Sunday, 21 February 2016

Hexen II (PC)

hexen 2 title screen logo
Developer:Raven|Release Date:1997|Systems:Windows, Mac

This week on Super Adventures I've finally gotten around to replaying some of Hexen's slightly more three dimensional successor, Hexen II! It's been ages since I've played this one so I should be coming into it reasonably clueless. Plus it's a Hexen game so I likely didn't get anywhere in it the first time around anyway.

Hexen II is the last of the 'Serpent Riders' trilogy, following on from Heretic and Hexen, so there's apparently a story here to resolve and this game finishes it off. But just to make things confusing, Heretic actually branches off to another sequel, Heretic II, which tells the tale of the original game's protagonist returning home and fighting a plague. Plus there's the expansion packs like Deathkings of the Dark Citadel and Portal of Praevus which slot in somewhere.

But this is definitely absolutely the final Hexen... until Raven Software gets bored of making multiplayer modes for Call of Duty games and decides it's time for Hex3n: Beyond Heretic II.



hexen 2 options menu screen
Dark red text on top of a dark red logo, interesting choice.

I'm surprised there isn't a demo playing in the background, seeing as it was the fashion at the time. Heretic did it, Hexen did it, Quake definitely did it. This is the first game by an outside developer to make use of id's Quake engine by the way, so that's about the level of sophistication I'm expecting from it.

I gotta say though, I wasn't expecting a cutting edge 3D game from 1997 to be designed for 320x200 resolution monitors like this. It's got no problem switching to higher resolutions, but then it's even harder to read the text!

Hang on, does that say 'MUSIC TYPE: CD'? Well that's something I'll likely be missing out on with this Steam release. No problem, I'll just flip it to 'MIDI'.

Hexen gave me a choice between Warrior, Cleric and Mage, but this time I get to pick from Paladin, Crusader, Necromancer and Assassin. Unfortunately their name and picture are the only clues I get to what the differences are. Hexen at least gave me some stats underneath!

I think I'll go with the Assassin, because she's the only one I can guarantee will be carrying a ranged weapon. Medieval Boba Fett over there likely has better armour, but I find that the best defence is to be way over on the other side of the room to the thing trying to hit me.

Huh, it turns out that every character has their own set of difficulty level names as well. That's a nice touch. I'll be playing on 'Cutthroat' because it sounds about average.

Okay, here's the actual game then, in glorious 320x240! The resolution's just enough for me to tell that they've gone and given me a knife instead of a crossbow! Plus only 73 HP, that's... weird.

Also it turns out that when it said 'USE MOUSE: ON' in the options earlier, it didn't mean proper mouse aiming, but typing "+MLOOK" into the console has sorted that out. Fixing the resolution's going to be a little more awkward though (it has to be done from the command line), so while I do that, here's some classic Heretic series HUDs for you to admire:

The game has switched from the Doom engine to the Quake engine, but it still carries the traditional chiselled stone HUD bar, with the health chain running across the bottom edge of the screen. Some people might not appreciate the way these eat up a good quarter or fifth of the screen in their natural resolution, but it was the closest we got to widescreen back in the day! Plus you can turn it off if you want to see more, and I probably will when I raise the resolution because it'll be soooo tiny.

1997 was really the last stand for the elaborate FPS HUD bar, with games like Quake II, GoldenEye Turok: Dinosaur Hunter finding less intrusive places to stick their ammo counters. The next year Heretic II joined them in dropping it entirely. And the chain of health was ended.

Speaking of console games and comparisons, the first Hexen eventually made it to PlayStation, Saturn and N64, but this one not so much. In fact it remained PC bound for almost five years until the Mac version was released, so I'll have no comparison screenshots for you this time.

800x600 seems a more comfortable resolution for it. Though hang on, what happened to my health? I had 73 HP before and now it's gone down to 72. The game's penalised me 1 hit point for restarting!

Oh I see, it randomly generates a new max health for my character when I start a new game. It must think that it's an RPG!

Right, I've started off in a tiny enclosed graveyard, with only a bouncing purple flask to keep me company. There’s a path behind me leading into a dark hallway, but I'm going to grab the flask and see what’s going on up those ramps first.

SPIDERS! Spiders is what's going on! They're jumping out the door and smashing through the window! Where's that bloody crossbow when I need it?

They're only puny rubbish things though really, and I can finish them off with two swipes. The most irritating thing about them is how short they are.

