Part three of FBT's special on 90s shooters, he survived Doom and Hailed the Build engine, baby. With Quake first on the list, is FBT’s quest to find the Doom Killer at an end?
(Clue; there’s a part four)
Part Three: and I don’t love Jesus
It’s 1996, and- shut up, TFI Friday’s on. I can’t hear it over all your zigazig-ha’ing. And doesn’t Tony Blair seem nice? When we weren’t distracted by Loaded Magazine or giggling at Viz, we were cheering Cocker ruining Michael Jackson’s Earth Song at the BRITs and watching Oasis make history at Knebworth. Twice. We fell in love with the Spice Girls (well, their Say You'll Be There video) and cried when Gabby left Big Breakfast. And cried again as mums kept buying Robson & Jerome singles. Just get back on Solider Solider. Or was it London’s Burning? We had Trainspotting, The Girlie Show, Dennis Pennis, Katie Puckrik in Pyjama party, Bizarre magazine, Kate Moss was Heroin Chic and amidst all this creativity and change the only Clone was Dolly the sheep?! Who, weirdly, has a twitter account (@dollyat20) and we still hadn’t had a Doom Killer, now three years old. The only FPS game to gain any momentum wasn’t found in your local Our Price, it was at the bottom of cereal packets. id had gone on a licensing frenzy, milking the Doom engine before it became obsolete and Chex Quest turned the best game of the decade into a commercial for a breakfast cereal and copies are still traded today.
Finally, in June 1996 we had something that kept us up so late we missed breakfast. I disliked Quake intensely on release - all the technological achievements were lost on me; I didn’t care about polygons and 3D, I wanted - expected, demanded - the shock and awe of Doom. Only id could do that, reclaim the FPS mantle after so many clones but to me, their return felt clinical and clean – It might have been a giant leap for game engines but it was small step for shooters; Quake was half the game Doom was.
When I restart Quake with a massive clip on my shoulder, I realise it is a thing of beauty. After all those minimal pixels, the similar environments, Quake is incredible, nothing short of genius at work. You can’t exist in this world and go back to Doom and think it’s better. But then, after a few hours play … I was right the first time. Quake is so polished, so perfect, so boring. You never feel like you won a level, that you pulled off a fast-one, a lucky streak, dragged a bloodied Doomguy to the exit hoping the next level has health at the start.
There’s four different worlds to fight through, but that’s not as refreshing as it might seem. It creates a disconnect - Doom had no real plot but you descended deeper into hell as you went, whereas four different worlds feels like starting over and over, relearning the world. It's four mini-games not one epic gun-fest. The creatures move in realistic ways, the weapons are more varied and the world is full of stuff but you’re never really there. Quake feels at arms-length; Doom reached through the monitor and grabbed you by the scruff.
A key element to Doom was that feeling you were outnumbered, that you weren’t going to survive this; Quake may not have been able to replicate that original experience but it could easily have bettered the against-the-odds, breathless victory you got after beating a Cyberdemon. Quake is Blink-182 to Doom’s The Pistols; I don’t see how it’s considered one of the most influential games of all time. The Quake engine yes, but not the experience. Yet again I find new appreciation for what Doom did.
Quake didn’t kill Doom, it killed the single player. Quake’s multiplayer was an undeniable quantum leap - towards Single Player missions being little more than a five-hour tutorial for the online experience. There’s nothing wrong with Multiplayer – clearly that’s what id thought, given Quake III was MP only and it was done right in Quake - but Single Player was compromised. This is where the rot set in.
Meanwhile, genres other than FPS were stepping up their games. The Elder Scrolls proved they weren’t just a dungeon crawler with Daggerfall while Tomb Raider kicked off in October of ’96. If Doom was the King then the Queen was Lara Croft, easily the most iconic image of 90s gaming - but it didn’t change things in the way it should; we didn’t see a sudden shift to female leads, women treated any more equally or non-sexually in games. For all of Tomb Raider’s advancements it was Lara’s pixelated adolescent dream-figure that everyone remembered. 1996 also saw the beginning of the Resident Evil series and some company called Valve. It was a hell of a digital year, and what was FPS up to? Chasing a pig called Bessie. What, you too nervous about Y2K to build games?
