In­side The Chaos En­gine

Mike Mont­gomery and Dan Malone re­visit their sem­i­nal 16-bit run-and-gun co-op­er­a­tive blaster

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS -

It’s funny to think how lan­guage changes and evolves. When The Chaos En­gine was re­leased 25 years ago, the term ‘steam­punk’ had yet to per­me­ate the pub­lic con­scious­ness – rather than con­jur­ing images of peo­ple in top hats and gog­gles op­er­at­ing ma­chin­ery fes­tooned with brass valves and ana­logue gauges, it was more likely to draw a blank stare. But The Chaos En­gine is most def­i­nitely a steam­punk game.

The plot is sim­ple: Baron Fortesque has been ex­per­i­ment­ing with early com­put­ers, but also time and space, and has cre­ated a ma­chine known as the Chaos En­gine. It quickly be­comes self-aware and, as self-aware ma­chines tend to do, turned on its cre­ator. Sud­denly Vic­to­rian England is be­set by bizarre hap­pen­ings – both man and beast are mu­tated into rav­en­ous mon­strosi­ties, and even the land­scape it­self has

be­come warped. With no other good op­tions avail­able, a team of mer­ce­nar­ies is hired to go in and take the ma­chine down by force.

The pub­lic got its first look at The Chaos

En­gine in mag­a­zine pre­views as far back as late 1991, and a rare glimpse of the game in ac­tion was af­forded to view­ers of Games­mas­ter early in 1992. “You could see from their early demos that it was go­ing to be a clas­sic,” says Andy Nut­tall, who re­viewed the game for Amiga For­mat back in 1993. “Magic Pock­ets hadn’t long been out, so they were at the top of their game. It was that tingly feel­ing that you got when you knew the his­tory of a top game de­vel­oper and knew what they were ca­pa­ble of, and then you start to see that magic work­ing on a new game.”

The top-down shooter was al­ready very recog­nis­able, even at an early stage. Ob­vi­ously tak­ing in­flu­ences from the likes of Com­mando – “Did it?” Mike Mont­gomery, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Bit­map Broth­ers, cuts us off. Ap­par­ently, the con­clu­sion drawn by many con­tem­po­rary mag­a­zines was not quite on the money. “To be quite hon­est, the game that in­flu­enced us the most was prob­a­bly Gaunt­let.” This makes sense – the labyrinthine lev­els and em­pha­sis on co-op­er­a­tive play seen in The Chaos En­gine are def­i­nitely qual­i­ties you’d as­so­ciate with Atari Games’ ar­cade hit. “Ev­ery­thing is in­flu­enced by some­thing, sub­con­sciously or con­sciously, but I think it was more sub­con­scious – this was the de­sign­ers get­ting to­gether and say­ing, ‘This is what we would want to play,’” Mike elab­o­rates.

"the game that in­flu­enced us the most Was prob­a­bly gaunt­let" mike mont­gomery

It’s as­ton­ish­ing how much of the final game’s qual­ity was ev­i­dent so far from re­lease, but The Chaos En­gine had al­ready been in de­vel­op­ment for over half a year by this point. The For­est and Work­shops graph­ics looked pretty much com­plete, and the level lay­outs were al­ready com­plex and in­ter­est­ing (though decidedly dif­fer­ent from their final in­car­na­tions, with far more items). En­emy sprites and player char­ac­ters are all easy to iden­tify as be­ing close to final, if not final, and there was even an early ver­sion of the equip­ment screen in there. For any fan of the de­vel­oper, the game caught the eye. “Dan Malone is a mas­ter of that style; I loved what he and the oth­ers had done with the sort of stip­pled re­lief to make ev­ery­thing look me­tal­lic,” says Andy. “Plenty of games used a sim­i­lar trick, but the Bitmaps’ stuff just had that look – you knew in­stantly who had made the game.”

