A Blast from the Past review
FBT goes back to when FPS spoke to him on a spiritual level. The weirdo.
Should I ever get into a discussion about the best shooter from the “Post Doom - Pre Half Life” era I tend to turn the conversation bloody real quick. Folks go for Doom because it was a quantum leap; Doom wasn’t released; it was unleashed they cry, claiming it was the Jaws of the game world. They are right. But while Doom was gaming’s We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat moment, for me it was when I saw Elvira’s calendar in ‘Blood’ -the same calendar on the wall of my bedroom– and I knew, Blood and I got each other.
Like anyone else staggered by Doom’s release, I played everything and anything similar; Wolf3D, Duke, Shadow Warrior, RotT, Heretic, Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, Blake Stone, Redneck Rampage, Quake. I bought them, played them, loved them and eventually lost them. All but Blood; I still have the CD. It’s burnt into my memory so deeply that in my advanced years I may begin to confuse its levels with actual memories. That should make the old folks’ home interesting.
Thinking about it now, I recall that Blood was made up of everything I was into. Packed with references and nods to my VHS collection, my posters and film quotes, everything I thought was the coolest thing ever was in there. And, Blood had a plot. A real, on-screen story and reason why everyone in my eye-line had to go, not some vague background written in the manual. And Blood’s storyline was explored by an equally perfect lead character; Caleb, a wild-west era killer-for-hire who worshipped a Dark God which inexplicably has Caleb, his beloved wife and friends murdered for an unknown failing. Reborn (‘I live...again!’), Caleb was the perfect antihero to inhabit as I waded through a thousand bodies in a dark gothic setting, looking for revenge and reasons. Caleb wasn’t a jokey celebration of macho like Duke and he wasn’t just an arm like Doomguy; Caleb was every dubious hero you adored while watching straight-to-video films in those big puffy WB cases. He was Snake Plissken meets Eric Draven with a dash of Ash. Ultimately I loved Blood for its ‘soul’ despite Caleb not having one; It’s so fatalistic, the tone so foreboding it could have been a John Carpenter film. Blood is one of my best gaming experiences and I’d defend it with my boomstick. But I admit now, my love for Blood is based on it matching my bedroom walls, not it’s comparison to other shooters, its graphics or whether it’s actually any good. So, at the risk of losing a 20yr long argument (Blood is better than GoldenEye), time to see if Blood still courses through my veins.
Still a Blast?
The opening menu is satisfyingly gothic, blood drips down the screen and demos play, instantly taking me back. Okay so I ignore that it’s looking blocky, that maybe the menu is Doom Clone, but that’s no reason to mark it down. So far, so top ten.
I kick into the level and … the opening cutscene. I watch Caleb, his wife and friends summoned by their dark god, talking through an acolyte who disintegrates as he speaks, seared apart by the power of his Lord’s voice. Which isn’t happy. Caleb demands to know what they’ve done to earn his ire, but he can only watch helplessly as his wife and friends are attacked by monstrous creatures and he is sealed alive in a grave. Now that’s an opening. There was nothing like this back then (or since). Okay so now it’s graphically on a par with that Dire Straits video about MTV but it’s bleak, gothic and I’m taken by it; It reinforces that it’s not graphics that make a game; Blood’s opening would have been as effective in any gaming age. When Caleb fails to reach his beloved before she’s taken away I’m moved. I have a reason to live… again.
I emerge from the ground armed with only a pitchfork and Army of Darkness quotes. The zombies come running and once it’s over I’ve forgotten I’m playing something 20yrs old. I had at them and the excitement, the frantic killing and the thrill are still there. Yes, I have problems with mouse doing the movement instead of looking but I soon get used to it. Sort of. I still lob Caleb off cliffs and into pits when subconsciously trying to look up but at least I can quick save.
