This 16-bit conversion of the latest game from Julian Gollop (programmer of the classics Chaos, Rebelstar and Laser Squad) has been eagerly awaited by - well, me, basically. Promising to be a hybrid of all the three previous games - well, except Rebelstar - Lords Of Chaos boasts nearly all of the features and spells of the original Chaos but in a strategy game setting much closer to that of Laser Squad.
The players (or player - up to four can play at one time) finds himself (or themselves) in one of three types of scenario from which he (or they - well anyway, you get the idea) has to escape within a set number of turns, preferably carrying lots of treasure and having killed the evil Torquemada (or some other big bad guy wizard) into the bargain.
Our her is helped by a handful of wizardly weapons, and also by a number of spells, varying from the creation of magical creatures such as dragons, goblins, unicorns and, erm, crocodiles to the summoning of fire, water, and strange forms of malignant plant life.
Unfortunately, nasty old Torquemada can also call on all these powers, so clearly there's going to be a good messy fight with lots of entrails a-flying before anything gets resolved. And that's just about where I come in...
Let's get right down to it, shall we? I've been playing this game for quite some time now, and if there's one thing missing from it, it's 'chaos'. (Actually I haven't found many 'lords' in it either, but let's deal with the 'chaos' for now).
Things seem to take the form less of a life-ordeath, do-or-die, against-all the-odds battle to the finish, and more of a gentle country stroll, taking in the occasional encounter with some mildly belligerent wildlife, but nothing to write home about any more than if you swatted a wasp.
At least in the earlier levels, I found that most of the difficulty present in Lords Of Chaos came from simply trekking across the landscape, as some of the terrain types take quite a heavy toll on your movement points. This leads to the game having a rather stop-start kind of feel to it, as you negotiate the slightly unwieldy menu system, move each piece four or five spaces and then run out of action points, end your turn, watch not very much happen to all the other creatures in the game, then start the whole palaver again.
My reaction has to be, "Is that all there is?"
Even when nearing the time limit, there seemed to me to be very little in the way of immediate or pressing danger, and this lends the proceedings more of the air of an orienteering expedition than a high-powered showdown of strategy and sorcery. Why orienteering? Well, the game uses a novel approach, in that your view of the overall map is realistically related to the information you would actually receive from the characters under your control. Hence, each character can only see a certain distance in from of him, so any areas of the map (including other characters) which are outside his individual range, or obscured in some way (by trees, walls, thick undergrowth etc) appear on the screen as black squares until a character moves close to them. In this way, you never quite know what you;re going to stumble across until you're practically on top of it, which does bring a certain element of suspense into play.
Unfortunately, it can also necessitate a rather tedious amount of searching around in forests for concealed treasures and suchlike which are only revealed when you get very close to them indeed, and since such areas are usually comprised of fairly heavy terrain the going can be very slow. The air of slowness is also compounded by the rather sprawling nature of the play area, compared to the quite spartan sprinkling of creatures, with the result that slices of fast-moving thrills are few and far between.
In Laser Squad, the relative slowness of the actual gameplay was compensated for by some pretty heavy firefights with some serious weaponry. As the majority of the fighting in Lords Of Chaos is of the hand-to-hand (or beak-to-claw) variety, there isn't the same impression of action and excitement, and it's something that proves more noticeable a drawback than it might first have seemed. Where the other games were finely and superbly balanced between thoughtful planning and frenetic violence, that balance has gone for a burton here, and it leaves the game looking suspiciously thin. Even when there is a burst of hack-and-slashing, it's of a pretty subdued nature, and it takes a while for any results to unfold.
This is my only real problem with Lords Of Chaos - this not-much-going-on-ness - as in all other respects it's a very well-executed thing. The control system while a little bit clumsy in use, is very easy to get the hang of (at least if you've played Chaos it is, but it feels like it would be simple to grasp for complete newcomers too), the graphics are clear and colourful, and it's easy to just dive into, although you can set things up much more carefully if you want to try a particular strategic approach.
There's a wide range of difficulty levels for experienced players, several different types of scenarios with different dangers and objectives, and the opportunity to build up your character over a number of games, in the best role-playing tradition.
In general then, Lords Of Chaos has a lot going for it, and if you're more of a strategy purist than I am then you probably won't be too bothered by the lack of a good-going bloodbath. There's enough depth to keep you engrossed for a good few weeks, and enough scope for tactics to ensure that you never have to play the game the same twice.
All the same, it's quite hard to see just who this game is going to be bought by. It's still likely to be too 'arcadey' for real wargame fans, and those people who liked Julian Gollop's previous efforts may well be put off by the aforementioned lack of any zapping.
I was really disappointed when I played this - I'd hoped and expected on the strength of its predecessors that this would be brilliant, and sadly that just isn't the case. For all the game's depth I just wasn't drawn into it in any significant way. Lords Of Chaos is by no means a bad game, but at the end of the day, my reaction has to be, 'is that all there is'?