What couldn’t be gleaned from those early pre­views was the game’s amaz­ing sound­track. The techno tracks set the pace of the ac­tion with pound­ing beats and had a dy­namic ele­ment, as new sec­tions would kick in at var­i­ous points – for ex­am­ple, near the end of a stage. “I re­mem­ber the au­dio as a whole be­ing re­ally strong;

Richard Joseph was a ge­nius,” says Andy. “The sound and speech ef­fects were fan­tas­tic, re­ally suited to the game and helped build the strong at­mos­phere.” In­deed, the voice that would de­clare “Node ac­ti­vated!” and “Spe­cial power!” is as iconic a part of the game as any.

How­ever, the game’s most mem­o­rable au­dio was com­posed out­side of the Bit­map Broth­ers camp. Joi, an al­ter­na­tive dance act com­prised of broth­ers Fa­rook and Ha­roon Shamsher, com­posed the theme that ac­com­pa­nies the in­tro sequence. It’s an un­for­get­table track, open­ing with a siren and other in­dus­trial noises set against drum beats, and one that took ad­van­tage

of the Amiga. Of course, such a col­lab­o­ra­tion was not un­usual for the Bit­map Broth­ers, given its pre­vi­ous work with li­censed mu­sic on Xenon 2.

But what was as­ton­ish­ing about those early pre­views was that three char­ac­ters were on screen at all times, com­pared to two in the final game. At this point in the de­sign, even with two hu­man play­ers, the pres­ence of a com­puter-con­trolled part­ner was a con­stant. It was ul­ti­mately dropped, but the fact that it was even con­sid­ered showed how much faith the Bit­map Broth­ers had in The Chaos En­gine’s ma­jor dis­tin­guish­ing point – its ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. If you weren’t play­ing with a sec­ond player, you’d have a Cpu­con­trolled part­ner to fill that role.

Each of the six con­trol­lable char­ac­ters didn’t just play dif­fer­ently in your hands – they be­haved dif­fer­ently when con­trolled by the com­puter. “The thing with the char­ac­ters was that we gave them all dif­fer­ent at­tributes, sim­i­lar to what you’d do in an RPG,” says Mike. “It was very im­por­tant that for each char­ac­ter, that peo­ple knew that they were dif­fer­ent. Oth­er­wise, what was the

“We gave them all dif­fer­ent at­tributes, sim­i­lar to What you’d do in an rpg” mike mont­gomery

point of hav­ing char­ac­ters?” These at­tributes would ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine how closely each char­ac­ter would fol­low the ‘ideal’ line of play – and in fact, a lot of work was put in to en­sure that the CPU didn’t just do all the work for the player.

“What we ac­tu­ally did was we played it as a two-player game, and then we spent a lot of time analysing what the play­ers were ac­tu­ally do­ing in real life, and then tried out hard­est to code that in,” says Mike Mont­gomery, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Bit­map Broth­ers. “What we’d do is we’d ac­tu­ally have two com­puter play­ers in test­ing, and peo­ple would just watch it and make sure it was work­ing, and then just keep tweak­ing it un­til it was right.” This was one of the tasks that would ul­ti­mately serve to pro­long the de­vel­op­ment of the game, but the ef­fort was worth it – AI char­ac­ters be­have con­vinc­ingly, pro­vid­ing cover fire when you need it and push­ing for­ward of­ten, oc­ca­sion­ally blun­der­ing into traps just like we do.

Andy’s mem­o­ries of the AI cen­tre on one of its more amus­ingly traits. “I re­mem­ber the CPU steal­ing all my stuff! In two-player I ex­pect to have to fight for col­lectibles, but in one-player to break open a stash of loot or have a mon­ster drop stuff, to then have the Amiga nip in be­fore me and pick it all up,” he re­calls. That wasn’t the only im­pact the AI had on his ex­pe­ri­ence. “The en­e­mies felt re­ally good, like they were de­lib­er­ately avoid­ing your fire but still pos­si­ble to kill with a few quickly de­vel­oped tac­tics,” he re­mem­bers. “I don’t know how ‘in­tel­li­gent’ they were; they were hyped as in­tel­li­gent so I was ex­pect­ing them to be, and they cer­tainly felt ad­vanced.”

