The short-lived Mucky Foot Productions was founded in 1997 by former employees of Bullfrog and based in the Surrey town of Guildford, then as now the spiritual home of the British games industry. The founders' background was in management, strategy and "god games" - but for their first project as an independent developer they chose something much more dynamic and ambitious.
Initially known as "Dark City", the game was to feature open urban locations, driveable vehicles, and a sophisticated combat system. Published by Eidos, it was eventually shipped in November 1999 under the title Urban Chaos and retained much of its original design brief. In fact, in its novel and smooth combination of features, Urban Chaos was tremendously ahead of its time. Sadly, it was not widely played on release and faded into relative obscurity. Following a digital release via GOG, the game can be reappraised - albeit with some technical issues.
Introducing D'Arci Stern
One of the most unique aspects of Urban Chaos is its main protagonist: remarkably, D'Arci Stern is very likely the first ever playable black female character in a videogame and still one of only a handful ever to exist. A rookie cop in the police department of Union City, Stern is initially given basic training and routine tasks, but gradually discovers the alarming rise of a deadly street gang, the Wildcats, and eventually finds herself working to prevent the end of the world prophesied by Nostradamus.
The creation of Stern was very likely influenced by Lara Croft, who had recently made her debut in the first Tomb Raider game - also an Eidos property - 1996. By comparison, Stern is never overtly sexualised and has a much more positive portrayal. Of course, while Lara Croft rapidly became a global icon the relative failure of Urban Chaos consigned D'Arci Stern to the status of a mere footnote in games history.
While Stern is playable in the majority of the game, there are two other characters the player can control. One is Roper, an aged vigilante who acts as a kind of mentor figure, and the other is a Jamaican Wildcats member who appears in bonus levels. In a feature which was quite novel in 1999, these characters play very differently to Stern, with distinct strengths and weaknesses of their own. For example, Roper can neither sprint nor arrest criminals.
A City on the Brink
Urban Chaos is set in the fictional metropolis of Union City, which seems to be loosely modeled on New York - judging partly by the laughable accents of its cops. While 3D, open urban environments are generally thought to have begun with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, Urban Chaos has certain advantages over the better-known game. Union City is not truly open, as levels take place in specific and unconnected districts - but the level of detail is high. Certain buildings can be entered, and numerous rooftops can be accessed either to complete essential objectives or to find collectibles which slightly enhance Stern's attributes.
At street level, Mucky Foot managed to create a surprisingly dynamic environment with the technology of the time. Objects are reflected in puddles of rainwater, pedestrians disturb litter as they walk, and cars and vans drive around. There are many civilians with brief snatches of dialogue, and exploring the districts can turn up bonus objectives or incidental encounters.
While the game is not overwhelmingly story-oriented and cutscenes are few in number, the levels often include subtle foreshadowing of future events. Even during early levels, when Stern is given fairly trivial tasks, there are hints about the rise of the Wildcats, the sinister mayoral candidate Mack Bane, and the growing feeling of unease within the city's population. All of these further the sense that Union City is a cohesive and believable environment.
Laying Down the Law
For a game of its era, Urban Chaos offers a high level of actions and interactivity. Like Lara Croft before her, D'Arci Stern is a highly mobile character - in addition to the usual running, crawling and sprinting, she can climb ladders, search suspects, backflip, side-roll, take cover behind walls, look around corners, and even use power cables that criss-cross the city as ziplines. The controls for the cars and vans that Stern can commandeer are crude, but it's always interesting to be able to them for novel solutions - for example, parking a van so that it can serve as a wall to help climb over a wall.
When former Mucky Foot developer Mike Diskett released the source code for Urban Chaos on GitHub in 2017, he revealed that further movements options were planned - including a motorbike and even a "grappling hook with rope physics".
Urban Chaos has numerous similarities with another cult favourite, 2001's Oni, which was developed by Bungie. These similarities include having a female protagonist, a mixture of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay, and a plot themed around a rookie cop who eventually is faced with an apocalyptic scheme. Of the two games, Urban Chaos has by far the least sophisticated melee combat but there are still a few interesting combos and the ability to throw foes to the ground. Firearms gradually become more important as the game goes on, as the Wildcats strengthen their grip over Union City.
Sentenced to Death
As with all too many innovative games, Urban Chaos did not sell well, only shifting around half a million copies - Eidos were not interested in publishing a sequel. By 2002, Mucky Foot were forced to take on the unglamorous work of building licensed tie-in games like Blade II - the only one to see release. Ultimately, Mucky Foot folded in November 2003.
For a number of years, Urban Chaos was available only on the second-hand market - fortunately it was not difficult to run on later operating systems. Now that the game is more widely available, more players have been able to discover an experience which is more akin to today's open-world games than to the other action games of 1999. There are lingering problems, like a potential crash to desktop while loading new levels, but the technical challenges are worth grappling with, With a memorable lead character and setting, novel gameplay, and a unique doom-laden atmosphere, Urban Chaos is an under-recognised classic that is definitely worthy of its cult status.