utilizing the dive-roll maneuver properly...I wasn't air juggling the right way...I picked the melee class with no defense. Each transgression led to the game pummeling me with an endless and infuriating barrage of deaths. Then, like all good abusers, the game would apologize to me-maybe shed a few tears, even-and assure me this would never happen again. To prove it, Too Human would let me succeed in killing enemies for awhile-even going so far as allowing  me have some fun in the process. It never lasted though-before you knew it, I'd committed another grievous offense and the game was once again beating me in the face with a belt buckle.

There seems to come a moment-at least in these situations that resolve themselves happily-where the one taking the abuse finally realizes that they're not the problem. All the things that Too Human keeps driving me to despair over aren't my fault-they're the game's fault. It chooses to cover for its flaws and shortcomings by taking its failings out on the player. Too Human pulls off the seemingly impossible tasks of being under and over-developed at the same time. It becomes clear early on that this is a title that spent the better part of a decade in development-and one that was retrofitted for each new hardware generation during that span. It's a game that trades in grand ideas for how combat and controls (and to a lesser degree, narrative) should be evolving, but the actual implementation of those ideas is so ham-handed and lacking in grace and refinement that I often found myself wondering why they'd try so hard to screw up things that already worked well enough in their more traditional forms.

I'm all for visionary designers pushing at the envelope of game mechanics and striving to make the medium evolve. I'm even fairly accepting of the failures that such vision requires to achieve true progress. Too Human is clearly a failure. That doesn't mean there aren't things to like about the game or that it doesn't do anything well-it just means that the lofty ideals of the designers are never really achieved in the game in a meaningful way. I think that's what got lost in the countless internet holy wars this title inspired. Too Human is a dichotomy-it's a love it or hate it experience, but no matter which side you're on, it's very easy to see how the opposite faction arrived at their (vastly different) conclusion.

Take the game's combat system for example. Rather than make another generic button mashing hack-and-slash game, Silicon Knights tried to spice things up a bit. To achieve this, they mapped all combat to the right analog stick. The left stick moves main character Baldur around the environment, the right stick makes him attack. Interesting idea (one that sort of builds upon the control scheme in the Playstation 2's underrated The Mark of Kri title), but the problems become apparent in the first minutes spent with the game. First, the stick isn't as responsive as it needs to be. There's a moment of "wow, this is cool!" when players make Baldur slide dash around a group of enemies like a Cybernetic Cuisinart set to puree. Too often, though, the targeting system has Baldur swiping at air or flailing about in a spastic sort of fashion very unbecoming of a Norse God.

The bigger problem is one that I'm amazed no one caught during the development cycle. If the right analog stick is for attacking, what controls the camera? Too Human features an automatic camera system that may well be the worst camera in a game I've seen in the past five years. It gets caught on things, it pulls back to a weird overhead view at inopportune moments, and it generally seems to have been programmed to cause as many needless deaths as possible. It's an awful design decision and honestly, SK should have known better.

Needless death is a recurring theme in the game. Too Human has some serious balance issues and developers clearly decided the best way to "fix" them was to not fix them at all-and just allow players to die...a lot. Enemies scale with Baldur, so there's not even the old standby of level grinding to get through the game. Instead, players will have to rely on the clunky combat system (and the awful targeting-which makes shooting the distant enemies that are shooting you all but impossible most of the time) to keep progressing. Baldur can be one of five different classes when the game starts. They're all mostly variations on the same theme (a guy who can use guns and melee weapons) only with slight changes to his various proficiencies in each build. The beserker is the melee master but sucks with guns (and has no armor) other classes are the exact opposite, balanced, or some shade to one side or the other. Only the bio-engineer can heal himself-meaning every other class has to rely on random health pack drops from packs of enemies to stay alive. There's no inventory system for these, either-it's literally a pure luck game mechanic.

The game's all about repetition-from the endless hacking and slashing, the minimal number of enemy types, and the constant death (ah the valkyrie-one of the most maligned figures in the history of gaming thanks to this game), most of what Too Human has to offer can be experienced in the first act. Playing through the next fourteen or so hours is either masochism or greed for the rare loot that occasionally drops. Dying brings about a cutscene wherein a valkyrie descends from the sky, picks up Baldur, takes him to Valhalla, and then drops him back into the game. It's a cool scene the first two or three times you see it. Unfortunately, you'll be seeing it a lot more often as the game progresses. There's no way to skip the cutscene, and while there's been some exaggeration regarding its length (I've seen people claim it's 30 seconds-I found it was closer to fifteen) it still becomes annoying when you've seen it for the 50th time. Prepare to see the valkyrie often...she will be your constant companion as you work through the game.

Everything else with Too Human is just as schizophrenic. The story merges cyberpunk with Norse mythology in a way that's just laughably stupid. The graphics are serviceable, but they're not what I'd call cutting edge. Voice acting is all over the place, and the game's RPG elements (taking the form of talent trees) seem more like an afterthought than an integral component of the game experience. What Too Human really boils down to is being a loot-a-thon. No one plays for the story, or the great gameplay-it's really all about getting the next rare piece of gear to drop. I suspect this is why I'm still playing. I'm a loot wh*re of the first order.

The shame of Too Human is that there's a good game buried in there somewhere-it's just that very few people will have the patience to wade through all of the tragic design flaws and wonky game mechanics to find it. This was slated to be the first entry in a planned trilogy of titles (which explains why the game just sort of ends in the middle of the story), but I'd be really surprised if we ever see either sequel. I'm not sure how I feel about that-on the one hand, Too Human is an awful game. On the other, I'm still playing it despite the problems. As much as it pains me to say this, I'd be down for giving a sequel a shot-particularly if they could fix even half of the problems plaguing this title in the follow-up.


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