Game Pile: Hexen II

You know how these days, when you’re playing a videogame and do stuff the game wants you to do, you get little points that count towards a big total that determines how well you can do a whole variety of things? The way that FPSes often break down into broad classes that let you run through content in a variety of different ways? Know how videogames will usually make you go to Point A to unlock a thing at point B, then head back to point A again with the key you got from B?

Hexen was the game that started most of that; far as I can find, it was the first FPS that had a levelling and experience system, the first to have a class based system and the first to have a big hub-based levels for the earliest form of what we now think of as ‘open world’ gameplay. At the time, I was pretty attuned to the development cycle of videogames and who was following what’s lead, with most games hitting the market in ways that impacted other games of similar style, and when development cycles weren’t so monstrous. Once upon a time, the biggest expense and time-consuming component of a game’s development was actually the engine, while nowadays the engine is almost free (time-wise) and the implementation of all the golden pixels, jewel-encrusted skeletal bsps and the osprey-roe flavoured reflective texturing is where things take their time.

If you played Deus Ex because it was the forebear of Deus Ex:Human Revolution, then you should check out Hexen II, which is the forebear of Deus Ex.

The plot shows the fingerprints of being a Quake Engine game at the time, where the levels are very much levels and the story is dipped out with an eyedropper at the beginning and end of major sections, without much mention of it on the way. What you encounter throughout the game isn’t anything that could be called a narrative or a character, with your protaganist being a violence-gifted mute roaming around chunks of game territory that only vaguely resemble places that are meant to be nice places to live or work. No, Hexen II may have had a better story and style than its predecessor, Quake, yet it’s only in the truly impoverished day of the mid 90s that anyone could meaningfully compare the two games. Hexen II‘s story is therefore a generic fantasy plot, with the Very Bad People of the Serpent Riders endangering many worlds, accessed through portals. In Hexen, the protaganists have names and connections to the many settings you adventure through, but Hexen II doesn’t have any of those airs, no. No, Hexen II is in the ‘porn plot’ camp, where the story exists as a vague motivation to go out there and kill-to-death the important faction leaders of the big bad, then go out and kill the big bad. It’s a wafer-thin plot and it’s told with text-dumps between major hubs.

Still, so what? Is it fun?

Well, yeah, it’s fun, in a mad-dash kind of way. The problem with going back to older games with a critical eye is you’ll see where your nostalgia lets you down, and where things that you thought weren’t very bad are brought into sharp relief. This issue is hammered home with Hexen II, which has not aged well. Here’s a quick list of things that have become commonplace for videogames that you probably wouldn’t even notice:

  • Ergonomic text. That is, text designed to be easy to read. If you’ve ever spoken with a serious web developer for any length of time, this is something that we still aren’t getting right universally.
  • Level flow. You know how in Modern Warfare games, it can feel at times like an extensive conveyor belt, pulling you onwards? There’s a science to making sure that player’s attention is pulled on to the next point in the game experience.
  • Skeletal Animation. Seems unimportant until you realise that it lets enemies do things like handle falls and drops, and means they’re not left hanging in mid air or standing on top of one another’s hitboxes.
  • Mouselooking and the WASD keyboard arrangement. You can tell Hexen II to do this, but you have to tell it – and it tries to start its keyboard mapping with both this, and the older keyboard-looking designs mapped at the same time, which is awkward for both parties.
  • Transluscent textures. Not so much a problem on its own, after all, you’d think, but the fact that Hexen II could do these meant that they became setpieces unto themselves, and in the process showed a lot of the weirdness of the Quake engine.
  • ‘Rotating brushes,’ or the way a 3d object can be shown to turn as well as slide. The same problem with the transluscent textures. In the first level there’s a windmill, where the centerpiece is that you can open it up and look inside to see two enormous gears turning against one another, with a really deliberate slowness – because that was the only way to make this primitive display of technology work. Worse? Because this was so challenging to do, this is treated as a major setpiece, complete with an awkward puzzle for interaction.
  • Fucking Autosaving. I cannot believe how much this feature etches itself into your mind after years of playing with it. I played three hours of Hexen II and fucked up at the end, only to find that despite finishing a level and two major plot puzzles in the second level, I was blown all the way back to the start, because save early, save often.

