Video Game Review: Quake

Released in 1996; developed by id Software

Available on Steam

(Note: I played through Quake using the Dark Places source port, which is available here. It provides for updated visuals and greater customization.)

Quake, the mid-nineties firecracker of a first-person shooter, revolutionized multiplayer gaming. Like Doom before it, much of its popularity was driven by its multiplayer-friendly design, with an emphasis on fast-paced, deathmatch-focused gameplay.

It’s often cited as a game with many Lovecraftian and horror influences. But is that actually the case? Not really, no. And that’s too bad – because a game with this technological profile combined with a true Lovecraftian atmosphere would have been incredible, especially back in 1996.

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Quake, much like Doom, is fast-paced, easy to pick up and play, and has a quick save feature. In fact, being able to save anywhere in a level, at any time, was one of the more amazing features of the initial slate of id first-person shooters, going all the way back to Wolfenstein 3D. (I can’t recall if Catacomb 3-D had quicksaving or not. But it was still a fun game.)

The original concept of the game dates back to an idea id Software had as a follow-up to its Commander Keen series. The character “Quake” would be all-powerful, wandering around a fantasy world and smashing his enemies. It’s been reported that John Romero, the other half of the id Software dream-duo, wanted this version of Quake to be more in line with that original concept: a medieval-style, dark fantasy horror game.

The rest of id, however, wanted to create more of a 3D update to Doom.

Considering the problems John Carmack encountered in creating the engine and the multiplayer components, the more adventurous design ambitions were scrapped. Romero’s RPG and dark fantasy/horror concepts have some vestigial remnant in some textures, some level layouts, and a few enemy designs.

The weapons, then, are pretty standard, and a bit underwhelming if you’ve been playing first person shooters for a while. There are the decidedly unsatisfying shotgun and double-barrel shotgun (Doom‘s shotguns, conversely, are still really fun to use), a nail gun and super nail gun, a rocket launcher and grenade launcher, and a lightning gun. There’s usually plenty of ammo for the shotguns and the grenade launcher and rocket launcher, but you’ll burn through the nail gun and lightning ammo way too fast. The levels are stingy with the high-powered rounds.

The levels themselves often reflect the game’s lack of focus. Sometimes you’re in garish, brown and gray tech bases. Other times, you’re in garish, brown and gray medieval settings. There is not a lot of variety in scenery. There is some creative use of castle architecture, but it’s nothing memorable. Each level feels like one big set of hallways, devoid of doodads and evidence that anything actually lives or works in these places. Even Doom‘s level design feels more lived-in.

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The combat, thankfully, is fun and fluid. It’s very challenging, punishing the slightest mistake. You’ll be dodging grenades, chainsaws, claws, swords, and projectiles from every angle. Enemies often teleport in from above or behind you, making each encounter tense and tactical. The enemies here deal lots of damage, so you can go from full health to dead in a few short moments. There are often multiple paths to complete the level, allowing you to take on different encounters at different times. I tried to play through this game from each level’s start without saving, forcing me to think carefully about what enemies I wanted to take on first, with what weapons I had available.

Trent Reznor composed the game’s soundtrack. This sounds cooler than the actual result; most of the music lacks any sense of momentum or even menace. It’s not bad, as far as videogames go – it’s just not memorable either. Some of it sounds like it belongs in a horror game, but a horror game this is not. When comparing this soundtrack to the work of Aubrey Hodges in Doom 64, it’s no contest. Hodges’ work helps elevate the entire gaming experience of Doom 64, transforming it from a competent console port into a horror experience.

Despite its reputation… It’s not Lovecraftian. It involves going to multiple worlds, and the boss is named Shub Niggurath. But that’s it.

Overall, Quake is a fun action game. However, Doom, thanks to source ports and the modding community, has more to offer the shooter fan looking for a fun old-school experience. For more horror flavor, try Hexen or Heretic, as they both run on the same engine as Doom, and are therefore accessible through the same source ports.

Quake remains historically interesting as the first truly-3D game. But it is very much a product of its time, and other older games actually hold up better. It’s a fun ride, but horror fans won’t find much here for them, outside of some bloody textures and a few chainsaw-wielding monsters.

3/5 Slipgates

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Video Game Review: Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders

Available on Steam; GZDoom Sourceport Available Here

Heretic is a gothic, medieval fantasy horror first-person shooter developed by Raven Software and published by id Software back in 1994. To call it a Doom clone does the game a disservice. Yes, it plays essentially the same—explore winding mazes and complex levels, blast away at monsters, find keys, hit switches, and make your way to the exit. However, its design philosophy, art style, and atmosphere set it apart, and make it a game that, all these years later, holds up better than even the venerable Doom itself.

