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Chaos Reborn

Posted: 15 December, 2015

Chaos There's a small cadre of game developers that, for me, have such a commanding body of work it's impossible not to admire them. They demand respect. The Jeff Minters of their fields. And when you stop to look at it, the UK's produced more than its fair share of them (and obviously I'm not talking about Peter Fucking Molyneux, although he's employed more than a few).

Since I seem to be working my way through them on this blog - hey 2015 has been a great 1995, and, well, a great 1985 - it'd be rude not to pay a large amount of homage at the feet of Julian Gollop. If anyone could lay claim to owning a genre, it has to be this man.

Imagine having this for a CV:

And tbh, I'm only ignoring some of the others because I've not played them, they're probably amazing as well. Personally, I'd have dropped the mic and changed career after Laser Squad. If I'd hung on long enough to do X-Com I'd still be appearing on chat shows and doing TED talks about AI. Or whatever it is famous devs from 20 years ago still do.

So yeah, wow. One of those guys I'd love to meet and buy a pint. Or, failing that, one of those developers that only has to post a logo on Kickstarter and I'm all in. Hello Chaos Reborn!

For those under 30 - and/or outside the UK - the original Chaos was the Spectrum turn-based strategy game. Until Rebelstar. And then Lasersquad. Released in 1985 it would have cult status by the 90s, be featured on at least one Your Sinclair cover-tape that I can remember, and end up being listed as one of the greatest Spectrum games of all time by pretty much every Speccy mag that ever existed, and later, GamesTM.

(For me it's probably a coin toss between Chaos and Deathchase 3D for the actual crown, but lets not forget Head Over Heels, Rex and that port of R-Type while we're here...)

Chaos' Gameplay sees you taking control over one of four wizards, locked in a magical arena, with a limited number of spells. Each wizard takes turns casting spells and moving about, with the aim to be the last one standing. All fairly obvious so far, but there're two neat touches that lift Chaos above a simple boardgame.

The first is that your spells are placed somewhere on the scale of lawful to chaotic and as spells of each type are cast, the arena itself shifts toward that end of the spectrum. At the beginning of the game spells that are at the either extreme will be difficult to cast as the arena will be neutral, however, successfully casting a few chaotic spells (for example) will quickly shift the arena in that direction, which in turn makes it easier to cast those more difficult, extreme chaos spells. This can be a massive ballache if you're dealt a handful of lawful spells, which is where the second neat touch comes in: at any point you can decide to cast an illusion, which has a 100% chance of working regardless of the tilt of the arena. The only downside? Opposing wizards can 'disbelieve' these illusions, instantly destroying them. The bluf...

The range of spells is itself pretty funky, from the Undead to Golden Dragons, Shadow Woods to Goey Blobs, the latter of which is probably single handedly responsible for a lot of Chaos' cult status.

The Goey Blob is a snot-green, slightly pulsating bogey splat of a sprite, that grows to consume the arena like a cancer. You can't control it, it goes where it goes, but normally with hilarious consequences as you or a chum find yourself trapped by it. Nothing is more humiliating (at least in my circle of friends) than getting done by the blob, so obviously that's the main kill to go for... There're a few other mechanics but that, in a nutshell, is the gist of it.

On paper Chaos is a fairly simple looking spin on a board game, but one that's captivating, often very funny, and still dear to my heart. It may be 30 years old but it still plays well.

Much like Elite Dangerous Julian had my Kickstarter backing the morning it was announced - instapledge -  and much like Elite, despite having early access privileges I avoided playing it until it was finished. Why? Well, maybe it's just a personal thing, but I honestly don't want to play unfinished games unless I'm doing QA for a mate. I spend 8 hours a day playing my own unfinished stuff, so I really don't want to look behind the curtain of someone else's WIP.  It's nice to have some mystique about games, just now and again. But anyway...

I've spent a few hours with Chaos Reborn and am happy to report that it's lovely. Not in the way your Nan would say, but properly, ooo, where ya been? lovely.

I'm immediately struck by how 'Chaos' it is despite being 30 years younger and looking completely different. The new-fangled shaped arenas are a welcome add to the gameplay, particularly the addition of height - immediately recognisable from Ghost Recon: Shadow Warriors, which used it to similar effect - that becomes an essential escape in crowded arenas, as well as giving you a powerful advantage over would be attackers below.

Spells have seen a bit of a change and I was worried about the new cards / deck metaphor, but needlessly, as it turns out. It's not hipster, but a completely commonsense update of what the original provided. You're given a handful of cards, each containing a spell, with a stack of additional ones, unseen, off to the side. These come in to replace the spells that you've used until the stack runs out - much like other deck based games - and you can also burn unused cards for mana: when you have enough, a new card is handed over. This is often something more powerful than your standard hand, so burning cards in the hope of a Brucey Bonus has a nice risk / reward feel, despite me constantly forgetting about it and doing a last-minute-Larry dispel of things, because I've run out of cards to burn. Idiot.

Games can be quite short, almost painfully so when starting out. A few Tangle Vines, or Shadow Woods can quickly limit movement, and given that your Wizard's barely able to beat his way out of a paper bag without a sword, shield and mount, quick pastings await if you're not careful.

Like the original, Chaos Reborn hides a dice rolling engine, albeit one that's incredibly finely tuned. Saving up that 90% chance spell for when you need it is no guarantee of success, and as infuriating as that is, you do at least get to watch it happen to your opponents. Its definitely one of the game's strengths, keeping things tense and forcing a careful, tactical approach, particularly around movement and the use of height. At least, it does before the blob is let loose.

It's all very familiar, in a good way, and like all of Julian's games there's no mistaking who crafted it. It's great to see a master at work, you know? I like being schooled.

Now, I've not tried the single player campaign yet, that's next, but on the strength of the multi-player alone this is a game entirely worthy of your steam collection. I'd like to think it'll capture the hearts of a new generation - like the Speccy original grabbed me - but I fear it'll just be swamped under Hearthstone. In my opinion that'd be a crying shame, because Julian and his tiny team have made something polished and oh so pretty. I just wish it had more people shouting about it.

But anyway, go get it. There's a Steam sale approaching.


Who's next for the 30 year make over?

No, Dizzy, you can fuck off.