Use­ful AI part­ners were im­por­tant, though, as The Chaos En­gine wasn’t a sim­ple run-and-

gun af­fair. The lev­els were mazes, hid­ing many se­crets and of­ten mul­ti­ple exits. Any­thing you did had con­se­quences, from al­ter­ing the stage lay­out to trig­ger­ing a mon­ster am­bush. Mak­ing progress was as much about smart de­ci­sion mak­ing as it was twitch re­ac­tions, and the game even de-em­pha­sised tra­di­tional genre sta­ples – for ex­am­ple, the game only fea­tures one tra­di­tional boss fight. “I think we were try­ing to break the mould slightly,” says Mike. “Most other games had end of level bosses, but that’s not what The Chaos En­gine’s about, re­ally.”

The Chaos En­gine fi­nally ar­rived on the Amiga in early 1993, and the press heaped ac­co­lades on it. At the lower end of the scale, CU Amiga gave it 81% with the as­sess­ment that it was “by no means the best that the genre has to of­fer, but it’s a fran­tic blast all the same.” Amiga Ac­tion awarded the game 92%, com­ment­ing that, “It’s ob­vi­ous that the Bit­map Broth­ers’ sole in­ten­tion is to get back up on the award-win­ners’

podium.” The One gave the game 85%,

Andy Nut­tall’s re­view in Amiga For­mat gave the game 90%, and Stu­art Camp­bell gave it 89% in Amiga Power – a score re­mark­able enough that pub­lisher Rene­gade took out an ad­vert in Com­puter Trade Weekly declar­ing the game “So good, even that b*st*rd Stu­art Camp­bell likes it!”

Did Mike and the rest of the team ex­pect such a pos­i­tive re­cep­tion? “Of course we did. We were the Bit­map Broth­ers,” he re­sponds with­out hes­i­ta­tion. The game was then con­verted across a va­ri­ety of com­puter and con­sole for­mats, com­ing out well in ev­ery case. The game was reti­tled Sol­diers Of For­tune in North Amer­ica, where the Preacher was also re­tooled into the Sci­en­tist. A se­quel soon went into pro­duc­tion, but found a smaller au­di­ence due to the de­cline of the Amiga mar­ket. Still, the game re­mains in de­mand, with the 2013 PC rere­lease be­ing the most con­ve­nient way to play to­day.

Re­vis­it­ing The Chaos En­gine re­veals that it’s hard as nails, but still a lot of fun. Andy re­cently took the time to do so him­self, and came to a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion. “A while ago my son and I were talk­ing about two player co-op and headto-head games, and I talked to him about Spy Vs Spy and The Chaos En­gine/the Chaos En­gine 2.

I found them all in the loft, and we had a fun few hours re­vis­it­ing them. They re­ally stand up to­day, we had a lot of fun,” he con­firms. Of course, there’s a painful twist that many gamer par­ents will be familiar with: “Un­for­tu­nately he’s al­ready a lot bet­ter at games than I am, but it’s still great shar­ing the nos­tal­gia with him and he digs it.”

It’s un­likely that we’ll ever see The Chaos En­gine and its crew back in ac­tion, but that’s some­thing which feels sur­pris­ingly okay. We’ll al­ways trea­sure the mem­o­ries we made play­ing this game, whether the part­ner­ship was be­tween an AI Bri­g­and and a lonely Navvie player, or a fa­ther and son ar­gu­ing over who gets to pick up the food. When we feel like cre­at­ing new ones, the orig­i­nal game is just as good as ever.

» [Amiga] You’ll fre­quently get am­bushed by mon­sters when im­por­tant events hap­pen, in­clud­ing node ac­ti­va­tions and key grabs. » [Amiga] Above left:The en­e­mies be­come pro­gres­sively more bizarre as you get closer to the cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence of the ma­chine.» [Amiga] Left: Late in the game, en­e­mies will even am­bush you from up­per lev­els.

» [Amiga] It’s hard to tell, but we’re play­ing with the CPU’S as­sis­tance here. It cov­ers us well as we take out the up­per-left en­emy.

» [Amiga] Some lev­els have mul­ti­ple exits. As a rule, the harder the exit is to ac­cess, the bet­ter a po­si­tion you’ll start in on the next stage.

» [Amiga] Things re­ally start to heat up in Fortesque Man­sion. The car­nage rarely lets up, even when you have puz­zles to solve.

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