Publisher: TopWare Interactive
Release Date: November 22, 2005
Power armor and big guns that have built-in targeting displays connected to your visual heads-up display: those two elements alone pretty much guarantee that I will pay attention to what you're saying. Add those to a game, and I'm in, no questions asked. Seeing as how Chrome: SpecForce has all of the above as well as all-terrain buggies, heavy walker mecha, and steamy alien jungles … well, it goes without saying my interest is more than a tiny bit piqued.
The story to this sequel (follow-up to the critically acclaimed Chrome of 2003) illustrates the actions of a Mega-Corporation with delusions of grandeur. On the frontiers of humanity's expanding galactic empire, laws are often difficult to enforce with any degree of consistency, and many companies are willing to exploit this factor to benefit their shareholders' bottom line. Just such an organization is LoreGen, and they've been covertly developing and distributing a highly illegal stimulant to criminal organizations. This makes it even more difficult for governmental regulation in the outback of space, as this new chemical makes the average greasy pirate almost as tough as a marine in powered tactical armor. Don't these guys know to "just say no?"
LoreGen is just smart enough to make sure any evidence lying around is circumstantial, and so the enforcement agency referred to only as the FSB decides to roll the dice and land a secret strike team on the remote planet called Estrella to gather concrete evidence of this synthesized happy juice. SpecForce brings back the hero of its predecessor, a military wunderkind by the name of Logan who has been commissioned for the landing, along with another elite trooper by the handle of Pointer. After a short skirmish while collecting data on the Estrella labs, the landing craft and orbital drop-ship are taken out by LoreGen forces. This strands Logan and Pointer, points to a much larger conspiracy, and sets the stage for the rest of the game. Thankfully, you have some advanced resources that help you along the way.
The FSB employs some exceptionally advanced robotics in the "SPA4" tactical armor they distribute amongst their field agents. Logan begins the game learning the ins and outs of this new gear, and the augmentations it supports that take over from the bio-mechanical implants he utilized in the original Chrome. Four basic enhancements are stock to each suit: motive support for superhuman running speed, power shields that reduce kinetic impact and reduce munitions damage, a camouflage field that bends light and provides a somewhat liquid transparency for stealth, and finally, a neural booster that sharpens visual senses to such a keen edge that "bullet time" kicks in and reality slows down for a short time. All of these run on the battery pack of the suit itself, and thus need to be used wisely and sparingly.
Aside from the performance augmentations and the high-density, lightweight plates that provide full range of motion, the SPA4 also supports a full smartgun system that automatically locks into whichever weapon the wearer is holding. An automatic targeting reticle boosts your accuracy to incredible levels, virtually assuring a headshot every time. Finally, there is an interface node in the helmet that allows Logan to log in to data terminals and hack them if passwords aren't readily available. In game mechanics, this is done via a mini-game of matching encryption symbols. You are given a grid of squares to click, each one reveals a symbol, and you need to match two or three to clear the grid. The harder the interface is to be hacked, the more symbols that need to me matched, and the fewer moves you are given for your trial-and-error memory game.
What would an FPS be without guns? Well, a jogging simulator I suppose, but I digress. The FSB uses generic weapons that appear to be commonly available on the open market. The "TC234 personal sidearm" and the "DG5-A1 semi-automatic assault rifle" are standard issue, and considering how many of the LoreGen forces carry these exact same weapons, one can only assume that these can be purchased off the shelf at virtually any convenience store in the galaxy. The corporate forces also have access to eight other weapons that range from sniper rifles to rocket launchers to shotguns. That's the trade-off for the advanced armor FSB forces get to use, I suppose. It's not like you can't have some fun with the other guns; simply loot the bodies of anyone you take down. It's nothing more than a simple matter of robbing the dead. Of course, this is a necessity anyway, as the only way to gain more ammunition, health packs, and battery packs for your armor is by searching the corpses.
Finally, there are the vehicles. Used sparingly throughout the course of SpecForce, you'll get to bomb around in all-terrain buggies with chaingun weapon turrets, high-speed hover-bikes that look somewhat like small jet planes with no wings, massive war-walker mecha equipped with anti-tank missile weaponry, and heavily armored troop transport trucks. These are just spice for the single-player campaign but are also poised to be a huge part of the multiplayer action. With all of these resources to draw upon, will Logan ever get off of Estrella to tattle on LoreGen? You'll have to play SpecForce to find out for yourself. In the meantime, let's look at the technical prowess of this title.
SpecForce utilizes a scratch-built graphics engine (The "Chrome" engine) that performs admirably well, but the art direction occasionally looks somewhat generic and dated, particularly when it comes to the modeling and animation of humanoids. However, most of the NPCs you encounter are wearing full armor, so you rarely see how crude the low-polygon faces look. Admittedly, I have seen much worse offerings from much more "established" 3D software (*cough*Lithtech*cough*), but that doesn't alter the fact that this game sometimes feels like it was made with the original Unreal engine.
