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002 - Heretic II

posted: 2022/10/10

The 90s were a hell of a decade for gaming. In 10 short years we went from 16 bit arcade style games that litered consoles like the Sega Genesis (known as the MegaDrive outside the US) or the Super Nintendo and parser based adventure games like King's Quest and the Secret of Monkey Island, to the model for pretty much all mainstream games seen the past 20 years. And although there are gems like Doom and Quake which I have no doubt will be remembered for decades to come, there's just as many titles that will slip through the cracks and be lost to the sands of time by the wider market. Heretic, which was originally built off of Doom's engine, appears to be avoiding that issue. It's sequel, however, is not.

Heretic II was a stark departure from it's predecessor. Where as Doom grew into Quake with a strong core foundation that remained consistent from Doom to Doom 2 to Quake and Quake 2, the 4th game in the Heretic/Hexen franchise took a chance. Instead of a first person shooter like past installments, we were greeted with a third person platformer. Oh sure there was shooting, but now we had running, walking, rolling, jumping, and climbing ledges and ropes, all with complex mechanics to aide in traversing maps.

Our intrepid hero also had some massive mechanical upgrades to his primary weapon. Our first foray into the Lands of Parthoris swapped Doom's pistol for a magic wand, and instead of fists, Corvus would flip his wand around and beat people with the metal foot of it. Now that wand was a halbard intent on being a dance of flashing, wooshing blades.

I should note we still had plenty of weapons, this was a game with it's roots in the mother of all FPSes after all, but those weapons did not end up the highlight of the game. Like most people of the time, I played through the single player campaign, and as a die hard fan of the entire franchise I adored the lore and the world building, the maps and the characters. It was a truly captivating universe! But that's not why this game lives on in my heart a beloved addition to my foundational years as a gamer. Where Heretic II shined best was it's multiplayer, and not because the boxed Deathmatch mode was some special experience. It wasn't. It was the fanbase.

Something grew out of the fanbase. This mixture of Quake 2's core engine allowing for beautiful maps, solid network framework, and incredibly high polygon characters (high for the time, keep in mind, this was the 90s after all), and Heretic II's weird new control scheme with influences likely pulled from popular titles on the Playstation, it was only natural the community would take the ideas given and invent something pretty magical.

I still remember my first match. Excited to find a server and try out this game I loved so much playing against other real human beings (still a novelty at the time). I connected in, waited while it downloaded a new map (this was pretty common back then and the best servers always had loads of cool custom content your client would just download directly as you connected), and I was in! The moment I spawned I quickly took in my surroundings, saw someone through a doorway and tossed a fireball at them. Expecting a dynamic struggle I was surprised when the player just looked at me, took a moment during which I could have sworn I felt them sigh, and then wandered over to a health vial and return to their place looking forward down this hall they were in. I didn't know how to respond to what I had just seen. Dumbfounded I walked up, saw that they were in a queue and without knowing WHY they were in a queue shrugged and took the next spot in line.

It took a few minutes to walk down to the end of the line before I could see where this hallway was leading. At the end was a massive arena equiped with health vials easily accessible to those in the ring but moved far enough out that they couldn't be acquired accidentally. Around the arena I saw a few players standing in what appeared to be bleachers, apparently content to just watch the show. The person I had struck a little while ago was finally up. They lept down into the arena, the winner of the last fight facing them. The two bowed to each other and the match started. Whirling blades, the clanking of blocked hits, dodging, jumping, even pole vaulting to get a kick in. Before I knew it, the guy I had been queued up behind fell and it was my turn. My opponent took a moment to grab a few vials to bring themself back up to full before standing in front of me, blade ready. They bowed, I bowed, and it began!

I didn't last long.

But it was fun! There was this cool civility to the whole affair. The online community as it turned out had this whole thing about honor fighting and creating in game communal spaces. It was chill and welcoming with the simple rule of "don't be a dick". I didn't know it at the time but this would shape the way I enjoyed multiplayer games and what experiences I would look for in games for decades to come. When Raven Software, the creators of Heretic and Hexen, got a hold of the Star Wars franchise almost a decade later, they would make a game that was aware of this community and tailored the game for us, but that's a topic for another article.

Note: One of the technical marvels of the new Heretic game was it's mix of Quake's vertice based animation and the skeletal animation seen in games like Jedi Knight and Tomb Raider. See back then we didn't have the processing power to handle skeletal animation on complex models. Quake offered complex looking models by recording the location of every vertice again and again for every frame of animation. This meant that Quake, Hexen II, and Quake 2 characters could be complex and look smooth and cohesive and still have nifty animations. The downside was that to conserve memory a lot of precision was lost on the vertice locations, which resulted in the characters looking a bit...wibbly. By contrast skeletal animation worked by animating a small series of 'bones' in the mesh. Subdividing a triangle between multiple bones, or worse vertices between multiple bones was still a few years away. So skeletal animation generally required heavily segmented models like in the aforementioned Jedi Knight and Tomb Raider. Heretic II managed to blend the two together as although most animation was vertice based like it's Quake Engine heritage, the game now supported a limited skeleton to allow for bending the character's spine forward and backward to emulate looking up and down.