The Chaos Engine lurks behind the white-starched linen and soap-scrubbed facade of Victorian respectability. Dr Jekyll's concoction steamed and bubbled with sinister promise, the smog swirled around the Ripper's cloak as another dark crimson ribbon streamed into the gutter and the raw underbelly of life existed in an opium-induced delirium. In this world, the Chaos Engine exists...
The Chaos Engine is a strange video game incarnation, splicing the feverish scribbles of Edgar Allen Poe and the heroic tales of H.G. Wells. It embodies the Victorian bravado that if machines could take one to the coast in two hours, one could feasibly travel to the moon, burrow to the Earth's core... or destroy the very fabric of civilization.
In a typically Wellsian account, we learn that a recently demised monster of Tyrannosaurus-like proportions has been discovered in a quarry in the home counties. Dubbed by the press as "the Monster of Maidenhead", the beast is a total mystery. Until, in a city tavern, a half-crazed fellow describes a sinister experiment carried out by a team of scientists sponsored by the fabulously wealthy Baron Fortisque to a group of mercenaries.
The machine was capable of generating the primeval soup which all life is made from. One scientist, crazed by this power of powers, corrupted the Engine by altering the matrices that controlled this massive machine and was able to feed back the esoteric results of its calculations of time and matter. Now the engine could generate a spontaneous corruption of time and matter, producing strange mutations... with the Maidenhead Monster being an example of its awesome capabilities. The machine, based at the Fortesque Estate, continues to generate beast after beast each more mutated than the last, with the engine creating a legion of guards and protectors. This spelt the beginning of the end of civilization...
But what of this group of mercenary characters who learned of this awesome story? A strange, corrupt, untrustworthy and motley crew greedy eyes glistening at the thought of the fabulous fortesque fortune in that deserted mansion estate. Unable to trust each other, they signed a pact, a binding contract, that none of them could successfully complete the mission without the other.
A pulsating, thumping music score pumps out of the wholly inadequate monitor speakers - if ever there was a reason for getting those decent stereo speakers for the Amiga, now is the time! The music, with hints of Indian/Brahman influence, continues as stunning news reel shots relay the story of the Maidenhead Monster and its effects on Victorian society. The opening credit music may be turned into a dance chart single. Then, game music maestro Richard Joseph's constantly changing score kicks in, moving from frenetic action, eerie atmospherics, strange disturbing voices, stretching the Amiga's sonic capacity to the limits... the like of which has never been heard in a game before!
The Bitmaps and Joseph have designed the music and sonics as if scoring an action movie. Changing pace with the action at a split second, subtle atmospheric background noises move near running water, steaming pipes, piston noises or the glugging of hot mud and the sound grows quieter or noisier as you move further and closer to the source of the sound - this creates a totally amazing atmosphere! A series of selection screens appear looking like the control facia of Captain Nemo's submarine Nautilus, a combination of wood veneer and brass, the first displaying the six mercenaries. The players could not be more different from each other, displaying a variety of physical and mental attributes, ambitions and character.
A priest, long since defrocked for fraud, maintains his clergy appearance for respectability. But he is more mercenary and ruthless than all of them and cannot be trusted. Fast but physically weak, he carries the first-aid box which is crucial during the mission. In stark contrast, a thuggish oaf, dim-witted, slow but powerful with immense stopping power... he has his uses! Then an adventurer straight out of the pens of Wells and Verne, bravehearted and out for the fun of it... a good all-rounder. And last but by no means least, Brigande, the unofficial leader of the team.
Each character has strengths and weaknesses, great firepower and endurance is a sacrifice for relative sluggishness, whereas a quicker, intelligent member of the team will quickly weaken if attacked. Another aspect of Nautilus-facia turns up again, this time displaying individual attributes and icons depicting current levels and potential, including skill, stamina, speed and wisdom which refers more to the computer-controlled character in one-player mode. Speaking of which, the Bitmaps are boasting the most intelligent, responsive and human-like computer-controlled characters ever. One-player mode presents the facility to actually set the CPU's endurance and intelligence.
Bitmap weaponry is legendary since Super Nashwan-power lit up the skies and obliterated every thing in sight back in Xenon 2. The Chaos Engine's firepower potential is equally subtle. Each character carries his own style of weapon from the thug's hefty Sten gun to the Priest's evil lightening blaster. But in true Bitmap style, there's a veritable arsenal of power-ups from Dynamite and Molotovs to outlandish Shot-bursts, a devastating ring of fire which encircles the character and lays waste to all that stands in its way.
There are non-weaponry collectables such as a map of the Fortesque estate which displays your position and that of the so-called 'Nodes'. These nodes are a network of power current controllers connected to the Chaos Engine and the primary objective is to locate each Node and blast it with everything you've got until it pulsates and hums into life. Once all the Nodes are activated, the characters can move onto the next section, ever closer to the Chaos Engine. Although we are dealing with mercenaries, each with his own objective and motivation (mostly greed), the game has been ingeniously designed to make teamwork essential to everyone's survival. All hell is about to break loose as chaos rules!
Entering the furore at Fortesque, the two chosen characters are positioned on the periphery of the Fortesque estate. In one-player mode, you control a character who will take the lead, and the CPU will follow and cover your character by firing intelligently at the enemy - the technique is very effective indeed! The Chaos Engine has been churning out beasts to protect itself and each beastly incarnation is more mutated and powerful than the last. Beasts lurch from the undergrowth like a seemingly countless army, blindly clawing the air -their numbers and unpredictability make them deadly adversaries and a constant barrage of fire is necessary to keep them at bay.
At every step greedy eyes will catch a veritable booty of collectables - the priest's eyes glisten beneath his pearly specs at the sight of treasure, although all gains are fairly distributed between the team as a part of the pact... Oh yes, blast as many beasts as possible though and each mutated hide you fry equals dosh in the bank.
What self-respecting action adventure would be complete without keys? This one has got two gold and silver, the former affecting the scenery or revealing objects not visible to the naked eye, while the latter simply allows you to progress or escape from a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. The gold keys can spell disaster to over-greedy players! Rudimentary collectables feature energy replenishes in the shape of food and a Yin Yang player - a safe icon which allows you to progress from that spot if the character in control is destroyed.
Each level grows progressively more hazardous, while the physical bits are more arcade action-orientated, requiring perspicacity and guile. The ever-changing music and exquisite atmospherics bid to bewilder the player until on the threshold of the Chaos Engine, as the voice of twisted souls cry out, the game takes on a more sinister and frightening appearance...
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