Heretic2 demo: (http://www.activision.com, http://www.ravensoft.com/) / AntiGMan
eretic II, even with just the demo out, marks a new age in raven. It's a mix of genres - Quake II's engine and interface, Tomb Raider's perspective, Blood's mood, the infamous Hexen/Heretic " legacy and many, many others.
That doesn't necessarily make it a good game, though.
Flight of the raven
Raven has already designed three games based on Id engines, and a mission pack for each, and all were greatly popular, even if shunned by the more boom-boom-shake-the-room kind of players, which, I'll have to admit, are most players. There was always uniqueness to the games in the serpent riders saga - from many aspects: complex gaming and puzzle-solving, (the first) belt-like inventory system, cool weapons and spells, beautiful graphics that made for some immense medieval sceneries, and in Hexen II, the ability to smash... I mean, detailed interaction with the environment.
Also, Hexen II was supposed to mark the serpent rider's world entry into the Internet gaming arena. Unfortunately, it didn't. By the time Raven had a chance to balance the game and the latency with Hexenworld, and release their own Hexen II mod - Siege (which as many, including myself, believe, could've been better than teamfortress) it was too late for it to catch, too heavy on megs, and never really complete. The design team stopped developing Hexenworld at 0.15, stating something like "once Id's zoid will give us the complete Quakeworld code, we'll release a finalized version of Hexenworld and Siege" but it never happened, and probably never will.
So, seeing the heretic II demo was quite surprising for me. I went over that list again and it sounded something like this - "inventory and weapons - check; beautiful graphics - check; interaction - check; complex gaming; missing in action?"
Could it be? Could Heretic II really be a boom-boom-shake-the-room game?
Regretfully, the answer is yes.
That doesn't necessarily make it a bad game, though.
In his .plan file, ION storm's John Romero once claimed Raven are really losing their credibility if a game titled Heretic II will be released - traditionally, Hexen was always believed to be Heretic II, and Hexen II Heretic III.
However, it makes perfect sense - while Hexen games involved multi-classes and therefore and a plot much less focused on the hero than Heretic, Heretic II brings us back to our favourite Elf hero, Corvus from Heretic. No, not one of those wimpy, small, forest elves - this particular elf has muscles that wouldn't shame Schwartzenneger (he still has those pointy ears, though).
Anyway, as you start the demo, Corvus finds himself in his hometown, silverspring, surprised that most of his friends were zombified, and those who weren't are either dead or live in hiding. The first demo level let's you explore the town, fight a few zombies and rats, and get accustomed to the game. When you finish it, and find out what must be done, the demo skips ahead to a much later level, and puts you in an entirely different environment - a desert canyon, with wild beasts and several deadly... Undead.
The gameplay is quite simple. Corvus uses weapons and spells to make his way through. While most weapons have their own ammo, spells share two mana pools (defensive spells mana, and offensive spells mana). The movement system is quite Tomb-raiderish, as Corvus can climb up, climb down, jump, push, perform acrobatic manuevers (see below), use ropes, and hang onto ledges. Speaking of Tomb raider,The third person perspective does enrich the game feeling and environment - all from seeing Corvus in front of a starry sky background, down to the lens flare effect on the camera. When I first saw the demo, I was afraid that the Tomb raider auto aiming has also made a transition - but my fear was needless, as you can tweak the aiming and the crosshair at your leisure. Weapons and weapon/spell system is probably best to date in the series so far - the demo let's you use quite a few, and the raven design team promises us much more wait in the full version.
Elf, single, looking for some interesting gameplay
Corvus starts the game with a basic weapon: the pole. The pole is perhaps one of the most original weapons I've seen lately, and aside from it's obvious hack and slash use, allows you to perform some acrobatic maneuvers. Corvus also starts with a basic spell - fireball - a simple and relatively weak one, but deadly accurate and drains very little on your mana. Next, you'll find our long-forgotten hellstaff, which now functions, more or less, as a machine gun. Sprouting hell orbs in amazing speeds, this baby is defiently my favorite... As long as I have enough ammo. You also get force blast, which, unless you are surrounded or facing a big opponent (the first is tough to find, and the second is non existent in the demo), is nothing more than a very stupid way to waste your mana. Last but not least is the phoenix bow, which is comparable to a medievel rocket launcher, only it also enflames your opponnents, and misfire can get you running to the nearest swimming pool as well (that is, if you don't die first).
The other way to vanquish your enemies is the power-ups. Gone are the ages where you have to use health from your inventory. However, most of the familiar items are still here - including everyone's favorite, the tome of power, or the series' best gimmick to date, the morph avum.
However, all of these didn't help my feeling that something was missing. With games like SiN and Half Life, which brought back a sense of completeness to the single player experience that wasn't in, say, Quake, or Quake II, I just don't find Heretic II's single player compelling enough. You go through a weapon/monster/powerup, you use/kill it, you say "Like, wow, this is cool" and then that's it. There's nothing to keep you on playing, with the exception of, perhaps, a cutscene here and there (actually, there's only one in the demo) while games like SiN, Half Life, or even Duke Nukem and Jedi Knight reward you instantly. The other raven games had the small puzzles, or "bring this, bring that" mini-quests that kept you going, but Heretic II doesn't seem to have that either.
So I decided to explore the other aspect of Heretic II - Multiplayer.
How many elves do you need to put on a lightbulb?
The multiplayer experience was nothing short of stunning. While keeping very stable, even in crowded rooms, it supplies all the features single player can offer and a lot more. Except for the obvious advantage, the Heretic II environment is so suited for deathmatch, so full of weapons, power-ups, shrines (similar in effect to Diablo's, only usable countless times and each gives a different effect). This may sound stupid to some of you - it is commonly believed that throwing so much into a single level would bring chaotic and unbalanced gameplay. However, none of those treats are as powerful, say, as Quake's Quad damage, and all use more as strategic choices then as "use the strongest weapon". For example, the storm bow's one of my favorites, but using it while being chased is of no use, since the storm is easily evaded. Switching to a weaker weapon might be a good idea, and later on you can use the bow in a more crowded chaotic area.
I almost didn't notice the weapon switch delay - oh, don't get me wrong, it IS there, but it seems so natural when you see it from third person perspective, that you really don't care.
Also, that chaos turned out to be quite an interesting thing with 20 players (the max capacity of the raven server). Battles were all around, and no one survived for long, as storms were brewing all around, and chickens (yes, CHICKENS!) were flying innocently, waiting for their redemption. Though my ping was already sending me signed death threats, and I couldn't even hope to pole-jump-kick anyone, what I saw was one of the best fragfests I've ever participated. This huge variety of things-to-use never makes a multiplayer game boring, allows endless game strategies, and I believe raven when they say that there's more in the full version.
Get to the pointy ears!
Heretic II makes the same sacrifice Quake and Quake II did - the sacrifice of single player in favor of multiplayer. While any multiplayer fan with high bandwidth simply MUST download the demo (high bandwidth - both because the demo's heavy, and because of the impossible ping rates on foreign servers), Those looking for a good single player experience should look elsewhere. About the full version, my disk space limitations make me skeptical about buying this, especially when I still think I'd be better off investing in Half Life.
Heretic2 demo (32029KB) : ftp://ftp.cdrom.com/pub/planetquake/hexenworld/hereticii/H2_Demo_US.exe