The original Chrome, not to be confused with Google's famous search engine, was Techland's effort to create a high-intensity military shooter in a sci-fi setting. By all accounts, they succeeded, with some false steps here and there. Chrome: Specforce was an attempt to build on their success. Given I was unable to get my copy of the original Chrome to work, which speaks to just how poorly the game has aged (more on that in a bit), I will avoid making any kind of comparison between the two as much as humanly possible, and attempt to judge the game based on its own features. Also, if you really want to get it, you'll have to do some digging, as it's no longer offered on the Steam Store. The most likely place to reliably obtain a hard copy would be Newegg, at a mere $7.58 as of this writing. Truthfully, if you do enough searching among the many, many purveyors of retro and bargain-bin games, you're bound to come up with a copy, sooner or later.
With this in mind, there's usually a reason that games like Chrome: Specforce end up in their obscure state, and that's because they don't age well. While I have fond memories of playing a demo back in the day, they did not resurface when I booted the game up once more for the first time in years. Whatever this game once was, it's a mess now, and while it still has some parts that I enjoyed, the bad far outweighed the good from an objective viewpoint.
When I first played Chrome: SpecForce, long, long ago, I was too engrossed with the joy of shooting things to really work out the plot. Now, almost twelve years after the fact, I took a good look at the plot. While I won't say it's a bad one, it's not an exciting one either; certainly, nothing we haven't seen before. You play as Bolt Logan, a member of an interstellar tactical special operations team equipped with advanced powered armor. Your first mission places you and your AI-controlled partner Ron 'Pointer' Hertz in enemy territory to investigate an off-world facility being run by the nefarious LoreGen Corporation, who is suspected of manufacturing and selling a new kind of weaponized stimulant on the black market. Needless to say, things do not go well, and Logan and Pointer become stranded when things go south.
From there on in, the story is pretty bland. It's not bad, but it's very predictable for those experienced in this kind of genre. It strives to be realistic, yet the tale it tells is somehow minimalist and smells strongly of the tropes we've come to expect in narratives dealing with off-the-books operations involving badass soldiers. There are no cutscenes, and most of the story is conveyed via text in the mission briefing screen preceding each level. The voice acting is…okay, I guess. Logan hardly ever opens his mouth, so it's mostly Pointer who ends up talking. He's good at his role, so I'll give him credit for that. There's no character development to speak of, and the villain only really makes his presence felt in the final couple levels. Then again, to be fair, this was developed as an expansion and not a full-on separate game. Still, I feel the developers could've held themselves to higher standards.
On the gameplay side of things, Chrome: SpecForce works a lot like the older Battlefield games, but with some extra nuances. Logan's power armor comes equipped with four abilities, including a speed booster, an active camo cloak, a bullet-time mode and a set of damage-reducing shields. Unfortunately, while innovative for its time, the game's execution of these powers is lackluster. The movement booster only increases your base running speed, and nothing else, which seems rather boring. it would've been nice if it affected reload times too. The bullet-time also has issues that are a bit more nebulous. I can't really say what rubbed me wrong about it except to say that F.E.A.R. handled it better. The shields seem like something that should've been built in right from the start, perhaps as a tactical trade-off; armor that regenerates the more you move around, being powered by piezoelectric batteries, but which forces you to chose between a cover and moving in the open. As for the invisibility, well…I can only assume it's broken. Every time I tried it, the AI shot me dead like I was wearing an orange jumpsuit instead of high-tech camouflage.
All of these abilities are dependent on an energy meter that drains constantly when one or more of these powers are active. To recharge the meter, you have to scavenge supplies off dead enemies. This goes for everything really, including grenades and ammo. I found this to be an invigorating style of gameplay that blended with the feel of the plot rather well; trapped behind enemy lines, scavenging guns and firepower off their fallen numbers. It's also a nice touch that the corpses never go away, though it can start to drag on your frame-rate after a while, given how huge some of the levels are. Beyond this, the actual fighting is very standard for a first-person shooter. You're more fragile at higher difficulty levels, so a cover is crucial. Peeking out of cover to spot your enemy's position is also crucial, but the game's leaning system seems somehow flawed, and only works when you're right up against an object. Plus, the way it tilts the camera makes it…less than useful. It's very frustrating, especially since spotting the enemy even when outside cover can be a nightmare.
