"If you can hold a gun, you're not dead."

Title: Chaser
Developer: Cauldron
Publisher: JoWooD Productions
Date Published: June 27, 2003
Platforms: PC CD-ROM (2 discs)
PEGI Rating: 16+ (Violence)

Chaser is an epic first-person shooter developed by Cauldron, a Slovakian development company previously responsible for Battle Isle: The Andosia War. It is based on Cauldron's own CloakNT game engine, which boasts a feature set on par to the current crop of FPS engines (such as Quake, Unreal or Lithtech). The developers' aim with Chaser was to create an FPS that places a greater emphasis on storytelling than anything seen before in the genre. In-engine cutscenes, voiceovers, and scripted events are used liberally in an attempt to integrate the traditional 'run and gun' gameplay with a compelling (if occasionally far-fetched) storyline.

Chaser borrows heavily from existing games and science fiction movies, with the most obvious influence being Total Recall. The game is set in a dystopian future where society has collapsed into lawlessness. Mars has been colonised by a corrupt consortium (MarsCorp) operating under a U.N. charter. A Martian independance movement, masterminded by one Commander Castor, secretly plots to free Mars from Earth control. They are brutally oppressed by MarsCorp's military. The rebels' greatest asset is Agent John Chaser, a highly trained espionage and demolition expert. MarsCorp are aware of the exploits of this terrorist/freedom fighter, and send an elite operative, Scott Stone, to neutralise him. This is effectively all the information the player is given (via the manual) prior to starting the game.

The Story

Note: The following section contains some plot spoilers. If you want all the events of the game to be a surprise, you may want to skip ahead.

Chaser opens with the sight of a massive wheel-shaped space station (the Majestic) orbiting Earth. A lengthy cutscene shows a company of marines boarding the station and killing any hapless scientists who stand in their way. Elsewhere in the station, John Chaser wakes up on an operating table. He has no recollection of who he is, where he is or how he got there. Amnesia may be an over-used plot device in games, but Chaser goes some way towards justifying its use by making it a central part of the story, and using it to surprise the player with unexpected events rather than just treating it as a convenient excuse to make the protagonist a blank slate who needs to have everything explained to them.

As Chaser is taking his first few wobbly steps, the marines burst into the room. It is clear that they have been sent to kill him. Chaser manages to lose them for a short while by escaping through a ventilation duct. The player now takes control, and has to guide Chaser through the station (which has started to self destruct), killing the marines and eventually boarding an escape pod to reach Earth. This opening level, while not being one of the best in the game, is a good example of the style of gameplay that Chaser adopts for many of its levels. The player traverses a fairly linear course through a large environment, triggering a long series of scripted events (on the station it's mainly stuff like panels blowing, corridors tilting, and crates falling from ledges) and engaging a steady stream of human enemies.

Chaser's escape pod crash-lands in Montack City, a run-down metropolis somewhere on the West coast of the United States. The city is carved up between three criminal factions: the Mafia, the Yakuza, and the Montack Raiders street gang. Chaser lands in Raiders territory, necessitating a running battle with hordes of thugs as he tries to escape to the comparitive safety of the Mafia-run downtown area. As Chaser reaches the highway at the border of Raider territory, he is suddenly overcome by flashbacks. He manages to stagger into a bar downtown which is run by the Mafia capo, Hector Vallero. Here, Chaser gets talking with a mysterious Mafia fixer called Mike Gomez, who conveniently (almost too conveniently, you might say) explains to Chaser that the Mafia will almost certainly try to make him work for them if he doesn't leave the city quickly.

Unfortunately, before Chaser can follow this advice, Hector Vallero arrives to make him an offer he can't refuse. Chaser is implanted with a remote-controlled bomb called a 'spider', which will explode inside his brain if he tries to leave the city or disobey Vallero. Chaser has no alternative but to do Vallero's bidding. After performing a couple of tasks for Vallero (taking back a Raider-controlled waterworks and eavesdropping on a Yakuza meeting) Chaser is informed by Gomez of a possible way to remove the spider. Chaser must visit a laboratory deep in Yakuza territory where a scientist (Shimako Sakai) can remove the spider from his brain. Throughout this, the flashbacks continue, showing Chaser fleeting images of a commando unit on Mars, being led by a soldier with the nametag 'Stone'.

