Julian Gollop is perhaps best known for the classic franchise that he created back in the 90s; X-COM. For many it's a formula never bettered, even by subsequent sequels and remakes. But it's a different IP from yesteryear that we're looking at today, as we recently got hands-on with another classic updated, this time for one of the celebrated developer's other creations, Chaos.
The original game - Chaos: The Battle of Wizards - pre-dates X-COM by nearly a decade. Chaos Reborn is a faithful reworking of that original concept, leaping from ZX Spectrum to the modern PC, slipping quietly past thirty years of progress in the process. It's impressive then, that given the game's reverence to older gameplay systems, it still feels fresh. Our hands-on time with an early build was proof enough that bringing Chaos to a contemporary audience should prove to be a wise move.
Our introduction to Chaos was brutal and brief. It was our first time (when the game came out in the mid-80s we were just out of nappies, after all), and we were playing against the game's creator. Gollop didn't hold back, and while explaining the basic systems and how the whole thing worked, he also moved to quickly and assuredly dispatch us from the field.
If you're unfamiliar with Chaos, then and/or now, here's the basic premise: two wizards (or three or four, or even two teams of two) face off in a small arena. Each is assigned a selection of spells, but - and this is a key trait - this spell-book is random (at least in the mode that we played). You never know what you're going to get, and as such you have to bring fresh tactics to the table every time you play, based on the hand that you're dealt.
There's three types of magic that can be used in battle, to summon creatures and cast spells: Neutral, Chaos and Law. Chaos and Law are contrasting approaches to play, and the spells you're assigned will likely dictate which path you follow. The more Law spells you cast, the more likely your more powerful Law spells are to succeed further down the line. Law spells start with basic magic attacks, and summoning elven and dwarf units, and by the end of a round you can summon powerful creatures like giants.
Each spell has a percentage that dictates the likelihood of it being cast, with less potent spells more likely to succeed at first (but as we discovered early on, a high percentage is no guarantee that it'll work). You can always attempt deception by casting an illusion spell (which works 100% of the time), summoning a fake version of a creature that can cause damage but is easy to defeat via a spell that vanquishes summoned illusions (but that is harmless against genuine units).
Casting a spell to reveal the validity of your opponent's units doesn't sound like much of a risk, but given that there's a 20-round limit, and that using a spell takes a whole turn for your wizard, getting it wrong can be a setback, especially if your opponent is busy casting spells that succeed.
There are different spells for different occasions. Gollop, following the Chaos branch of magic, cast one spell that saw a deadly forrest sprout around his wizard, allowing him to turtleshell up while he regathered his strength following a slow start to our second game. He then summoned a skeletal warrior to defend him. There was no way around his defences, and despite superior numbers, our attack was blunted and he was able to mount a retaliatory attack (and win).
There's some units that can only be hurt by similar creatures (for example, zombies). Some units can move much further than others, some are great defensive blockers, some have ranged attacks. There's a lot of variation, and we're being promised 80 spells when the game ships, which should mean plenty of different outcomes, and lots of different tactical possibilities.
The contrast between Chaos and Law is a key factor, effectively funneling players down certain tactical avenues. There are Neutral spells, that sit outside of the Chaos/Law divide, and they can be used to get you out of tight spot (you can summon lions and eagles, for example), but ultimately they don't help you build up your chances of accessing the most powerful spells in the Chaos and Law categories, at best they're stopgaps to get you out of a bind.
The environments are, at the moment at least, craggy and bleak. More are promised, to be decorated with different assets, so expect to see green grass and city streets before too long. The arenas themselves are split up into hexagonal tiles, with different levels that can confer attack bonuses (there's three levels, and players can move between one and two, and two and three, but not one and three - as we discovered when we spawned a unit on a level three tile, only to have it watch proceedings from its lofty perch for the duration of the battle as it couldn't climb down).
All told there's quite a bit to take in, but it's also very intuitive, and it didn't take long before we'd got our head around the main ideas. It's likely going to be one of those "easy to learn, difficult to master" games. There's an element of luck, with the random spell-books and the very real threat of spells failing (we failed two 75% magic shield spells in a row, and earlier a 90% certain summoning spell), and it'll be interesting to see how people get on with the game's unpredictable edge. At the very least, we liked it.
We're unlikely to be alone. There's already plenty of fans of the original out there, fans who'll be anxious to see the experience they remember brought forward intact. Add them to a whole new generation of gamers, unfamiliar with Chaos and its charms, and there's a decent sized audience for the Kickstarter campaign to aim at. It starts today, and Gollop and his team are looking to raise $180k to finish off the project and bring it to market. If and when it makes it out the gate, both newcomers and fans of the original will be catered for, with rulesets that reflect the 1985 classic, as well as modes that allows players to build a deck of spells - much like a collectible card game.
Going back to the Kickstarter campaign, we asked whether we could expect to see stretch goals for additional features (like new spells and creatures), but where possible Gollop is keen to stick to the original template and not stray too far from the game's roots. New stuff will be added through updates (not as DLC), but don't expect them to try and reinvent the wheel; for the most part they're happy with what they've already got. What we might see is the game appearing on additional platforms. Chaos is heading to PC, Mac and Linux at first, but when it comes to tablets and consoles "it's open to investigation".
What we can say with certainty is that our first impression of this revamped classic was a positive one. There's more modes to come, and we were told that increasing the numbers in multiplayer - particularly the 2v2 battles - is great fun ("it requires a fair amount of coordination"). We're looking forward to seeing and playing more, so let's hope that the Kickstarter campaign reaches its goal and we can get our hands Chaos Reborn sooner, rather than later.