Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders (MS-DOS)

Heretic Shadow of the Serpent Riders title screen
Today I'm going to be playing through the first episode of mid-90s first person shooter Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders by Raven Software. It used to be known as just 'Heretic' back in its mail order days, but when it finally hit shelves 15 months later in 1996 they'd appended a subtitle to it, along with two extra episodes.

I have played this before, way back in the distant past, but it wasn't for very long. All I remember about the game is that I was armed with a yellow wand and it wasn't a particularly awe-inspiring weapon.

For people like us who are living in the future with our future PCs it's a sensible idea to play Heretic using a source port like ZDoom or Doomsday (I'm not sure which is recommended these days), but I'll be playing it raw and unfiltered in all its low resolution DOS glory. Because that is the manner in which I tend to roll.

Doom (MS-DOS)
First though I need a warm-up. Heretic runs on id Software's Doom engine (now called id Tech 1), so I figured I'd run through episode one of Doom itself first to make sure that the game's fresh in my mind and I can compare the two shooters properly.

Raven Software have been associated with id almost from the start, but Heretic wasn't actually the beginning of their collaboration. Raven's first FPS, Shadowcaster, was built the year earlier using an engine designed by John Carmack based on the Wolfenstein engine. So I guess that makes those engines id Tech 0 and id Tech -1 then.

Whoa, you can tell right away that the games are brothers, and they ain't even trying to hide it. Though Raven have shuffled the HUD boxes around and replaced Doomguy's ever-vigilant twitchy face with some kind of chain/mouth arrangement to illustrate health.

Hey they brought Thor, God of Thunder in to write the difficulty setting text for them. I'll be leaving this on the default medium setting because I am a wimp.

Alright I've started off in a room dominated by columns, with a door on one wall and a view to the pool of water outside on another. It'd be fair to say that begins a whole lot like Doom does... aside from the ambush by a half-dozen crimson gargoyles that is.

Doom's first level eases new players into the game by giving them a safe place to get used to the controls, before they open the exit door and bravely face the two crap zombies waiting in the next room. Heretic on the other hand empties a whole box of a monsters over your head immediately and expects you to deal with it. With your crappy wand.

Holy shit, I can tell that this is meant to be a dock just by looking at it! I can actually recognise what a place is meant to be in a Doom engine game for once, that's absolutely incredible.

The fight against the gargoyles was easy enough in the end, thanks to the floating health vials and ammo crystals everywhere, but the door turned out to be locked so I'll have to go exploring out here first. Not that there's much 'out here' to explore.

Aha, now I simply hit the inverted Heretic pitchfork logo switch and it'll lower the platform with the yellow key on it for me. There's no jump button, so I'm easily confounded by knee high steps like this.

Anyway, now I've got this I can go back to the start and see what's behind door #1.

Huh, a big obvious metal wall full of skulls. The corridor continues around to the right, but there's no way that thing's not going to open up at some point.

Oh, there you go, my first secret room discovered and I got a big dumb monster as a reward for my ingenuity. This guy has no ranged attacks and he's not particularly fast, so he can't even touch me as long as I still have room to back up. I guess he's the equivalent of Doom's Pinky Demon.

It looks like he was guarding a pair of gauntlets, so I'll go over there and swipe them next. Poor guy, he spent his life in this game trapped inside a wall guarding a set of gloves he was forbidden to ever wear. He must have been tempted to try them on, just once, but he remained resolute and steadfast. And now he's dead and I've got got my grubby elven hands all up in his magic gloves. Sad ending.

They're called the 'Gauntlets of the Necromancer' by the way, and they do this:

UNLIMITED POWER, B'WAHAHAHA!

Sorry, I couldn't remember what the Emperor says at the end of Return of the Jedi, so you're stuck with a Revenge of the Sith quote instead. I'm liking these gauntlets though; they cut up enemies at close range like the chainsaw from Doom, and they do it with enough force to shake the camera... just like the chainsaw from Doom. Yeah, for all intents and purposes, this is basically the chainsaw; it even sounds somewhere between 'similar' and 'the same'.

I'm more bothered by all those right angles in that magical hand lightning though. This necromancer must have been using some weird-ass sorcery when he made these.


SOON.


Heretic automap
This isn't the most complex map I've played, but it's definitely a lot more complicated than Doom E1M1, and it appears that I'm a tiny little bit lost right now. Sure I know where I am and I know where I've been, but I'm less clear on where I should be going.

