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    PlanetQuake | Features | Articles | Classic PQ | Holy Sheep!
    Holy Sheep!
Raven prepares to take first-person gaming by storm

By Fargo

As other game developers rattle their sabers and prepare to release their killer 3D shooters for the Christmas season, Raven Software has already struck the first blow. The long-awaited three-level Hexen II Demo is available for download and it's causing tongues to wag all over the net.

An Article By - Dave "Fargo" Kosak

Based on the Quake engine but coming out one year later, several graphics and gameplay elements set Hexen II above its predecessor. Graphically, the textures are far more colorful, and users will delight in the transparent water effects that work even without a 3D accelerator card. The creatures contain far more animation frames, therefore moving more realistically. And some of the special effects--especially when an OpenGL compatible 3D accelerator card is installed--are tremendous. Rotating brushes (found in Quake mission pack number one but not in the original Quake) also add to the graphical environment.

But this isn't just a prettier Quake. Gameplay enhancements also help to give Hexen II an edge that Raven hopes will carry this program to the top of the sales charts when it's released (no final date has been set, to my knowledge). The Hexen II engine allows users to push objects around (including bodies!) and destroy things (sociopaths will be happy to note that you can break almost anything). Four different character classes, items, and experience levels all give Hexen II a roleplaying feel that's even more noticeable than in the original Hexen (which had character classes and items but no level advancement.) Also, Hexen II retains Hexen's "Hub" system, wherein the player could (and has to) travel back and forth between levels in order to solve the puzzles. With a much more interactive environment giving way to some great puzzle opportunities, Hexen II looks to move the genre one step forward.

First Impressions

Despite the proliferation of sites carrying the demo (see HexenWorld for complete list), not everyone has had a chance to download the nearly 12MB demo. Since I got it yesterday afternoon I've been putting the demo through its paces, with or without a 3D accelerator, in cooperative, deathmatch, and single player modes. I've recorded my first impressions below, but a word of caution is necessary -- Being that this is only a demo, it presents only a hint of the final gameplay. Raven is working hard as we speak to polish the game and get it ready for a final release, and many elements in the final game are subject to change (Already programmer Rick Johnson, updated his plan to announce that the network code has been significantly improved.)

Single Player Hexen II has the potential to really shine. In the demo I didn't see any outstanding computer artificial intelligence, but I was impressed by the variety of actions programmed into the beasties. There's something creepy about opening a door and seeing a spider hanging on the wall above your head, then pouncing on top of you. Similarly, the hydra creature (it looked like an octopus) shot spikes of black ink at the player--when hit, your vision would start to black out. It's easy to imagine a swarm of them making a formidable challenge for even the best of players.

But the puzzle possibilities for the single player game are fantastic, and that's one place where I think Hexen II will shine. The atmosphere is both realistic (with furniture and identifiable rooms) and interactive, which gives the puzzles a more real-world feel than the standard "find a key" fare (although there looks to be plenty of that, too.) One area requires pushing a barrel up to a ledge in order to reach it. I was particularly impressed with the functional catapult; You could use it to fling yourself over a wall. You could load it up with a barrel and hurl it skyward. You could even launch a bleating sheep! When I saw that little guy hurtle head over wolly heel into the air, I knew that Raven was onto something. (Check out this hysterical flying sheep demonstration courtesy of TitusC.)

Cooperative Hexen II, as one might expect, carries through with the puzzle solving but adds a teamwork element, which is enhanced greatly by the multiple classes. The demo provides only two of the four classes to play with (an assassin and a Paladin), which a friend and I put through the test. The dynamics of cooperative play are really heightened by the class system--the Paladin would charge thick into the fray while the assassin stood back and picked off the targets with a hand crossbow from the safe shelter of a nearby tree. I've a feeling that the conversion creators are going to have a blast playing around with Hexen's classes to create new team games. Be careful with your teamplay settings, though -- I didn't bother to set ours correctly and my self-guiding crossbow bolts would often thunk into my noble Paladin friend as often as they sought the nasties.

