Heretic (DOS) Review

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Review by tankMage (December 2016)

Score: B+

   After giving my first DOS game a rather middling score, I decided to hunt down a better example of a classic computer game and stumbled upon an FPS title called Heretic. Those familiar with the classic first person shooter, DOOM, will see a lot of similarities in Heretic, and rightfully so, since it uses the same engine. After slogging through the technical mess that was The Elder Scrolls: Arena, I could plainly see why Id Software’s DOOM engine was so highly lauded. While Heretic may seem primitive by today’s standards, it runs beautifully and the fantasy setting is refreshing in a genre that is primarily dominated by military themed games. Heretic is also notable for its inventory system which is touted as the first to appear in a first person shooter.

Graphics

   The 3D environments are somewhat crude, but have aged gracefully thanks to Heretic’s art style, which was fairly colorful. While early three dimensional games were often visually barren due to technological limitations, Raven did a good job of designing areas that had details such as flickering braziers, tapestries, smouldering lava flows, and stain glass windows.

   Sprites are generally used in Heretic for most objects in lieu of polygons due to technological limitations of the time. The quality of these sprites oscillates between good and mediocre. Generally, weapon sprites are very well made (with the Ethereal Crossbow and Phoenix Rod being my favorite) and monster sprites are decent, except for those that appear poorly proportioned, which may have been a stylistic choice. While most of the creatures look ok, the animations used in this game tend to be limited to walk and attack cycles composed of just a few frames, which causes much of the action the appear a bit choppy. It seems that the artist was more concerned with making the weapons and projectiles aesthetically pleasing, because they boast effects and animations that must have been quite impressive at the time and retain much of their charm to this day.

       Many of the issues with Heretic’s visuals can probably be attributed more to the technological limitations of the time rather than any degree of laziness on Raven’s part. Even high end computers of the mid nineties would have had great difficulty running some portions of this title if the animations had been too complex. In fact, Heretic must have been rather impressive for it’s time considering the number of objects that appear on screen and the size of the stages; of course much of this is lost on someone like myself who is playing it for the first time, since a cheap laptop or phone could probably run this game with ease.

What’s cooler than a crossbow? A crossbow that shoots magic.

Story

   Heretic is strong in terms of concept despite the fact that it essentially a fantasy version of DOOM. This is mainly thanks to its setting and backstory, which are both fairly interesting. The backstory states that the Sidhe Elves and humans once lived in relative peace until a strange new religion began to spread through the human realm. The new religion was a sort of Trojan Horse that the evil D’Sparil used to infiltrate and weaken human society as a means of facilitating his invasion plans. The human realms quickly collapsed under pressure from D’Sparil, but the Sidhe, who resisted any attempts at conversion fought back, prompting the invaders to massacre them. Our hero, Corvus, is a powerful elvish wizard who has set out to avenge his people using mighty magical artifacts. Not a bad basis for a game, but the the introduction is the only truly detailed information players are treated to…and it’s not even exhibited within the game.

User Interface

   There are several modes of control for this game: keyboard only, mouse and keyboard, and joystick. I was only able to test the first two, because my controller doesn’t seem compatible with DOSbox (the emulator needed to pay Heretic). At any rate the keyboard and mouse/keyboard options are very similar, with the latter being more comfortable to use. Both versions are plagued by the fact that you must use the arrow keys to move instead of WASD (did they think everyone was left handed back then?), but you can fix this issue by changing the button inputs in the game’s config file. The inventory system is also difficult to cycle through and the buttons are poorly placed yet again. Apparently Heretic is the first FPS game to have an inventory system, so I’ll cut Raven some slack: it’s not easy being the first to implement an idea.

   Aside from the slightly uncomfortable button setup, Heretic responds to inputs like a finely tuned sports car. My only real complaint is that the auto-aim has difficulty locking onto enemies on a different plane that the player, which can be a minor hassle since there’s plenty of flying foes.*

*It is possible to look up or down using the page up and page down buttons, which helps a lot with the auto-aim issue.

Music

   Heretic’s soundtrack meshes well with its gameplay and is well composed, even though I did not find it terribly interesting. Some of the songs are very energetic and enhance the game’s pace, while others are more brooding depending on the stage, either way the music at least lends to Heretic’s atmosphere.

   There are also quite a few cool sound effects that really enhance the auditory aspects of Heretic and make the game experience more visceral. The various wands and staves our hero uses emit some cool sounds that make combat that much more satisfying. The monsters also have their own sound clips that are generally entertaining and, in the case of the Disciples of D’Sparil who chant eerily, rather unnerving. The hero himself is fairly reticent aside from the occasional maniacal laugh, which he utters upon grabbing a weapon. In the end, this game managed to impress me with its audio despite the fact that I did not find myself humming any of its tunes in the shower.

Gameplay

   Heretic is a fine example of an early true three dimensional first person shooter. As good as this game is, it really doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from DOOM aside from its cool fantasy concept and inventory system. Heretic’s stages also tend to vary in terms of quality and challenge, making it erratic and somewhat disappointing at times.

   This title consists of three campaigns, each of which is made up of roughly nine stages, which is a fair amount of content (the Shadow of the Serpent Riders expansion added even more campaigns). Each campaign has its own unique look and is populated by plenty of foes. There’s also a plethora of items and secrets to hunt down for those who enjoy exploring. The campaigns themselves vary in quality however. City of the Damned is the first campaign and perhaps the most poorly designed at least in terms of difficulty curve and the flow of action. The primary issue with the first campaign is that some of the stages tend to be rather convoluted and difficult to navigate for new players. While some of the maps in City of the Damned were fun to explore and there were a few interesting battles to fight, the majority stages were tedious thanks to a slew of switches that had to be activated. These stages also required the player to backtrack often, which really took away from the action.