Well, where I should be going after I've grabbed this crossbow I mean:

A magic self-loading ethereal crossbow with fires supernatural energy bolts... and those idiots just left it floating here where any stray hero could come along and take it. No wonder my character lets out a sinister laugh as he picks it up.

Heretic shareware title screen
I'm playing as this anonymous elf by the way, who's looking very generic here on the game's original title screen in his traditional fantasy ranger hood and tunic. He was finally given the name 'Corvus' four years later in Heretic 2 (which just happens to be the latin word for 'raven').

After backtracking a bit I noticed a switch along one of the walls that opened up the route to the exit room, which turned out to be dead end room with a switch at the end, as is tradition. In Doom I suppose these rooms could have meant to be lifts or airlocks or something, but here it's clearly just a cupboard.

Shit, that enemy just released his ghost to kill me! Oh hang on, the unfortunate soul is just on his way to an afterlife of some sort. Fare thee well spectre, may you find yourself in an place free of sociopathic elves and magic crossbows. If this was Shadow Warrior that ghost would've been teleporting all over the place, causing me immense misery, so I'm considering myself lucky here.

Is that a 3D model sitting on a map or a 3D looking model drawn onto a map I wonder. The wall is just 1 pixel shy from overlapping the desk at the top, so there's nothing to give it away!

Whatever, the important thing here is that the game has a map to show my progress through each episode (just like Doom) and it's nice to see it.


E1M2: THE DUNGEONS.


Monster in-fighting confirmed! I'm just going to sit here and watch, see which of the three wins in the end.

Oh, it was the giant one wearing armour and carrying an enchanted flaming axe. Should've seen that coming really. Though a few pew pews from my wand was enough to finish the wounded warrior off before he could throw any axes my way.


LATER.


An empty room with a blue key sitting at the end of it, huh? Suits me, I'll just head over and pick that up and...

It was a trap! Oh no!

Actually I admit I was surprised that time. More because of the enemies sneaking up behind me when I tried to back away than the ones in front though. I'm fine if I've got some room to manoeuvre, but when I'm boxed in like this I start taking damage scary fast.


E1M3: THE GATEHOUSE.


Uh, what? For the first two levels all these guys did was corner me and scratch me up, but now they're throwing fireballs as well? You can't suddenly change an enemy's abilities without also changing their appearance to give the player a clue, that ain't right!

Games tend to work better in my experience when the player knows basically what to expect from an enemy they've encountered before, especially when that game's already spent the last two levels assuring the player they're all the same within a type.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about boss fights here; I'm talking about the foot soldiers, the hordes of identical clones. Obviously when a Robotnik, Bowser or Kefka makes their second appearance they're going to be showing off some new tricks.

Oh cool, I've found a creepy transparent face sphere! If this was Doom I'd expect to get 100 health for collecting this, but here in Heretic it's more likely to be another item for my Duke Nukem 3D-style inventory.

Oh c'mon, another ambush? If you guys keep pulling this shit every single time I find an item like this you're going to lose any shred of surprise you still had.

And that goes for the ones creeping up behind me as well, I know you're there.

Damn, they're starting to get very stingy with the ammo at this point, I'm already down to my gauntlets here.

Whoa, that was fast. A couple of gargoyles darted behind me and my 73 health was gone in two seconds. That's the first time so far that I've had to load a quick save. Still, I know exactly what to do next time: stop missing with my shots.


E1M4: THE GUARD TOWER.


I've found myself a new weapon! It's called the dragon claw, though it looks a lot more like a dragon stump, and it fires rapid fire blue energy bolts like... well let's face it, it's the plasma gun from Doom.

Plus I've also found myself a yellow key, hovering in the middle of a huge open room surrounded by a moat. You know, I might actually be able to get away with picking this thing up without the walls opening and enemies pouring out.

They dropped the bloody ceiling on me! That's just cheap; there was no warning that was going to happen, and that's kind of a problem as I can't instinctively jump back and open fire on the ceiling! All I had time do to was curse at the screen.

(Though Heretic is built on an upgraded Doom engine that allows for looking up and down, so I suppose I could actually fire off my last 3 plasma shots into the ceiling if I really felt the need... wouldn't do anything though.)


LATER.


Man, I just can't figure out where this game wants me to go next. Each level is more of a maze than the last, with a lot of backtracking as switches and keys open up new routes. And of course like in every other FPS with an automap ever, the developers couldn't be arsed to even mark the doors in different colours so that I can tell what doors require what keys.

