In the second part of FBT's four-part FPS retrospective, he makes like David Suchet and questions the clones about the identity of the Doom Killer.
Part Two: All hail the King, baby
Doom was out, and everything had changed. Even over at Apple. Bungie’s Marathon kept them going instead of Doom. It was a shooter with a storyline – a what? We don’t have time for that, Netscape Navigator was out and that meant 0.5% of us had access to the WWW – when we weren’t watching a Ford Bronco drive down the freeway that is. But the biggest news of ‘94 was still 93’s Doom. No one had touched it; well, there had been some inappropriate touching – a Doom Community sprung up thanks to the web, trading their own levels and mods; id’s decision to let gamers mess with Doom’s level design was another innovation and it turned kids into level designers and FPS into a multi-faceted hobby; playing, building and deathmatching. Doom also popularised web-chat, file-sharing and encouraged the uptake of the net; the world was changing, for us anyway. While our parents watched Blind Date and Beadle’s About, we had Terry Christian egging someone on to eat a sandwich of toenail clippings, were frothing to go on Nemesis at Alton Towers, whispered “UVAVU” while watching Geri and Kylie snog and the 11.30 Diet Coke break advert. The nineties were in full swing.
Released in December 1994, Heretic was the first Doom Clone but it wasn’t a cash-in; created by Raven, built on the Doom engine and exec-produced by Romero, it was less a clone and more a companion. You charged around locations taken over by a Saruman type, using magical weapons (a bow standing in for the shotgun, a claw that fired spells is your chaingun) while taking out Fantasy versions of Doom’s hell creatures. Okay, Heretic must have seemed a bit twee back then, a bit D&D; who wants to be in Dad’s Lord of the Rings when we had our Doom?
While Heretic is Doom reskinned, the art design is great and it’s learnt a lot about pacing and level design - It doesn’t have Doom’s aggression, you’re an elf waving a magical staff around medieval villages so not as cool as being a squad member from the Sulaco like Doomguy, but it’s good to have an alternative to Doom’s military setting which was replicated by most of the other clones.
Once I’ve got my eye past the minimal pixels and basic movement, I realise Heretic is really good; it has a great ambient feel - we hear groans and grumbles, chains rattling and whispers, the art design is really nice and it’s not stuffed with creatures; there’s areas and secrets to explore rather than just blast through, and it features an inventory (including a spell that turns creatures into chickens) - it gives Heretic an adventurer feel as we stalk through cathedrals and Mordor-like locations. When we do meet the bad guys though, they’re top notch; glamorous, chanting Wizards, giant skulls and the screeching little imps. It’s a lot further from Doom than I remembered, and while it's possible they just got to work before Doom clone fever really gripped, maybe Raven are really good devs – they did go onto Star Trek Elite Force and Jedi Knight Outcast. Heretic doesn’t immediately call Doom to memory surprisingly enough, it stands up well despite its age and it’s got its own personality; I’m enjoying it for what it is rather than running on memories; it’s a great shooter and worth a replay. Heretic is memorable for another reason – It’s retail disk included DWANGO, the first programme to let you dial-up n’ deathmatch with folks further away than an LAN cable could reach. Online gaming was here.
I really liked Heretic. It’s one from this era that didn't get a remaster and that's a massive shame. Reboots you can keep but a refined Heretic would be awesome. One from this era that did get a reboot was Rise of the Triad (Feb 1995) and I have no idea why.
It starts off well enough; we’re the HUNT team on the, erm, hunt for bad guys who are on an island. Let’s go get those bad gu – wait, why are there trampolines in their secret lair? And why is everywhere filled with spinning coins like a Mario game, and platforms to reach them dotted around the castle? My god, RotT is awful. I thought we’d left this arcade kiddie nonsense behind. RotT came from 3DRealms and id co-founder Tom Hall; they knew intimately what Doom was and this isn’t it. Maybe that’s the point, but there’s different and then there’s daft.
I might have liked it at the time, back then you’d take anything you could get once you’d rinsed Doom but jeez this is annoying. There’s some progress here, you could dual -wield pistols and machine guns and had an assortment of explosive weapons rather than tons of oddities, there’s auto-aim too but it's all buried under the silliness and digitised elements that don’t work; we’re being attacked by cardboard cut-outs – the sprites of Doom were 2D but they animated and moved in semi-convincing ways while those screengrabs look like a stiff breeze would blow them over. The weapons too look like photos which seem less believable. And there’s crushers, revolving walls, traps and spikes everywhere for no reason; one thing about Doom, it played by its rules – an invading force that you were repelling, but this gang’s gaff is a gauntlet the bad guys run as well. Half the time the traps kill the bad-guys for me. RotT is part Looney Tunes, Wolf-clone, arcade, platformer and forgets the FPS part. It’s so cheap looking you’d think it’s a quickie knock-off called Doomed. It’s not a Doom clone, it’s a first person Manic Miner. An Uwe Bol adaption of Doom.