What happened to quick saves? AutoSave in a shooter encourages you either play ultra-safe or to mow mindlessly hoping you reach one before being offed. You’re scared not by the game but of being respawned at a checkpoint miles away; it’s not a genius level design or a carefully constructed battle that bested me and it’s a lazy way to add tension. Worst of all, AutoSave icons spoil the moment – you just got told something bad is about to happen. Just add a quicksave and leave me to fire a rocket-launcher at point blank range cos I panicked and span the mouse wheel too quick, don’t punish me by making me trawl through all that crap again.
I’m seriously getting my ass kicked. My reload (thank you quicksave) is higher than my bodycount. I can’t keep blaming the mouse. Is it the game? Is it me, am I too old, is Blood something I can grumble about to kids of today telling them, hunched over the latest COD reskin that they don’t know how easy they have it? I just needed time to adjust, this era of shooters wasn’t as forgiving. I have less options, I can’t hide in tall grass or go invisible. And quickly I realise it’s all on me, I have to win this situation not manage it, and that’s actually really exciting, more exciting than any recent shooter that practically encourages cowardice. I just gotta shut up and man up.
Finally able to survive a level or two, it all comes back to me and lost in the world again, grinning like Caleb when he gets the shotgun (‘Good, bad, I’m the one with the gun’), I’ve got this. I’m enjoying this. It’s like meeting up with an old friend and instead of realising how far apart you’ve grown, you actually have a ton of fun and stuff to share.
Blood squeezes every drop out of the Build engine. The graphics aren’t hard on the eye; in fact they hold up incredibly well and I don’t feel like I’m playing an old game. Levels are cleverly constructed to draw you in and then spring a trap, they encourage exploration even when you know better; they reward and double-cross you in equal measure. Best of all, you always feel like you’re pushing forward and you’re getting somewhere rather than Doom’s drudge towards whatever. 20 yrs on and I’m still amazed at the sheer inventiveness of the locations; frozen mazes, moving trains, disused fairgrounds, Haunted Houses, Crystal Lake complete with the ki ki ki, ma ma ma sound in the woods, a Meat packing factory, it’s like playing through every horror film I watched when I was too young to watch them; Lovecraft, Poe, Tolkien and Sinatra refs are thrown in too. Modern games, better by every technical yardstick, don’t have this inventiveness. Why are modern games so samey? Within Blood’s levels, buried deep are multiple references to … well pretty much everything you ever thought was cool but your mum would have taken off you if she found it. But Blood doesn’t go for the Duke cheap shots. There’s no strippers who show their pixel-nipples for a dollar, In Blood you have to know your stuff; Dismembered hands scream “I’ll swallow your soul!”,
Caleb growls “Son of a bitch must pay”, "Are you gonna just stand there and bleed?", "Victims. Aren't we all?". There’s an orange jumpsuit with Kimble on it during the train level, a room filled with magic-tree air fresheners and a body strapped to a bed, a reference to the Flukeman. They are absolutely everywhere and 20yrs later they’re still gloriously retro and I’m still finding them; I heard a dog barking and Caleb muttered ‘Cujo?’ Blood was built for the kind of folks who’d get the zombie in a bath in room 237 of the Overlooked Hotel. Borderlands, Far Cry Blood Dragon and Saints Row owe Blood a debt and still didn’t do it as Rat Pack cool. And this attention to cool, in its clever locations and level design, its references and quotes go a long way to forgiving any of its graphical limitations, it’s playability or its age. Which I honestly don’t find confining.
Like all games of the era, the limitations of the engine also extended to the monsters and the weapons. The monsters head towards your muzzle with little more thought than zig-zagging and the weaponry is just a variation on Doom’s, but they’re as inventive and macabre as you’d expect. A flare gun is a personal fave, just to clip a distant zombie and watch him burst into flames feet from you. There’s the bloody butcher lobbing cleavers, a tommy gun, the cultists mumbling what’s likely some film ref I’ve still not figured out, the voodoo doll. And the zombies with heads you can kick off. Still fun. It’s a shame games grew up, COD could do with some kickable heads and have shooters really progressed any further than dressing up Doom’s gameplay anyway? When they do try something different, we moan about it. We still want to run and gun. That’s what we’re here for and when I battle in Blood I’m having a better experience than most recent games because it gets me; it’s as much fun as freak.
