No matter how many times you think you've seen the back of Eastern European first-person shooters, along comes another one attempting to convince us that, yes, this time we'll be convinced. This one will make up for the hordes of generic rubbish that preceded this title. This, my friends, will be the one that restores all your faith in first-person shooters. Come on down, Chaser, it's your turn.
We quite like the way Chaser starts: John Chaser wakes up in a medical bay on board some sort of space station, in space, and he doesn't know who he is or what's going on. This reminds us of System Shock 2. And Flashback. Both were good games. John's amnesia is demonstrated by his man rubbing his head and stumbling about a bit. For some reason, heavily armed troops have boarded the station and proceeded to tear it apart looking for him. Cue your insertion into Chaser's head and a subsequent attempt to escape from the station and find out just what all the brouhaha is about.
It would be easy to write off a game like Chaser within about ten minutes of the end of the introductory sequence. It would also be easy to write it off some five hours later after you've been through the gritty street section, the grimy sewer section, the dirty underground section and the shiny hotel with Chinese décor section, all in first-person and all with an impossibly large arsenal strapped to your chin. There's really little deviation from the classic (and we mean classic) run-and-gun approach, save the thoroughly disorienting and actually quite scary underwater section, which has you frustratedly navigating enormous shipwrecks in a tiny personal submarine without much sense of which way is up or down or where you're mean to be going.
From the start it's all very familiar territory, with plenty of big chunky assault rifles and shotguns and explosives, miraculously placed crates and slightly broken ladders, glowing lights that can't be shot out, and craftily-placed baddies shouting "There he is!" and "Watch out he's dangerous!" before you fill their mindholes with bullets. This makes Chaser actually quite hard to review, because you've played this game many times with varying degrees of quality since Doom came out - there is ultimately not a lot we can tell you that you don't already know. Well, we suppose there's the story...
Chaser's rather strenuous journey to discover his identity takes him from space, down to Earth for a spot of continent-hopping, before heading off up to Mars in an apparent Total Recall-inspired plot. Along the way, the supposedly oblivious Chaser is worryingly keen to sling his allegiance to various nefarious characters all over the place, for example joining the powerful Family (groan) in his first day back on Earth, despite being urged quite strongly to act otherwise by a friendly chap who keeps calling him "chico".
The plot is, for once, quite interesting - we'd like to find out exactly who John Chaser is as well - and it's played out via some nicely directed and fairly lengthy game engine cut-scenes, which are acted with varying degrees of success; Chaser's actor in particular seems to be a little confused as to where his emphasis needs to go at times, almost as if he's got the wrong end of the stick, and much of the speech comes across a bit hammy as a result.
At the beginning of the game, developer Cauldron seems to have taken a lot of pleasure in letting the story interfere with the mindless shootery, with Chaser having all sorts of mysterious flashbacks and unsettling visions while he fights his way through the streets. Sadly as the game drives on, the concern for detailed plot development and nice touches like the unsettling split-second flashbacks laid over the action drop away almost entirely until you get to the end of each level. It's this sudden drop in sophistication that started to put us off Chaser, because underneath all the initially clever little effects, there's a mere bare bones shooter which, at a glance, has little going for it.
So why should you care about Chaser? At all? We're not going to beat around the crater; the game is almost 100 per cent generic FPS-by-numbers, and will drive the pursuit of gaming forward as effectively as a tortoise attempting to herd elephants. The proprietary engine around which the game is built is nothing special with most of the levels formed from fuzzily textured boxes circa 1997, but it does seem to have the rendering of slightly bumpy shiny surfaces down to a fine art, along with dynamically shattering glass that's among the loveliest we've ever seen. But when realistic breaking glass is one of the best things in your game, that's obviously something to worry about.
Yet we still pushed on. We pushed on through wave after wave of blundering troops, popping rounds left, right and centre to despatch tens of soldiers in seconds, lobbing grenades at windows and grinning as they punctured a small hole before sending huge shards of glass to the ground, followed by the bodies of mindless drones. And you know what? It felt kind of good, just like it did in - say - Max Payne (it even has a pseudo-bullet time mode). We didn't have to think about it for the most part, it was just raw mindless action that recalled Quake II and so many pretenders after it, and while not particularly satisfying in the long-term, there is just something about it that will appeal to the thoughtless action enthusiast in you - disengaging your brain can be fun too, kids!
So, should you just happen to be after some mindless slaughter with a fairly interesting storyline just barely clinging onto the mounting body count like someone's life depended on it, Chaser might well be for you. Make no mistake, it has the occasional show-stopping bug, it looks a little bit haggard at times, nobody in the known universe is playing the multiplayer modes, and it's a quick-saver's dream, but surprisingly you could do a lot worse.