Written by  :  G'Kyl (53)
Written on  :  Nov 06, 2004
Platform  :  Atari ST
Rating  :  4.25 Stars4.25 Stars4.25 Stars4.25 Stars4.25 Stars

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The Bitmaps' latest classic in 16 bits.

The Good

The Bitmap Brothers once had a real nag for making first-class action games at a somewhat slow but regular interval, and The Chaos Engine was the last of these achievements during the 16-bit era. As was common practice, the ST version hit the shelfs shortly after the Amiga release and came with a number of small confinements to make the game fit the ST's more limited hardware capabilities. Those will be mentioned in the second part of this review. What sets The Chaos Engine apart from most action games is its focus on the individualities of each of the six mercenaries you can choose from. You get everything from the brainless bully to the smart but fragile thinker, whose attributes are sorted into the usual set of categories such as weapons power, speed, size of the health bar and intelligence. At the beginning of a new game you will have to pick two characters, one to be controlled by the player, the other by the computer. Except, of course, you play with a friend, in which case both players get their own character. In multiplayer, the game is significantly more fun, especially since what would later be known as co-op mode was still something of a novelty until the early nineties. All the characters carry different weapons, including a gun plus an extra weapon. Basically, however, every standard gun is one out of two basic types; they either shoot one to four straight and parallel bullets or an increasing number of spreading bullets, the impact being depended on the upgrade level. Were they differ, apart from the fact that none looks like another, is the initial value of their penetrating power. This alone will leave you thinking for a while about which of the characters you want to play with and which one you will trust as your AI companion. It also gives the game some considerable replay value, since the difficulty of the game is set rather high and you will have to come up a slightly different strategy for every combination of mercenaries you send into the field. This is also were the intelligence level comes into effect. The more stupid the AI-players get, the more you will have your hands full fighting off your foe. The more intelligent they get, the more help they will give you, but as the smarter ones also are more vulnerable, you will have to take good care of them in return. More tactical finesse is required when having to be quick at deciding on whether you or your comrade-in-arms should pick up one of the precious power-ups. He might have little health left, but so do you. And can you still save him when you forfeit that huge green drink in the lower corner? The same holds true for the distribution of extra weapon pick-ups. Those secondary weapons range from huge medikits to powerful special shots and such that eradicate every non-human sprite on screen. Most interestingly, The Chaos Engine offers a genre-mix with RPG elements of the kind that you find in many of the more recent games. That is, every second level you are given the chance to upgrade your character according to the amount of money, which is left by some of the monsters after you have killed them. You can increase every of the four main abilities of both players as well as spend an extra life saver or two on every one of them. If all the strategy and tactics and thinking that these features bring about make you wonder where the action comes in, make no mistake; the Chaos Engine never strays from its premise to be a first-class action-packed arcade-style game. Once in a level you will be constantly pushed by monsters and defense installations to move on, look for power-ups along the way and decide which path to take. The latter again increases the replay value, since most of the levels offer slightly different paths that you can take. At the very least they often have various valuable extras, which you can reach only by blocking off the way to another. All of the above is being rendered in state-of-the-art quality. The Bitmap Brothers induced their unique, comic-like style into every byte of the game. And although four worlds, each offering four levels with almost exactly the same graphical appearance, might be considered a rather minimal approach as far as creating a game world goes, the strength of The Chaos Engine is not so much the expanse of the playing field as it is the emphasis on detail. Particularly impressive are the characters designs and animations of friend and foe. They almost appear to be 3-dimensional puppets - no exaggeration here.

The Bad

In comparison to the Amiga version, the ST release offers a little less colorful experience. In terms of what an ST can do, though, The Chaos Engine could not be better looking. The same holds true for the sound department. Although impressive for ST standards, one crucial aspect, namely the voice acting, is missing in this version. All the other sounds are well done and add to the impelling atmosphere, but since characters play such an important role in the game, having their voices been cut is something of a disappointment. Other than that one more thing needs mentioning. Fortunately, though, it does not overly distract from the fun the game delivers, but serves merely as a small annoyance for first-time players. What I am talking about is the fact that you get the code, which includes all the progress you made in the game as well as the upgrade status of your players, only every four levels. Since the code system was changed from a two-level to the four-level interval during the last days of the game development, my guess would be that The Bitmap Brothers realized only late along the road that their game would in fact be rather short. However huge the levels may be, there are only 16 of them. So instead of making you learn two stages at a time and then have a new starting point for the following ones, we are now being left with having to master four levels, including all their secrets and shortcuts, to advance further.

The Bottom Line

Overall, The Chaos Engine is one of the most enjoyable action games ever made. It comes with six nice character profile cards, an intro tune that stays in the ear for years and one of the most intoxicating, if a bit short-lived, gameplay experiences ever.