Back when I was a Windows gamer, I heard a lot of hoopla about Heretic II. Mostly, people were talking about the fantastic special effects and the unique third person perspective that Raven had adopted. After about two months, I even bought a used copy for $15 at my local software store and happily took it home to try out for myself. Once playing, though, it didn’t impress me as much as I had been hoping for and I gave up and went back to playing through Grand Theft Auto.
When Loki sent me a copy of their Linux version of Heretic II this past January, I tore into it and, in that fit of optimism that comes with getting new games in the mail, popped it into the drive. I promised myself that I’d put my previous experience with Heretic II behind and give it a fresh look. Unfortunately, the initial release was hampered by a mysterious bug and until recently, when Loki released their beta patch, I could not give this game a thorough workout. So now I’m all patched up and have been playing non-stop for several days. Read on to see how it turned out…
In Heretic II, you take on the role of Corvus, a Sidhe Elf, returned from exile to the city of Parthoris. Unable to catch an even break, Corvus finds that evil is afoot in the streets of Parthoris, for the city has been ravaged by a horrible plague. Instead of a hero’s welcome, the diseased cityfolk beset him, fighting to see who gets to eat his liver (with fava
beans, no doubt). At the end of the introductory level, Corvus has learned enough to determine that he alone can save his people from this scourge. Through various cutscenes and quests for items spread throughout the game, the story unfolds and Corvus moves inexorably towards his destiny.
Instead of the usual weaponry and armor found in a shooter, Corvus has at his disposal offensive spells, defensive spells, staves, rods, and magical armor. Mana, the fuel used to power spells, comes in two flavors: blue is for defensive spells and green is for offensive spells. Mana is found hiding around the levels and on the bodies of some enemies; it can also be replenished at special totems called Seraph Shrines. (The Shrines also provide other bonuses, like armor and the ability to stay underwater longer.)
Heretic II has the obligatory multiplayer mode in which players can take on each other in deathmatch or deathmatch teamplay arenas. And for those that so wish, there is even a cooperative mode that allows players to team up with a friend in playing through the single player scenario.
Single Player Story Mode
While far ahead of Quake II (on whose engine it is built), Heretic II puts in a mildly interesting performance if you’re in search of a single player, third-person shooter adventure. After the first sequence of levels (and the clash with a mini-boss) the story does pick up with a twist that most players will see coming. Despite telegraphing the direction of the story, this twist does give you a stronger reason to continue hacking your way through the hordes of evil creatures. (Sure, saving your homeland is a worthy goal, but there’s no better motivator than to make the conflict personal.) Along with the over-the-shoulder view made famous by CORE’s Tomb Raider, the designers seem to have taken a few other tips from
Lara’s games. First among these, for me, is the classic oversized switch on the wall. (I’ll be glad when someone finally finds a building in a game with normal sized switches and levers.) Also, there are some relatively mild crate-jumping sections that remind me of Tomb Raider, and even a “missing cog” puzzle (for those that remember the “Lost Valley” level in TR).
Where the story mode of Heretic II really shines, though, is in the level design. In this respect, the game takes the best quality of the Tomb Raider series and uses its more advanced 3D engine to great effect. On rare occasions, a series of halls seems notably uninspired, but often there are some fantastic rooms and vistas awaiting you on almost every level. Whereas Quake II seemed an exercise in repetition, both in level design and texture use, Heretic II gives each sequence of levels a unique flavor. As a you move from area to area, you’ll notice a change in architecture and in textures that augment the sense of reality that 3D games strive to achieve. Despite some blockiness around curved surfaces, an effect made even more jarring by the introduction of Quake III, most of the world is rendered with a skilled hand.
Along with the lush levels, the world of Heretic II is further enhanced by the liberal use of aural effects. Most players will note immediately in the first level, the deserted city, several sounds that help set the mood for the level. The bizarre crying-laughing sound, for example, that echoes throughout the streets is quite eerie and memorable. Yet, there are some points about the audio in Heretic II that bother me. Primary among those is the footsteps sound for Corvus. The poor elf sounds like a horse clomping around the levels sometimes! Additionally, the repetition of some of the phrases and sounds uttered by the enemies starts to wear thin after a while. Those minor complaints aside, the soundwork admirably complements the excellent level design.
As an unfortunate consequence of the introduction of Quake III Arena, games based on the Quake II engine have started to look dated. To my eye, this is quite evident in the player and enemy models of Heretic II. In the cut scenes that use the 3D engine, if the camera gets too close, you get the impression that Corvus looks like he might be made out of polyhedral
blocks of Jell-O, an effect that I find distracting. (This effect is also quite evident in Kingpin, another Quake II engine.) And while the player models are well-textured, I suspect that many Quake III Arena players will notice the relatively lower polygon count models. Despite the model detail limitations, the player models are well animated; Corvus can move from running to jumping to dodging to climbing a rope with surprising fluidity.
And while the enemies themselves are equally well animated, their AI is atrocious. Honestly, most of the AI seems to be about as advanced as that we knew in Doom: wait around, see the player, make a straight line path for him, attack. So, while ample development time was clearly spent on eye-popping special effects, bloody gibs, and dismemberments, you are hard pressed to find a modicum of intelligence in your foes.