Happy New Year, 1995. The year we all got to enjoy Toy Story, and Tommy Lee and Pammy’s honeymoon. The biggest clone of 1995 was a game we’d already played – not just in Doom mods but with our own toys; Star Wars Dark Forces (Feb 1995). Released by Lucasarts, a company that could punt out instant classics like Last Crusade and Monkey Island for breakfast, for them bettering Doom must be as easy as pulling an X-Wing out of a swamp. But always with Doom it cannot be done; while SWDF provided major advancements within the world and game play, this is just Doom with a John Williams score. There’s text explaining non-cannon events to tie it in but SWDF is the best example of a Doom clone yet. It’s not a bad game and playing Star Wars is always going to carry you some of the way, but it’s lacking Doom’s dangerous quality and fatally, keeps reminding you of it. It’s just a reproduction, not an innovation. Plus, the Stormtroopers can actually hit you, how unrealistic is that? It’s Doom on the Death Star and that’s not as cool to play as it sounds – Doom is still one in a million, kid. Sad to say but the Star Doom mods were better. Leave it back in a more civilized age, when Han shot first.
Dark Forces’ biggest contribution to the gaming world was its sequels – Freed of the beat Doom mentality, the first sequel Jedi Knight was a rocking Star Wars shooter with an add-on (remember those) called Mysteries of the Sith. The second sequel, Jedi Outcast got it right; it’s a fantastic SW game and FPS in its own right, and the final sequel, Jedi Academy is a solid game that got lightsabers so spot on they turned into John Woo-level ballet. Dark Forces started as a Clone but it forged its own path to become a classic series with a better legacy than Doom.
Build, the engine that would go onto power Duke Nukem launched its first game in 1995, Witchaven, a Heretic-style goth shooter. It didn’t have much in the way of smart-arse heroes or the level of interaction that later Build Engine games did, but it had a charm to it. Like Wolf, it was a warm up for what Build could do - and what it did next was present someone so legendary, so grand and awesome it’s tough to believe a simple game could contain such an iconic hero - William Shatner. Who were you thinking of? 1995’s Tekwar brought his sci-fi novels to shooter-life and included a digitised Shat; that gives you some idea of how powerful Build was.
In September 1995, the gaming world was shaken again. Not by a game, but by a new way to play, station. Sony’s “Live in your world. Play in ours” campaign was aimed squarely at the Doom generation; aka the MTV Generation (PlayStation sponsored the 1995 MTV Music Awards to prove exactly who PS was aimed at – gaming is not for the kiddiewinks anymore) and the PS made gaming as cool as the Music and Movies of the era. We had our console, our games, we were Sorted for E’s n Wizz and wondering who is Keyser Söze? Perfect.
Meanwhile, briefly distracting us from Xena Warrior Princess was Hexen: Beyond Heretic (October) and this time we weren’t a silent hero. We were three of them. A Fighter who is melee mostly, a Mage who uses long-range magic and a Cleric who uses lower-powered versions of both. Hexen is pretty much Heretic, although not a re-heat; aside from character classes, you also transport back and forth between areas to progress (why I’m not sure, I don’t have the manual) and while the sounds and certain art is the same there’s additions like breakables, leaves falling off trees and more detailed levels. Hexen is fun to play; while it feels Doom-like, unlike Heretic, the character class is a refreshing change; RotT had characters but they made no real change to the experience, whereas in Hexen each character provides a different experience; first time FPS had replay value. I chose the fighter class and melee’ing about is a welcome change from guns again. If Heretic was Legolas prancing about then Hexen lets us play as John Rhys-Davis, and what’s wrong with that? The magnificent wizards are back too, although according to a Heretic Wiki they were ‘Disciples’. Whatever they were, they rule. But they’re not the king, baby.
Doom was loud. Apart from the gunfire and exploding barrels there was screaming, shouting, growling, howling, all underpinned by the constant industrial score yet one thing was largely quiet – Doomguy. 3DReams, already a part of the id family as their shareware distributors, called in Ken Silverman to step things up after Doom. He gave them the Build Engine and that gave us giggles alongside the guts, rock-stars instead of serious and silent. While Carmack would disagree, Build was a huge improvement on the Doom engine; for gamers anyway - it let us misbehave; if Doom was the Father of FPS then Build was the uncle who gave you sweets and let you stay up late, and in January 1996, Duke Nukem 3D gave shooters a voice - Duke was the spokesperson for FPS, it’s ambassador, the entire experience distilled into one badass with a big mouth and bigger guns. Duke was mightily pleased with himself, had every girl at his feet and paused for one-liners before doing battle. Everyone remembers when Duke told a mini-boss he was going to rip off his head and shit down his neck, and when the battle was won, promptly pulled down his trousers, took out the paper and sat on the corpse, whistling. I remember Duke more than DN3D, so to attend a reunion now is a worry; if I find out the school hero who dated the cheerleaders is now a regional manager for an insurance company and bald instead of bold I’m gonna be crushed.