The levels are populated with dense brush that never seems to hide you, but always serves to hide your foes. I can't count the number of times I got gunned down by unseen enemies from distant cliff-sides, even when I dropped to a prone position and tried to crawl to cover. The game can get really unforgiving with this kind of thing the deeper you go. The difficulty spikes drastically about three missions in, and it's so sharp that it can easily make you want to just quit and not play for a while; a bad thing for any game to do. I also didn't appreciate how quickly using my powers seemed to deplete my energy meter. More often than not, I simply didn't use most of them, for the simple reason I was either out of energy, or I felt it wasn't worth the effort.
As if the enemy AI weren't bad enough, your companions can also have you ripping your hair out. One of the final missions kept me busy for nigh-on an hour trying to protect my buddy while avoiding a bunch of rocket-happy soldiers who kept killing me from across the map. The whole scenario also really put the effectiveness of the game's inventory system to the test. Trying to switch weapons while your pals are pushing forward feels like torture, as you struggle to rearrange your gear to make the new gun fit. I have to wonder why the developers didn't invest in a better inventory-management system, especially since compared to Dungeon Siege, a game that came out five years prior, the whole loot-arrangement system is garbage.
Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the biggest issue of all: movement. At its release, Chrome: SpecForce was a high-demand game when it came to PC hardware. Its framerate, for some bizarre reason, has no upper limit, which presents a problem when you try to play in that it constantly feels like you're slipping around on the ice. Hitting a movement key will cause you to build speed, and letting go causes you to drift to a stop. It's immensely immersion-breaking and irritating as hell. For some reason, it gets worse indoors too. According to online forum posts I dug up, you can cure this by setting a frame-rate limit of 60 FPS using your graphics controller, which will vary depending on whether you have an ATI or Nvidia card. I was never able to solve the problem despite my efforts, but you can look here for how to solve it with Nvidia cards.
Sound & Design
Overall, Chrome: Specforce's environments are actually quite gorgeous. Granted, most of the brush and wildflowers turn to 2D sprites if you get too close, but they shift and deform as you pass them, which is a nice touch. Every environment has its own atmosphere and color palette, though greens and browns are the main theme. Still, it helped things stay varied when I went from the deep grays and blues and almost-black greens of a swamp to a verdant jungle mountainside. It kept the world feeling alive. Granted, the art-style is nothing special, but it does it's job well of making you feel you're out in the wilderness surrounded by enemies. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the sound. I encountered a few bugs, but while they were easy to pass over and far from game-breaking, the overall audio of the game itself left much to be desired. The guns all sound very dull and tinny, and the enemies don't seem to generate sound from their footfalls, making picking them out of the landscape even more of a hassle.
All in all, a lot of the issues I had with the experience lay in the gameplay. The actual look, sound and feel of the game itself are good, or at least passable. I didn't really like the user interface to be honest, given it didn't label the symbols meant to inform you which of your powers are active don't get labeled with the names of the keys they're mapped to, which had me pressing random buttons more than once in the middle of a firefight to bring up my shields. However, while irritating, this may simply mean that I didn't put enough effort into memorizing the keys. All that having been said, I doubt that even in its heyday, Chrome: SpecForce would've won any awards for looking unique. Its appearance only seems to add it is 'bargain-bin' feel, keeping it trapped in an era of games long-since past. Still, there's a bit of fun to be had, if you're willing to look for it.
There's nothing wrong with being 'average'. Plenty of perfectly fun but forgettable titles come out every year, often made by studios with much better tools than Techland had at the time of Chrome: SpecForce's development. However, there are games that are 'average' and then there are those that are doomed to sink into obscurity because they can't cut the mustard over the long haul. Sadly, Chrome: SpecForce is one of the latter. Forgotten by its community, it no longer has anyone to repair its ailing code, meaning the bugs that arise with time have overtaken it. More than that, though, when balanced against other games of the same period, it becomes clear that for all its struggling, it was never destined for great things. Perhaps that's why we never got Chrome 2, despite a trailer now almost as old as SpecForce that promised otherwise. I don't dislike the game, but even with nostalgia's rosy glasses struggling to help paper over the cracks that I now see, I can't help but feel disappointed. Once, you were fun, Chrome: SpecForce…but now? Now I think I have better things to play.
|+ Fun, challenging gameplay||– Aging software with various bugs.|
|+ Average, yet interesting story.||– Poor enemy A.I.|
|– Frustrating User Interface|
|– Lackluster sound design|