Heretic and Hexen, R-Comp Interactive's latest conversions; reviewed by Theodore Rimspoke.
At last, R-Comp has released its long-anticipated pack of 3D games featuring Heretic and Hexen. What wasn't entirely clear at the time of our earlier preview was that R-Comp was planning to release a high-value pack of no fewer than three games. In other words, order this great package from today's leading Acorn games company and you get a CD-ROM containing Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders, Hexen: Beyond Heretic and Hexen: Deathkings of the Dark Citadel.
Actually, it's two-and-a-half games you get in the pack, because Deathkings is really just a new set of add-on levels for Hexen, and R-Comp doesn't try to con you by saying that they're giving you three games for your money. They call this a double pack, but in all fairness it is rather like getting three games in terms of longevity.
Here, then, is my reaction to these games. I won't bother going all over the storyline in great detail again, as all that bunkum was covered in our preview (which you should read again if you want some background detail). This review is more concerned with how the games play, and the quality of the Acorn conversions.
The games are all contained on a single CD-ROM, and there is full documentation on the CD itself in Adobe Acrobat format. Unfortunately there is of course no "official" Acrobat viewer for RISC OS, but there's a freeware version called !PDF which R-Comp provides on one of the three floppy discs accompanying the games pack.
Although I had played Hexen previously on other platforms, this Acorn conversion of Heretic was my first exposure to this particular game. I was aware that it was based on an enhanced version of id Software's Doom engine, but I hadn't actually played it before, so it was interesting for me to compare it 'backwards' with Hexen, to see how much less there was in Heretic in terms of features, and to see what it added to the formula initially defined by Doom.
So, whilst it's probably politically incorrect for me to say this, I have to admit the truth of the assertion: Heretic is "Doom with a crossbow". The similarity is striking, although the atmosphere is of course somewhat different.
You start off the game with a projectile weapon, and are initially surrounded by numerous unpleasant flying gargoyles. Having nasties attacking you from the air before you even bump into anything earth-bound puts you in the picture for the rest of this game: it's not that easy. Some of the enemies are actually quite uncivil, and they seem less stupid than the ones in Doom as well. Although you can occasionally look into a room and see the monsters doing their silly 'walking in place' (a particularly daft characteristic of Doom), that's fairly uncommon; they're much more likely to spot you first and attack from behind.
As in Doom, some of the baddies come in two varieties: the ones who've had a bad day, and the stronger versions who've had a bad week. The 'bad day' ones just run and you and try to bludgeon you to death. The 'bad week' ones will first shoot things at you, before running at you and trying to bludgeon you to death. No surprises there, then.
Again, just like in Doom, the object is to run around and kill everything in sight, collect all the keys (up to three per level), grab all the ammo and power-ups, find all the secrets if you can, and eventually flick the end-of-level switch. Pure Doom. There are the obligatory transporters and crushing ceilings, of course, and the maps are also grouped into episodes and levels, just like in Doom I. (You can pick which episode to play at the start of the game.)
So far, then, I might as well be talking about Doom. What's different in Heretic? Well, actually, not all that much. Obviously the monsters and weapons are different, but the structure, layout, game style and objectives are pretty much identical. But there are nevertheless some improvements.
For a start, you can look up and down. That's really no big deal, as it doesn't have a significant impact on the way the game plays. Unlike other 3D games that let you look up and down, you don't have to aim your weapon vertically: just point in the general direction and shoot, and if your horizontal judgement is close enough, the baddy buys the farm.
Another improvement is environmental effects, like currents in water, wind and icy surfaces. Dive into the drink, and you'll be carried along with the tide, or you could get blown off a high ledge, for example. It may seem odd that small lakes have such strong currents in this game, but there you have it. They do, and swimming against the current whilst simultaneously trying to target the bad guys adds a little extra zest.
