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Heretic: The Best FPS You've Never Played

When I was ten years old, I was finally allowed to play Doom II: Hell on Earth. If I had to point to one event that changed me from someone who played video games into someone who was a "gamer", that would have to be it. Despite the fact that the game was older than I was, the intense action, creepy atmosphere, exciting music, and twisted level design created an experience unlike anything my fairly young brain had ever experienced. It instilled a love of First Person Shooters in me that has continued to this day, and to my mind, remains almost entirely unmatched in its celebration of the pure joy of shooting.


Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, allow me to present to you: Heretic. Created by Raven Software in 1994, it's the literal definition of a "Doom clone" - it uses a modified Doom engine, has more or less the same gameplay, and even got published under the iD Software flag. Of course, all this isn't too surprising - Doom was FPS at the time. What makes Heretic unique is the way that it expanded from Doom - it kept the same interesting core gameplay, but added to that its own unique feel and ideas.

First of all: the introduction of an inventory system. People tend to laugh when I tell them how great this is, but it's true: Heretic's inventory really changes the game. See, in Doom and its sequels, it works like this: you get night vision goggles in one room. Since you can't help but use them as soon as you pick them up, it's guaranteed that you'll need said goggles in the very next room. And that's fine - it keeps with Doom's design philosophy of pure, simple, streamlined action. But in Heretic, almost all of the items you pick up end up in your inventory. That torch (the equivalent of the night vision goggles) may not be useful until the end of the level, so you'd better be strategic about when you use it. Oh, and if you use it early and want it later, prepare to be screwed. It feels incredibly organic, like you're surviving on your own wits and intuition.

No more wasting a full medkit by walking over it when you only have one point of damage.

Not that hoarding is rewarded, either, because you lose all but one of each type of item when you start a new level. As the difficulty curve ramps up (and it WILL ramp up), strategic use of where and when to use your items becomes key to survival.

And besides, a lot of the items are just plain entertaining. The Tome of Power which upgrades all your weapons to nearly-unstoppable capabilities. The Wings of Wrath that let you fly around the map raining fire like an Angel of Death. The Morph Ovum - a glowing marble egg that turns monsters into harmless chickens.

Yes, you read that right. CHICKENS.

The weapon design is good, too, though I feel in some ways it might be weaker than Doom's. Doom kept it simple with one weapon for each situation: Chainsaw for melee combat, shotgun for one-on-ones, chaingun for crowd control, BFG for the big bads, etc. Heretic, on the other hand, has one or two weapons that seem a bit unnecessary. The Dragon Claw and the Hellstaff are basically the same: rapidfire, long-distance weapons. The Firemace (which is bizarrely given only a 75% percent chance of spawning in its location in a given level) is annoying and worthless, basically filling the room with grenades that seem to bounce everywhere except where you'd like them to.

On the other hand, I like the fact that unlike the starting pistol in Doom - which is thrown away and ignored as soon as you get anything else - Heretic's starting Elven Wand becomes useful as a late-game sniping weapon, if you know what you're doing. And then, there are the Gauntlets.

Oh, those sweet, chainsaw-replacing Gauntlets of the Necromancer.

Pick them up and the game makes a sound like G-d smacking his hands together. The harsh crackle of electricity continues as you zap any enemy into a small pile of giblets. They neither use nor require any ammunition, and when you upgrade them with a Tome of Power, they turn red and give all of the health lost by enemies back to you, making you effectively invincible. There is no weapon more satisfying, more effective, more freaking awesome in all of gaming.

Such a killer arsenal might make it seem like Heretic is impossible to lose. This is absolutely not the case - in fact, Heretic is significantly harder than either of the classic Doom games. In a good way! This game isn't punishing - it's challenging, and it's significant that Raven Software knows the difference. The game starts off easy enough, with a gentle difficulty curve. But by the time you get to Episode 3 (of 5), you'll be scrambling for every health potion you can scarf down, facing hordes of difficult enemies.

In later episodes the game is so tough that, on the harder difficulty levels, you will actually be punished for daring to try to use cheat codes to get through. Typing "iddqd" rsults not in godlike powers but rather forces you to watch your body explode into a pile of giblets as the message "Trying to cheat, eh? Now you die!" taunts you.

These guys will absolutely ruin your day, with a tornado attack that flings you into the air and bangs you against the walls. The only excuse for teabagging a corpse in a single-player FPS.

I caught myself several times thinking "No, not that - they wouldn't do that to me, would they?" They absolutely would, but here's the great thing - you'll be able to beat it with a few tries, and when you do, oh goodness is it ever satisfying.

And that's the thing. Remember when you had trouble with the final boss of Doom? No. You didn't. Nobody had trouble with the Spider Mastermind because you'd saved up your BFG ammo for the whole game and beat it in three hits, leaving you feeling kind of disappointed. Heretic won't allow that. Its boss fights are tough, as is the rest of the game, which means that when you finish it, push through the pain and come out on the other side, you feel like you've truly accomplished something. Which, really, is the best feeling you can get from any game.

This guy, D'Sparil, is the final boss of Heretic. He's got twice as many hitpoints as Doom's Spider Mastermind and you've got half the firepower. Enjoy!

This also goes a long way towards making you actually feel like you are the one surviving human fighting against a world of darkness, and that atmosphere is the final component of what makes Heretic great. Level design actually makes sense, folks. It's not like the levels in Doom which are called "Refueling Base" or "Hanger" but all look the same.

The Great Stair? Has a giant staircase.

The Storehouse? The level centers around a giant storehouse.

Tombstones in the Graveyard? Check.

Etc. etc.

Okay, okay, the game's not perfect. The great atmosphere, for example, is there partially to make up for the fact that the story is non-existent and dull, managing to be both too complicated to understand and too simple to care about. As I said, the weapon design's a bit crap and sometimes the difficulty goes too far and just pisses you off.

Plus, it's really funny to see them try increasingly hard to explain why medieval weapons work basically the same as guns. Crossbow, okay. Magic wand...okay? Mace that shoots other maces...what?

And while we're at it, what the hell is this thing, anyway?

But that's not what Heretic is about. Heretic is about flying around the air wielding a flamethrower that shoots pheonixes. Heretic is about playing deathmatch and being suddenly turned into a chicken. Heretic is about going to interesting places, seeing beautiful mosaics, and destroying every living creature therein.

So, no. Heretic didn't change the world back in 1994 and it certainly won't now. But when you're tired of serious brown-and-gray military shooters and you want to put the good, wholesome fun back into your murder simulators...come visit me in Heretic. It's an underappreciated gem that I think deserves better.

(And it's $4.99 on Steam, so you really have no excuse. Though I would suggest also getting some kind of source port like zDoom to run it on. Unless you like the terrible controls and hideous graphics of the vanilla Steam version.)
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About Uzi Bazookaone of us since 3:39 PM on 02.19.2013

Uzi-Bazooka (named for a character from a movie in a game based off a web series based off of a kids' book) is a Jewish gamer living in Kansas City. Formerly the star of a semi-popular Let's Play channel, Uzi has moved on from talking about games to making them, working on a small indie game team pretentiously calling themselves "Algorithmic Entertainment". Adventure Games are his bread and butter, but he also holds a soft spot for shooters and Real Time Strategies.

Warning: Everything he writes may contain sarcasm.