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.

Quake1cover

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.

quake screen cap1

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: 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.