The level design is way above Blood’s peers too. I’d forgotten how much your survival and fun depended on using the environment – which can’t be trusted. The haunted house has some great secret passageways letting you get the jump on creatures waiting in rooms, but the ghosts found there screech and scare you back into the open; Outside, jumping into swimming pools or lakes to escape gunfire is not always a good idea - there’s often a gill monster thing lurking and worse, it can get out the water to chase you, so you just added to the monster count. Clambering on top of buildings keeps you out of range but watch those stone gargoyles … Blood is not for cowards. It’s for explorers ready for a fight. I found myself exhilarated the entire time and when I’d cleared a level, I’d happily wander taking in the style and the references. It’s not lost anything and anyone who grew up on today’s shooters would find this more rewarding an experience if they could see past the graphic limitations.
So involved was I, that when I finally reached the Dark God and demanded a reason for all this, I was speaking alongside Caleb; and the answer didn’t disappoint. Neither did our response. The mystery solved, my wife sadly avenged and the day saved, the game was played and I am no less a Blood fan than I was 20yrs ago. Quite possibly more so because it showed me how placid and safe shooters have become. Once in the zone I forgot it’s age; it’s exciting and so engrossing you don’t care the world isn’t photo-realistic.
Subtly subversive and rewarding, there’s few games even now that can offer Blood’s depth and that transcends any advancements the genre has made; against its peers, Blood still reigns down; Doom has not aged well, Duke is best remembered and not replayed, and the others? I can’t remember what Quake was about at all. Technology may have improved immeasurably, but mo-cap and pseudo-moral choices don’t hold a candle to a game that gets you. Blood still gets me, and it still sits proudly in my top ten.
Spoiler alert, aka that ending.
I remember the ending being hysterical. Like a real Snake Plissken exit. But this time something different struck me. Call it age, over analysis, maybe I’ve become used to moral choices and my actions having an impact but Blood’s finale was dark. Really dark; even for a shooter, which usually ends with the hero’s murderous mayhem at least justified. I remembered Caleb, having killed the God (He kills a god!), walking into the night victorious; the lone hero. But now, in my later years, I see a man who leaves with nothing; his faith shattered and the society he belonged to gone, Caleb is left with no friends and no future - all by his own hand. Other heroes got their reward; Duke and his babes for example. Calab got nothing but blood on him. So far, so dramatic. But then, his work done, he outright murders someone; someone innocent who was thanking him for their liberation. Games don’t portray real bastards generally. Indifferent maybe, narcissistic perhaps, but typical anti-heroes on the side of right if not the law, sitting comfortably in the 'he's bad but they're worse' camp. What actually shocked me was the realisation I’d played Caleb just how he was. He was a murderer before and he’s a murderer still. So many games sit on a contradictory fence where the cutscene character is behaving one way, but me inhabiting them sure isn’t. They lament the murder, the horror, then let you take control to enjoy doing just that. You as the player ignore whatever’s troubling that cutscene character; I recall killing endless pedestrians from the outset in GTA SA, just to get some money. That’s not the behaviour of cutscene CJ who desires to rise above the mindless violence of the streets. I wasn’t true to him; your character may be a goody goody, but you aren’t and what caught me was Blood’s Caleb was as true as I was playing him - a cold murderous villain. He was who he was.
20 yrs on and Blood still had one impression left to make; The cutscenes did not justify or ignore the death I’d wrought, they showed Caleb intended to do exactly what I did. For all of Bioshock’s Rescue or Harvest, Mass Effect’s Paragon vs Renegade or whatever the hell Far Cry 4 was trying to say, I’d always do what was best for me the player, not me the character. But Blood knew both of us; it is a brilliant game.
1997 | Developer Monolith Productions | Publisher GT Interactive Software / Atari