But by far the most important difference in Heretic is the fact that you have an inventory: pick up an object and it stays with you until you choose to use it. The objects are quite varied: the Quartz Flask is like a normal health bonus except that it gives you a larger amount of health, and you choose when to use it. Collect up these flasks and use one if you get into a sticky situation later in the game. There are also armour bonuses, torches to brighten your view, maps to show you a level's layout (unexplored and secret regions) and temporary invisibility or invulnerability.
The nice thing is that you can choose when to use many of these collectible objects, so you have a bit more chance to play strategically than you did in Doom. Also, some of the artifacts you can pick up get quite interesting. For example, there are time-bombs you can drop which will blow up any baddies in the vicinity (and you, if you're not careful), there are weapons supercharges, and the Wings of Wrath actually enable you to fly for a while. A real departure from Doom there.
But undoubtedly the most entertaining artifact is the Morph Ovum. This delightful weapon fires a burst of five little eggs, and any monster with which these come into contact turns into a clucking chicken. Not only does this prove amusing, but it makes your life easier too, because chickens only need to be shot once to transform them into a cloud of feathers. So a particularly unpleasant bad guy who needs to be shot lots of times can instead be subjected to the indignity of being turned into a hen, before being dispatched with a single shot. The chickens do remain rather malevolent, and come clucking inexorably towards you before attacking if you let them, but they're easy to send into oblivion, and you'll laugh before you scream...
|In Heretic, no-one can hear you squawk...|
Take that, you evil chicken, you!
So, is the game any good? Well, I have mixed feelings. It's fun, but it's not that good. If you haven't got around to buying Doom yet (why not?) you'll no doubt find it excellent, but if you've played right the way through Doom, you might find that it doesn't hold your interest for very long.
On the whole it comes across as being a Doom clone which doesn't try hard enough to break the mould. The gameplay is identical and the objectives are the same. There's room for a little more strategy, but not much. There are a few extra features, but not enough. Even the basic scenario isn't really all that different.
Moreover, it seems to me to lack the inspiration of Doom, too. With Doom, the programmers were clearly excited by the new genre they had invented, and the maps were lively and exciting. There's nothing wrong with the maps in Heretic; it's just that many of the earlier ones lack a certain something. There's an absence of sparkle, somehow, and this feels like a game which is just retreading old ground. Even the music is rather insipid, murky and unmemorable.
I don't want to sound too negative about Heretic. There's certainly nothing wrong with it, and it's a good game, well executed. To be fair, it does get better as well: the first few levels aren't terribly thrilling, but when the more powerful monsters start showing up, the atmosphere builds up a lot, the maps seem to get more interesting too, and the whole game gains a lot more life.
So it's one that you need to persevere with a bit before it grabs you, I reckon. In my view, Heretic is just too similar to Doom, overall, and perhaps not as good, but if you get a reasonable way into it you'll get a lot of fun from it. But R-Comp was wise, I feel, to bundle this with Hexen rather than trying to sell it on its own.
As for the quality of R-Comp's Acorn conversion, refer to the specific secion about this, below.
|Fighting in mid-air||Dramatic lighting effects at work|
|Several 'bad day' Golems and one 'bad week' Golem who is firing skulls at you||Beware that Heretic, like Doom, can be quite gruesome at times|
To sum up
Hexen may be the sequel to Heretic, but it's really a completely different game. It looks supercifially similar, but there's a whole lot more to the game than there is in either Heretic or Doom, and those new features really add extra dimensions to the genre.
The most obvious initial difference from Heretic is the increased level of detail of the environment. Autumnal trees shed leaves which blow around you in the wind; thunder claps and lightning flashes in the sky: it's all very atmospheric. You can also interact with your environment to a much greater extent than before, by smashing containers, windows and so on to reveal power-ups. As in Heretic, it's possible to look up and down and fly (if you've collected the Wings of Wrath).
Hexen's heredity is clear enough, as it inherits Heretic's inventory system, not to mention many of the various artifacts from the earlier game. However, to these it adds many new ones, and Heretic's fun Morph Ovum is replaced by the Porkelator, which transforms your enemies into pigs rather than chickens.
