Summary: Mortyr may have ruined opinions of Polish game developers worldwide, but Chrome just might improve them significantly. It's new, it's innovative, it looks good. It may not be perfect, but Brett seems to have liked it. Find out why, in this episode of Reviewed Computer Game.
William Gibson and great big Chryslers
Chrome is a precious mineral. Although we think of great big Chryslers with tailfins, groovy retro toasters, and old William Gibson short-story collections, the shiny stuff will apparently be worth big bucks in at least one sci-fi version of the future. Fast forward five hundred years and it will be both very hard to find and incredibly valuable. Corporations will be lining up to do anything to acquire and market it. They will kill people. They will spend billions to voyage across the stars. They will willingly eat at Dennyís. Anything.
Chrome the game isnít quite as dear in our dreary non-sci-fi world, but itís still worth a pretty penny. Polish developer Techland has designed an interesting shooter that works both as an unofficial addition to the Unreal series and as a satisfying action game in its own rightÖa valuable thing in the current marketplace, where flashy graphics and six hours of fighting Nazis are supposed to be all you need to hit the bestseller chart. While there are some real drawbacks concerning level design, and an irritating absence of quality control in certain areas, the game is a remarkable effort from a company barely known in North America. It features all the action and varied mission objectives necessary in a contemporary shooter, and even adds unique new tweaks like cyberpunk implants and a splash of strategic and tactical elements like inventory management and terrain that really matters.
In the beginning, though, I couldnít help but compare Chrome to Unreal and its recent successor, Unreal II: The Awakening. The plot is very similar to that featured in Unreal II, and further similarities include the same actor voicing the lead role in each title. Where you played a rough-and-tumble space marshal looking after law and order in Unreal II, here you portray a rough-and-tumble mercenary looking to make a few bucks. Bolt Logan is also a good guy, as evidenced by the prologue mission where he gets betrayed by his partner and the way he takes subsequent assignments that involve fighting bad guys, like space pirates. He also flies around in a spaceship, has a spunky female sidekick much like the boobalicious second-in-command in Unreal II, and visits lots of different planets. So I have to think that Techland is aping the earlier game.
This isnít exactly a bad thing, even if it is awfully derivative. The alien environments here are very well created, giving off the same wondrous feeling of visiting another planet every time you begin a new mission. Part of this is simply the big moons in the sky over most planets, a graphical tweak that the first Unreal introduced to enforce an extraterrestrial mood, and the 14 missions set on huge maps. Part of this involves the obvious sci-fi story ripoffs noted above. Anyway, itís not like Legend invented the space mercenary (Han Solo, anyone?), and Techland has done some nice things with the archetypes here. The plot may be predictable, but Logan has something of a personal crisis that lets you make a big moral choice later in the game, and he never seems like Rambo in Space. Thereís a down-to-earth sensibility about this Joe Average, particularly when heís put in the middle of a war involving major corporations, thatís refreshing in the wake of so many shooters where the lone protagonist seems to win WW II single-handedly.
SIDEBAR: Itís a little odd that the one American who may have done the most to win WW II single-handedly hasnít been eulogized in a shooter. Somebody make an Audie Murphy game, dammit!
Blowing up the bad guys
Of course, there are also some big differences between Chrome and Unreal II. The Techland game is actually quite a bit different than most action-oriented shooters. For starters, mission design forces you to think a lot about strategy and tactics. You even get an Alien-style motion detector that tracks enemy movements with beeping blips. Indoors, levels feature a lot of choke points and ambushes. Some of this came off patently phony, as in those instances when I had to blast an enemy off a gun emplacement and then use said gun emplacement against the bad guys. Or employ the explosives I happened to discover in blowing up a base. Most of the time, though, I had to plan out what to do before opening a door. In some levels I even had to do some sneaking. Outdoors, I had to think about the terrain. Hills, trees, rocks, and other forms of natural cover had to be used to hide from enemies often ensconced on the high ground.
Loganís skills also have to be considered. He acquires cyberpunk-inspired cybernetic implants after the first mission that enhance his senses. These can be turned on and off at will, although leaving them on too long results in a sensory overload that causes damage. Used sparingly, they can be a big assist to getting through many levels. When pinned down by enemy fire, for example, I often used the adrenaline boost to run faster between cover. Taking on enemies in jungle scenes required me to switch on the eye scope. And sniping enemies from long range was ably aided by targeting assistance.