Wait, is that tiny green square another door? Holy shit, the map actually does have the doors marked in different colours! I am honestly surprised, that's awesome.

There you go Heretic, have a star. You just earned it.


E1M5 - THE CITADEL.


Crap there's a lot of enemies out here on this map. I'll be safe though as long as I dodge all their fireballs and flaming axes and don't stop moving for a second.

Oh here's something I can mention: this crossbow is actually a three way shot weapon. Enemies up close get the full three bolts, but they spread out as they get further away, a lot like a video game shotgun in fact. A lot like Doom's shotgun to be more precise.

That's the trouble with the game really: the weapons I've found are all very close to being reskinned Doom guns, except with less satisfying visuals and sound effects. It seems to me that if you're going to add magical weapons they should be a little bit... magical, a bit imaginative. I mean if you really want to put a Beretta in your fantasy world, then I'm cool with that, but wands that fire bullets are the worst of both worlds.

(Especially when it takes forever to kill anything with it).


LATER.


Oh dear, it seems that I've stumbled upon a pair of cultists while I was in the middle of flicking through my items. Time doesn't freeze while the inventory is up so I have to think quickly.

I could pull out the torch and light up the room... not really going to help much here. A ring of invulnerability is always handy, but I'd like to hold onto them until I need them. A tome of power temporarily boosts my firepower and gives my weapons new effects, so that's a good candidate. The quartz flasks are medikits, so I'll likely need them soon either way. The hour glass... I have no idea about.

Fuck it, I'll go with the egg.

Haha, it turned them into chickens! Haha oh crap they're still attacking me. I'm being pecked to death here.

These two are the last enemies before the level exit, so I'm done here now. Shame I'm going to lose all but one of each of those other items when I appear on the next stage due to the exit switch toll. No item hoarding allowed.


E1M6 - THE CATHEDRAL.



Aw these guys have a powered up, fireball throwing variant as well? Actually as long as they're on fire like that it's fine, as it means I can easily tell the two types apart. Well, three types actually, as there's a semi-visible ghost version as well (just like the Pinky Demons in Doom).

Having them on fire is also a plus because it means I have a chance of seeing them at all in this pitch black darkness. I think this would be a good time to use that torch I've been dragging along with me all this time. 

Uh, I don't get it. This chamber immediately after the pitch black room is a total dead end and I'm not optimistic about my chances of getting back out of that place the way I came in.

The shadow on the right seems like an obvious clue, but it won't open when I press space on it, and no amount of exploding barrels are going to blow a hole in that wall. For one thing the barrels don't even explode in this game.

That door with Loincloth Guy on it is how I got here from the pitch black room, the block in the middle is too high to get onto, and there's an alcove off-screen to my left but it's halfway up the wall. Though the block also appears to have some ammo sitting on it and that's the video game code for 'trust me, you can get up here'.

Man I hated it when Doom pulled this shit as well.

I love that the games are full of secrets activated by doing weird crap and searching the map for fake walls, but I don't think it should ever become necessary. Not unless the game is built that way from the start. For one thing, secrets are more fun to find when you're not expected to find them!

Okay the map shows that the alcove at the bottom does lead somewhere, the shadowy area at the top is definitely something I can get through at some point, and... that it hasn't finished automapping the bottom right corner of the room yet. Either that or...

...this bit of wall is actually a secret door. It seems to curve up and around towards the alcove.

Well now I'm back where I started except on a ledge slightly higher up. That's awesome.

I tried running off the ledge and onto the block (there's no jump key), but I fell just a tiny bit short. It seemed hopeless, but I made the leap eventually by doing the exact same thing over and over again until it worked, and collected my sparkly blue thing from the top as my reward. Then I remembered that I do have a run key and that probably would've helped a lot just then. Stepping on the block also triggered a switch that opened up the shadowy area for me to escape through.

That's basically a Doom 2 secret right there. Using this trick can earn you a rocket launcher on the first level of that game, but in this it's apparently a necessary technique just to finish one of these early maps. That just ain't right.

Anyway I made it out of the room at last, ran down the newly revealed corridor, and then I was stuck again.

Oh I see how it is, there's another hidden wall over here as well, leading to a switch. What does it activate? Who even knows? I've never been a fan of "something in the level has changed" switch bullshit and it's even less fun coming right after hidden door bullshit.