The very structure of Hexen is greatly advanced over Heretic. Rather than the linear, episodic, Doom-style levels of the earlier game, Hexen is played around hubs: levels and sub-levels which are interconnected, and between which you can travel. You'll spend a lot of time moving between the sub-levels of a hub, collecting objects and performing tasks before you can finally complete the level-set. This style of play is quite unusual in this genre, and refreshingly different.
The other marked difference from Heretic is that you can now choose between three main characters when you first start the game (fighter, cleric or mage), and each has different weapons and skills. Moreover, some of the artifacts behave differently depending on which character you pick, so there's far more scope for lasting interest and enjoyment in Hexen than in most other games of this type. The relative strengths of the characters is markedly different: for example, the fighter only has to hit one of the two-headed Ettin two or three times to clobber him, but the cleric needs to give him six resounding wallops with his club to despatch him, and the mage needs to zap the Ettin six to eight times with his wand to achieve the same result. This may make the fighter seem the obvious choice of character to play, but that's only true for the earlier stages of the game. As the foes become more fearsome, and your weapons more devastating, you'll find that the powers at the mage's disposal pay dividends later on.
Hexen's game engine allows a much greater variety of things to happen than in Heretic. Doors in the game may swing open physically, rather than just sliding; walls can move or suddenly spin around to reveal fire-belching traps; some of the creatures can take a dislike to each other and do you a favour by clobbering one another; and this is all just on the first level! There's certainly a lot more interesting events that can take place in Hexen than in Heretic, and the attention to detail extends to little puffs of translucent dust if you clobber a wall, for example, not to mention the nice tinkling of glass when you smash a window.
Some of the weapons are excellent, too, even if there aren't as many of them as in other games of this type. There's a total of twelve, but that's only four for each of the three classes of character, so you'll only get to use up to four in any one game. But there are some really interesting effects, and the mage's Frost Shards is particularly effective: zap a baddy with the shards, and he'll freeze solid and then explode in a shower of icy fragments which proceed to melt. And you need these fancy weapons: if you thought that the foes in Heretic were nasty, the ones in Hexen will make your blood run cold. There are more types, for a start, and they're generally of a far less amiable disposition.
|The Frost Shards freeze an enemy solid, as with the Ettin here. Soon the monster shatters into fragments of ice, which fall to the ground and melt.|
Click on the pictures to see the full-size screenshots.
So, whilst Hexen certainly owes a fair amount to Heretic (and the controls are identical except that Hexen adds a jump key), the two games play entirely differently, and Hexen is an awful lot more sophisticated. The extra facilities of this game seem to have invigorated its designers, too: it owes far less to Doom than Heretic did, and has a lot more atmosphere. The new possibilities of the hubs makes the whole layout of the game far more interesting and involved, and the map designs seem more inspired. So, the gameplay is more involved; the maps are more interesting; the graphics look more convincing; even the music is better. Hexen is a game worth playing.
As for Deathkings of the Dark Citadel, this is an add-on set of twenty further levels for Hexen. Since they are just new levels, there's nothing new in the game as such; same monsters, same weapones and power-ups and so on. But it's a good add-on pack: the levels are tougher than the main Hexen game, and throw you into the midst of the action very quickly, so they should still present an exciting challenge even when you've mastered the main game.
|You just can't trust those Ettin; they're so two-faced||Well, ring my bell!|
|The monsters continue to slug it out even after you've been killed||Out in the open with a hostile Chaos Serpent|
To sum up
The Acorn Conversions
But what of the Acorn conversions? As we have come to expect from R-Comp, they're excellent, and these are undoubtedly the best versions of Heretic and Hexen on any platform. As they use basically the same code as R-Comp's Doom+ engine, they play in either 256 or 16 million colours in any screen resolution which your machine is capable of handling, which means that a StrongARM Risc PC (the test machine) is quite capable of giving you a good game at up to 640x400 resolution in 24-bit colour. Very nice.