I remember mucking about in Redneck Rampage (April 1997) and not really getting it; two brothers looking for their pig, stolen by aliens who have cloned their neighbours? Now I’m rescuing a pig? How far are those Doom Clones going to push their luck? Back then I found it too silly, sacked it off as undermining a genre that was just starting to get interesting. But after the deathly dullness of Quake, when I load up RR and hear a ‘yeehaw’ I think ‘Let’s do this’.
The opening level, where you cross a road while avoiding a car zipping around running over chickens, gives you an idea of what you’re up against and while I watch the car I get shotgunned by a Bubba in overalls screeching something in Redneck. I start again, trying to work out where the Redneck came from, and get run over. Man, being a redneck is hard.
Soon though, I get my eye in - which isn’t easy as RR is set at night and the blocky graphics of Build are grating after Quake’s smoothness, but there’s something to RR I hadn’t previously got wind of (not the fart-o-meter) - actual fun; we had Duke’s bluster, but otherwise FPS is a very serious affair; what we needed was pure nutso insanity and that’s what RR is; out of nowhere I discover a game I didn’t expect - a really good one. What in tarnation? I’m yeehawing like a good ol’boy.
There’s loads going on, to look at, to press and break, and instead of regular level layout we’re stumbling through farms, shacks, grain stores and trailers - it isn’t nonlinear but there’s a nice open world feel to it, something Duke also touched on and a further step from Doom’s corridors - later levels start to feel familiar once you’re in the towns but it maintains a quirky feel; a little unhinged level-design is refreshing and the enemies - classic rednecks alongside the aliens, including a dominatrix are great fun. Take heed RotT, this is how you do daft.
There’s the in-jokes too, and not all are aimed at the redneck caricature; while we’re somewhere between Deliverance and The Beverley Hillbillies, there’s a poster for a Troma movie, references to the artists on the soundtrack and typical alien tropes like crop circles and cows being mutilated – and tons of deep-south wisecracking from the heroes and the rednecks you gun down. The weapons are typical but there’s some homemade, jury-rigged backwoods style changes to the usual line-up, while a new trick is the burp and fart meters. Not exactly classy but they’re a fun way to add a penalty to using health powerups - drinking gets you drunk and impossible to control, eating makes you fart, giving you away. Redneck is really starting to stand out as something else; you can call it a hillbilly Duke but I’m having fun ya varmint - but not too much; it’s a subtly strong game, a lot more unforgiving than earlier FPS. Its psychobilly soundtrack (‘You Can’t Kill Me’ by Mojo Nixon is a standout as is Beat Farmers’ ‘Gettin’ Drunk’, proper psychobilly stuff not yer Cotton’Eye Joe, although now I have that stuck in my head) adds a new level too - instead of Doom’s dirge you merrily sing-along, to the point you don’t end a level ‘till the song’s finished. And you end levels by finding your dozy bro and clobbering him with a crowbar … it’s great to have a hero who instead of being heroic, complains ‘Ma head hurts, ma feet stank and I don’t love Jesus’.
You get the sense developers Xatrix had fun and it’s infectious - Saints Row and Borderlands owe RR a nod; it paved the way for the ridiculous to slip into shooters. It had sequels but RR was perhaps too silly to be remembered; I was equally guilty of dismissing it, but I missed out; open a can of whoopass and get ready to don’t love Jesus. It’s a great Doom-era shooter. Just remember those rednecks pack a punch; it’s not all banjo playing.
Redneck Rampage reminded me of another thing missing from modern games – extras. Games used to include entire Windows themes, screensavers, audio clips, pictures, all sorts. You just don’t get that kind of thing anymore, but I still have the ‘Cuss pack’ from RR; and now I have “I’m on you like flies on shee-it” as my ringtone.
Now, who want-a som Wang?
I recall Lo-Wang and Duke as buddies, equal in their abilities, including getting girls to show them their boobies. I’ve been looking forward to Shadow Warrior (May 1997) as I think I preferred Lo-Wang to Duke; he was a bit more mischievous, less Jock more Mock. SW was a straight-faced comedy, like a game based on some 1980s Ninja flick from Cannon Films. An Asian character – the kind created by a bunch of people who are not Asian - Lo-Wang revels in the innuendo of his name and doesn't take anything seriously. Even when his old boss, Zilla, sends hordes of underworld forces to stop him, LW still treats it all like shit and giggles.
