Heretic is Raven Software's third attempt at the fantasy genre. Like the other two its engine borrows quite heavily from another game (in this case Doom), while offering a very unique and creative setting. It is also their final step away from developing the genre standard, namely role playing games, to more uncommon first person shooters.
For their first game, Black Crypt, they had decided to do a Dungeon Master clone, that stayed very close to the original and plays like a typical fantasy role playing game of its time. The one outstanding thing about it is the highly creative monster design. After that came Shadow Caster, which was a bit more original, so you might not even notice that it is actually based on the same engine as Wolfenstein 3D. The role playing was heavily toned down, while the action felt a lot like in a shooter already.
And finally came Heretic which fully abandoned the stat crunching and went all out to be a pure action game. Considering that this was at the rise of the first person shooter this might not have come as a surprise. But as much as this might sound like going with the flow, actually the setting they used is still highly unusual. Or how many first person shooters do you know that are set in a fantasy world?
Sadly, as original as the used medieval fantasy scenario might be for this kind of game, from a story point of view it is a bit underused, since there is almost no plot to speak of. Some serpent riders have set out to destroy the world, you are the sole survivor and … well, you know where this is headed: The good old boss fight after you committed mass genocide to an army of clones. In the end it seems like it does not really matter who is fighting whom for whatever reason, all that counts is your health and ammo bar.
Yet it is exactly the ammo counter, or to be more precisely what it keeps track off, that makes things a lot more interesting. For as much as your arsenal might act like the usual FPS setup, turning them into a fantasy equivalent at least makes them feel different. Donning your necromancer gloves, while hearing them charge up, just has a lot more style than getting out your crowbar or starting up your chainsaw. Similarly picking up magic sand glasses and rings of invincibility sounds more fun than the overused time detonator or the moth ridden bullet prove vest.
Overall those changes might be purely cosmetic, and as far as the enemies or the buildings are concerned you might not notice that much of a difference (be it the rather crude graphics or that monsters tend to be quite bizarre in other shooters too), but it still makes for a refreshingly new atmosphere.
And this mood is perfectly emphasised by the very engaging soundscape: The dynamic sound track, that will keep you on your toes, is neatly accompanied by the one or the other demonic snicker or bombastic explosions from your weapons. It is too bad that the graphics cannot quite keep up with it. Though that is only for today’s standards, at its release they were state of the art.
Same goes for the controls which do feel dated too. Well, at least the game was one of the first shooters to support the mouse for turning around, which makes moving around quite manageable. Looking up and down is somewhat limited and sluggish but the auto aiming makes up for this limited field of view. More severe is that you are not able to jump, so your only hope to reach some of the more remote places is to find one of the rare flying artefacts. Still, your movements are fluid and fast enough for a dynamic exploration of the maps.
There is one feature though that holds its ground even today: The multiplayer part. Doom and Heretic were one of the first to popularise it for their genre and you certainly can tell why. Not only do you get a quick and dirty deathmatch mode, were you can battle against a couple of human players, but you can also join forces with your friends in the cooperative mode, in which you can play the main campaign together.
The latter one is a definitive improvement and makes the whole game a lot more interesting. For one it is just a lot more fun to have someone to watch your back while you romp through the hordes of antagonists and for two things to get a lot easier through a couple of changes in the game mechanics. For instance: If you die you do not have to restart the whole game all over again, instead you only lose your equipment (which is easily replaced) and restart at the beginning of the level. And since there is friendly fire you have to watch out where you are aiming instead of shooting anything in sight… that is if you want to avoid an instant deathmatch.
On the one hand you do not have a lot of options while setting up those session – actually you can only chose how to connect to your friends, how many of them there are, the difficulty and the starting level – on the other hand it keeps things fresh and simple. You can start right away without bothering to setting up a plethora of minor details.
And actually that is the best way to describe the game as a whole: It might lack in content, it might not be the most polished game out there, but it puts you in the action right away. No overblown cutscenes, no gimmicky pseudo-photo-realistic-latest-hype-thingy, no pretentious morals – just you, your magic wand and the monster mob homing in on you. Simple and straightforward fun with a fresh scenario, which is the icing on the cake.