To sum up, the single player experience is a mixed bag. The story itself is rather run-of-the-mill, enemies are little more than mindless targets, and some limitations of the dated Quake II engine are evident. However, the levels and the sounds that inhabit them are entertaining and, at times, inspired.
Multiplayer (Online and LAN)
As an unfortunate consequence of the introduction of Quake III Arena, games
For players wanting a bit more of a challenge than the single player game provides, Heretic II has an array of options for playing against your friends. Fortunately, the bulk of multiplayer options are all selectable from within the menu system, eliminating the need for arcane command line options. This makes setting up a LAN game simple and quick.
To find online servers a players will need to use an external browser like QStat or perhaps XQF. I’ve spent a number of hours playing online, at the lone Heretic II server I found with XQF, and it’s been a blast. If you’re tired of the rocket launcher and other standard shooter game standards, you may very well find that Heretic II provides a fresh look at deathmatch. The spells and weapons are, to say the very least,
different from anything the Quake games have to offer. I suspect that with extended playing, combatants find a personal combination of offensive spells (or weapons) and defensive spells as comfortable and powerful as the Quad and rocket launcher. I’m also pleased to report that the networking is smooth and as playable as Quake II, making my 56k connection more than adequate for heated online deathmatch.
Linux Specific Issues
I think it’s worth pointing out that, up until now, most of the complaints that I’ve had rest squarely on the game as designed by Raven. They aren’t knocks at Loki; as far as I can tell, Heretic II for Linux is as faithful a port from the original Windows game as anyone could hope for. For Linux specific issues, I’m speaking mainly to the parts of the game over which I feel that Loki had influence.
As we’ve all come to expect by now, Loki’s graphical installer is a fine piece of work, and it makes installing Heretic II a breeze. After installing, gamers have a choice of two renderers: software or OpenGL. For this review, I used the OpenGL renderer with my Voodoo3-3000 and found that it worked extremely well, just as the installer configured it. There is even an OpenGL library included just for NVIDIA TNT users (however, I’m unable to speak to how well it works.) Note that the software renderer, from the short times that I’ve tested it, seems a viable option for machines with enough horsepower. But it should go without saying that Heretic II looks its very best with hardware rendering.
Fortunately for Linux Heretic II players, the media designed for the Windows version of Heretic II, including models, skins, and user-made levels, should all work with the Linux client. As with all the Quake games, Linux users can also enjoy the benefits of cross-platform networking. So as long as you and your Windows friends are patched up to the same revision (1.06), you can frag each other, regardless of your chosen OS.
One issue in particular about Heretic II did bother me from the day that I got my copy until the release of the beta patch on 25 March 2000: I could not play Heretic II because of an insidious, debilitating mouse bug. The bug manifested itself by dropping the framerate (in software and hardware rendering) to an unplayable level whenever the mouse was used for two different actions. For example, when using the mouse to freelook and move forward (button 3 in my config) the framerate dropped to what I estimate to be, at best, the low teens. Further, since I use button 1 for attack, and you can see how
the game was a complete loss. I could have reconfigured my keys in order to play the game, but I consider that option objectionable, since this was clearly a bug, not a user interface issue. Further, I tested the game on four machines total (my home machine, my work machine, and the machines of two friends) with various X configurations and even with the pre-release DRI X server for my Voodoo3. All machines exhibited the same mouse bug. Others have reported the bug on Loki’s Heretic II newsgroup and on the bug tracking system, Fenris, so it seems that I wasn’t alone in my plight. As the game was available in stores during the third week of December, this means that some Linux gamers may have had to wait more than three months to use their brand new game, a situation that I would deem unacceptable. Fortunately, Loki has made good on their promise to fix most outstanding issues in the beta patch, and that seems to be the case. With the beta patch (and the imminent official patch), I consider Heretic II finally up to the usual high standard that Linux users can usually count on in a Loki release.
Another aspect about the Heretic II port is that Linux gamers may find disappointing is that the bulk of online gamers have moved to new experiences. As I remarked, XQF only found one Heretic II server for me to try. Indeed, this page at Gamespy shows no Heretic II servers at all (or at least so few that they don’t bother listing them.) So while online gaming is certainly one of the high points of Heretic II, Linux users are arriving late and in too few numbers to really enjoy this game at its height online. Luckily, it makes a great LAN game and I fully intend to play at LAN parties with my friends.
With its heavily tweaked graphics engine and strong networking support, Heretic II had the potential to be a great Linux game. And, for the most part, Loki has done what they can to make this game a success in the Linux market. However, the game’s potential has been hurt, in my view, by two factors. First, most online gamers that ever played Heretic II have moved on to other games. And, to a lesser extent, a few painful bugs plagued an initial release which has only recently seen a patch. If you have gotten your fill of other shooters then perhaps considering Heretic II for a diversion is an option, especially if you want to try out a different system of combat or would like a single player Linux shooter with more story than Quake II.
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