Thursday, October 27, 2011

HeXen: Beyond Heretic Review

Game:  HeXen: Beyond Heretic
Year (s):  1995 (original), 1996 (expansion)
Company:  dev.  Raven Software
            pub.  id Software
Engine:  id Tech 1 (modified)
Type:  First-Person Shooter

Price (as of 10/27/11 )

Regular price on Steam:  4.99
Lowest Buy-It-Now on eBay (new, with shipping):  29.99

Game Time:  20-30 hours

Obligatory Trailer:


Heretic established that three evil Serpent Riders conquered three worlds.  In Hexen, three heroes (a warrior, a cleric, and a wizard) set off to destroy the second of the Serpent Riders to free their world. 

Gameplay and Classes

Before the first level, the player chooses to be a Warrior, a Cleric, or a Wizard.  Weapons are different for each, with the warrior favoring melee, the wizard sticking to long-range attacks, and the cleric in the middle.  Athletic ability, i.e. jumping, varies between classes, and each use flechettes (grenades) differently.  Exploring the different classes makes it more interesting to play the game more than once.

An inventory of magical item complement your weapons.  Some of these return from Heretic, and others are new.  Heal yourself!  Turn you enemy into a pig!  And so on.  Unfortunately, this system is still clunky and not really useful on the fly.  Realistically, you have to select the item you want to use before you get in a fight, because scrolling through inventory while attacking and dodging isn't feasible. 

The Hub System

As a diversion from what was, and continues to be, a genre of linear games, Hexen introduced the hub system.  Each level, of hub, is made up of a handful of distinct, interconnected locales.  Switches in one area have effects in another, and you'll be moving back and forth between the areas.

The hub system is a cool idea, and it has been utilized in other games such as Quake 2.  In Hexen, the hub concept isn't done so well.  At times, it's a fun run-and-gun with refreshing changes of scenery.  At other times, I wandered around a hub for an hour or more trying to find out what the hell that switch did.  It did something, but that something could be anywhere in the hub.  And it might be in a nook or some illogical corner.   

Improvements to the Doom Engine

This was the first game I played where I could jump, and took damage from falling.  While still using MIDI for game sound and music, Hexen was able to play audio CDs.  Rotating objects, doors that swing open, and scripted events round out the technical advances.

Regardless, zDoom is compatible.

Expansions / DLC / Sequels

Deathknights of the Dark Citadel offered three new hubs to play through, but without new items, weapons, enemies, or gameplay elements.  I have not played this, but if there's anything worth mentioning about it, I'll augment this entry after playing it.

Hexen 2 (1997) uses a modified id Tech 2 (Quake) engine.  This game offered a few improvements over Hexen and involved fighting the third and last of the Serpent Riders.  An expansion was also developed.

Heretic 2 (1998) uses a modified id Tech 2 (Quake) engine and follows the later adventures of the character from the original Heretic.  Gameplay introduced third-person cutscenes, and plot has nothing much to do with the other games.  This is the only game of the the Heretic/Hexen series that was not published by id.

Final Thoughts

I think the hub concept was, and still could be, a valid alternative to a genre that is still mostly linear.  Sandbox games have changed things up, but the hub system seems to have been left behind.  Hexen was, at times, a fun old-school shooter.  Too often though, I didn't know where to go or what to do, and got frustrated.  Unlike in other games, no-clipping through one obstacle or cheating to get one key may well allow you to bypass an entire level. 

I picked this one up because it was cheap and I played it as a kid.  If you don't mind cheating when things get stupid, you might have some fun with this, but it's not great.  I offer it as a footnote in the genre, but I don't recommend it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Ball Review

Game:  The Ball
Year (s):  2010
Company:  dev.  Teotl Studios
            pub.  Tripwire Interactive
Engine:  Unreal Engine 3
Type:  First-Person Puzzle Game

Price (as of October 17, 2011)

Regular Price on Steam:  19.99
Lowest Buy-it-Now on eBay (new):  18.50

Game Time:  11 hours to do everything

Obligatory Trailer:


Thousands of years ago, an advanced race known as the Caretakers had a flourishing underground civilization.  Inside a volcano.  The ancestors of the Aztecs were sheltered there, until one day they stole the source of the Caretaker's power: The Ball.  You, an archaeologist, fall down a pit and enter this realm of ancient technology and monsters.  Plot during the game does not answer all the mysteries, and isn't really a driving force. 

From Unreal 3 Mod to Independent Game

This was originally a mod for Unreal Tournament 3.  Initially, there were a handful of survival maps with rounds of enemies.  Your only weapon is a giant ball you can crush enemies with, and various traps you can trigger.  The retail copy of the game includes all of the survival maps, and adds a single-player campaign. 

Since 2004, Epic has been hosting the Make Something Unreal contest.  The Epic Design Kit can be used freely to make games, ranging from multiplayer shooters like Red Orchestra, to tower defense game Sanctum, to the free bird's-eye-view action game Alien Swarm.  The winner of the contest wins money and a licensed copy of the current Unreal Engine.  The Ball won the million dollar prize, and thus fleshed out a single player campaign and made some sales.  Not bad for a permanent staff of three guys from Sweden.

