Epic Megagames‘ firs person shooter Unreal just turned 20 the other day day. It reminded me that we’ve come a long way since id Software turned the world upside down by releasing Wolfenstein 3D and Doom in the early 90s. Doom‘s fast paced shooting, complex level design and mind blowing technology resulted in dozens of games using the same design philosophy and even the same tech in the following years. The industry affectionately called them ‘Doom Clones’. While taking cues from Doom and targeting the same crowd, most of these titles sought to take the gameplay and graphics to another level. This week on Retro Saturdays I’ll be taking a look at one such Doom clone. In fact, its one of the very first shooters to fit that trope. Ladies and gents, here’s Heretic.
Good Artists Borrow
The year was 1994. id Software‘s Doom had come out the previous year and gave way to new opportunities and ideas, solidifying the FPS genre as a staple of PC gaming. Raven Software (Soldier of Fortune, Star Wars: Jedi Outcast, Quake 4), a relatively small video game developer decided to partner up with id Software to make a new first person shooter on the Doom Engine. They had previously worked with id when they used a modified Wolf 3D Engine to power their game Shadowcaster. This new first person shooter titled Heretic saw a release of December 23, 1994, just a few months after the release of id‘s Doom II. It followed the same shareware method of distribution as Doom. Several levels could be downloaded for free and one could buy all three episodes through mail order. Heretic was well received by critics and gamers alike garnering praise and winning several awards in the process.
So the game performed well and was received positively. But what did Heretic do to deserve such praise? Was it Doom in sheep’s clothing? Well, yes and no. For starters Heretic ditches the H.R Giger inspired visuals and the sci-fi setting for a dark fantasy theme. Additional modifications were made to the engine to emulate flight, sectors that can push the player (like a stream of water or lava), the ability to move the camera vertically, alternate fire mode for weapons, translucency and random ambient sounds (manic laughter, ringing bells, screams) which was later made famous by Blood. The evolution of first person RPGs can be traced back to Heretic. The game featured a simple inventory management system which would later be popularized through games like Strife and System Shock. Everything else was more or less the same. I mean what could possibly go wrong when the best fps ever made serves as the foundation to your game? On second thought….don’t quote me on that.
I didn’t get to experience Heretic back in the late 90s unlike many of the classic shooters. I did however remember playing a game called Heretic II. I used to watch a friend play the said game on his beige Windows 98 PC. I was pretty impressed with what I saw. The game was made using Quake II Engine and the 3D environments looked stunning. The game is not a first person shooter however. Its not even a third person shooter. It’s a third person action adventure. The high fantasy medieval backdrops and the crazy looking gameplay pulled me in. I remember playing it a lot, but never on my PC. The years went by and one day all of a sudden I had the sudden urge to play Heretic II. The problem was that for the life of me, I had forgotten the name of the game. I was still a novice English speaker and words had the tendency to escape my bonebox often. But then one fateful day, the name decides to crawl back into memory (we all get that weird moment). So I searched the few local stores that sold games and came up empty handed. But after a few months of search I found the game at the nearby internet cafe.
But nothing is simple in my life. It wasn’t Heretic II. It was titled called Heretic. My super smart brain told me that it might be the first game in the series. I did what every other middle-class family kid would do back then; be happy with what you’ve got. I bought the game, went home and booted it up. For the first few minutes I had massive deja-vu, so much so that I thought I was playing Doom. I adored Doom and at that moment I knew I’d come to adore Heretic too. The experience was same and different at the same time. I managed to finish the base game in one sitting and asked the game, “why didn’t you come earlier?”
In Heretic, you play as an unnamed elf (revealed to be Corvus in Heretic II), waging a one man war against a trio of demonic pricks dubbed the Serpent Riders. The general gameplay of Heretic is pretty much the same as that of Doom. Heretic plays out in a first person perspective. You explore large complex levels (mmmm…early 90’s level design) looking for keys to get to the next section while fighting off a large number of enemies. Speaking of enemies, the weapons in Heretic looks and feels like the guns of Doom got a fantasy paintjob. Instead of your average arsenal of guns large enough to fit Satan’s bumhole, Heretic features an array of medieval and magical weapons big enough to fit a dragon’s bumhole. You got a useless staff as your basic melee weapon. Then there’s an Elven Wand which is similar to the pistol in Doom. The Necromancer’s Gauntlets (think Doom‘s chainsaw), which features one of my favorite oldschool fps animations. Ethereal Crossbow, the weapon you’ll be spending most of the time with and which works similar to the shotgun. Dragon Claw, a fast firing claw (?) that’s basically the minigun. Then there are the Hellstaff and Phoenix Rod which works like the rocket launcher and grenade launcher respectively. Last but not least is the evil looking Firemace. All of the weapons feel good (melting those dark wizards to ashes is satisfying on a whole different level) and are accompanied by some beefy sound effects.
There’s this pickup called Tome of Power which lets you enable alternate firing modes for all your weapons for a short while, completely changing the way they behave. For example, it changes Hellstaff’s firing rate and launches powerful projectiles along with clouds of red rain as an area of effect damage. Aside from the usual health, armor, invisibility and invincibility pickups, there’s the Morph Ovum which turns enemies into chickens (who doesn’t want to go out like that?) and Wings of Wrath, which lets you “fly” for a substantial amount of time. But the thing that separates these powerups from Doom is that you can choose when to activate them, thanks to the handy yet clumsy inventory system. To compensate for these abilities, there are a plethora of challenging enemy types roaming the ancient castles, catacombs and tombs.
Heretic features some impressive textures (for the time), great lighting, large open maps, good spritework and runs buttery smooth even when there are a lot going on at a given time. Heretic‘s dark fantasy atmosphere is a welcome change from your average sci-fi and grounded experiences. The music is good, but ultimately forgettable. Overall, its a great experience that shouldn’t be missed by fans of mid 90’s shooters.
A two episode expansion was released for Heretic titled Shadow of the Serpent Riders and was later added to the retail package. The game went on to spawn two indirect sequels Hexen: Beyond Heretic and Hexen II along with a direct sequel, Heretic II. Like I mentioned above, Heretic is the primitive progenitor to first person RPGs like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. It also inspired a few modern takes on the genre like the recently released Amid Evil and Apocryph. It’s a great game that is often overlooked and overshadowed by games like Doom II, Duke 3D, Shadow Warror, Blood and even games like Hexen and Hexen II which are its indirect sequels.
Heretic is now available to be purchased via Steam. If you are not satisfied with how the game looks and controls, you can download sourceports like ZDoom, GDoom, or Chocolate Heretic. For players that are looking for a more modern look on the game, like more lighting effects and 3D models, there’s the Doomsday Engine.
Whichever way you decide to play, Heretic is just as fun as it was 24 years ago. Its a shame that the IP now sits disputed between id Software (publishing rights) and Activision (developing rights). Unless the duo comes to an agreement, its hard to picture another Heretic title in the horizon anytime soon.
That’s it for this week folks. Hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing about Heretic. Its just another one of those timeless classics. I’ll be back next week with another forgotten gem. Til then enjoy the weekend and happy gaming.