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Heretic, like Doom (and its sequels) is a game I revisit every couple of years. Thankfully, wonderful sourceports like GZDoom exist to make the game playable with improved graphics and controls. Mapping the controls to a modern WASD + mouse setup has never been easier, and there are a variety of display options to make the game as pretty (or 90s-gnarly) as you like. Conversely, you can always play the game in DosBox for a truly retro experience.

Heretic’s big claims to fame over its predecessor Doom is the ability to look up and down, and a rudimentary inventory system. While new sourceports allow mouselook in Doom, looking up and down can unfairly affect the difficulty balance of some maps. (Then again, I have a lot more fun playing Doom when I can actually aim those friggin’ rockets at the enemies above or below me.) Needless to say, this opens up the player’s ability to survive and navigate complex ambushes and enemy placement.

The use of power ups, while not essential for an expert player, adds some variety to the corridor combat and can get you out of otherwise nigh-impossible situations. Like other shooters of its time, Heretic’s primary challenge comes from trapping you in a small, enclosed space before shoveling wave after wave of monsters at you. Using these items—invisibility, warps, wings of wrath, health flasks, and the alternative fire mode-enabling tome of power—often marks the difference between life and death in many situations. This subtle layer of depth adds a lot of strategy to the game, as you’re forced to use your resources wisely to survive the game’s brutal levels.

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Make no mistake—the levels are difficult, especially if you cut your teeth on contemporary Call of Duty garbage. These aren’t straight-line walks from cover to cover, with plenty of opportunities to regenerate your health as dumb-as-rocks enemies take cowardly potshots at you. No, you’ll have to explore a myriad of designs, including labyrinthine mazes, open spaces with scant to no cover, caves, lava rivers, villages, castles, and treacherous dungeons—and a healthy mix thereof in any given map. Heretic has a diverse level design, and you’ll never get bored with the layout.

What really sets Heretic apart from other games of its time (and many today) is its cultivation of atmosphere. Strange sounds dog your steps; creepy (and gory) textures litter the map; gothic architecture and doodads lend the maps a sense of place and menace. The game is at once subtle and overt; however, its gore effects are quaint by today’s horror standards, especially considering that contemporary developers’ ideas of “scary” and “atmosphere” are over-the-top gore.

The monsters themselves are as diverse as the levels. The first enemy type you encounter is a flying gargoyle with a peppering projectile attack; from there, melee and projectile-based enemies abound, often with high hit points and the nasty tendency to chase you down in groups. Killing even the most basic enemies is often satisfying, with ample gory visual and audio effects, making each kill feel like a victory rather than a triviality. While some enemies are overused—the scorpion warriors come to mind—they are all intimidating and dangerous. Each encounter can feel like a life-or-death situation, something Doom and other shooters (including many that came after Heretic, well into the current generation) cannot claim.

The weapons in this game, unfortunately, represent the game’s biggest shortcoming. Almost all of them are simple re-skins of the Doom arsenal. The final weapon, a mace-ball-throwing-thing, is completely useless in almost every situation. This is, however, somewhat offset by the tome of power, which unlocks alternate, devastating fire modes for a limited time, allowing even the lowly elven wand to become a room-clearing powerhouse. Keep in mind however that much of the game’s ammunition is in short supply, forcing you to conserve your damage output in favor of strategically working your way through each map’s numerous and deadly encounters.

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Shadow of the Serpent Riders includes two additional episodes not available in the initial release of the game. These level sets aren’t as tightly-designed as the first three, and tend to mass enemy placements and restrict ammunition supplies in an attempt to appeal more for expert players. The first level of episode 4 is almost impossible to beat on higher difficulty levels for all but the most dedicated and hardcore Heretic players. While I’m a fan of difficult games, there comes a point where I want to play and enjoy a game, rather than figure out the precise, time-consuming way to defeat an arbitrarily-difficulty design. Beyond the official five episodes of the game there is plenty of user-generated content out there, including new maps, mods, and whole episodes to blast your way through. It’s not as robust a community as that of Doom, but since the source code’s release, plenty of would-be level designers have offered up some really great (and completely free) content.

Heretic is pure, unadulterated horror-action-fantasy-shooter fun. It holds up well, especially with the development of modern source ports. Its single player campaign is more fun than Doom, and sports great horror sensibilities. This is an oft-overlooked classic that is ripe for a modern sequel with old-school sensibilities. Play Heretic to see what a good action horror game can be—and what a developer can accomplish when they set out to build a solid, immersive single player experience.