Seems that the room is a dead end though. Then again, that brick on the right of that grim horseman carving looks a bit suspicious. I'm thinking I should go over there and give it a push and see what happens. There's no action key though so I'll give it a tap with my blade.

And the brick slides in, opening up a secret passage! I'm way too smart for this game.

Though now I have to figure out what opened up. I heard something moving somewhere in this room, stone grinding against stone. But there's something else behind me, sounded almost like...

A SPIDER!

Wow I really should've seen that coming. Can't believe I was dumb enough to fall for the old 'spider jumping out of a secret passage' trick. This looks at first glance to be a little alcove for spiders to hide in, but there's no floor, I can jump down there. Getting back up might be hard again, but I trust the level designers not to screw me over here (plus I have quicksaves), so I'm going in.

The hole's dropped me down into this shadowy dungeon, guarded by a knight with a bow. Those shots he's firing sound like something I want nothing to do with, but fortunately I'm nimble enough to strafe around them with autorun turned on. My Assassin is incredibly fast on her feet.

I ran up and stabbed him a half-dozen times and that sorted him out, giving me the chance to grab his floating blue health vials and activate the Triforce button with my face, as is the tradition in Quake engine games.

“You hear a door across the room open,” the game informs me, which is a big help. It must be a door on the other side of those metal pillars though as I can't see any exits in here. I'm guessing that light on the left is a magical teleporter because otherwise I'm totally stuck in this room.

It was a teleporter, and it brought me back to the start again. So I left the ramp room via the exit behind me and found myself here, looking at two new paths and a spinning crossbow left floating on a hill. Also a sheep.

I can't help staring at that sky though. There's two separate layers of clouds blowing past each other and it looks so weird and unnatural. The effect worked in Quake because Quake's sky was purple, but here it's adding negative realism to the level. Plus it doesn't help that the cliffs and castle walls are all exactly the same height, giving away the fact that the sky is actually a flat ceiling.

Anyway I think the knights out here have noticed me so I'm going to run out, grab the crossbow, and go be a big damn hero.

Holy shit, I didn't mean to liquefy the sheep! Oh no, that poor poor creature! This crossbow must come with auto aim because I was definitely not facing it when I pulled the trigger.

Anyway, I've pacified this room, so now I have to decide which way to go. The path on the right leads to a door with 'The Mill' written next to it, which will probably take me to a different level, so I'll go investigate the other path first.

The left path's a lot damper than I expected. The downside of being an incredibly nimble Assassin is that I'm very good at accidentally throwing myself off narrow bridges into the nasty purple water below.

Though hang on, there's another Triforce switch down here. Seems I've stumbled across another secret.

No idea what pressing the switch did, but I'm back out of the water now and I've found myself in a library with its own lava pit; no one dares returning books late in this realm.

Oh hey, the librarian's an evil mage and now he's teleporting around the room and shooting things at me! Probably skulls, knowing what evil mages are like.

Uh... what just happened? I was there a second ago and now I'm here.

I think I must have backed up into a teleporter as I was making a strategic retreat, but it's the opposite of a lucky escape as there's another skull launching warlock in here, and this one's backed up by spiders and knights! Basically I am the worst at running away.

Hang on, this secret room leads to the secret door I opened with the Triforce button in the secret dungeon at the start! I've apparently found the 'Tomb of Loric' down here, so... that's nice. I eventually managed to kill everyone and flick all switches, and got a floating grail for my trouble, so I guess I'm done down here now? I'll go find my way back to the lava pit library then and kill warlock #1 as well.

Fun fact: when you kill a warlock they explode into spiders!

Oh damn, I did not expect to be able to read the warlock's book. The text is kind of tiny at this resolution though so I'll type it out for you:
YOU NEED THE BONE DUST OF LORIC TO COMPLETE THE SPELL AND CREATE THE POTION OF MITHRIL TRANSMUTATION.
The bone dust of Loric huh... hey I collected that from his tomb! Wait, no I have the bones of Loric. So I need to grind these bones to dust somehow.

Hang on, I remember passing a door earlier leading to 'The Mill'. There's another exit to this lava pit room leading to a place called 'Barbican', but I'm going to backtrack a bit to see what I can do with these bones.


THE MILL.


I guess I’m jumping off this tower then. I hope there's a alternate route back up here for when I return with my bag of Loric dust

Nice trees by the way, for 1997. Games like Blood and Shadow Warrior were still using sprites at this point, but these wonky trees are fully polygonal.

