GDC 2008: Too Human First Look


It’s been a long road for Silicon Knights’ Too Human. A disappointing showing at E3 led to delays, which led to suggestions the game was being dropped, which led to a lawsuit against Epic Games, makers of the Unreal Engine, licensors of the technology Silicon Knights was trying to use to make their game.

Silicon Knights v. Epic Games hits the courthouse soon, and the game, Too Human, might not be too far behind.

“We’re at the point where our guys are too busy playing the game to debug,” says Silicon Knights’ Dennis Dyack, referring to his struggle to motivate his team to make last minute changes for their GDC debut. “They all want to play it.” This is a good thing. If the people working on it like it enough to play non-stop, chances are it’s a decent game. But does decent cut it?

Silicon Kinghts’ presentation at the lovely Nikko Hotel began with a history lesson: Dyack recounting the lore of Too Human‘s story, taking the standing room only crowd of freeloading reporters on a journey to before time began, before the Romans, the stone age and the dinosaurs, to when too warring races fought for control of Earth. One who fought with machines (the bad guys), the other, who used semi-magical cybernetics (the good guys, you).

The struggle between these two races forms the core of Too Human‘s epic storyline. “Too Human has a lot of story,” says Dyack, no stranger to long winded games.

Eternal Darkness, the team’s most recent game, featured multiple storylines based on the lore of horror master H.P. Lovecraft, and three separate endings, each requiring 20+ hours of play to unlock. In an industry often accused of giving story short shrift, Eternal Darkness exists as a shining example of going to the opposite extreme. So if Dyack says Too Human has a lot of story, then it probably does.

What we saw of it at the Nikko looked intriguing enough. As with most SF games, entire scenes were lifted from the movie Aliens, and a good amount seemed ripped from elsewhere. The game’s story is steeped in Norse mythology, merging various esoterica into a plausible, if fantastic, SF universe, all the more compelling for taking place long, long ago on our very own planet. I have to admit, though, I didn’t understand a word of it. Hopefully in context it will all make sense.

But, as with those movies that come delivered in plain, brown packaging, nobody really comes to games for the story. It’s a nice bonus, for sure, but the game play is the thing. Too Human, for its part, plays like a mix of World of Warcraft and Diablo, and if those are the first two games that come to mind, blame Dyack, who mentioned both iconic games half a dozen times each during his presentation.

Players will choose one of five character classes, then hack, slash and gun their way through mobs of enemies, leveling up their characters, collecting loot and progressing through the story. It’s a sort of “what if” mashup of MMOG mechanics and console shooter game play, and reminded me more of Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa than anything else. Which may not be good news for Too Human.

But what it does well, it does very well. Particularly compelling were the game’s dramatic camera handling and near total lack of load screens. The latter being the most impressive. Cut scenes melded fluidly into interactive play segments and changes of scenery didn’t even cause a hiccup. I can imagine playing Too Human will be a lot like reading a book you can’t ever seem to put down. Or watching a movie.

As far as camera control, Dyack was clear that he believes the player should not be charged with controlling the in-game camera. Just playing the game should be engaging enough; the camera should control itself. Granted, it’s hard to judge how effective an adaptive camera control system will be from a tailored demo sequence, but the mechanics are all there. If it works at home as well as it worked in the presentation room, it will be stunning.

“We really feel that games are the 8th art form,” said Dycak. “We want to speak the language of film with games.”

Dyack, in speaking of the game’s expansive storyline, said we were only seeing “the tip of the iceberg” in the 45 minute presentation, but he could easily have been speaking about the game as a whole. Too Human is one of those high-concept beasts of a game that can’t be adequately judged until you’ve got your hands on it. The eloquent technical innovations may be too subtle to overshadow the game’s dependence on MMO-style grind. The story, too esoteric. And in spite of exhaustive tweaks to the game’s engine, the graphics still don’t quite live up to expectations.

On the whole, my impressions of Too Human were mixed. I’m looking forward to a longer look, but remain unconvinced Silicon Knights hasn’t bitten off more than they can chew.

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