Much like Duke, Lo-Wang inhabits a world that’s fast leaving Doomguy’s behind - Build’s interactivity is at the fore in SW; LW can find repair kits to chug around in tanks, forklifts and boats, there’s puzzles and secrets that require some figuring out and he can muck about with little RC cars – we’re in the world more than ever before. It’s interesting that Quake far exceeds Build in terms of capability and environment, but SW just feels alive, immersive. The art design, which is Japanese influenced is detailed and like DN3D there’s loads going on. But Shadow Warrior starts to wear thin and one of the most important parts, one I previously loved, is to blame - Lo-Wang. Once he gets tiring, the game does. When he’s not making groan-worthy jokes about his name/manhood, he’s commenting on everything - ‘ohhh sticky bomb likes you’, ‘You are tiny grasshopper’, ‘You move like-a pregnant yak’ - he just goes on and on; an Eraser-inspired railgun is ruined by LW saying ‘you got Erased’ Every. Single. Time. And when he’s not commentating, he’s making Bruce Lee noises or giggling to himself. Super-health comes in the form of Chinese fortune cookies, which are puns like ‘man who farts in church sits in his own pew’. Okay I sniggered too and after nothing but ‘Ger, gah, uuugh’ sounds from my heroes, I should be happy to have a Chatty-Cathy for company but Lo-Wang is sidekick elevated to annoying hero.
Shadow Warrior is a case of diminishing returns - this is from 3DR again and like Duke, level design isn’t their forte. There’s a lot in it but it doesn’t go anywhere; it’s too reliant on the novelties but whereas Duke saved DN3D, once Lo-Wang grates some misgivings start to creep in. 3DR just cloned Duke thinking that would be enough, amping up his juvenile antics but Lo-Wang perpetuates the Asian stereotype with his ‘Engrish’ accent, Fu-Manchu moustache and kung-fu bants, and his Duke-lite persona falls into misogyny; Lo-Wang just accosts random girls – ‘Lo Wang drop soap,’ he says to a girl he corners in a shower, ‘you bend over and get it’ or telling a girl mechanic ‘chicky, you tighten my nuts’ – Plus, the girls all seem to love his attention, including one he interrupts on the toilet. In one secret area he comes across Sailor Moon on a bed - and asks ‘peaches’ if she’d consider Mooning him. Dick. Duke had an old spice swagger that justified his ladykiller ways and, politically correct or not, he paid strippers for a flash in a strip club; he didn’t sleaze.
I haven’t been this disappointed since my Tamagotchi died. I’m saddened Lo-Wang turned out to be Lo-rent, but it really is the weakest of the ‘Big Four’ Build games; and it’s 3DR’s fault again. They should have just licensed the Build engine and left the design to those who knew what they were doing. It bleeds the Build engine dry, making SW the most interactive, touchy-feely (Sailor’s Moon aside) game so far. But the only one really enjoying himself is Lo-Wang.
Stand back ladies and gents, we’re about to play the game that, if asked, I would have accused of killing Doom. Blood (May 1997) was the last notable game on the Build engine. Because nothing could top it, obviously. Blood’s Caleb was the Snake Plisskin of the gaming world; pissed-off, dangerous and with a singular purpose. He was awesome - the bleaker, darker anti-hero of the era who sounded a bit unhinged, muttering Evil Dead references and singing Frank Sinatra as he killed indiscriminately. I’ve been looking forward to this. Don’t let me down Caleb.
Blood has something all the others didn’t - a reason. This is where FPS actually got a story, a motive to maim your way to the end; The CGI opening sets the scene in a horribly morbid and cool way; Caleb, a brutal wild-west killer-for-hire was initiated into a dark cabal by his wife. Inexplicably, their dark god punishes them for some slight, and Caleb is buried alive after witnessing his beloved maimed by a demon. Escaping, Caleb goes on a rampage in the most imaginative levels we’ve blasted through so far.