The mill itself! I've finally found it, after almost a minute of searching. It's funny how even the windmill is walled in on all sides in this game; reminds me of the wind farm room in Chasm: The Rift last month. I guess Goldeneye was ahead of its time with its huge open snowy Severnaya levels.

Oh c'mon! So I need to find the 'mill key' apparently. I passed another teleporter beam along the way so all I can do now is leap inside and hope it sends me some place I haven't searched yet.

Wow, I feel like I've just teleported into a Castlevania level, except with more spiders.

I suppose I should be grateful they're not poisonous. I just wish my crossbow ammo lasted long enough to kill them from a distance. Most of the time I've been stuck knifing enemies up close, which is a bit of a shame because either the melee combat is terrible or I'm just terrible at it. There's no blocking, so I either run around enemies getting quick stabs in when I can, or just stand next to them hacking away.

I eventually managed to open up an exit by backing away into a lever again and accidentally ringing a bell, and the passage took me right back at the start of The Mill. I still haven't found that mill key though so I'll do one more lap of the place and if that doesn't work out I'll head back out to the previous zone (which I've learned is called Blackmarsh). There's still that 'Barbican' door next to the lava pit I haven't tried yet.

You know, this would be so much easier to explain if I had an in-game map I could pull up.

Okay I spent 10 minutes with a map editor and Photoshop and this came out. You can see how the area is built up from small interconnecting maps, with the Blackmarsh level containing doors to both Barbican and The Mill. It's not really any more complex than a Doom level, but it feels complicated because I'm running between separate places and I have to remember where everything is.


BARBICAN.


Well Barbican looks like bits of a castle wedged in between cliffs, so no huge shock there. Hang on, is there a sheep on that catapult? Maybe I can shoo him away before he gets...

...damn. Poor sheep. At least he's in a better place now (on the other side of that wall).

With no other way to get through I decided to climb onto the catapult to follow the sheep over and... nothing happened. Maybe I have to hit a lever or something? Or...

.... aww shit! I got flung so high I broke the skybox!

Fortunately I didn't need to aim for a mattress on the other side. My Assassin isn't quite Mario, but she handles long falls pretty well.

No, don't close the draw bridge up you bastards! Well I won't be catapulting over that, I need to find some other way through.

I could go swimming in the moat I suppose, but these things are usually designed to keep people out, not lead them to the secret entrance. Plus I don't like the look of that creature down there.

With no other options I dived into the moat and found it led to... another branching tunnel. Fortunately I was able to find a place for my Assassin to surface again before she drowned and discovered she was on the wrong side of a medieval toilet seat. They've tricked me into swimming through a sewer level!

Alright now I'm inside the castle, being shot at by an automatic ballista turret.

Oh, and guess what? I need the castle key now. I only came here in the first place to get a mill key! In a lot of first person shooters, combat is the main challenge, but in this it's figuring out where to go next. A bit like a 3D Super Metroid now that I think about it, if it was really stingy with the ammo... and didn't have a map.

Honestly, given a choice between good combat and exploring mazelike levels, I'd rather take the good combat. Don't get me wrong, I love Doom and Quake, but what the Hexen games do with its level design isn't really my kind of thing.

Here's a nice simple puzzle though. The stairs are missing a few steps and I'm finding it impossible to smash these reinforced barrels, so it seems that pushing a barrel over to the stars is the trick for getting up onto that walkway. I'm actually surprised I solved it so quickly though, seeing as the game doesn't hint that barrels can be pushed. I'm used to the scenery staying put in games this old.

This bit must be fun for players who've picked a melee focused class, as they'd have to put up with a knight up on the walkway firing down on them the whole time with no way to fire back. Then again those Warriors have had it easy so far, with their big-ass swords that can smite everything in just a few hits without needing ammo, so fuck 'em!


A WHILE LATER.


Well that was bloody subtle secret passage. I had to smash some pots and hit the swirly brick behind them to make the wall slide back.

I've been running laps of this bloody castle for ages, figuring that I must have missed something really obvious. Turns out it wasn't all that obvious after all. 

At least now I have a ballista of my own to control! Plus I've just remembered what I have to do with it, so I've been spared a bit of frustration this time.

I kept shooting at the tower opposite until it blew up revealing there's a teleporter inside! Then I jumped into it and teleported right over to the mill key! Also something called a chaos device, which I'll leave in my pocket for now. My inventory's filling up with mysterious power ups like but I'm getting on just fine with my trusty crossbow (and the occasional health flask), so I've had no need to experiment with them.

