I am a little bit sad that I missed the late 90s computer game era; things seemed to be more aligned to my tastes back then. Oh well, we’ve got ports on gog.com to make up for it — better late than never, right?
Today’s interesting morsel from the dark ages is Urban Chaos, a crime-fighting action adventure. (Well, not that dark, 1999 wasn’t that long ago.)
Even before the technology strictly allowed it, developers dreamt of open world games. Urban Chaos is a first faltering step into the open world crime simulators we know today, albeit from the perspective of the police rather than the gangs.
Except it’s an ancient game, from before we had the memory and processing power to render seamless, expansive cities. So each of its chapters is a tiny little open world, each district placed on a loading-screen city map. Large enough to have side quests and hidden power ups, small enough to be powered by a washing machine.
I guess my problem with the increasingly vast open worlds is that they become faceless. Saints Row 3 is a huge and excellent game, but after a point you’re just following the sat-nav rather than navigating by any relevant landmarks. Huge plaps of land smear into “the suburban bit” and “the skyscrapery bit” and the minutiae disappear in the haze.
In Urban Chaos, each mission area is small enough to be comprehensible to its players while still being large enough to let you stumble across little vignettes and side quests as you clamber across the rooftops. You’re expected to spend no more than ten or fifteen minutes in each one, battering through a single main quest objective and hunting down any sporadic criminals that pop up along the way.
It’s also nice to play as the cops for once. Rather than mowing down pedestrians with impunity, causing too many civilian casualities will fail your mission. The streets are not exactly populous, but criminals attack you enough in the open that you have to be careful (though that’s as much because of the wonky auto-aim as my traditional spray-and-pray attitude to games that don’t have mouselook).
Its constraints of course carry some rather less pleasant baggage. The tradition of the open world game is heavily reliant on your progress being saved as you go, so that you don’t have to repeatedly hunt down all those side quests in random back alleys when you die.
Urban Chaos only saves your game once you complete a mission. Spend half an hour cruising the streets, arresting perps and picking up power-ups? Sorry, those three gang-bangers that came out of nowhere and killed you wash all that away.
It makes advancing through what is actually a rather good game a bit of a slog. No matter how intriguing the plot is, and how well it’s bolstered by asides hidden throughout the world, nobody wants to go through the same cinematics fifteen times because they keep making one mistake at the end of the mission. It simultaneously rewards and punishes exploration, half wanting you to take your time and half forcing you to rush headlong to the finishing ling.
In terms of controls it’s pure keyboard in the style of Tomb Raider, though the presence of civilians and in-game dialogue instantly makes its world a whole lot more vibrant and engaging than the beautiful but obtusely-puzzled ruins of that game. A similar array of mantling options ensures you can climb up and jump between buildings to find power-ups before sliding down a telegraph wire to get back to the ground, so it scratches the same itch to explore without getting silly about it.
As a policewoman, of course, you’ll spend a lot of time punching and kicking criminals (though perhaps more than a “rookie” would quite be expected to do alone). Different combinations of punching and kicking unlock fancy moves, my favourite being the glorious slide-tackle that can down enemies that fail to dodge in one hit. Once an enemy is down, you’ve got five or ten seconds to cuff ’em before they get up again — non-lethally removing them from the fight. If you can’t manage to down them, of course, you can just punch them to death or find a gun and cut the nonsense.
Although combat is quite pleasant against one or two enemies, any more than that — or if you get one-hit grappled to the ground — and things get nasty. Once you’re on the ground every combatant will stand round and stomp you to death for a good thirty seconds before you vault up again, meaning that a single misstep (easily done considering the controls are not very responsive) brings the entire mission to a gory end.
Now as an open world game it’s generally your own fault if you run into a group of too-many enemies; and if you can get a hold of a decent gun or a grenade you can make short work of them from a distance. However, after the first few missions the game starts to spawn psychic hunter-criminals who will zero in on your position regardless of where you are or what you’re doing. Trying to sneak in and get the drop on your main objective? Nope!
The targeting is also pretty wobbly, and when the inevitable escort quests arrive, it’s all too easy to shoot or punch your charge rather than the criminals who have got too close.
Altogether, it’s a game I want to love but can’t. There’s the heart of something pretty cool here, but it’s caught between two worlds. It’s got the narrative structure and checkpoint saves of a straight-forward linear adventure, but the gameplay mechanics of a disposable open world simulator where fine-grained progress is maintained regardless of death or failure.
Quite simply, it’s a game well ahead of its time, from before the world was ready, from before the technology was capable enough. Which is a shame, because it could have been something truly special rather than merely interesting — and I’d rather play as the police stopping the gangsters from taking over the city any day of the week!
(Also it’s a compatibility nightmare: I have to hack the config file before starting each time and although it’s theoretically capable of playing at a decent resolution I’m locked to 640×480. Grumble.)