I live again
When you hear people throwing around classic FPS games of the ’90s, a lot of the same names come up. Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Wolfenstein 3D. These were all genre-defining moments happening a few years apart from each other. Each game had creative environments, absolutely insane weapons, and a colorful cast of enemies looking to destroy you.
In the realm of cult classics, though, Blood was the king. An often overlooked title from Monolith Productions, Blood was the third title to utilize 3D Realms’ Build engine. Bearing a strong resemblance to both Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior, Blood mixed things up with a darker aesthetic, a spookier vibe, and some completely offbeat enemy designs. It also had gallons of blood, hence the title.
While I have to give Nightdive Studios props for getting Blood working on modern OSes, this latest port isn’t the best way to experience Caleb’s crazy adventure.
Blood: Fresh Supply (PC)
Developer: Monolith Productions, Nightdive Studios
Publisher: Nightdive Studios, Atari
Released: May 9, 2019
Before getting into the review, we have to go over some background for why Blood: Fresh Supply is such a joyous release. For years, ownership of the Blood IP was shrouded in mystery. Atari had some of the rights, but no one was quite sure who held the rest. The original source code was also lost to the annals of time, which has made things like fan-made ports lack authenticity. The chances of a re-release even happening were vague, so Nightdive’s announcement of an agreement between it and Atari was stupendous for fans.
That bit about the source code is important here because Fresh Supply could almost be considered a remake of Blood. Porting over the levels and physics to Nightdive’s proprietary KEX Engine, Fresh Supply boasts the ability to render at 4K resolution, have fancy techniques like anti-aliasing and ambient occlusion, and obviously compatibility with modern operating systems. It’s all stuff that sounds great on paper but doesn’t quite add up to the experience you’d hope for.
I’ll touch on that more in a bit, but let me square away my thoughts on the game proper. Having not played Blood in quite some time, I had forgotten quite a bit about its campaign. While the story is certainly not anything to write home about (what shooter in the ’90s was?), the moment-to-moment gameplay is top tier. Blood is easily the best of the Build engine trifecta, and a contender for “Best FPS of the ’90s.”
You’ll shoot your way through four episodes (six with the two included expansions) that’ll see you trekking across carnivals, graveyards, submarines, castles, haunted mansions, and even a train station. There is never a dull moment in Blood, thanks in part because the environments are so varied. Each episode does contain a specific theme so you won’t see tonally inconsistent designs from level to level. That helps make Blood feel like a living, breathing world, which is impressive for how old this title is.
I could write an entire essay on how the level design makes Blood so special, but that’s only one aspect of the game. What else truly sets this above the pack is the arsenal that main character Caleb has at his disposal. While there are the genre-standard shotgun and machine gun, that’s where conventional design ends. Your starting pistol in Blood is actually a flare gun, which will set foes on fire after sticking to them. It’s insane to see enemies running around ablaze and screaming in horror, but it’s such a joy.
My personal favorite has to be the voodoo doll, which sort of acts similar to something like the BFG in Doom. This gives you some range to attack your foes with, or just clear out the entire screen with a single attack. What Blood defined was alternate fire modes for each of its weapons, something that would quickly become a standard in the genre the following year. Those secondary modes expand your options greatly, even if a few weapons have pointless ones (the Tommy Gun’s spread fire, for instance).
Then there’s the sense of humor that pervades every level. You’ll find references to horror films strewn about (one map is set at Camp Crystal Lake complete with Jason’s mask), but protagonist Caleb loves to spout off one-liners while killing foes. He often has some “insightful” commentary about different areas of the levels he occupies, as well. It’s quite macabre and dark, but it’s always tongue-in-cheek and worth a chuckle.
The stark challenge is also something that keeps Blood engaging. The default difficulty level is fairly tough by ’90s FPS standards. I struggled a bit, though I was able to work my way up to the “Well Done” option after some practice. Enemies are fierce, take quite a bit of damage to fell, and will often bunch together to ambush you in packs. Bumping up the difficulty nearly changes how one needs to approach Blood, which is fantastic when replaying it after blazing through the campaign.
So with all of that praise coming from me, why have I rated Fresh Supply somewhat low? Well, it seems Nightdive Studios jumped the gun on getting this out to the public because this latest port is plagued with issues. This is more of a “Your Mileage Will Vary” type of deal (different people report different problems), but there are a lot of gameplay inconsistencies in the Fresh Supply package that are detrimental to how Blood plays.
The most noticeable change, even for those unfamiliar with the original, is that fire-based weapons have been neutered. The iconic aerosol can flamethrower is practically worthless in its current incarnation. This also extends to the life leech staff, which I thought was a goof weapon with how ineffective it operates. For whatever reason, fire barely hurts foes and the damage-over-time statistic of it takes way too long to be effective in tight situations.
Then there are the issues with switches in certain levels not functioning properly. While the “Cryptic Passage” expansion isn’t exactly known for being that great, it’s actually impossible to complete by standard means right now. Both the “Steamboat” and “Castle” levels have instances where trying to throw a switch/open a door won’t happen and it locks you out from finishing the levels. It’s a real pain in the ass to get a groove going, and then have it ruined because a required door won’t operate properly. It doesn’t help that even launching “Cryptic Passage” is confusing, which makes the broken nature of it doubly sting.
The online multiplayer, as well, is riddled with lag. While connections between friends suffer far less from input latency, playing online incurs several seconds of delays to your actions that it becomes futile even trying to progress. You’re going to have to make liberal use of your unlimited respawns here, because playing with skill gets thrown out the window when a point-blank shotgun blast results in literally nothing happening to a zombie. It dampens what should be a rip-roaring good time, though the option for offline, eight-player split-screen (yes, that’s right!) does mean you can get a full deathmatch going without these issues.
There’s a far bigger list of problems affecting people with Fresh Supply, but a decent amount of those bugs have been squashed in a patch that recently came out. That patch is why I waited on this review because the initial launch version was far worse. I would hesitate to call it broken, but it clearly should not have been released with these problems present. Nightdive Studios has a track record for being stellar with its classic re-releases, and Fresh Supply nearly taints its legacy.
What helps is that Nightdive has a history of tweaking and perfecting each of its ports for years after release. In fact, both the original Turok and System Shock have received ports to the KEX Engine years after their initial release. They now sport all kinds of features that weren’t originally available, not to mention are polished to a remarkable degree for games that most studios would forget about.
So while Fresh Supply isn’t perfect, I can’t be too harsh on it. You can safely complete all of the Monolith-produced levels without issue and any other bugs are sure to be tackled in due time. It does suck that this isn’t the 100% definitive way to currently play Blood (the fan-made BloodGDX works much better), but it’s also an easier option than modding out the old DOS version. If you do decide to take the plunge now, just know that you might have a rough go of it for a bit.
Even with those rough edges, the majesty that is Blood shines through quite well. It’s great to have you back, Caleb. Hopefully, you won’t stay dead for another few decades this time.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]