Well at least I found an egg.


E1M8 - HELL'S MAW.


I'm definitely getting an 'end of episode 1' vibe from this level. Not many giant bosses stomping around just yet, but I am apparently in the middle of a volcano being harassed by a million gargoyles, while armoured enemies throw axes from the ledge on the other side.

The big puzzle here isn't 'how am I going to kill them all?' it's 'how am I going to get up there afterwards?' Though killing them all does seem like it could be a problem, considering how accurate my guns aren't at a distance.

Oh whatever, I'll just jump into the lava and run for one of the safe platforms down there. They've all got quartz flasks on so if I can dart between them I'll end up with plenty of health kits to heal the smouldering stumps that were my feet. Then I can work on the problem of getting back out again.


ONE HIDDEN STAIRCASE AND A TELEPORTER LATER. 


Oh so these ball things are the game's replacement for exploding barrels then? I don't like them.

Mostly I don't like the way that they grow back almost instantly and block my path. No one wants to be stuck squashed up between a room full of exploding balls, especially while they're being shot at by enemies.

This seems to be a connecting hallway leading to the other half of the volcano crater, so once I rush through here I expect I'll end up in a situation like I was in at the start. I guess I might as well use up my ring of invulnerability and jump right onto the lava on the other side.

There's evil grinning head monsters down here! Are these the episode's last boss?

I couldn't get a good screenshot of it, but they're attacking me with little whirlwinds that knock me flying. I'm attacking them with magic crossbow darts though (plus I'm invulnerable), so I wouldn't bet against me right now.

Wow, they went down surprisingly fast in the end. I was worried that this would drag on forever. Alright then, I should probably stroll on back to solid ground before my lava immunity finishes flickering off.

Crap.

I didn't quite expect that there'd be another room even after the cheerful skulls, filled with enemies and lava. Thank fuck for quick saves really. I just wish it'd occurred to me to save after going through the hallway of balls and taking down the skulls.


EVENTUALLY.


Haha, are you kidding me? I ended the episode by stepping through a Hell('s Maw) portal into a demon dimension to stop their invasion? Well I suppose we didn't go to any moons first, so it's not entirely borrowing Doom's plot.

Anyway that is the end of episode one, so I am done here.


CONCLUSION

I knew that Heretic was built with the Doom engine but somehow I still wasn't prepared for just how much of a Doom clone the game really is. I wouldn't say it's Doom with wands though, because you don't get a wand, you get a pistol that looks like a wand.

This is a game about fighting off an inter-dimensional demon invasion alone through abstract mazes, armed with a pistol, a shotgun, a chainsaw and a plasma gun etc. with the only story coming in the form of a few paragraphs after each chapter. Somehow I assumed this was going to be more of a Shadow Warrior or Blood to Doom's Duke Nukem 3D, with its own distinct feel and challenges, when really it's more like a (five episode) fantasy world expansion pack with new enemies and items.

Honestly though, I think I liked this more than either Shadow Warrior or Blood, as the game gave me far more of a fair chance to react to enemies and dodge their attacks. Falling ceiling aside, I felt like when I took damage it was always my own fault. Like Doom it's about staying mobile and as long as you give yourself room to move around you can get away with a lot. The gameplay is solid, it definitely looks the part and the music... well okay I muted it halfway through to listen to a Retronauts podcast instead, but it was alright.

I wouldn't put Heretic on the same level as Doom though, but that's mainly because I'm incredibly biased. Right now Doom is sitting upon a pedestal of pure nostalgia for me and more of the same just feels like less somehow. Not that I don't want to turn it back on again and jump straight into episode two.

Doom Doom Doom Doom. Doom Doom Doom... Doom.

Doom Doom, Doom. (Doom).

Congratulations, you now possibly know something new about Heretic, even if it's just that I liked it. But I'll have no clue what you people think of the game (or my article) unless you leave me a comment. Hint hint.

15 comments:

  1. Heretic was big news for me and my D&D-playing friends but I think we only ever played it once. My friend Tim and his brothers had their PCs set up to play deathmatches and I remember we played a bit of Heretic but all we managed to do was run around hitting each other with sticks and someone got turned into a chicken. Now that I think about it, it may have been Hexen.

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    1. In Hexen the morph item turned things in to pigs instead of chickens.

