Heretic (DOS)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
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5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Maw (884)
Written on  :  Feb 14, 2007

7 out of 11 people found this review helpful

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Either an outstanding Doom mod or a really cheap stand-alone game

The Good

Heretic was no doubt the product of something thinking "hey, Doom has lots of fans, high fantasy has lots of fans, so why don't we..." The end product is something you can either buy because you're casually interested or dismiss it out of hand: fantasy-themed Doom. It has good production values and solid gameplay, but it's just too derivative in a market saturated with similar games to compel your attention either way.

Heretic's basic premise isn't exactly a recipe for disaster; quite the contrary. This was 1994, and fantasy themed games were pretty much the territory of RPGs, adventure games, and hack'n'slash Gauntlet clones. Being able to travel around medieval villages and castles in full 3D must have seemed like a pretty sweet deal at the time. After selecting an episode and difficulty level (you have choices like "Bringeth them oneth" and "Thou art a smite-meister") you're ready to play.

The interface, menu system, etc is exactly like Doom's, so Heretic's ambitions are obvious from the beginning. In much the same way, gameplay doesn't differ much from its predecessor. Still, there are a few small updates that make stale gameplay a bit more interesting.

Some enemies are invulnerable to certain types of weapons, meaning you have to swap weapons around a fair bit and can't just cruise through the entire game using one weapon almost exclusively. Since the game allows you to look up and down you can now accurately aim at enemies standing above or below you, rather than shooting blindly in horizontal alignment and hoping your shots hit. Heretic features ambient sounds (clanking chains and mad laughter in dungeons, bird chirps and flowing water in the countryside), which improves the atmosphere and helps it feel more like a cohesive world.

You also get "tomes of power" which when equipped dramatically improve your firepower. This isn't merely a "4x damage" boost, but drastically changes the way your weapons work. Your hellstaff will now fire target-seeking missiles, your gauntlets suck life out of an enemy and add it to your hitpoints, etc. This is a really cool idea for a powerup and one of the things I wish we saw more often in FPS games.

There's a slightly upgraded version of the Doom engine on display here. We get to see things like sliding sectors (useful for things like a flowing river), the ability to look up and down, transparency (when you use an invisibility potion your hand on the screen becomes see-through, nice touch), and most impressively the ability to fly. This is a really fun enhancement and means that if you're surrounded by hordes of enemies you can often wing your way to safety. The places where you can fly are tightly-controlled, so you can't abuse it at your leisure like you could the jetpack in Duke Nukem 3D. The game doesn't let you jump, but I guess you can't have everything.

But by far the biggest gameplay improvement in Heretic is the inclusion of an inventory. In Doom, when you picked up a powerup it would instantly get used and last for a short amount of time before expiring. This is an anachronism in PC gaming that should have been left at the arcades. In Heretic you have an actual inventory system where you can pick up items and activate them at your leisure. While the controls for this aren't as user-friendly as they could be (you must use [ and ] to cycle through the inventory, enter to equip it to the current slot, and keypad enter to actually use it) the inventory system completely changes gameplay and turns the game into a much smarter and more complex experience (do I use my invulnerability ring now, or save it for later?) Don't expect there to be inventory grids or combos or anything like that, Heretic just isn't that type of game.

The Bad

That's it!

Seriously, other than the few enhancements I mentioned above the game is nothing more than Doom in medieval dress. In a market filled with Doom clones and assorted knockoffs (at least some of which didn't suck completely) you could argue that the entire game was redundant from the get-go. It's the sort of thing you'd expect a team of semi-professional modders to create and upload on a BBS for a modest $15 registration fee, let alone put in a box and sell for $60. It has sufficient production values to consider itself a big commercial release, but underneath the glitz it's just another mediocre Doom clone: pointless then and even more so now.

Gameplay is not merely similar to Doom's but is almost completely identical. Go find keys! And flip switches! And navigate endless mazes when the designers run out ideas! Level design is decent, but never approaches the genius of the original Doom or even of Rise of the Triad. Doom and Rise of the Triad have actual levels with recognisable themes and motifs. What does Heretic have? A bunch of random keyhunts in mazes, that's what.

I take major beef with the weapons in Heretic. To state things plainly, they're complete ripoffs. You have a quarterstaff (exactly like Doom's fists), lighting-zapping gauntlets (exactly like Doom's chainsaw, including how it "locks on" to a target and jerks the screen around), an ethereal crossbow (a fantasy-themed shotgun), "The Dragon Claw" (a retarded excuse for a chaingun), etc. Other than the Firemace, there's not a single weapon here that isn't lifted straight out of Doom. When you create a clone of an existing game the whole point is to give the player some new stuff to mess around with, in the hopes that he doesn't realise he's playing a clone. The "powered up" versions of each weapons are neat, but tomes of power are hard to come by and you'll seldom get the chance to see them. Also, why is it that all the weapons are magical? Would it have killed them to include some REAL medieval weapons, like swords and longbows and stuff?

Heretic's monsters are a generic assortment of zombies, undead knights, gargoyles, etc. Also they have WAY too much HP in comparison with your weapon damage, with the result that you have to battle proverbial meat shields that can kill you in 2-3 hits but can take dozens of shots themselves before they go down. Killing groups of enemies is a real pain, not so much because it's difficult but because you simply waste too much ammo.

On a minor quibbling note: the inventory system is cool but also unbalances gameplay. All the bosses suddenly become complete pushovers since you can hoard up your invulnerability powerups during the previous levels (the game lets you carry them on) and cruise through all the boss fights without taking a scratch.

The Bottom Line

Heretic has solid gameplay and good production values...but what's the use? It's like they took Doom, slapped new graphics on everything, tweaked a few things, and re-sold it as an entirely new game. Now don't get me wrong, there are people out there who would enjoy the hell out of a game like Heretic. However, the fact remains that there's nothing here you haven't seen in Doom. If all games were as ambitious as Heretic we might still be playing Pong.

My advice? Get one of the later iterations of the Heretic series like Heretic 2 or Hexen, games that actually do something with the FPS formula. Regard Heretic itself as merely another clone of one of the most cloned-to-death games in existence.