5/5 Interdimensional Serpent Riders

If you enjoy Heretic, you may like its sequel, Hexen.

Video Game Review: Blood (One Unit Whole Blood)

Blood was one of many games I played as a shareware experience. Shareware, for those of you who are too young to recognize the term, meant you got a portion of the game for free—usually the first episode—but much of its content was locked away on later levels. You could tell what you were getting into if you decided to buy the full package—unlike today’s market, where pre-orders and dishonest game trailers are ubiquitous with mainstream releases.

Developed by Monolith and released for PC in 1997, Blood puts you in the boots of Caleb, a follower of the dark god Tchernobog. A sloppily-animated cutscene at the beginning of episode one shows the demon betraying his inner circle for reasons unknown, and casts Caleb into a shallow grave.

The first level begins with your grave sliding open, a pitchfork in your hands, and Caleb quoting Army of Darkness:

“I live… again.”

The story doesn’t go much deeper than that. The plot doesn’t make a ton of sense, but that’s not the point of a game called Blood. There are some little narrative flourishes within the levels here and there—Caleb offers commentary from time to time, we see evidence of a ramping up of Tchernobog’s forces, there’s a war on (in France?), and the different environments give clues that may or may not add up to a coherent narrative experience. It’s fun to fill in the blanks, but not necessary.

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Blood has the most creative and satisfying arsenal I’ve ever encountered in a shooter. Sure, the pitchfork is essentially a re-skinned knife/boot/melee attack, but at least it deals damage along its prongs (strike the wall to see what I mean). The basic pistol is a flare gun, which causes a slow burning effect in enemies, eventually incinerating them… but in the meantime, they can still move and deal you damage.

The sawed-off double barrel shotgun is satisfying, and is an excellent close-range weapon. There’s an accurate tommy gun, a napalm launcher (rocket launcher), all sorts of different kinds of dynamite, a lighter and a spray paint can, a Tesla energy cannon, a voodoo doll, and a mystic staff. The level design is very generous with ammo, so you won’t have to stick with just the shotgun/machinegun/rocket launcher combination that Doom pioneered and the industry was satisfied with not innovating beyond.

You can mix it up from time to time, and really experiment with different weapons against different enemy types, and with the satisfying alternate fire modes. Whenever I got bored with a given weapon, I’d switch over to something else. Generally speaking, each weapon has a good set of uses for a variety of situations. Flares and dynamite are good against the zombies, the sawed off and the machine gun are good against the cultists, the Tesla cannon evens the odds against gargoyles and fire-breathing dogs, and so on.

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The exceptions to this are the voodoo doll and mystic staff—both of which have rather limited utility, and can damage you if not used properly. They’re fun to use for boss fights, but not much else. The staff’s alternate fire mode is a little overpowered—I made short work of the final boss with minimal effort and one staff. It was a bit anticlimactic.

There is also an inventory system, but, beyond the doctor’s medical bag and the jump boots, there isn’t much to write home about. Power ups are also scattered around the levels—the guns akimbo is a hoot—but they don’t last long enough to make seeking them out all that worthwhile. Often I’d get an invisibility or akimbo item, only to have it burn out before I found any fresh enemies.

The defining weapon experience in Blood has to be using dynamite. There are several variations, but they all function pretty much the same: throw them at groups of enemies, and watch as their blood and viscera splatter all over the environment. Tossing a bundle with a lit fuse at a group of zombies is an experience that never gets old. They are somewhat overpowered and unbalanced, and you’ll blow yourself up if you’re not careful. That added danger simply enhances the freewheeling fun that the game emphasizes.

Blood’s enemies demonstrate the same level of innovation as the weaponry. Axe-wielding zombies (who resurrect if you don’t burn them or shoot off their heads), cultists (of various types), gargoyles, fire-breathing dogs, shark men, phantoms, dismembered hands, spiders, and more all eagerly rush toward you, eager to be picked off or blown up in grisly fashion. For the most part, the enemies are well-animated, have distinctive audio cues, and have a couple of attacks to dish out. Unfortunately, some move so quickly—a quirk of the Build Engine—making it next to impossible to get a well-aimed shot off. Some enemy types also deal obscene amounts of damage in little to no time, negatively affecting the game’s balance.

Intense enemies and weaponry is great—but the atmosphere and environments in Blood really seal the deal. You’ll fight through graveyards, mausoleums, a train station, a speeding locomotive (a simple yet memorable trick of the engine), a dark carnival, ice floes, haunted Shining-style mansions, hedge mazes, meat processing plants, bombed-out streets, evil temples, living environments, and more.

