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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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