Deathmatch Hexen II left a little to be desired, however (although I understand that the quality of net play is being reworked already, so I again point out that this impression is not necessarily representative of the finished product.) One thing that set Hexen apart from Doom II and continues to be a factor in differentiating Hexen II from Quake is hand to hand combat. A lot of people don't like this element in a first-person game, and granted, it's a tough interface to manage--it's hard to make combat feel like combat when it's seen through the eyes of the player's character instead of from an outside camera perspective (ala Mortal Kombat). Hexen handled this well, I thought. In Hexen, despite the fighter having only his fists, he had quite a reach, and it was never hard to zero in on a target--rushing up for the blow, ducking back, stepping forward in time for another, etc. etc. Unfortunately, the range of hand-to-hand fighting has been shortened in the current incarnation of Hexen II (especially for the assassin and her dagger). The result is that it's harder to hit one's target -- often you've got to be practically standing on top of your victim. And since, in deathmatch, everyone moves at nearly the speed of light, it's nearly impossible to get a good shot in. Especially since there's a tendency to "slide" off of an opponent that you're running toward, so that you're no longer facing him or her anymore.

Difficulties also manifest themselves with the projectile weapons. The projectiles don't move at the speed of shotguns, which gives quick players opportunities to dodge. But more importantly, it's hard to lead your fire. The self-aiming devices often fire at a player's location as opposed to where you're actually pointing, so that you can't aim in front of a person in the hopes of them running into your shot. Perhaps I was just mistaking the effects of netlag on my game, but this was terribly frustrating. In deathmatch, everyone moved incredibly fast and swung fists around in all directions or shot arrows and threw axes apparently at random; it was simply too difficult to aim. Unless you got the jump on somebody and snuck up from behind, it was hard to earn a kill. Hopefully these problems will be addressed soon, as the potential for warfare between the different Hexen II classes could be very exciting.

GLHexen II, for those with 3D accelerators that support OpenGL, was also part of the demo. I have to say that the results were breathtaking. Unaccelerated Hexen II features transparent water and many of the special effects that people with 3D cards will see, but it simply pales in comparison; like Tomb Raider before it, Hexen II might possibly drive the sales of 3D cards. The level of detail is stunning, and many of the weapons take advantage of OpenGL features to enhance their appearance (the Paladin's flying axes leave white streaks behind them that look fantastic as they hurtle through the air and ricochet off walls.) Hopefully readers will be able to invest in a 3D card in time for this holiday season, if for nothing more than the gorgeous texturing of Hexen II.

Parting Shots...

If you've played the demo by now you're probably as intrigued as I am to see the final product. Some final notes:

  • Pillage! I was amazed at how much one could destroy. It seems clear that Raven designed this game so that any brush could be labeled "destructible," as one can run around trashing the place. Sure, I expected to be able to shatter the windows and break tables and chairs to splinters. But I also discovered that you can rip an entire bridge to shreds by chopping the supports out underwater and then hacking up the planks themselves. A big walkway overlooking a mill was reduced to splinters after I went on a rampage. Beds, shelves, walls, statues, you name it; nothing is safe. Level designers are going to have a blast.
  • Who's biting me now? I think if a game is going to implement hand to hand combat it's going to have to work to get the feel right. One of my complaints about Hexen II so far is that the feel isn't quite there yet. For instance, the only way you can tell if a spider bites you is by seeing your life-meter go down and listening for the sound. If the spider is within your view you might also be able to recognize his 'attacking' animation. But more than once I was standing there and didn't realize something was ripping my ankles to shreds -- we need the screen to flash red, or my view to shudder, or something to clearly indicate that my character is in pain. Otherwise I feel too distanced from the environment.
  • Nice place you've got there... Hexen II's apparent attention to real-world architecture should pay off. Duke Nukem 3D benefited by placing the player in recognizable environments, where he or she could run around a bar and even knock around the balls on a pool table. That sort of real world "hook" really helps people get into a game. Hexen II is all over that; I can walk around the castle and find an armory, troop quarters, the cistern, the drawbridge mechanism, a courtyard with a well and merchant stalls ... it's all there. If that kind of detail carries through on all the levels, Hexen II should really stand out.

If you're having trouble downloading the demo and want to see these features for yourself, be patient. Try waiting until off-peak hours (late, late at night) or checking different FTP sites. In a couple of days traffic should hopefully die down and you'll be able to get a better connection. The sneak peek is worth the download. Happy Hexing!

-Fargo

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