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There are some filler levels—you can’t escape warehouses, crate mazes, and drab tunnels in 90s-era first person shooters—but the levels that are beyond good are great. Utilizing largely non-abstract level design, the game really rewards you for exploration. Much of my motivation for completing the game was to see what comes next—what devious traps, impressive architecture, and hidden passages were ahead. Perseverance through the more drab stock levels is rewarded with trips through clever temples, spooky manses, and even an excellent “outdoors” level set at Camp Crystal Lake of Friday the 13th fame.

While I love Doom, the labyrinthine layout of every level in those games—even most tech bases—made for a non-intuitive exploration experience. Blood’s level design is a mix between the abstract and the real, and the levels are more interesting to explore because of it.

Although not on the level of Shadow Warrior, the game has some interactivity in the environment. However, the emphasis is on atmosphere—creative use of light, color, sound, and textures—rather than on doodad gimmicks.

As mentioned earlier, one of the strikes against this game is that its difficulty is over the top. Regular enemies can hit you with pinpoint accuracy from across the room while you struggle to get a bead on them. Enemy placement throughout many maps exploits their razor-sharp accuracy and quick-fast-in-a-hurry reaction times. You’ll often explore a new wing of a map, only to find cultists, fire-breathing dogs, or worse waiting around every blind corner, ready to shrink your health by a few dozen points in less than a second. The most unbalanced aspect of the enemies comes in the form of the gargoyles’ air attack (it’s next to impossible to hit them when they are flying above or below you) and the dogs’ fire breath (once you catch on fire, you can literally lose over 100 points of health… and running, jumping, or smashing the USE key repeatedly doesn’t always seem to douse the flames).

Healing items are in short supply. It’s very easy to get stuck in a situation where you don’t have enough health to progress—forcing you to re-load an earlier save state. Create multiple save states—including a backup at the beginning of each level. Trust me. I played the game on the second difficulty—and died a lot. Veterans of the genre will find a lot of challenge; newcomers might be put off by the difficulty, some of which is due to the aforementioned balance issues.

For all of its faults and quirks, Blood is a fantastic, spooky, and action-packed joyride down the tunnels and crypts of yesteryear’s game design and horror iconography. The game has personality, clever design, memorable weapons and enemies, and is, above all, a lot of fun to play.

A quality-focused modding community churned out some really spectacular add-ons for the game. Do some digging and you’ll find everything from one-shot levels to whole new episodes.

Horror fans and gamers who understand that first person shooters can be more than MMOs or Call of Duty clones will love the experience that is Blood.

4/5 Immolated Cultists

The commercial version, known as ONE UNIT WHOLE BLOOD, is available from GOG.com. It comes with the original four episodes, plus the two official expansions, Cryptic Passage (which is a little difficult to get running) and the Plasma Pak. It’s often on sale, and never more than a few bucks. Buy it immediately!

The game as packaged runs through DosBox. Getting the game to play with contemporary control schemes, higher display modes, and at a decent frame rate requires quite a bit of work on your part. The boards on GOG.com are a great place to start—but be prepared to do some tinkering with the configuration files and programs. I was experiencing significant frame rate issues on display settings above the default until I found a way to switch from DirectDraw to OpenGL. Additionally, I had to try many, many variations on the mouse sensitivity to get the game playable.

Because the game lacks a proper source port (the source code was never publicly released), you have to use the front-end Just Add Blood (and its three [!] patches). This program takes some tinkering to get the game running properly—follow the installation instructions—but once you do, you’re in for a grand old time.

Video Game Review: Greetings, mortal. Are you ready to die?

Hexen: Beyond Heretic (1995) Developed by Raven Software, Published by id Software, Distributed by GT Software

Review by Jonathan Raab

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Are you a wizard?!

Ever since our old 486 was upgraded to an amazing 6 megabytes of RAM, I’d been able to play id Tech 1 engine games. Doom shareware levels, Heretic shareware, Final Doom—these were the first person shooters I played religiously. They looked real, or as real was back in the early to mid nineties to a young gamer with too much time on his hands and not enough real people with whom to interact. I can’t count the number of hours I spent blasting through familiar levels, aching for a full release to unlock all the super weapons and new monsters.

During those formative gaming years, I’d play anything “3D” (more often 2-and-a-half-D) that I could get my hands on. Blake Stone, Corridor 7, Nitemare 3D, and Ken’s Labyrinth included. Having played the Heretic shareware levels to death, I was elated to learn that Ravensoft produced a sequel: Hexen: Beyond Heretic.