Chaser sneaks through the bombed-out Little Tokyo district, dispatching dozens of Uzi-toting ninja along the way. (The final part of this sequence is something of an homage to Shinobi, with ninja capable of leaping from street level to overhead walkways.) Shimako removes the spider and informs Chaser of a smuggler who can help him get to Mars and maybe find out the truth about what has happened to him. Chaser then double-crosses the Mafia (during an assassination attempt on the Yakuza boss, resulting in an extended shootout against Mafia and Yakuza footmen in a luxury hotel) and meets up with the smuggler, Abdul 'Kabir' Hamid.

Kabir isn't just going to hand Chaser a ticket to Mars. Instead, Chaser is employed to defend a shipment of 'goods' against attack from practically everyone: first an army of rival gangsters (sent by Kabir's cousin Chalid) attack Kabir's warehouse, then Chaser has to infiltrate a lighthouse (occupied by Raiders and their cronies) to get a good vantage point to defend the truck with a high-powered sniper rifle as it travels across town. Then Chaser has to travel underwater through a ship graveyard to reach the harbour where Kabir's nuclear submarine is docked. Unfortunately the harbour is also under hostile control, so Chaser has to kill everyone, restart the generators and open the harbour gates. After sorting all that out the Mafia turn up for a bit of payback. Chaser eventually escapes with Kabir on the submarine destined for Siberia.

The next phase of the plan is to transport the goods across Russia and drop Chaser at the Nikita Khrushchev Cosmodrome where he can board a shuttle to Mars. Unfortunately Kabir's cousin has informed the Russian army of their activities. After a truly epic series of battles across half of Siberia, and half a dozen plot twists, Chaser eventually manages to board his flight to Mars for the third and final act.

On reaching Mars after a journey of several months, Chaser is jailed for not having the correct papers (as well as for killing a good deal of the spaceport's security forces). In jail he meets a resistance member (Jay) who he vaguely remembers from his past life. They break out of the jail and rendezvous with a senior resistance contact (Syd) who is posing as a barman in the main Martian colony. Syd informs them of their mission to assassinate the head of MarsCorp, Samuel Longwood, using a bomb on a train. Chaser, now resolved to finish the job that he started before he lost his memory, sets to work on executing the complex and dangerous plan, hoping the defeat of MarsCorp will lead him to Stone and the answers he seeks. Unfortunately the assassination attempt on Longwood turns out to be only the start of the Martian resistance's problems, as a final series of twists brings Chaser face to face with his past.

The Game

As you can see, Chaser's plot is rather more ambitious and convoluted than the one used in the last notable effort to tell a story through an FPS (Half-Life), and manages to take in an impressive variety of locations. John Chaser is continually working towards short-term and longer-term goals, which prevents the disparate missions feeling too disjointed and episodic (a problem that has beset a number of recent FPS games, including Unreal II and No One Lives Forever 2), although possibly a few too many of those goals involve opening barriers. What should be apparent is the scale of the game. There are over thirty discrete levels in the single player campaign, wildly varying in size and length, with some taking around ten minutes to complete and others taking an hour or more.

The non-interactive cutscenes that bookend the levels thankfully aren't as frequent (or long) as those in Metal Gear Solid 2, although they do stretch to a few minutes in length on occasion (especially early on). Technically they are very competent, with good use of editing and camera movement as well as some effects such as time stretching and monochrome for the flashbacks. Rather primitive lip-synching effects and the occasional graphical glitch make the presentation look a little amateurish in places, an impression that is not helped by the patchy dialogue and voice acting. John Chaser (voiced by Jay Benedict) has a slightly annoying John Wayne drawl, and the less said about the attempts at Japanese accents the better.

As mentioned earlier, most of the levels in the game concentrate on traditional FPS gameplay. Although this may not sound especially appealing, it's only after playing through a few levels of tense stand-offs using real-world weapons in quite complex environments that one realises that there have been few, if any, single-player shooters that have offered this style of gameplay in recent years. In the rush to alloy the FPS with any new twist that comes along (stealth, squads, vehicles, horror) it seems that developers have neglected the pure shooting action seen in Doom, Quake 2 and Half-Life.