Take away all these things that made games different, and even the most snide of purists has to admit that this steady evolution, started with Half-Life and furthered with Half-Life 2 (huh), has been a good thing for the genre. Ripping off your betters may seem to be a weak thing, but it’s idiotic to think you can have every good idea yourself, a thought that plagued Daikatana. If an idea presents a good addition to the game experience in general, by all means use it – and if you’re not going to use it, know why you’re doing that.

Nonetheless, it’s unfair to mock Hexen II for not doing new things that weren’t done until after it was released, and it’s especially rude to do it when comparing it to its big brother. Gordon Freeman casts a long shadow, but Hexen II came out a full year before Half-Life, and it did several things while Mr Freeman was still getting into his pants. A number of those changes can be seen as part of Raven Software’s different mindset to id’s. Where id was driven by John Carmack, a man of utter pragmastism and ambivalent to plot. Raven always got the id software engines after id had released the groundbreaking game with them, which meant that Raven had to bring innovation in ideas, working within confines already created. It was true in Heretic and Cyclones, it was true in Hexen, and it’s still true here.

Just as an example, John Carmack hated using sprites for anything. In his ideal game engine, everything would be a 3d object, even the smallest particles, a challenge that had to fail in Quake’s case. You could see some hallmarks of it, though – like the way the flames are actually flat-bottomed diamonds with an animated texture, or the way the sky textures are only ever shown from one angle so you don’t see them clipping at the edges. On the other hand, Raven’s games tended to push things a little harder and do things Carmack wouldn’t do out of purism. Hexen II‘s hub system is a fine example of this – Carmack refused to make levels over a certain size, because the loading of textures and engine presented a technical limitation. Hexen II instead has a hub system, where levels can lead into one another. Carmack also wanted to make key items standard, because the experience of racing around, shooting things in the face was the important mechanic he wanted to play with – not the impression of a castle, or the like. Part of the problem of Doom II and Quake’s level design was displayed there – levels weren’t anything in particular, they were just big places full of monsters. The game experience was tight, with things like sniper positions and cover well used, but you’d have to be fooling yourself to think that these levels with their gigantic footpad weights and out-of-scale archways represented any place people would actually hang around. Hexen II tried to do the opposite; it wanted to make places more familiar, wanted to give monsters a feeling of belonging in their environments, and wanted to immerse you in its story. Of course, its story was paper thin, and that desire for immersion makes the flaws the games have a little more jarring.

Before I lay into the game with a stick, though, some things need saying. First, you move fast – really fast, you skid around so quick that with quick mouse turning and precision aiming you can happily outmaneuver things on the more vulnerable ranged attackers and really keep up a good pace in combat. Kill the dude, grab the gear and we’re onto the next place. The limited ammunition types has an impact here too – there are three ways to improve your mana availability, and two instant-health pickups in the game, which means that the combat battlefield isn’t overly cluttered with things beyond bad guys. Bad guys are bright and stand out, and more than in any game I’ve played recently, they feel like they belong where you find them. They’re varied, too – you get bull-helmed archers using magical bows, flying imps, huge silver golems and a host of nasty spiders, goat-skulled wizards and long-tendril’d underwater kraken-type things, and that’s all just in the first level. As you change zones, enemies change too, and so to do your means to murder them.

The problems Hexen II stem from its primitive nature, and attempts to overcome that. The scale of the game is way the fuck off – you walk through doorways some four times your height, and stand next to beds which come up to your chest. Your speed doesn’t help this, either – you rip along the landscape fast enough that the way everything is playmobil-big gives you the strange feeling of a tiny, fast little imp shrieking through a giant’s world. Worse, enemies don’t fit the scale either – they’re bigger than you think (the imps seriously are almost as tall as you are), and that also makes the melee-heavy Paladin a bit weaker considering his circle-strafing has to punch up against the sides of others’ hitboxes. There’s also a lot of backtracking – and I do mean a lot. Some of the puzzles are unintuitive to finish, which can lead to frustrated double-checking of locations away from your solution, which makes it harder still to keep the flow going. Worse, when you do trip some of those key story points, you’re probably in a place you’ve emptied two laps ago – so the game teleports in new guys to fight, which happens in some breathtakingly inorganic ways.

Beyond that, it’s some great oldschool fun, if you don’t mind the way you can get lost on the way to objectives, and the need to find secrets to continue the plot. The shooting is fast and frantic, ammo isn’t so thick on the ground that you can afford to get silly. The lack of weapon variance is a little disappointing, and the levelling-up benefits are practically meaningless, but you will definitely fill a few hours cruising around like a rocket-powered Tyrion Lannister with a crossbow.

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