Inventory management is another issue. Logan has a limited amount of space in his pack for each mission, so you can only take along a small assortment of weapons, ammo, health packs, and other goodies. The initial loadout is customizable, but having such little room means that you have to make some hard choices regarding weapons. Especially the larger ones that take up a lot of inventory slots. For example, as much as I wanted to carry both a sniper rifle and one of those nifty submachine pistols, I couldnít cram both into my pack at once. This inevitably caused problems down the line, as I typically wanted to have both at various times over the course of each mission. Health packs and ammo also caused problems, as I could never fit enough of them in my kit, either.
Missions are varied enough to emphasize both tactical thinking and the need to carefully look after your backpack. I liberated cargo from bandits, infiltrated bases, assassinated enemy leaders and old rivals, took on some straight search-and-destroy assignments, and so forth. Maps are typically huge, featuring both indoor locations and lots of outdoor terrain boasting varied landscapes. I went from tropical islands to frozen arctic zones. Things are further spiced up with a range of vehicles, including speeder bikes, space-age dune buggies, and battlemechs. Various vehicular cannons are also on hand, for use in a number of rail sequences.
SIDEBAR: I like vehicles in shooters as much as the next guy, but Iím getting really tired of shooting sequences on rails. No, pal, as a matter of fact I donít want to man the laser cannon while you drive the moon buggy.
Good news, bad news
Sounds pretty good, doesnít it? It is, though there are drawbacks to each of these good points, some fairly serious. Level design may force you to consider tactics, but the enemies often donít play fair. Bad guys have incredible aim over long distances, along with either amazing natural eyesight or better implants than you can afford. At any rate, they picked me off in deep cover on many occasions. Snipers also tend to be positioned in hard-to-reach places on many outdoor levels. They strike almost at will, like a siphon of your health while you combat the immediate foes attacking on the ground. And as anyone who struggled through a certain level in the original Medal of Honor: Allied Assault knows, there is nothing more annoying than getting sniped in a shooter by an unseen enemy.
Even worse, you canít snipe back. Backpack restrictions and the sheer size of the sniper rifle mean that you canít fit it into your inventory unless you dump all the other rifles and submachine guns. And thatís not a good idea, since levels generally include a substantial indoor component where the slow-reloading sniper rifle is a serious liability. I get the feeling that Techland intends you to rely on weapons scavenged from slain enemies, though I found it tough to rely on this since itís impossible to know what the bad guys will be carrying before starting a mission.
Of octopi and hand grenades
Artificial intelligence is spotty as well. Enemies often set up for long battles by taking cover behind crates and trees, though they also have regular brain cramps. Sometimes they donít realize theyíre being fired on, even when comrades drop dead right beside them. Other times they senselessly charge you. They never organize to attack, either. So when youíre outnumbered you can simply duck behind cover and creep out one side to blast a couple baddies, then creep out on the other to blast more. Adding more of a sense of hilarity to the proceedings is the rag doll animations. When bad guys die here, they typically throw themselves in the air, limbs flailing bonelessly like what youíd expect to see if you blew up an octopus with a hand grenade.
And multiplayer is pretty much a waste of time. Very few people are playing Chrome online at the moment, and the gameplay options are uninspired variants on done-to-death deathmatch and capture the flag. You can do better with about a dozen other multiplayer shooters out there, so there isnít much point even going online with this one. Which is annoying, not so much because I really want yet another multiplayer shooter, but because the developers had to know that they couldnít compete with the likes of Unreal Tournament online. So why not chuck all the effort needed to make the deathmatch mode and maps and do a cooperative mode instead? People are clamoring for more coop games these days, and youíd only need to find one other Chrome fan online to play the game this way.
SIDEBAR: Okay, so Battlefield 1942 is great. Iím ready for the next big thing now. And Iím hoping that something comes out of left field, because multiplayer shooters are all beginning to look and feel the same to me.
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So Chrome beat the negative expectations, out-did a big-name game like Unreal 2, and introduced some pretty nifty new features. Whatís not to like? OK, niggling issues that add up and add upÖ but all-in-all, quite a decent game. Played it? Interested in it since the review? Sound Off! and let us know what you think in the news comments.
SIDEBAR: Did anyone actually play Will Rock? Maybe if it had been released around the same time as Serious Sam II, it would have absorbed some of that gameís sales mojo.
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