Also, for some strange reason, there is a dull, washed-out look to just about everything in the single-player campaign. This is supposed to be a reflection of the environment, but it makes one feel as though they're playing outside on a cold rainy day that never really ends, and how often is that a lengthy and invigorating experience? I will state that the environmental detail is extremely rich and varied, and the framerate is smooth as glass and stable at all times. Even with all the details pushed to their maximum, and dense environmental effects like snow falling all around, there is no stuttering at all. This serves the vehicular elements quite well, and I can see why this engine has been commissioned for a rally racing title on the side. When bombing through a thick alien forest, it's refreshing that your speed doesn't sacrifice anything to flora density.
SpecForce suffers more than any other factor from a stunning lack of diversity amongst the AI-controlled enemies. The list of enemies that Techland claims you will encounter clocks in at nine, but this is a slightly exaggerated claim; they count mines as an enemy, you see. After at least four full stages of gameplay, I had encountered exactly three different enemy types: "large generic mercenary in tactical armor,""small generic mercenary in tactical armor," and "mindless small dinosaur." I could be generous and count the armored vehicles as well, but really, those aren't enemies so much as "things enemies get into," and in several instances, I could get inside those same vehicles so it's difficult to feel as though they count as part of a diverse array of opponents. The end result is a feeling of repetition that sets in early and sticks with you throughout the overall single-player campaign, even once you get to a point where the occasional automated hover-gun or invisible cyborg starts popping up. Not even the solid writing and storyline is enough to rescue this title from a bleak sense of ennui. However, there is another side to this coin that must be mentioned: online play.
SpecForce comes with full multiplayer support right out of the box, with four match modes (death-match, team death-match, team domination, and capture the flag) and up to 32 players per server. Some of the maps available appear to be absolutely perfect for online play – large enough to maintain a sense of scale but not so large you feel lost; plenty of nooks, crannies, and high vantage points for infantry dog-fighting and sniping; as well as plenty of room for hard and fast vehicular combat. Though it pains me to say it (simply because of how acutely I miss it), the multiplayer level design feels exactly like the original Tribes. I cannot stress enough what kind of praise this comparison is for me to make, as I personally hold Tribes to be the single best online experience in PC gaming history, bar none.
Sadly, during my time reviewing this title, the servers were unpopulated and I never got a chance to test out firsthand my observations regarding the multiplayer map design. You can be assured that I will continue checking until I can see if my impressions are correct. The way I see it now, the multiplayer functionality appears to be the best part of SpecForce, and I would recommend this game simply based off of my surface observations alone. (Come on people; let's get some power-armored WAR on!!!)
Techland really did their homework on the sound effects. Their audio team did an excellent job, as evidenced by the realistic environmental ambience, loud and punchy weapon sounds that aren't just snagged off of a sample CD of generic science fiction foley effects, and engine sounds that suit each vehicle. I've long since lost count of how many sound design teams have missed the mark in giving an armored transport truck the right rumble to its mechanics, so I feel it's important to mention that this team got it right. The same is true of guns that sound wimpy; SpecForce dodges that bullet as well. The voice acting isn't the best I've ever heard, but it's also by far not the worst. I'm willing to go with a touch of flat delivery here and there, especially when you factor in that this is a title that hails from Eastern Europe. I don't want to point any incriminating fingers, but the track record of English voice acting from "that place where the history comes from" is generally quite poor, so SpecForce stands out from its contemporaries.
The music isn't quite as impressive, but it's not an entirely disappointing affair either. There are 34 tracks in total, ranging from 19 seconds to four minutes in length. Stylistically, the score sits somewhere between techno and "Electronic Body Music" (term borrowed from Front 242). However, it lacks the hypnotic bop of solid trance and the distorted growl of industrial. It comes across almost like muzak – functional yet emotionally inert.
I really wanted to love Chrome: SpecForce, as it has many science fiction elements I adore. However, it suffers from many small setbacks that stack up to keep this game from reaching its true potential. From a purely aesthetic perspective, SpecForce doesn't achieve enough of its own personality to make any lasting impression; its use of super-soldiers in heavily augmented armor and other advanced military equipment on distant alien planets causes it to flip-flop between being a Tribes knock-off and a Halo knock-off. The bleak coloring tends to bleach out the environments, lessening the impact of the amazing detail. Finally, the uninspired pacing of the single-player campaign makes it very difficult indeed to maintain interest.
However, it's not all bad. The writing is intelligent and strong, the high-speed vehicular portions are a blast, and the multiplayer features are exactly what every FPS needs. The inclusion of a level editor allows the passionate fans to get their feet wet crafting their own levels, and opens the doors for conversions. It's clear that Techland has their heart in the right place, and I sincerely hope that this franchise manages to work out the kinks it has. The final "silver lining" to this entire affair is its price: as a low-cost title, it's absolutely worth your money. TopWare has released this far below the current average for a new PC title, a practice I wish more publishers would adopt.