You can mark a gamer's age by the games they remember as the best: ask a younger gamer what the best isometric perspective game is and they'll name one of the Metal Gear Solid series. Ask an older gamer and they might name Gauntlet or Smash TV. But get someone just the right age, and with a twinkle in their eye, they'll say three words: The Chaos Engine.
The Chaos Engine has a list of features most games today wouldn't mind boasting about: 16 big levels, surprisingly clever puzzles, a brace of powerful armaments and useful special abilities, context-sensitive music, and an AI that didn't make you want to throttle whoever was responsible for coding it.
In fact, the CPU player in Chaos Engine's single-player mode is one of the game's highlights: it's genuinely useful, acting in a predicable enough manner that you can rely on it doing what you want it to, and carefully coded so it isn't allowed to either hold you up or screw things up by triggering traps.
It also has a fairly decent plot, for the genre. We're back in Victorian times, and Baron Fortesque has developed a primitive but powerful computer that can manipulate the fabric of reality. However, something's gone wrong; the Chaos Engine has turned against its creator and begun to warp the landscape, animals and people around the mansion. Enter you.
You have a choice of six mercenaries [and no, it's never quite
clear who hired you]. You have The Thug with his shotgun and aggressively bald head, The Navvie with an enormous Victorian bazooka, The Brigand with his rifle [though he's holding a revolver], The Mercenary with his Gatling Gun and scary goggles, The Gentleman with his pistol, and The Preacher with his lightning gun. These divide into two powerful characters with strong weapons, two offensive specials, low speed and high health [Thug and Navvie], two middleweights with medium heath, speed and power and two offensive plus one utility special [Brigand and Mercenary] and two weak but fast characters with four utility specials [Gentleman and Preacher].
After selecting two, you're off to the first world, the former gardens of the Baron's mansion, now filled with monsters and bisected by rivers of boiling mud. Progressing is a matter of activating devices called 'nodes' to open the level's exit, and picking up silver keys to do things. Yes, 'to do things.' Normally you'd expect a key to open a door, but these keys are obviously made by the same people who make Swiss Army Knives, since they'll also make blockages vanish, raise bridges over rivers of mud, make staircases appear from nowhere, create teleporters and all manner of other handy stuff.
There are also gold keys. While the silver keys do things that are necessary to complete the level, gold keys unlock hidden treasure stores, make secret areas accessible and do other things that are good but not required for you to finish the level. The aforementioned treasure consists of powerups for your gun, special power icons to give you more special weapons, food to restore health, the occasional instantly-triggered powerup, and extra lives. Also, there's money.
It seems this game got more than its fair share of playtesting, judging by how many annoying play mechanics have been carefully negated. Hence, in 2-player mode, money doesn't go to who picked it up: instead, at the end of the level the game totals up who killed the monsters, who triggered the nodes, who got the keys and so on, and divides the money based on that. This means that one player can't let the other player do all the fighting and then whiz in and grab the treasure; if you want the gold, you have to earn it. In 1-player, the gold is simply divided evenly between you and the CPU, which works surprisingly well given the CPU is a hard-working little dude.
I mentioned the CPU's behaviour before, so let's go into that further: he operates by a set of simple rules. He'll follow you if nothing's happening, and always try to stand behind you facing away from you. He'll attack anything in his line of sight and pick up any treasure he sees, but he can't pick up keys or any item which would generate monsters or alter the landscape. If he gets scrolled off the screen, he'll teleport back to your side, which stops the normal frustration of being held up by a CPU player stuck on a wall nicely. You can switch his specials with yours at any time to use them, and his special power pickups count as an extension of yours. All in all, he's a useful chap who rarely annoys and often assists.
Every two stages you get a chance to visit the shop: here you can increase your attributes [skill, speed, life, and in the CPU's case intelligence, which lets him dodge attacks, shoot around corners and other nifty things], and buy weapon powerups, special power and new special weapons. The game makes these available gradually as you increase your main stats, so you can't just max out your weapon or buy all the specials right off the bat.
Every four stages you reach the end of the world and proceed to a new area. You go from the warped gardens to the workshops and factories where the Baron's workforce constructed the components of the Engine, then on through the Baron's creepy mansion to the sewers below the mansion as you close in on the Hall of Machines that leads to the engine itself. In each world, more powerful enemies await, the mutant toads and lizardmen giving way to sinister golems, missile-firing cannons and even primitive robots in the final stages.
Puzzles block your way at some points, and offer some interesting takes on the shoot / kill / collect theme, though all are fairly simple. Secrets are more ingenious, and the eagle-eyed player will spot clues as to their locations; a statue facing in the wrong direction, a wall with no shadow, a cracked steam pipe, that sort of thing.
Chaos Engine does virtually everything right. It's tough right from the start, mind, and might be a little frustrating at first to new players. Persevere, however, and you'll discover one of the best examples of the genre, and one of the best games on the Amiga, too.
Problems? Well, as mentioned it's got a very steep learning curve, and if I had to nitpick, there's the occasional reset-moment. Perhaps the most obvious is at entry B of stage 3-4: after activating the node, a doorway appears where a set of stairs was previously. If the player gets killed before using this door, they'll be sent back to the top of the structure with no choice but to reset. Sometimes restart points [yinyang symbols, for some reason] are a little far apart, too, and can force you to traverse a lot of empty ground to get back into the fight.
But really, this is just hair-splitting, and can't detract from the near-perfection of the rest of the game. This is one of the best Amiga games you'll ever play. Great graphics, great music, great atmosphere, and awesome gameplay. If you've never played it, now's the time to fix that.
The Chaos Engine first came out on the standard Amigas: an AGA and CD32 version with more colours, better sound and an animated intro followed. It was converted to 16-bit consoles under the title Soldiers of Fortune [no, nothing to do with the later gory FPS of the same name]: for some reason, in console versions The Preacher became The Scientist. The Chaos Engine was also followed by an entirely lacklustre A1200-only sequel; it's difficult to write much about Chaos Engine 2, since there's no reliable evidence anyone ever actually played it.