In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
Terrorists have taken over a train. Theyíve got a lot of yuppie hostages and they want access to a super weapon that a VIP has the keys for; mainly because Steve from the Travel & Subsistence department couldnít even be bothered to book tickets for said VIPís First Class flight. The government war room is full of panicking congressmen with vanity issues and highly decorated generals who have earned their ranks through blood, sweat and tears, but right now they canít even go to the CIA toilets without asking for tactical advice. The terrorists have a ton of firepower and at least one henchman who doesnít talk much, but loves the taste of pepper spray on his egg and toast in the morning. The train is heading for a city full of people who more or less deserve to be blown up because theyíre French. Things look grim or delightful for everyone involved. Youíve managed to board the train and gotten your teammates killed, because youíre that bloody useless despite being a special ops soldier.
Pop Quiz, butt-munch: What do you do? WHAT...do you do?
Well, for starters, you can call Steven Seagal and tell him he doesnít have to leave that pie eating contest today...
Chase The Express AKA Nuclear Portable Ops Fighting Train Whatever (I refuse to acknowledge the awful US title) is an action thriller that shares more in common with Resident Evil and the movie Die Hard than any of your usual PSone third person shooters. Itís not your typical run and gun exercise, where you just go completely bat-shit crazy on unsuspecting mercenaries. Instead, youíve got to move slowly and tactically around each location, collecting useful items to help you progress. You donít have enough ammunition or the cover advantage to take on all the soldiers, but you can get the drop on them without initiating some kind of stealth mode failure a la Metal Gear Solid. The game offers what few action titles can usually deliver when they emulate thrillers; that palpable sense of building tension.
The story is taken from just about any Ďman vs bad guys in an enclosed spaceí plot; though it mostly resembles the so-bad-itís-good Under Siege 2. Russian terrorists take over an armoured train called the Blue Harvest on its maiden voyage through Europe, government officials and their families are taken hostage and you play the sole surviving member of a NATO team who just got blown out of the air. As generic action man, Lt. Jack Morton (looking suspiciously like an off-model Keanu Reeves in Speed), your job is to save everyone onboard and stop the train from reaching Paris (where itíll fire a nuke at the Ďcheese eating surrender monkeysí). Itís not original in the slightest, but itís the perfect set-up for what is an overlooked bit of gaming history.
Much like Sunsoftís forgettable Hard Edge AKA T.R.A.G. (oh the horror), the developers for Chase The Express, Sugar & Rockets, decided to merge the third person shooter genre with survival horror. Most of the game play involves you moving from room to room, reading bits of Intel, collecting supplies, solving puzzles and making space in your limited inventory by using item boxes. Here theyíre represented as toilets...yes, toilets. You have to battle enemies in a similar fashion and eventually fight a boss or two. Itís refreshing to see survival horror aesthetics being used in a genre that relies heavily on shoot outs. It shouldnít really work, but it does.
(actually that's an awful pic...)
The Die Hard formula has such a great premise for a perfect action movie, but it seems game developers donít really want to risk re-creating it. Sure, a player battling what amounts to twelve antagonists would make for a dull game (especially when it has to constantly fill in Ďdead airí Ė a visual term for Ďsod all happening on screení) but the tension would still be present as you stalked the surrounding areas. We see it in stealth games all the time; especially with Splinter Cellís approach to the genre. The people at Fox Interactive who made Die Hard Trilogy sidestepped the moviesí formula and went for an increase in violence until it suffocated the player. Itís still got tension, but it in a different way to survival horror; itís a genre that relies on rationing and weakness. In the end, it didnít really represent the franchiseís basics at all; the game transmuted an idea into something far removed from the original material, with only the tropes and iconography remaining to convince you that you were playing Die Hard.
Combat here is similar to your average Resident Evil clone, but since the camera angles are restrictive (long shots of corridors and tight corner angles), the game helps you out with a targeting reticule. The closer you are to an enemy with a weapon, the more damage and accuracy increases. If you run out of bullets, you can just run up to Johnny Terrorist and kick the crap out of him. Sadly, youíre more like Kiefer Sutherland than Chuck Norris in this game. Seriously, have you ever seen Jack Bauer go hand to hand in 24? Kiefer Sutherland canít fight unless heís drunk. Also, like the older Resident Evil games, youíre limited with your inventory space and you need to save your stronger weapons for the bosses or multiple enemies. You canít even afford to get hit too many times either since you need to ration your health packs. All thatís really missing are the zombies.
The game certainly has its moments; Jack running across the tops of carriages as the train hurtles through Europe, the loading map showing your exact location (a smart tension builder), the crazy boss fights, the OTT finale, the numerous twists and a few multiple endings thrown in. Even if you complete the game with the best ending, youíre given a New Game+ deal where thereís extra content and another playable character. I thought that was a great incentive to jump back into it, though some may wonder why it wasnít included in the first run through. The gameís puzzle elements are broken up by set-pieces, like trying to line-up two trains before one gets away and taking control of some AA guns to take out enemy helicopters. The boss fights arenít exactly a break from the norm, but the increased challenge is always welcome.
While the game inherits all the benefits of survival horrorís tension building, it does suffer immensely from the genreís flaws. The aforementioned camera angles are a nightmare when youíre really pressured to take out multiple terrorists. Even with the ability to dodge roll, you still find yourself slowly trying to line up your gun with the enemy; if the reticule doesnít show up, itís a complete miss. Thereís a lot of backtracking involved too. Many puzzles have you finding a locked door and a key nearby that opens a box about two carriages away (full of re-spawning enemies), then opening said box to find a card key for the locked door. I donít mind if it happens once or twice in a survival horror game, but many of the puzzles rely on this kind of busy work and it doesnít really fit in with the resourceful protagonist or the Ďrace against timeí scenario. The loading times are awful if you donít play the game on a PS2. Every carriage has to load up, and you have to navigate between them all the time. The PS2 cuts this time down to virtually nothing, so if you ever want to play it, thatís your best bet.
But hey...there's also double handgun action. Isn't that worth all the hassle?
Even with the in-built survival horror flaws, Chase The Express manages to be an underrated game and an overlooked experiment. Itís an action game that actually resembles the action movies itís paying homage to. Okay, itís not exactly the Executive Decision of action games, but at least it tried to make the movie formula work with a leftfield approach to gameplay. Itís a shame the game flopped for whatever reasons, because I really think there was something progressive here for future reiterations. Well at the end of the day, a stuffed Seagal can sleep easy knowing you did his job for him.
Van Damme will be calling you up for the Derailed royalties though.