The lights are on
I almost feel guilty about choosing Chromehounds for my Time Sink feature. By the time you're done reading this you'll want to go jump in a giant, lumbering mech yourself. The only problem is, you can't.
FromSoftware's Chromehounds wasn't an online-only game, but it might as well have been. The single-player campaign was more of an extended tutorial that introduced players to the six different classes of the titular "HOUNDS" (scout, sniper, soldier, defender, heavy gunner, tactics commander). The real fun was joining a squad.
The online experience was called the Neroiumus War, a persistent skirmish between three warring nations. Squads allied themselves with one of the three, with allegiances up for grabs at the end of each two-month period (or unilateral victory, whichever came first) when the conflict reset. The different territories each had unique HOUND parts, and our squad strategically moved among them to make sure our 20 members (the maximum number) had everything they needed.
Components in the daily lottery were randomly selected, and scrambling for just the thing to complete the perfect build was a lot of fun. I spent quite a lot of time in my HOUND garage. It's not just where I built my Transformers-themed creations. It was part of the social hub.
One of the most innovative features (for the time) was being able to invite squadmates into your garage. Given that we were all pretty firm in one role (two at most), it was helpful to understand what our teammates were rolling out with. Getting pointers, especially as we learned tricks that applied to all builds, was invaluable.
Once we were ready to go to war to defend one of our country's capture points (or invade an opposing nation), six players would enter a lobby. There, the team leader would choose one of the base options (typically three different locations on the map). The strategy of choosing a stronghold to defend offered layers of complexity.
Terrain, composition of our forces, and proximity to communication towers all factored into our decision. Most of the time, we'd get matched with a squad of humans, but after a short matchmaking timer, the game would put us into battle against AI forces. Battles against the computer were less valuable for the war effort, but we always got to play with minimal delay.
I nearly always served as our team's commander, the only RT (class) with a communication array. Commanders also were the only RT that could see enemy movement within the communication zone. Within the bubble, players could converse freely. However, expanding the comm net meant going into the dark zone and out of communication with the rest of the team. (Note: Chromehounds' heyday was prior to the Xbox Live party chat feature.)
It was always tense, as we wondered if our scout would get ambushed and killed before reaching his destination. We always sent him to a distant tower, because claiming one raised a flag that was visible from the ground. Capturing communication towers, while crucial for coordination, could bely troop movements or, worse, which base was the real one.
The match ended when one team was wiped out or its base was destroyed. One-on-one battles were often extremely difficult, as larger hounds (including my Commander called Prime) maneuvered slowly on most terrain. Location-based damage led to disabled weapons (and their attached cameras), which could severely cripple a player. Staring down two enemy HOUNDS alone almost always meant a quick death.
We quickly learned to keep a guard by my side, as losing the commander meant the entire communication network went dark. As time went on, new builds and counter-builds were developed (the most notorious was called the "Pile Scout," a fast mech with multiple base-crushing piledrivers for weapons).
Sometimes people got a little crazy. This beast could barely move.
I've only played one MMO seriously, and it wasn't nearly as addictive or time sucking as Chromehounds was. The way we approached our squad (our guild), the scheduled meeting times (our raids), and our attachment to our HOUNDS (our toons) may be what MMO players experience.
A part of me died when Sega shut down the Chromehounds servers in January 2010 (effectively making copies worthless). Deep down, I hope some day that FromSoftware will take a break from its jetpack-enabled Armored Core series and spark a new Neroimus War. If not, perhaps someone else will step forward and create an experience like Chromehounds.
Until then, I'm looking for the next game to sink hundreds of hours into.
Email the author Mike Futter, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.