The computer gaming world has come on somewhat since Raven Software first unveiled their fighting fantasy first-person classic Heretic way back in 1995. iD's Doom engine was all the rage at the time, and Heretic utilised it successfully, mixing fast-paced combat with simple puzzles and a sense of humour. In 1998, however, things are done a little bit differently, and expectations are rather higher; enter the Quake II engine...
iD's versatile and powerful Cworld builder' - arguably the best 3D system in the whole world - is being introduced in order to dust the cobwebs off this series and bring it back to life late '90s-style. Early indications show this to be a good thing. This time around, Raven will have the benefit of coloured lighting, complex geometry, transparency effects, rotating brushes and all that malarkey. They are also working some of their own effects into the code too, such as volumetric fogging, lens flare and heat hazing, all of which should really give Unreal a run for its money in the looks department.
The fundamental difference between Heretic II and its prequel, though, is the change of viewpoint from first-person to third. Corvus, the game's central character, is now presented before you in lavish polygonal detail. He poses, breathes, swats flies on the back of his neck, throws spells and fires arrows in a convincing and confident manner. The camera free-floats behind him to give a wider view.
As before, gameplay is mostly action-oriented. Weapons are divided into two different categories: offensive weapons and magic, and defensive magic. Starting on the offensive side: the Sword Staff is the base, ammo-less weapon in Corvus' ever-growing arsenal; and being a very supple kind of pointy-eared being he can also use it to pole vault greater distances as well. The Flying Fist is a basic fireball spell with which Corvus also starts the game. Weapons such as the Hell Staff, Magic Missile, Red Rain Bow and Sphere of Annihilation come into his possession as the story unfolds (and as the enemies get tougher).
On the defensive side: the Ring of Repulsion, Meteor Barrier, Morph Ovum (which turns enemies into defenceless farmyard animals) and a handy teleport are all available. Even at this early stage of development the graphical effects created by some of these spells are astounding, the action looking something like a New Year firework display on occasion. But then that's the world of might and magic for you.
The Quake-style control system has been enhanced so that Corvus can leap, twirl, roll and sprint his way around the landscape in a convincing fashion, and artificial intelligence routines also help him discern whether or not a route is passable.
At the moment, Raven are fine-tuning his movement so that when you play, it will feel completely intuitive. When it comes down to it, Heretic II will be action all the way; indoor and outdoor levels chock-full of hideous monsters, each with the ability to track you down over a large distance and kick your head in without mercy. There'll also be rock-hard end-of-level bad guys to fight off too. Wispy-tached, stat-obsessed, RPG freaks take note.
The Ravensoft family of Doom-inspired shooters has now evolved so far that their latest offering takes the bold step of portraying the action from a third-person perspective. Anyone brave enough to question this dramatic change of viewpoint will initially have their fears vanquished by our hero Corvus' new-found versatility.
Corvus sprints, somersaults and bounds around like a demented acrobat on drugs, unfettered by the constraints imposed by his previous outings, and with more than a passing resemblance to Lara Croft's efforts in Tomb Raider.
Superficially, at least, Tomb Raider comparisons are inevitable - and to a large degree they're justifiable because Heretic II has a remarkably similar look and feel, albeit via a superbly enhanced Quake 2 engine. Young Miss Croft should watch her back, because Corvus is faster, stronger, more agile and a damn sight more intelligent than his well-endowed female counterpart. And now we can actually see him on screen, it's far easier to empathise with him as he bleeds and visibly deteriorates from the ravages of his adventure.
This is an out-and-out 'hack and slash' action-fest - the puzzles are purely of the 'fetch this and combine it with that' variety, and serve only to provide brief respite from frantic bouts of maiming and slaughter.
Plagued To Death
The action begins with Corvus discovering a virulent plague spreading across his homeworld, causing mutilation and mayhem. As the plot progresses via some sparkling cut-scenes, it becomes apparent that Corvus himself is infected. This adds a palpable sense of urgency to his quest as he makes his way across some beautifully detailed and varied landscapes - including towns, swamps, and caverns - which are as intricate and involved as anything Quake-heads or Lara fans will have seen.
Thankfully, a lot of hub-based action has been omitted and this prevents having to spend too much time tracking back and forth across previously completed areas. Here the levels are quite linear; there's rarely more than one route to the exit, and you can usually find it without too much trouble.
But disposing of the plague-ridden creatures proves more problematic. They may be ill, but they're certainly not stupid. The enemy AI was never really apparent in Heretic; the monsters were quite happy to act as retarded cannon fodder, trouncing off walls (and each other) with alarming regularity.
On this outing, Corvus has his work cut out. He's stalked through the levels by some foes and surrounded by others, who attack in packs. The improved AI means you're as likely to be ambushed by fearless denizens as you are to see plague-infested locals running for their life in blind fear of you.
Shooting From The Hip
Corvus has an impressive array of weapons at his disposal, which you collect Quake-style (extra power-ups increase their range and effectiveness). Heretic fans will welcome the return of the Hellstaff (which fires electrified bolts of magical energy), and the Red Rain (which conjures up hellish clouds and then bursts forth a torrent of acid rain). New weapons are as visually stunning as they are devastating. Many are magic-induced, but most have Quake-like connotations: the Hellstaff itself is no more than a glorified machine gun and the exploding arrows are effectively Quakers rocket launchers.
There's a good supply of defensive weapons, too. These are primarily designed to repel the enemy by smart bombing or shock-waving them out of your vicinity, giving Corvus a chance to seek out mystical shrines, from which both health and munitions can be restored.
A Change Of Perspective
The game's strengths are many and varied: the mysterious plot is darkly engaging and the level of violence (which is adjustable) is extreme, but never too gratuitous - although Corvus does a neat line in instant amputations (minus anaesthetic, of course) and the blood flows freely.
The software Tenderer copes admirably, but obviously fails to pull off the speed and fluidity of the accelerated versions. The music is moody, atmospheric, and well complemented by excellent use of spot effects and character speech.
Single-player mode is both challenging and addictive (we averaged about three hours of gameplay, exhaustively exploring each level), but it could well be that Heretic II will garner most favour from deathmatch aficionados.
Clever programming allows for almost faultless multiplayer frolics, with the game predicting Corvus' probable actions and movements, and 'drawing ahead' of the actual visual play-field, thus avoiding 'drop-outs' and lagging graphics.
The change of perspective also adds a novel twist to the proceedings - it's a break from the norm and certainly requires a degree or two more lateral thinking, as precision is often required to avoid an early demise.
Out Of Control
Ultimately, the perspective's facelift proves to be something of a cleft stick. The almost inevitable 'camera tracking' problem largely fails to materialise - and that's a testament, no doubt, to hours of fraught playtesting.
Yet Corvus does have some potentially critical control problems: on many occasions, there's a small, but unforgivable, delay between key-presses and Corvus' on-screen responses. This would be annoying and sloppy at the best of times, but surely it's a cardinal sin in an action game?
Another gripe concerns Corvus' enemies, which are rather samey. It's obvious that a fairly small group of creatures were designed, which then had extra features bolted on in an attempt to increase the apparent range of foes. They may move and act differently, but they're basically the same under the surface.
Heretic II is a welcome departure from the glut of first-person shooters currently flooding the market and introduces us to a character who might just go on to be a star in his own right. But, ultimately, it stands out as both a missed opportunity and something of a flawed masterpiece.
Download Heretic II
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
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2018-12-28 Heretic II game added.