By using an aggressive portal-based visibility system, Cauldron have been able to include some vast levels in Chaser. The most successful of these is probably the Novvy Yeropol mission in the Siberian chapter. Night is falling over the frozen taiga, and Chaser (with the aid of his VAL sniper rifle and AK-47) must infiltrate a large military complex-cum-railway station to allow Kabir's convoy to pass through. Scouting the front gates reveals that they are secured from the inside, so Chaser must find an alternate way into the complex by trekking through the arctic wilderness (infested with Russian army patrols). On approaching the far side of the base, a helicopter drops in another team of soldiers to fight Chaser. Once over the wall, Chaser gets to explore the interior of the base, fighting snipers from the underground carpark up to the roofs of the complex. The whole level is hugely atmospheric (searchlights looming out of the fog, the crunch of snow, the howling of wolves somewhere out in the forest) and constantly keeps the player on their toes with new combat situations and even a couple of minor puzzles. Later in the game sheer scale is relied on at the expense of such tight gameplay and attention to detail, with some of the sprawling Martian levels being too large for their own good.

A few levels in the game try to introduce a change of pace by adopting a different gameplay style, such as stealth (very poorly done, with instant death as the punishment for discovery), sniping from the lighthouse, running away from armed pursuers, or piloting some fairly limited vehicles. The additional variety is welcome, although the implementation of most of these 'special' levels is rather clumsy, and it would have been nice to see these ideas integrated with the standard gameplay a bit more seamlessly, instead of pensioned off to discrete environments.

The weapons in Chaser are a joy to use. There are sixteen in all, with the majority being closely modeled on real-world counterparts (as well as a pulse rifle stolen from Aliens, and a couple of other sci-fi weapons). Almost half of the weapons are automatic rifles or submachine guns, and yet they all manage to have a distinctive feel. There are also a shotgun, mortar, pistol, knife, grenades, rocket launcher and two sniper rifles available. Every weapon in the game has one or more alternate firing modes, with the basic choice being between automatic, burst, or semi-automatic fire but with smattering of other weapon-specific options.

Graphically, Chaser is solid without being spectacular. Detail textures (wood grain, concrete bumps, etc.) and environment mapping (shiny metal) are used extensively. The CloakNT engine allows for some special effects not yet seen elsewhere, such as rippling reflective water, and cable simulation. The key innovation used in Chaser is the inclusion of dynamically breakable objects, used extensively to simulate panes of glass and weak wooden boards. Glass in Chaser shatters from the point of impact, leaving parts of the pane still intact. This has an effect on gameplay - shattered glass left in the frame is opaque, so windows need to be 'cleared' with a volley of well-placed shots to allow visibility. The other benefit of course is that smashing stuff is fun, and looks even cooler when the game is slowed down using the 'Adrenaline Mode' feature (not a million miles from Max Payne's Bullet Time mode). The CloakNT engine is reportedly capable of producing per-pixel dynamic shadows (as seen in a limited fashion in Splinter Cell) although this has not been implemented in Chaser, supposedly for performance reasons.

It is a shame that the textures are generally quite featureless and repetitive, a few more distinctive 'one-off' textures (as used to great effect in No One Lives Forever 2) might have given some of the dour industrial environments a bit more personality. The colour schemes in some parts of the game look a bit odd as well, tinted with ugly cyan and sodium yellow.

Chaser also includes a bare-bones set of multiplayer modes. Deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag are self-explanatory. 'Shock Troops' mode is basically a Counter-Strike clone, with two teams battling to complete objectives and purchasing new equipment between rounds. The main failings of the multiplayer game were the flaky network code and the scarcity of multiplayer maps, although these issues have been partially addressed through the release of patches and an official map pack. The remaining problem with Chaser multiplayer is the low number of servers out there, which is a shame, as the framework (in terms of maps and weapons) is there for an enjoyable multiplayer shootout.

Chaser is far from perfect. It is definitely geared towards fans of old school FPS games, and has more than its fair share of rough edges. It's the kind of game that the buyer is likely to play through once and then forget about, although at least there is no risk of completing it in one sitting. Of course once Half-Life 2, Doom III, Deus Ex: Invisible War and the rest of the much-vaunted new generation of PC action games shows up it will probably look like nothing more than a historical curio. For the moment though it can hold its head high and say, without fear of contradiction, that it is at least a damn sight more fun than Unreal II.