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  2. Have you played Strife yet? It's by Rogue who also made the Quake mission packs, they shared an office in Texas with iD Software. Strife was also created with the Doom engine, which was looking pretty dated by the time it came out, however it's an action RPG with NPCs you can talk to and several different endings. Many people dislike Strife, they mock the voice acting and call the story weak, but I love it. I think the story and art are great, the gameplay really kicks in and gets difficult the further you play, and Tim Willits' level design is brilliant. You'll probably think it sucks from just a quick play, it really takes some time to get into.

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    1. I haven't played it myself yet, but guest contributor mecha-neko gave it a quick play like 3 years ago and he thought it sucked... which I guess you must already know as I've just noticed you left a comment on his article last year.

      To be honest reading mecha-neko's opinion on it had pushed the game near the back of my 'to play' list, but all of the praise it's accumulated since then has given me cause to recalibrate my curiosity. I did like the Quake mission packs I suppose.

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  3. To Jamie: Strife was already played here by guest contributor mecha-neko like 3 years ago.

    To Kelvin Green: Also note that first weapon in Heretic is staff (as replacement to Doom fist).

    Little trivia: Did you know Shadow Of Serpent Riders version of Heretic contains "hidden" 6th episode? It can be accessed only by level select in Setup in original DOS version. It consists of 3 levels that were mainly designed for multiplayer, but they can be also played in singleplayer as they feature monsters. (And 2nd level of this episode is one of my most favourite Heretic levels.)

    Regarding source ports for Heretic: Zdoom and GZdoom support complex mods and are very adjustable; Doomsday is best looking; Zandronum has best multiplayer capabilities with still very alive community and Chocolate Heretic simulates look and behaviour of its original DOS counterpart. (I prefer it over playing in DosBox as it is faster and less harfware demanding way.) BTW all these ports support most of other Doom engine based games.

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    1. I didn't know that!

      Also thanks for the source port info. I've gotten pretty much all of them over the years, but I always forget which is which and end up just picking one at random whenever I have an urge to play some high res Doom.

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  4. Your site is very, very good. Just the right blend of dry wit, love for the topic and the occasional purile sight gag.

    I'm not sure if I am sad I didn't find it sooner, or delighted because I have three years worth of archive to read through at my leisure.

    Keep it up! Definately worth a donation on pay day.

    And that robot cat chap who guest blogs here sometimes. He's alright too.

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    1. Yes, donations are awesome. You're obviously a wise and astute individual with correct opinions, at least when it comes to how to spend money.

      I think you should probably be happy you didn't find the site sooner though, as it took me a while to really get my head around concepts like 'giving games a fair chance', 'describing how they play' and 'providing context to explain my reactions'. Those three years worth of archives preserve my site's dark past, so bring lower expectations with you the deeper you go.

      Oh, also I told mecha-neko you thought that he's alright. He was moderately pleased.

      Delete
  5. You forgot to mention the awesome sound when you're drawing gauntlets.

    "Oh whatever, I'll just jump into the lava" - Ray Hardgrit 2014

    > I was worried that this would drag on forever
    You haven't played on a higher difficulty. They're a scourge.

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  6. I remember loving this game as a kid!! And I liked the evil laughter he made when he picked up a new weapon. Man, I wish I could find that on youtube or something to hear again how it sounded like.

    But how is he an elf? I used to think he was a human mage!

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    1. Yeah, the game doesn't put a great deal of emphasis on Corvus's elfishness. In fact it doesn't even bother to give him a name! He may as well be a pair of hands with a creepy laugh as far as the game's concerned.

      I did go to check my manual to see if it mentions anything about him being an elf in there, but it turns out that Steam never gave me one, so I have no idea.

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    2. I just came to the depressing realisation that this was my one chance in life to use the word 'elfnicity' and I blew it.

      Delete
  7. > I've never been a fan of "something in the level has changed" switch bullshit and it's even less fun coming right after hidden door bullshit.

    Well, then I cant want to see your reaction to next game: >:)

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  8. Corrections: The original full version release of Heretic didn't have the subtitle added, nor the 2 extra episodes. That is an expansion.

    About the Gargoyles throwing fireballs in later levels and other enemies with new attacks, they're developing new attacks as you progress as a way to stop you, as the story goes.

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    1. The internet tells me that Heretic was originally mail order only, then the Shadow of the Serpent Riders expansion came out in shops containing two new episodes in addition to the original content. So unless that's not true I don't think I've made an error here.

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