I've also discovered this info hiding under my HUD. Seems that my character has RPG stats and she reached level 2 at some point! So that explains why my maximum health's gone up.

Right, what am I doing now? Oh yeah, I'm unlocking a mill.

So I ran through Blackmarsh to The Mill to unlock the mill so that I could use Loric's bones to make bone dust. Then I ran from The Mill back to Blackmarsh to turn the dust into the potion of mithril transmutation, and now I guess I have to find somewhere to use it.


SOON.


I eventually found a mithril wall underwater in the moat next to Barbican castle. You wouldn't think a potion would be much use underwater, but it worked, transmuting the wall to wood. Then I transmuted the wood into splinters with my knife and inside...

...is the castle key!

Now I have to remember where that locked door in the castle was. First though I'm just going to slam my head into my desk a few times.


LATER, IN KING’S COURT.


I have to admit, I wasn't expecting the locked castle door inside the castle level to take me to... another castle level. In fact I figured I'd be coming up to a boss fight or something by now, seeing as this is where the Hexen II demo ends. Not that I want to fight a boss, I'm just looking for a good excuse to turn this off before this article becomes a two parter.

I'd turn it off right here, but this place looks nice so I'm going to go look around first.

I'm not sure about these indestructible stone golems though, they don't seem nice at all. I'm not even sure that they're indestructible, but the sound they make when I hit them's not encouraging.

Enemies usually flinch a bit in this when they're hurt, which is a step up from Hexen, but this thing's an unstoppable Terminator and I don't like it. Fortunately he's also a slow Terminator that stomps around so I should be fine if I don't get cornered.

I can actually tell what places are meant to be in this village, which is impressive for an early Quake engine game. It's a very different to Quake's deliberately abstract level design. I can also smash up some of the furniture, which is going to end up happening one way or the other the way these fights are going.

I've pretty much lost my will to keep playing though, as I'm back to the 'explore everywhere, run into dead ends' phase of gameplay, where nothing I do seems to get me anywhere. So I think this is as good a place as any to end this.


CONCLUSION

I think after a few hours I'm liking Hexen II more than its predecessor, but only because I prefer mild boredom to frustration. Plus the Quake engine's a lot more suited to the visual style; it was basically made to render dirty browns and greys, so it's come out a lot less murky and grainy looking. Though another consequence of the engine switch is that the levels have been less imaginative and dynamic so far, with the floor usually behaving itself instead of collapsing into lava or pulling some other trick. Catapulting a sheep is as wild as it's gotten so far.

The trouble with the game is that it's inherited its predecessor's passion for making players run laps of the levels trying to find the switch or secret passage they missed the first few times around. I suppose having connected hubs makes sense when the engine it's using requires the levels to be a fraction of the size of a typical Doom map, but the thing about Doom... is that it has a map. In games like Fallout 3, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Hexen I could tell at a glance where I hadn't been yet and what corridors I'd overlooked, while this expected me to double check every room and keep the layout of multiple connected levels in my head. Unless I was supposed to break out the graph paper.

It's great when games are more than just a set of corridors leading straight to an exit, but I find that action games like this work better when you're rewarded for finding the secret doors instead of brought to a complete stop when you don't. I mean this isn't exactly a La-Mulana style test of the mind here, it's just being awkward!

Plus developers in the 90s struggled to make first person melee combat fun and this really isn't an exception. It's building on Quake's strong foundations so dodging around and shooting stuff feels great... it's just that they've taken all the guns and thrown them out! I've found just 2 weapons in all the time I've played it so far, including the one I started with. There's actually 16 in the game, but like in Hexen they're divided between all the characters, so you only ever carry 4 of them. That doesn't lead to a lot of interesting tactical decisions, especially when it's stingy with the ammo.

If you're a fan of Hexen and somehow haven't played this yet I don't imagine you'll be disappointed, as it's very much following in its footsteps, but personally I'd still rather play the relatively straightforward Heretic.

Source port fans rejoice as you have many options this day! Apparently. I haven't tried any of them myself though.

Hammer of Thyrion - Very faithful and packed full of fixes for bugs that escaped the official patch.
FTWQW - Quake source port with Hexen 2 support.
jsHexen2 - Supposed to be both the prettiest and the glitchiest.


Congratulations, you've successfully reached the other side of my Hexen II article! Why not celebrate by leaving your own opinions or feedback in the message box below?

