Make your own free website on Tripod.com

Hexen Review

Publisher - GT Interactive
Developer - id Software
Platform - N64
Type - 3D Shooter
Score - 3/10

Hexen is a major disappointment. When Hexen first appeared on the PC, it was a critical and commercial success, in spite of being yet another first person shooter. There were two factors that led to this. First, you could choose a character class. Starting the game, you had the choice of playing a warrior, a wizard, or a cleric, each with different abilities, weapons, and weaknesses. The choice of character determined playing style, but you faced the same obstacles. The different characters would have to find different solutions to survive. Second, the level design had a major innovation in the form of hubs. Rather than work through one level at a time, you had to work on several levels simultaneously. All of the levels in a group would be connected to a central hub, and you would have to go out to each of the levels and solve puzzles there so that you could solve puzzles on the other levels and eventually on the hub. Only after each of the levels was thoroughly explored could you open the doorway to the next hub, and the next group of levels. Given this legacy, and the fact that Hexen would be the first multiplayer first person shooter on the Nintendo 64, I had high hopes for the conversion to the Nintendo 64. Hexen can only be said to have failed to live up to my expectations. Let's take a look at why.

The major flaw with Hexen is the graphics. The game looks terrible. You might argue that my standards have been completely ruined by Turok, but Hexen is several steps below Doom 64 as well. Like Doom 64, Hexen uses 2D bitmaps for the monsters and other objects in the environment. But Doom had the decency to 3D render all the monsters in much higher detail than the original game, so they end up looking reasonably good. Hexen uses the same blocky low-quality bitmaps as the PC version. They look terribly flat and there just aren't enough frames in their animations to make the movement anywhere near smooth. An excellent example is the bell at the end of the first level. The swinging animation for the bell uses about 5 frames. If the bell were a real 3D object, not only would it look sharper, but it could actually swing smoothly. How could you go wrong rotating a 3D object?

That's just the start of the graphic problems. The wall textures are just too small, so that you can easily see, and be distracted by, the patterning of the textures on the walls. The textures are just plain ugly on top of that, so the game is unpleasant to look at. There's also a significant amount of cracking between textures. The sky bitmap never moves. Not when you rotate, not when you move from one end of the level to the other, not when you look up. Also, the game has significant problems with slowdowns. Not when there are too many monsters on the screen, but when you're standing too close to an object and rotating. Hexen needs to take lessons from Mario on how to whip the world around. Fortunately, Hexen has a solution for that problem: lower quality bitmaps. The game is already painful to look at, but you can make it look worse if you want. On the other hand, it does fix the slowdowns. The game seems to make no attempt to take advantage of the graphics capabilities of the Nintendo 64. In fact, it seems to actively subvert them. Actually, that's not quite true. The game does use graphic filtering. You know, the effect that makes games smooth instead of blocky. Hexen, on the other hand, just ends up looking blurry. If the bitmaps were sufficiently detailed to begin with, the filtering would smooth things out, but since everything always looks pixellated, it just makes your eyes struggle to focus. Again, Hexen lets you turn it off, so everything just looks blocky.

Normally graphics aren't that important to me. One game might not look quite as good as another, but it can still be fun to play. Hexen's graphics detract from the gameplay. Early on, I got quite stuck, because I just couldn't tell that a door was a door. It just didn't look any different from the walls. And even before that, it's tough to get into a game that's this ugly. My sister has a strong dislike for Turok, because of the high level of gore. But after seeing five minutes of Hexen, she was begging me to start playing Turok because at least that's pleasant to look at.

Enough graphics, let's talk controls. Unfortunately, these don't help Hexen's case. You have the choice of using the control pad or the joystick for motion, and both layouts just don't work. If you want to use the joystick (the natural choice, I think), you can't turn and strafe at the same time. And doing things like selecting different objects is just so unnatural that I found I needed the manual in front of me to look these things up. Don't think the pad is any better. It also involves lots of unnatural key combinations. Another problem with the joystick configuration: the game lets you look up and down, but insists that you use the control pad to do it. Any game that makes you change hand positions on a regular basis is just doing something wrong. Oh, and looking up and down reveals another graphics problem. The game doesn't rotate the world up and down, it just fakes it. It unquestionably looks wrong, but it took me a while to figure out why. In the meantime I was distracted from the gameplay by the fact that looking up and down doesn't look right. Also, Hexen's menu navigation needs help. Who ever heard of using Start to cancel a menu choice? And by the way, none of this is configurable.

So, is multiplayer going to be the saving grace? I don't think so. If you're not involved in the gameplay as an individual, it's tough to care even playing against your friends. Hunting down your friends is a chore and there's no pleasure even in killing them. The game gives you the option of cooperative or deathmatch, which doesn't quite measure up to today's standards. Where's teams? Or capture the flag? Or anything else? Again, the detachment the graphics induce would probably prevent those from being any fun either.

At this point, you may be wondering if Hexen does anything right. I have to admit, after playing for a few hours, the hub level design was growing on me. Bouncing around between several different levels is fun, and the game generally makes it easy to get to where you need to go next. The first level is an exception to this. You seem to spend most of your time in transit. Not a good way to start the game. And a few hours is much too late for the game to get interesting. If I didn't feel an obligation as a reviewer to play a significant part of the game, I never would have gotten that far. And another downside is the load times between levels. I thought the whole point of cartridges was that we would never have to wait. Not in Hexen's case.

Another thing that Hexen gets sort of right is saving games. You can save any time you want, not just at checkpoints or between levels. The downside: one saved game takes 90 pages, practically an entire controller pak. Compared to the 20 pages or less of most other games, I think I'd rather have checkpoints.

In the end, I've got to wonder how Hexen made it to market in this condition. I thought Nintendo's basic idea was that every game for the Nintendo 64 would be good. I thought Nintendo kept sending games back to the developers until they got it right, and that's why every game seems to get delayed. I took Cruis'n USA as a desperation move on Nintendo's part. They needed a racing game by Christmas, so they let it go. I assumed we'd never see anything like it again. But here's Hexen. It doesn't fill a hole, either in game genre or in release schedule, and I just don't get it.

I'm also apprehensive about what this means for future GT Interactive games. As a first person shooter fan, I look to them for the best. But that certainly doesn't describe Hexen, and I'm concerned about what it will mean for their games in the future.

Finally, I'm curious about Hexen on the PC. I've never played it, but I've heard mostly positive comments. Were standards that much lower when it came out, or is Hexen actually better for the PC than the Nintendo 64? Either way, it doesn't speak well for this conversion.