Chromehounds is an unusual entry to the "big robot" genre. Rather than being fast, flashy, or even very stylish, it's about teamwork. For once, the idea of victory for one man against an army is disregarded in favor of a humbler, more cooperative approach to futuristic mechanized warfare. Forget Voltron or any of those anime images exploding with speed lines, Chromehounds is more like enlisting in the military than becoming a rocket-boosted knight in hydraulic armor.
As someone who plays games predominantly alone, I was a little dismayed to see a very distinct split between single player and multiplayer. Although the core experience in both modes is about getting into a huge mobile weapons platform, joining a squad and waging war in a fictional Eurasian territory called Neroimus, the single player campaign isn't really a traditional adventure. Instead, it serves as an extended and in-depth introduction to the six "role types" (Soldier, Sniper, Defender, Scout, Heavy Gunner and Commander) that make up a Chromehounds squad.
After choosing a role, the game proceeded through one training run and six story-based sorties before awarding a medal and prompting me to try another. Regardless of which is chosen, the combat has a very distinct flavor. The Hounds themselves move slowly and must be piloted in a very deliberate fashion. The sense of scale helps make it tolerable since they do feel very large and formidable, but this reduction in velocity is actually FromSoft's way of encouraging tactical planning and situational awareness while discouraging run-and-gun behavior at the same time. It's not going to be to everyone's liking and I'm sure that adrenaline junkies will find themselves going through withdrawals, but Chromehounds is clearly not meant to be "deathmatch with robots".
The total of this training mode comes to 42 missions (43 if you count the obligatory "boss" level at the end) which initially seems like a lot, but most of the sorties can be finished in a matter of minutes. Being already familiar with mech games, I ate up the solo content in just over a day. Although there's much potential for expanding the singleplayer aspect and turning it into a full-fledged affair, there's no question that the real meat to Chromehounds lies online; this is where teamwork comes into play, and investing in the concept ends up being both its strongest asset and its most damning liability.
Getting connected and going onto Xbox Live, the same game world from the disc is re-created on the Internet where FromSoft has crafted a structure that encourages players to form their own squad of real people and wage virtual war. Split up into distinct battlefields, players choose to align themselves with one of three factions and then fight for control. The ultimate goal is for one faction to control all of the territory and "win" the war, after which the process resets and starts again.
It's a great idea, but the fact that Chromehounds is so team-oriented is something of a handicap, at least for people like me. As I mentioned earlier, I usually play by myself and a squad of one isn't a force to be reckoned with. Although I never tried the game against a full squad of six, groups of two or three were more than enough to overwhelm me and bring my missions to a rapid and embarrassing end. Since I wasn't able to gather enough friends with 360s and copies of the game, I tried joining groups who were already online. The results were mostly mixed. Being the odd man out in a group of players who already know each other doesn't work well, and it's my feeling that some type of social connection outside of the game would do wonders to enhance cooperation.
Being someone with a full-time job and responsibilities in the real world, I don't often have regularly-scheduled game time unless it's late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. The people I would like to play with are also "grown-ups" like me with similar lifestyles, not to mention the fact that most of them live in different time zones. As such, something that requires so much coordination with others and dedication to the game is a significant barrier. I definitely respect what Chromehounds is trying to deliver, but the fact is I'm not ready to devote the level of time and energy necessary to get the most out of the experience. It's hard enough to find one or two other friends to play a game with; trying to find five others whose schedules coincide with mine is a near impossibility.
Although I opted for the honorable discharge, I walked away from my service with a great respect and admiration for the project. Chromehounds is a bold game with a unique vision and identity, something that not many can truly claim in this era of one-offs and inspired-bys. People willing to enlist for the full tour of duty are going to find a tactical experience unlike anything else out there-- just make sure you know what you're getting into before you sign on the dotted line.