Build on the same id Tech 1 Doom engine, the game seemed familiar enough. However, like Heretic, it offered a handful of small but important improvements to the engine and innovations in the first person shooter genre in general. You could look up and down, use an extensive inventory system, play different character classes with unique weapons, jump (!), and experience a variety of environmental effects, including moving walls, blowing leaves, swirling storms overhead, and atmospheric sound effects that really pulled you into the setting.

The problem was—and is—the game is designed to frustrate you. As a child, I couldn’t make it past the first hub zone without cheating. Re-visiting it now as an adult, I find myself having to consult a guide every few hours of play to advance. The game isn’t broken—far from it—but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s start with the positive aspects of the game.

The aging id Tech 1 engine doesn’t look better in any game, period. Doom 2 has a few levels that look like real places—sort of—but Hexen takes the medieval architecture of Heretic and amps up its design, both in terms of quality of gameplay and exploration, and in terms of realism. Many of the places look like what they are supposed to be: bell towers, seminaries, chapels, outposts, fortresses, decaying houses in the swamp… Each new area is more than just a collection of stale sewers and dungeons (although there are a few of those as well).

Combat is fun and fluid, although the enemies themselves don’t pose much of a threat one-on-one. When they’re in large groups, or paired with a variety of other enemies with differing offensive and defensive capabilities, combat becomes challenging and a lot of fun. Resource management—particularly your healing items—becomes integral to your survival in the midst of the flurry of combat. There’s enough variety in the enemies and the types of encounters that Hexen throws at you to keep you on your toes.

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You’ll fight a lot of these guys.

The enemies themselves are varied, and, in groups and when fighting together, present a decent challenge. You’ll get tired of fighting a few types—namely the two-headed foot soldiers and the centaur knights—but generally combat is fun and interesting.

The weapons are unique to each class, and will affect your gameplay style. That said, I never found myself not using one of the weapons—the starting weapon included—for a long period of time. Each weapon is appropriate for different situations, and balancing which weapon you use for which encounter, all while keeping an eye on your mana levels, is part of the fun of combat.

The inventory system is robust, but you’ll often find yourself sticking to one or two items. Rarer, more powerful items don’t lend themselves to the gameplay that well, because you’ll be afraid to waste them. That said, some of the items are pretty much useless (the force push type powerup is a waste of your time), and you’ll end up sticking to either the green potions or healing potions for most encounters. Still, the Wings of Wrath, Porkolater, and Maulotaur power ups are always fun to use. Too bad they are so rare.

I’m giving the game a lot of praise. Deservedly so. But Hexen is not without its problems.

Most of the time you will not be in combat. Unlike Doom or even Heretic, the levels are not full of monsters as you progress from point A to point B. Instead, you’ll be backtracking through largely empty zones (those that you’ve cleared hours ago) to scour every wall, every space, and every doodad in sight, looking for a stone to collect, a door to open, or a switch to pull. If you’ve ever been lost in an old-school first person shooter, you understand the frustration that this model can produce. When done right, exploration, puzzle solving, and item collecting can be great parts of the FPS experience. When done wrong—and Hexen often does it wrong—you’ll just end up walking in circles, feeling trapped and frustrated.

Therefore, I recommend playing the game with a guide handy. I know that will rub a lot of purists the wrong way, but truthfully, this game was meant to be played with a guide, or with help from friends. As a kid, I could only share tips with my older cousins—who were often equally lost and baffled. Thanks to the age of the Internet, we have walkthroughs, videos, and more to help you find your way.

Would I recommend Hexen: Beyond Heretic? That depends. If you’re a fan of old-school first person shooters, and have a taste for puzzle-oriented gameplay spiced up with some fun combat, yes. Just go into the game prepared to spend some time feeling lost, and don’t be afraid to look up some help from time to time. Sticking with Hexen gives you a sense of accomplishment, not unlike that provided by other obtuse but tightly-designed games like Dark Souls.

Pick up a copy of Hexen and one of its sourceports—I recommend ZDoom or GZDoom—and play with updated controls and clearer graphics. It’s cheap, and provides plenty of old-school challenge with a lot of charm, attention to detail, and plenty of atmosphere for the horror or dark fantasy fan. Despite its obtuse puzzles, it’s infinitely more interesting and fun than most any contemporary first person shooter, which is often a simple cover-based straight line movement from one end of a long corridor to another.

Hexen pulls you into a well-realized world, and sends the id Tech 1 engine out with a flurry of fun, dark magic, macabre settings, and interesting combat.

4/5 Serpent Rider-Invaded Worlds

The entire Heretic & Hexen series is available on Steam.