   The second campaign, Hell’s Maw, was much more straightforward and had new enemies as well as weapons. The final boss fight was the high point of Hell’s Maw and it was satisfying taking down two relatively powerful foes. Hell’s Maw did suffer from some of the same issues as City of the Damned, but to a far lesser extent. The tougher monsters and interesting level designs also helped this campaign along.

   The Dome of D’Sparil is the final and perhaps most simplistic of the campaigns. There was a greater emphasis on combat in this set of stages, which was a very welcome change. Of course there was still plenty of map checking, key grabbing (keys or keycards seem to be mandatory in old school FPS titles), and switch pulling to be had, but at least there were a lot of beasties to blast. The final boss fight was also quite well designed and it took some effort on my part to take him down.

It seems Corvus is so badass that he draws maps while shooting at things.

  The denizens of the world of Heretic are for the most part standard fantasy fare with deceivingly creative names like “Weredragon”  and “Maulotaur”. There’s also a lot of unexpectedly diminutive gargoyles which you’ll encounter them constantly. At least the monsters are well designed and a few of them are sort of original. Perhaps Heretic’s greatest downfall is that the developers were not terribly creative with their use of mobs. The few imaginative combat situations the devs managed to dream up, like ambushes triggered by activating a switch or grabbing an item, were overused to the point that they became boring. While the foes in this game were neither used nor designed imaginatively, combat was still fast paced and boss battles were very satisfying.

   No FPS title is complete without an arsenal of weapons large enough to equip a small army and in Heretic the standard pistols, shotguns, and rocket launchers have been supplanted by magical apparati. The player starts out with an Elven Wand that serves as a pea shooter and will discover a number of exotic weapons as the game progresses. The Ethereal Crossbow behaves somewhat like a shotgun, the Gauntlets of the Necromancer tear foes apart with green lightning, and the Dragon Claw chews enemies apart with rapid fire energy shots. While most of the weapons I encountered in Heretic had some sort of standard FPS counterpart, they behaved slightly differently than expected. Weapons do not need to be reloaded (be careful: ammo is still finite) and firing hundreds of…er…rounds non-stop was rather amusing. Even better, the Tome of Power grants each weapon a unique enhancement for a short period of time that can be used strategically. Of course, their are a few problems concerning this title’s arsenal. The Hell Staff, Dragon Claw, and Fire Mace are all very similar. The aforementioned armaments seem to vary only in terms of damage, appearance, and how they behave under the effects of the Tome of Power and come off as redundant filler. Overall, the weapons in this game are a lot of fun to use and help push Heretic out of DOOM’s shadow a bit, even if it is hard to tell a few of them apart from a more technical perspective.

   Heretic features a fairly robust assortment of useable items that can be stored and activated later thanks to it’s inventory system, which I touched upon in the user interface section. The items themselves are fairly creative and help make the game more exciting to play. Some of them are fairly original, like the Shadow Sphere, which gives the hero ghost like powers for a few minutes. (Unfortunately the Shadow Sphere doesn’t allow you to float or pass through walls, but it will make you immune to non-magical attacks and difficult to spot, which is helpful.) Those who wish to fly should take heart: The Wings of Wrath allow the hero to fly for a limited time; an idea that was ahead of its time. There’s plenty of other goodies to use in Heretic and they are all fairly practical or at least amusing. So while the inventory system may not be smoothly implemented, the items themselves are top notch.

   Finally, Heretic has a few mechanics that were probably quite new to FPS games at the time (aside from flight and the inventory system). The first is a sort of precursor to the dynamic lighting that is quite common today, but was rarely seen in the mid nineties. There’s even a few instances where the devs got creative with the lighting effects, but I’m not going to spoil the surprise by describing this facet of the game too much. Enemies and environmental factors can also push the player, which may not seem ground breaking, but was novel when Heretic was released.

   In the end, Heretic’s gameplay is fairly decent aside from the fact that players will have to spend a lot of time groping around for keys and switches. The greatest strength of this game was its fast paced action that holds up to this day.

Multiplayer

   Apparently this title features several multiplayer modes including a death match that pits players against one another.  I was unable to test this aspect of the game, because, while DOSbox is a great tool, it can only do so much and internet play is not within its capabilities. Those who wish to play with friends can still do so via a LAN connection. Sadly, I was unable to test even the LAN multiplayer due to time constraints, but maybe I can convince a friend or two to join me in a deathmatch in the future.

Final Thoughts

   This game would have scored a bit higher if not for the awkward controls (which can be fixed at least) and the gameplay which tends to sag at points thanks to all of the pointless pseudo-puzzles. Heretic’s devs would have done well to focus more on combat than exploration, but what’s done is done. The story could have been fleshed out a bit too; Raven managed to spin an interesting tale, but failed to capitalize on it. All in all, this game is fun and I enjoyed blasting my way through it’s campaigns. Heretic not only had an expansion, but also sequels in the form of Hexen and Heretic II, which I look forward to playing.

Recommendations

Heretic is a good example of an early FPS title and anyone who enjoys the genre should give it a try, it’s also a good introductory game for novice players.

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