Further information about Make Something Unreal can be found here : 


There are enemies to kill, but this is primarily a puzzle game.  Most of the puzzles aren't too hard to figure out, and if you hit H the game will tell you exactly what to do.  I prefer this to Portal 2, where I would get stuck, get annoyed, and have to exit the game and visit YouTube to find out what to do.  The ball itself is essential in solving puzzles, and you're pretty defenseless without it.  It is impossible to lose the ball over a cliff or get it otherwise permanently stuck.  Secondary fire rolls the ball toward you, as long as that is physically possible.  Primary fire punches the ball (or small enemies) away. 

Expansions / DLC / Sequels

A free Portal-themed series of puzzles is included with the game.  The Ball was part of The Potato Sack; a multi-game Steam promotion for Portal 2

Final Thoughts

Of the 11 hours I spent playing through this, the single player campaign only took 6-7 hours.  I got this on sale, and wouldn't suggest paying full price for it because it's so short.  That being said, if you catch this cheap, it's a fun, laid-back game with a surprising and creative array of uses for a giant friggin' ball. 

Teotl Studios has not made announcements for additional projects.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Review

Game: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Year (s):  2006
Company:  dev.  Bethesda Game Studios
            pub.  2K Games, Bethesda SoftWorks
Engine:   GamEmbryo
Type:  First/Third-Person "Shooter" RPG, sandbox
What I Paid:  $20 used, at Game Stop (GOTY edition)
Game Time:  as long as you want to keep playing

Obligatory Trailer:


Early in the game, the emperor (voiced by Patrick Stewart) is assassinated.  The imperial bloodline, with a magic amulet, are the only thing that can stop the hellish might of the plane of Oblivion from invading.  With the emperor's death, portals unleash the fiery hordes.  You must recover the amulet, find the bastard heir, and see them safely to the capital, all whilst battling the forces of Oblivion. 

The main plot line is relatively short, and has some holes in it.

Graphics and Glitches

GamEmbryo Engine at it again... or maybe for the first time.  Like all games on the engine, it's buggy as hell and crashes often.  Compared to Fallout, the scenery is more interesting, as there's vegetation and standing structures.  The video link looks like crap; the graphics are actually equal to other games on the engine, just in a fantasy setting. 

Combat and Crime

You can shoot arrows and cast spells from afar, but most of the time you're going to be bashing things with an axe or sword.  In events when you have allies (unless you get a horse, there are no permanent sidekicks without a glitch or exploit) it's really easy to hit a friend in the fracas.  Then they attack you, and/or you get arrested for attacking them. 

If you trespass, lockpick doors, steal from, attack, or kill an NPC, you get a bounty put on you.  This is enforced by guards in every city.  They'll confiscate your stolen goods and then you either pay a fine or go to jail.  Time spent in jail permanently reduces stats.


Character building is quite complex, much as I would imagine it is for MMORPG's.  There are (loose guess) a dozen races and a dozen classes, and a dozen astrological birth signs, and all of these are unique.  Oh, and then you choose one of three specialties.  Your skills are major or minor.  Major ones level up faster but give you less points to put in to stats on a level up.  You gain levels by increasing major skills... ahhh!

Really, it's a mess.  I didn't know what I was doing the first time and made a terrible hodgepodge character.  Later, I tried making a straight-up wizard, but that's impossible to do.  I hate sneaking around.  The offered diversity mostly boils down to homogeny: bash crap and cast spells here and there.

The menu system is awful.  Instead of text, there are icons for everything.  A few are intuitive, like a compass for the map, a shield for armor.  Then... 5-6 tabs for spells, all with meaningless icons.  Ahhhhh!

So Much to Do!

I don't have gameplay clocks to back this up, but I'm pretty sure there is more to do in Oblivion than in Fallout 3.  The downside is, completing inconsequential side quests gets tedious.  Some locations are exactly the same as other locations, ESPECIALLY in the realm of Oblivion.  While I tried to do everything I could find to do in Fallout 3, I didn't bother with half the repetitious content of Oblivion. 

Expansions / DLC / Sequels

I have the Game of the Year Edition, which includes The Shivering Isles and Knights of the Nine.  Knights of the Nine adds a few locations to the map, and sets you off to recover the relics of the holy paladin.  If you refrain from crimes, you can don the relics and battle a foe unique to the expansion.

The Shivering Isles is an entirely seperate area.  Once you start, you have to complete that area's lengthy quest line before you can return to the rest of the game.  The Isles are the realm of the mad god Sheogorath, who is funny for about a minute and then just annoying.  Both of these expansion offer quite a bit of additional gameplay and areas to explore. 

The Deluxe Edition of the game offers several additional expansions that are not otherwise available.  

Final Thoughts

I personally found this game overly complicated and horribly mindless, even frustrating.  Note: I think I would have liked it more if 1.  I'd played it before Fallout 3 and, 2.  I was a fan or WoW or similar games.  If you need a mindless game to play this wouldn't be my first suggestion, but it can't be beat for amount of content. 

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim comes out soon.  Bethesda made vast improvements between Oblivion and Fallout 3, and Skyrim is built upon a purportedly more stable engine.  The graphics look better, and the leveling/character building is simplified enough for the casual player to enjoy.  The plot for Skyrim is, "Oh shit, dragons!"  I'm actually looking forward to it.