In both games you can choose between MIDI music or CD music, and the controls are redefinable... with the proviso that you can't use the numeric keypad. I personally find this rather regrettable, as I'd much rather use the keypad keys than the cursor controls, but it's a minor point. Full network support is built in, too, although that wasn't something that I was able to test. The one surprise was that, unlike Doom+, these games can't be run in a window on the desktop. They also lack a few of the other Doom+ refinements, like a timer and a picture-in-picture map. Neither omission is earth-shattering, but I do rather miss the fancy extra map options. Luckily the full-screen map does benefit from the anti-aliasing of the Doom+ map, which makes it look excellent.
I suspect that the reason for the omission of multitasking mode is the performance of Hexen: since this is a significantly more complex game than Heretic and Doom, its performance is noticeably slower. To be fair, I have to say that I found it to be too slow in the 640x400 24-bit colour mode. The highest resolution which felt comfortable to play at the best colour-depth was 512x384. It's not a lot smaller, but it gives a significantly better frame rate.
Heretic plays at much the same speed as Doom+; maybe fractionally slower, but the difference isn't noticeable. I imagine that Heretic could have coped with a multitasking mode, but then it might have seemed strange to release a multitasking version of Heretic if Hexen was single-tasking only. Whatever; that's a small point, and these are excellent conversions.
Finally, although a handful of the refinements of Doom+ are missing, Heretic and Hexen boast one novel feature: bilinear filtering, or resampling. This process is normally handled by the dedicated hardware in a graphics card on a PC or Mac, but R-Comp has cleverly built it into the game software. What it does is to smooth out all the pixels on the texture maps, so instead of seeing obvious pixellation on walls etc. as you get close to them, you see a blurred image instead. The effect looks excellent, and is a real enhancement to the visual appearance of the games.
The big drawback of this feature is that it's very slow. Although it doesn't render the games unplayable, it goes a long way towards doing so. Heretic, having a faster game engine than Hexen, is better able to cope with it, and I found it to be playable at lower resolutions; 480x352 gave acceptable performance. Hexen, however just seemed too slow to use it at all, except at the very lowest resolutions (which are really too small to benefit from it anyway). Let's hope that we eventually see some new, faster RISC OS-based hardware which is able to run these improvements to a better standard!
The resampling feature is "experimental" at present, and doesn't appear in any menus or option windows. To enable it, you must type resamp at the keyboard while playing. There are actually three settings which you rotate between each time you type the word: off, linear and bilinear. Linear resampling only works in the vertical direction, and for some reason only appears to be applied to some objects in the game, so it isn't worth bothering with at present. Bilinear is "the business"; it smooths things very nicely, and is applied to most things in the game. Sadly it isn't currently applied to the floors, which seems a pity, although applying it to floors would slow everything down even further, and walls and objects are more important. Give it a try and see if you like it. It's well worth using, but it'll have to be a trade-off between smoothed display and screen resolution on current hardware.
|Here's a sample of a map from Heretic: it looks very nice and smooth because the lines have been anti-aliased. In the full display, the map fades out at the edges, too. Again, click on the image to see the full screenshot.|
Brilliant value. In terms of the quantity of game you get for your money, this pack takes a lot of beating. Heretic isn't the best 3D game around by a long way, but it's still good fun and worth having. Hexen, which is a bigger game than Heretic in any case, is far better, and should keep you amused for ages, and then you've got the Deathkings pack to go at once you've finished the basic Hexen. Just make sure that you play Heretic first, or it may get neglected!
As for the Acorn conversions, once again they're top notch, and R-Comp is to be congratulated for setting such high standards in its productions. If you're a 3D game fan, there's no question that you should buy this pack immediately. Quite apart from the question of supporting the only Acorn company that seems to be serious about producing top-quality games at present, this pack is a devil of a good buy.
To sum up
|The good...||...the bad|