10 comments:

  1. Personally, I think all the backtracking in Hexen II is too ridiculous. I got halfway through the Egypt hub before finally quitting. As you say, it's tedious. The Meso-American hub is probably the strongest part of the game, but it's not worth the trouble.

    Honestly, Hexen is the better title... which still isn't saying much (as you say, it can get quite aggravating). It's more ambitious than Heretic, but falls apart towards the end. It's tough to recommend any part of this trilogy. :S

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  2. I hope they do make a Hex3n: Beyond Heretic II, if only for the name.

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  3. "Honestly, given a choice between good combat and exploring mazelike levels, I'd rather take the good combat."
    I very agree with you. IMO most important factor of great FPS is combat:
    Either variation on weapons arsenal or enemies
    My quick analysis on hexen II: Assasin crossbow is reskin of etheral crossbow albeit duller, Crusader frost wand is reskin of elven wand but not making enemy dead (very awful), paladin fist quite same with warrior fist without finishing blow, spider is quite okay first enemy if you use wasd + mouse, archer knight and teleporting warlock is making early game too hard, better puzzle than hexen, reusing item from heretic, closed leveling, some interesting ability if reach certain lvl (necromancer can melee lifedrain, assasing can do tenchuing/backstabing)

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  4. I never made it beyond the notEgypt area in Hexen II as I liked teh Heretic II much better. Not that I made it too far in that either as it wouldn't run long properly on my rig, but still pole vaulting everywhere with the melee staff was fun.

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    1. I love the Heretic/Hexen/Hexen II trilogy, and Hexen II is probably one of my favorite games, but the solution to the Wheels puzzle in Thysis (not-Egypt) has never really made sense to me in all the times I've played through the game. I always just look up the correct two Zodiac signs to use. I get the concept of the puzzle from the hints, but I always pick the wrong two Zodiac signs based on the hints. Someone, somewhere, must have figured out the logic of that puzzle. Unfortunately, it is not me.

      Still, I recommend playing past Thysis to Septimus (not-Greece/Rome), which is probably my favorite hub in the game and has some amazing aesthetics (for the Quake I/II era).

      By the way, there is another puzzle in the Portal of Praevus mission pack, where you have to select Tibetan characters in the correct order based on their Romanized spelling, that is also tailor-made for a YouTube walkthrough solution.

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  5. Nice to see you back at Heretic/HeXen serie Ray after awhile. You know, what remains now to wrap things up. ;) (And good luck with that knowing there is sadly no legal way to obtain it in digital form.)
    And I must agree with 57thError, Heretic II is highlight of whole serie for me too. Unfortunately, it was almost forgotten for being stupidly underapprecieted for not being FPS in its day.

    While HeXen II is the least favorite one from whole serie for me, it still holds its soft sentimental place for being introduction to serie and to many great Raven games as well. :)

    "The trouble with the game is that it's inherited its predecessor's passion for making players run laps of the levels trying to find the switch or secret passage they missed the first few times around."
    Then have look at this: https://youtu.be/e9iAvepqfLA?t=2m55s
    (Warning: spoilers included!) And that is just first hub, wait till second one. >:)

    BTW did you know that there are also few source ports avaible for it? Mainly Hammer Of Thyrion (IMO best way to experience game now, very faithful with added fixes for not resolved bugs in original game), but also FTE QW (mainly Quake I sourceport with added HeXen 2 support) and jsHexen2 (best looking one from whole bunch, but rather glitchy and unstable).

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    1. Yeah, Heretic II is going to be a little more awkward to get hold of. But if fate wants me to play it badly enough I'm sure I'll come across a cheap copy somewhere.

      Plus that's a really good review you've linked to. Good for putting me off from ever playing past the first hub! But if I ever do give it another shot at least I know to keep a walkthrough handy this time.

      To be honest I didn't do any research into source ports at all, because the game never gave me reason to go look for one. The Steam version seems to run fine for me as it is, with zero graphics or control issues, so I was happy to leave it that way. But source ports are good and I should probably add some links to them at the bottom of the article.

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    2. Another revision of jshexen2 port: hexen2retex.narod.ru

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  6. This games feels like Doom, Hexan, Quake, Minecraft, Thief, Arx Fatalis and Amnesia TDD combined, except those games are much, much better.

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    1. I WISH it was like those games combined. Rope arrows, a nail gun, a chainsaw, and a pick axe that can cut through any wall? Yes please.

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