Slow and steady wins the race. No wild promises, but plenty of apparently practical plans for the future, has long been X-COM creator Julian Gollop’s approach with his Kickstarted comeback, Chaos Reborn [official site] (currently on Steam Early Access). While it sadly doesn’t seem to attract quite the same adulation/scrutiny as other returning 90s devs’ crowdfunded career reboots, what it has done is reliably get on with things, meeting its initial promises one-by-one. So here we are with the first components of its singleplayer mode – perhaps the strategic wizard-battler’s biggest break with its multiplayer-only, Spectrum ZX past. On the one hand, that’s probably what X-COM fans want more than anything (other than a true blue X-COM follow-up, of course). On the other hand, what is chess without a human opponent? All depends on structure – how can a series of disconnected, turn-based battles with random spells be made into a meaningful campaign?
The answer is partly Big Bad Boss Wizards, and partly making a game which was once entirely without meta-rewards now be swaddled in meta-rewards. The latter’s been concerning me quite a bit over recent months: I didn’t want this stoic, strategic battles of forethought and bluff to become an arm’s race, or even to head further down the micro-management path. I want to see a guy summon a Dwarf, know what that means and what I should or shouldn’t do about it with the spells in my hand, rather than panic that he’s got an infinitely superior staff or my runes are all wrong.
I suspect this will, to at least a small degree, prove to be the case in extended multiplayer, though I think it’s less about having ‘better’ stuff and more about having the right stuff for your playstyle. It’s more about minor percentage adjustments or a modicum of control over which spell cards come up than Blizzard-style ‘you have to have exactly this stuff or you’re basically screwed.’ Though there is a fair bit of Blizzard-style ‘equip this robe and you’ll look super-cool’. I really dig Chaos Reborn’s aesthetic approach, in fact: wizards have this almost robotic battle armour, a far and stylised cry from the Gandalf look we might have expected, and sticking on a new robe transforms your look entirely. (Staffs are the other item you can change, and both they and the robes can then be adorned with up to three Talismans which further adjust your abilities and stats.)
What the singleplayer ‘Realms’ mode does, at least in this earliest, unfinished incarnation, is both encourage you to experiment with different gear in order to gain an edge over tougher or specialised enemy, and give you a way to get hold of new gear without having to repeatedly brave (or beat) multiplayer opponents. Gold (strictly in-game – there’s no sign of micropayments here) gained in singleplayer is spent on items which can be used in multiplayer, and in theory it’s always an equal playing field, personal experience not withstanding. Indeed, victory with the vanilla items is just as plausible as with anything else, but the idea is that you gradually tailor your wizard towards having a deck you feel the most confident with.
The interface for all this stuff is perhaps fussier than it needs to be, but that aside it doesn’t feel like a horrible torrent of too much information or gimme gimme gimme, and most importantly a match still feels like Chaos (or at least as much like Chaos as Reborn’s earliest prototypes did – a fundamental degree of otherworldiness is lost in the translation from Speccy graphics’ abstraction into stylised but tangible 3D models).
As for singleplayer, it’s definitely on the road to providing the higher purpose that the disassociated multiplayer or skirmish maps lacked. Your wizard chooses a zone, whose level rating in relation to your own denotes its difficulty, then treks across it trying to defeat all its enemy wizard before time runs out. Defeat all the wizards and you get to go clobber a Boss Wizard, who tends to be a bit more fiendish and whose hexagon-map is a little fancier than the norm. Gold, experience and a score are accrued during your travels, while the latter also dimishes the longer you wander without beating anyone, which in turn ties into global rankings and whatnot.
There isn’t any pressure about the latter, thank God, although again it’s early days in every respect. I don’t particularly appreciate the guesswork aspect of roaming across of fog of war-occluded map trying to work out where everyone is, as every wrong or inescapably backtracked move eats into your score, but the system whereby you lose points for a loss and then can choose to spend gold to try again makes plenty of sense. Sometimes the hit’s worth it, sometimes the cost is too high or the score is irredeemable, and this discourages simply grinding on until every opponent’s dead. It becomes an achievement to beat a zone, especially with a decent score, rather than a foregone conclusion.
On the other hand, the campaign structure is extremely light in its present form. There’s some visual variety to zones and a spot of flavour text, and most fights involve some sort of thoughtful handicap – for instance, Law spells are disallowed, or none of your summoned beasties can use ranged attacks – but it can’t help but feel like the loosest of linking structures for a few AI skirmishes. I mean, I don’t want a glitzy ending cutscene or guff like that, but (with apologies for armchair designing) I’d like the boss fights to feel more climactic, perhaps by more ostensibly being super-wizards who require specific forms of attack/defence. Puzzle-battles almost, though I don’t quite know how that can be reconciled with the fundamental randomness – I have these spells, several of them are at odds with each other, what should I do? – of Chaos. Early doors again though, so they may yet escalate into something less template-like.
But, and I surprise myself here, it’s exciting to head back from a campaign-ette into the inventory/store UI, with a clutch of gold in hand, and see what toys you get when you buy a crate of loot with it. I’m still experimenting with the relatively granular nature of the stat adjustments and card-pinning (and that’s exactly why I incline so much more towards single than multiplayer Chaos Reborn), but I like that my wizard can suddenly look wildly different and that, next time around, my deck might be appreciably remixed.
I feel that singleplayer needs to a go a little further, structurally, to remain as tight and thrilling as it needs to be – without that burning urge to destroy a human opponent, any individual battle just isn’t that meaningful, but some heightened sense that a special challenge was overcome would help. Even so, this is a solid and confident answer to the question “how do you make Chaos into a true singleplayer game?” Every time I revisit Chaos Reborn, I feel it’s come along hugely and that, in the main, it knows exactly what it’s doing. Part of me mourns that Reborn has such a narrow focus when my dream Gollop project is a return to the miraculously stable Jenga tower of ideas that was X-COM, but I can’t not admire the clear determination to do it right, with a mentality that is clearly mechanics and balance-led rather than bothering with fluff. Even so, Reborn’s an extremely pretty game, its slightly angular and slightly spectral models evoking a luxurious tabletop game.
There’s a lot that isn’t there yet – some menu options are even dead-ends with messages previewing features to come – but now, at last, all the rudiments are in place, and it’s safe to say something more concrete than “looks promising”. Chaos Reborn is an excellent game of wizardly warfare.