Hexen: A Trip Through Nostalgia

Today I want to talk about Hexen, a first-person shooter that Raven Software released in 1995. It is the sequel to their 1994 title Heretic. But Hexen has a number of gameplay and technical improvements that continue to influence modern DOOM engines like ZDoom.

Rethinking the World

The plot of Hexen is simplistic, on par with other first-person shooters of the 90’s: in Heretic you kill one of the evil ‘Serpent Riders’ which pisses off a second in another realm, and so three heroes go out to defeat this new threat. Not very ground-breaking.

However, notice I said ‘heroes’. Hexen immediately stood out at the time for allowing the player to choose one of three types of characters: a fighter, cleric, or mage. Each has four unique weapons and has different strengths and weaknesses at melee and ranged combat. This was a significant departure from contemporary first-person shooters where you were simply ‘The Guy With the Guns’, including the aforementioned Heretic.

My enduring memory of Hexen comes from how it eschewed the linear level design that was endemic to the genre, which is still true in my opinion. Instead of blasting from one level to the next until the end, Hexen presented its game world as centered around a hub. Through the course of the game you would have to travel back and forth between this hub as you unlocked more areas. The game took it a step further and included a few puzzles that spanned multiple areas. Initially this confused the Hell out of me as a child; whenever I ran into a puzzle I couldn’t figure out in one level I assumed the solution had to be within that same level, and it took me forever to realize the key was elsewhere in another level. The genre had not prepared me for this form of ‘global thinking’.

One way Hexen accomplished this feat, and others, was through its introduction of Action Code Script, better known as ACS. For example, Hexen used ACS to have floating platforms and doors that slid open sideways. Oh—and speaking of platforms, did I mention the game included jumping? I realize these features sound archaic and commonplace to fans of modern first-person shooters, but back in 1995 this stuff was one serious Mind Fuck™. ACS continues to have an affect on the DOOM map-making community since support exists in modern engine ports, which you can see in some amazing Cacowards-winning levels, e.g. Thunderpeak.

As Good as I Remember?

I worry that I may be viewing Hexen with rose-tinted glasses. So I plan to replay the game to see if my praise holds up to scrutiny. I’ll let you know how it goes. Or if I get pissed off at my rusty skills and just quit, heh.

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