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SummaryA daunting, but well-crafted and rewarding sequel to a great original
The GoodHexen 2 is not quite the game it was once intended to be. The final chapter in the Serpent Rider arc of Raven's games, originally to be entitled Hecatomb, was supposed to continue the tradition of the original Hexen by way of totally changing up the structure, story and gameplay from the title that came before. But following John Romero's departure from id and Raven's dealings with Activision, what we got instead was Hexen 2, a traditional sequel in most senses. The graphics are better, the scope is bigger and everything is just more of the same but all a bit different.
That's not to say that's a bad thing at all. Hexen is one of my favourite games of all time, but Hexen 2 took me many years to get into. I will explain the reasons why in the next section but let me offer this one sagely piece of advice that will increase your enjoyment of this game by a factor of ten: keep a notebook. When you do this, the game's most notorious criticism becomes one of its greatest joys.
Like its predecessor, Hexen 2 features many stages where what you do in one level affects something in another. Unlike the original, however, there often aren't just central hubs with other small sub-levels branching off. Instead, the maps intersect and interconnect a lot more, and the idea of a 'hub' is less apparent.
In my last run of the game, I kept a sketch pad with one page per chapter. On that page, I'd list the names of each map I'd enter, connecting each with arrows so I knew how to return to them, and under each map I'd write down as dot points, all of the cryptic messages, keys and switches I'd run into. As I played, I'd find myself joining and crossing off each key to its lock, puzzle piece to its puzzle, until I ended up with a dense mind map showing me not just where I'd been and what I had to do, but also illustrating just how densely interconnected a journey the game takes you on.
Hexen had mostly simple visual clues for its puzzles and oftentimes hitting a switch would tell you nothing about what it was affecting or where. Hexen 2 has richer notes and lore that clue you in on what you're supposed to be doing via books, scrolls and in-game messages… but only as long as you're keeping track. While I did get stuck looking for some things, I was never totally lost as to what I was supposed to be doing as long as I took notes.
The levels are gorgeous to explore, powered by the beauty of a slightly-modified Quake engine that's been pushed to its limits with an expanded colour palette, improved particle effects and translucent surfaces. The medieval, Amazonian, Egyptian and Roman themes seen throughout the game are truly a sight to behold sometimes, running far away from the greys and browns of Quake (though I loved them in their own way as well). While the levels can get samey, provided you don't get stuck, you'll find yourself whisked off to a brand new continent full of unique textures, architecture and enemies just as you were starting to tire of the last one.
The game also makes big note of your ability to pillage and destroy most of this beautiful scenery until you're left with naught but barren rooms and empty courtyards. Does it affect gameplay? Apart from occasionally having to bust through a wall or revealing a secret passage here and there, not really, but hey, if you're feeling bored, you can always go ahead and smash a nearby gravestone to pieces for kicks.
Combat, forming the bulk of your time spent in the game, is fun, if a little wonky sometimes. It's nowhere near as polished as Quake's core gameplay loop, or even the original Hexen's, but the fundamentals are strong enough to keep you on your toes between the different weapons available depending on the class you chose, to the usable inventory items that can have different effects in different hands.
The BadThe class system of the original has been expanded with very light RPG elements that don't really extend beyond giving a bit of a boost to your max hit and mana points every time you kill enough dudes to gain a level. Hexen 2 might have pretensions of being a role playing game with its stat and ability charts, but at heart, it doesn't spread far from its FPS roots.
And for an FPS built off the back of Quake, a game legendary for its rock-solid and satisfying core FPS mechanics, Hexen 2's shooting and movement feels a bit… weird. It's like Quake, but not quite right. Play as the Paladin, the fastest-moving class, and try strafing up against the wall and watch how you're somehow able to fling yourself at 80km/h down the hallway! The kinaesthetic joy of exploding a grunt with a rocket can still be found here, but it's diluted. The gibs aren't so chunky, the spilling blood is not quite the right shade of red. Everything is just not quite as satisfying. Oh, and I hope you like spiders, because this game is infested with them, forming the bulk of your enemy encounters in the game. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. Arachnophobes should steer clear.
And of course, while I did preface this that you can totally mitigate this problem by keeping your own notes, the game is dense, and it does not keep track of your location or objectives for you. If you miss a clue, or forget a passage of text, or just walk past a door somewhere, get ready to spend your evening wandering aimlessly from map to map over the corpses of enemies you slayed hours ago, with no idea where on earth you are or what you are supposed to be doing.
Even for 1997, we were used to games holding our hands to a certain extent, even though they took pains to obfuscate this fact from us. Ever notice how when you'd stumble on that power cell in Quake 2, you'd round the corner and find yourself standing in front of just the device that needed that cell installed in order to progress? Well, get ready for that not to happen here, because Hexen 2 has expectations of you. If you've been pacing up every hall of the cathedral for 3 hours because you forgot that you stumbled on the book three maps ago that clued you in that you needed to create a spell of wall blasting at the apothecary you were at six maps ago with the frog's eye that you found at the stables and maiden's nosehair you got from the golem you defeated last week, well that's just your problem isn't it. The expansion pack, Portal of Praevus, does introduce an objectives screen, but even that is very rudimentary and doesn't carry over to the base game.
The sheer density of the game's puzzles and the far reaching, interconnected nature of the levels, is what ultimately led to me not finishing the game despite several attempts over the years to do so -- that is at least, until I learned to keep track and pay close attention to what the game was telling me, and I was finally able to have fun and see myself through to the game's (disappointing) final battle.
The Bottom LinePerhaps the greatest disservice by this game is not inherent in its design, but that it simply does not communicate its needs from the player. Had the game either included a fully fleshed-out objective tracker, or even just made it very clear: "Hey, make sure you remember this, you will need it later" - so much of the criticism levelled at the game for being confusing and esoteric to navigate would be dashed.
Hexen 2 is a daunting mess of puzzles, combat and exploration at first; but once you and the game are on the same page, what you will find is an intensely fun, rewarding and visually delightful evolution of Heretic and Hexen's dark fantasy worlds, and one of Raven Software's finest titles.