One minute you’re in Camp Crystal Lake, the next fighting through a moving train, the mazes of the overlooked hotel, a fairground-circus, a remake of Dawn of the Dead; each level is a world we recognise from our VHS collection not Doom - Every other FPS you’d struggle to recognise one level from another if they were in a line-up; But Blood’s levels are all unique and fantastic to maim through. You never get bored in Blood - the story, level design, references, there’s so much going on yet it isn’t a distraction from some killer action; Blood is relentless, and the boss-fights for the first time are not OTT arena fights – they take some strategic foot-work and weapon-picking. The weapons too are nicely macabre - voodoo dolls, tommy-guns, his melee weapon is a pitchfork. When he lobbed dynamite with bloody results, Caleb cackles maniacally. Now that’s a hero sound, not Lo-Wang’s ehehehehe kid-being-tickled gurgle. Elsewhere Caleb’s rasping voice quotes everything from The Crow to a Harrison Ford The Fugitive/Air Force One mash-up … and he’s got sarcastic putdowns; upon finding a dead Duke Nukem, he double zings with ‘looks like I got time to play with you’ followed by ‘shake it baby’. If Shadow Warrior was an ill-conceived nod to Big Trouble in Little China, then this is John Carpenter’s The Thing with a nice sideline in They Live.
What is interesting though, is Blood’s story; something we’d not needed or wanted before. But Caleb had his reasons, and each episode ended with his avenging his wife and friends, headed towards a finale -with a god no less- only to leave empty-but-bloody-handed.
Of all the Build developers, Monolith is the one to really make the engine sing; sitting perfectly between SW’s novelty distractions and Duke’s outrageous set-pieces, Blood is brilliant and should be played just see how a shooter should work. Mindless killing and a mindful plot, it’s a perfectly balanced FPS and one of the best shooters of all time.
Blood didn't kill Doom, the story-driver concept only really exists in the cutscenes and it still owes a debt to Doom but it provided that little edge as the endless blasting of FPS starts to get a little tiring. Blood is the first to seriously wound Doom.
There were Build games after Blood; TNT Team released Nam in July 1998, a reskin/mod of Duke with RotT-style scanned photos and flat environments. It did have some nice touches, like picking up orders from NCPs and having followers. Oddly, I didn’t see a heads-up display. But it had a semi-sequel in ’99, WWII GI. There was also Extreme Paintbrawl in 1998; let’s not talk about that. One thing to talk about though, is the argument that Build weakened the sincerity of FPS; that as soon as we were able to ask strippers to shake it baby, it became a battle of novelties and distractions; the visceral experience got watered down. I don’t think Build is to blame for that, indeed Blood’s bare-bones plotting makes it the best of the bunch - but 3DR were to blame; they just weren’t natural level designers like Romero - instead of using Build to enrich the Doom experience, they made theme parks; Romero raised level design to an art form, able to imagine not just the world, but you in it and then make it exciting to fight your way out. 3DR settled for boobs.
And that was it for Build, which really disappoints me; besides the technical marvels, Build games made you feel like anyone Kurt Russell played in the 80s; they were filled with refs to Evil Dead, John Carpenter, Sly & Arnie’s best 80s characters, even Elvira; so much was threaded through Build’s games that you felt as if the developers were mates; they were into what we were into - this was back when being a gamer was looked down on by Jocks and their new extreme sports like surfing on snow - Build let us know we weren’t alone. Build let us be heroes.
It’s a shame 3DR decided to spend all of their cash and good-will on the twelve-year development of Duke Nukem Forever; to piss away Duke Nukem was one (upsetting) thing, but to ignore what they’d achieved with Ken Silverman was unforgivable; just imagine what could have come next. Instead, Silverman stepped away from the gaming industry and became “CTO of Ardfry Imaging, responsible for the PNG Compression tool PNGOUT” which doesn’t sound like something Duke or Caleb would say. But I’m sure it’s had an effect on my digital life. He only made one engine, yet Silverman’s contribution was massive and it entertained and impacted beyond the games it powered; All hail the real king, baby.
So, Build was a shot across the bow, but no Doom-killing cigar. Onward. Maybe Elexis Sinclair has something to do with it. I’d better frisk her.
In Part Four of this increasingly indulgent look at the classic FPS era, FBT trades in his Portable CD player for a MP3, invents conspiracy theories to explain Doom’s death and spends most if the review trying to get in an Anna Nicole Smith reference.