I start playing and he’s really not that bad. Phew. Sure, tipping strippers for a peek is juvenile and the pigs dressed as cops isn’t subtle, but DN3D is nowhere near as insulting as I expected it to be. Just shows how horrific Duke Nukem Forever was that it’s tainted Duke Nukem 3D as well. The earthbound locations he shoots through like Porn Theatres and strip-clubs are what they are and while girls in underwear dancing, the strippers, the women used as incubators and Duke being rewarded for his hard work with a three-way during the end credits are all tough to defend, Duke is a parody of those Bond-like heroes who seduced women through sheer masculinity. It is sexist but crucially it’s not misogynistic or mean-spirited like DNF – there’s no Boob-growths in the walls to slap, glory holes to stick little Duke through or incestuous twins dressed as schoolgirls who share Duke and joke about rape and abortions before dying as Duke comforts them with ‘looks like … you’re fucked’ – I’m not saying DN3D is acceptable because it’s not as appalling as DNF, but DN3D treaded that celebration vs parody line perfectly. Duke is still the voice of a genre and generation; Silent Heroes always felt a bit awkward, especially when they’re in cut-scenes. I wouldn’t want the quiet one saving the world, I want someone who’s going to be all out of gum. I feel like a Hollywood hero, shrugging off bullets and being the only guy for the job. Duke’s gabbing does dilute some of the tension and it’s hard to take it seriously, but it’s not supposed to be taken seriously; everything up to now has been bleak, against-the-odds stuff, but this is Cobra or Commando time. Duke enjoys the challenge. And so do I.
DN3D has some good opponents to battle against and Build gives them a fighting chance rather than id’s walk-this-way AI; in Doomworld monsters walked or floated toward you but Duke’s adversaries do both; they fly, leap, hover and hide, and they react to your attacks - we have to be a little more tactical but thankfully, Build has us covered - the pipe-bomb and mines lets us get sneaky. While Heretic had timed mines you dropped as you were chased by one of the splendid wizards and hoped it went off under his cloak, in DN3D we can set traps and lob controlled pipe-bombs; and Duke would reward your game-play with a one-liner worthy of Arnie. As is standard, DN3D has episode-ending mini-bosses but this being Duke’s world, mini means massive and besting them gets you a cutscene showing just how cool and heroic Duke is, as if there was any doubt. In order to combat such extreme monsters, Duke has the kind of arsenal only a super-hero could wield; aside from the standard there’s various explosive weapons and the freeze gun which lets you shatter opponents, and the shrinker - stomping on a now-tiny bad guy is a new one.
It’s not all Mr Bombastic though - it can be a slog to get through an episode and the first, set in downtown LA is largely the same design rejigged. The Lunar levels get dull very quickly and the third mission is a disappointing return to earth and the same look again; it gets very samey once you’re over the distractions. One reason I struggled to recall the gameplay of DN3D is how much it relies on the boss; this is Duke’s show. You can imagine Duke’s Superior yelling he’s caused more destruction than the bad guys, only to have Duke wink and walk off, taking the boss’s wife with him. There’s great fights, creatures and interactions but without the big man, DN3D would be a dull game - although Duke did get some cracking add-ons; Life’s A Beach had Duke holidaying with squirt guns and it's worth a play just for the Pig Cops in Hawaiian shirts and the Octo-thingies in raybans.
There was another Build game in 1996, PowerSlave. Originally intended as a showcase for Build before Duke started to shape up, it was largely over-shadowed by its big brother, but remained popular enough for an unofficial remake.
DN3D is a huge improvement on what we’ve played so far, but the real show-stopper, the only thing to upstage Duke is the Build engine. Build provided a world to interact with, something we’d not had before. Doom was one thing only - serious about shooting. Besides the strippers, Duke could get distracted playing pool, staring at himself in mirrors, pinball games with him on the artwork (‘I haven’t got time to play with myself’), posters to look at, buttons to press, CCTV screens; we’re crawling through vents, sewers and diving under water, using powerups like holograms and the jetpack; I suspected DN3D would be where we leave Doom behind but while it's the stuff that would make Don Simpson call Heidi Fleiss and celebrate, what DN3D did was diverge the FPS genre; from here the seeds of the more outlandish FPS game were sown. Down the pub, Doomguy is just Duke’s wingman but on the battlefield Doom still reigns. Case closed; Duke is innocent of killing Doom. Where is it? Man, finding Doom’s killer is hard. If she hadn’t been cancelled in 1996, I’d call Jessica Fletcher in on this. Maybe my Encarta CD has the answer.
In Part Three, FBT takes on the game convicted of killing Doom. But is Quake guilty as charged? And is all this just an excuse for FBT to play Blood again and google Dani Behr?