Following on from my recent exploration of Heretic, I next tried Hexen. This has been motivated by my curiosity; while we've all played Doom and Quake to death, these two interim games just never seemed to get the press. Hexen, too, runs smoothly in DOSbox on my Slackware setup, albeit with CPU cycles and frameskip raised a notch. Gaming was the last thing I had in mind when I put this machine together, so average systems will probably have no problems at all.
Hexen is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it has many innovative features that seem to have been lost in later first-person shooters, and on the other hand it has a few faults. I'll pick the briefer of the two, the faults, to list first:
Far less action than the average FPS. There's more of a focus on traps and finding your way around. Less variety of creatures; after the 100th two-headed Ettin comes at you with the same lumbering slow attack, it becomes monotonous. And the biggest fault of all: the graphics are amazingly poor for their time (1996)! The game environment doesn't look as good as Heretic or even Doom. In many areas, all the surfaces are so muddled that you have a hard time telling the ground from the walls. It almost seems as though the game team was rushed to get the release out and just slapped half a dozen low-resolution textures together and called it a day. Lots of brown and gray here. Which seems strange, because other elements such as player weapon animations (superior) and the interface are right up to par. Did they outsource their textures to Elbonia?
And then there's the high points: The level design architecture is very well-done. The features represent a quantum leap from the Doom days and you can tell that this game wasn't so much an attempt to extend the Doom engine as it was a fertile grounds for hatching up ideas for the new Quake engine. You can jump, or pick up and throw green potions which set off a "stinking cloud" kind of like grenades. The inventory system allows you to save items to use later. You can break many objects such as stained-glass windows and urns. Sequential actions allow many events to unfold from a single action, making for some elaborate traps. And various objects have animations all their own, such that the trees which shed leaves and rustle when you are close to them.
And, a feature that I'd particularly like to see more FPS come up with today: you can pick from three different characters to play! The fighter is a fists-and-weapons melee strategy, making it more of a "first-person puncher", the mage has the traditional ranged weapons familiar with a shooter, and the cleric is a mixture of both. This gives the game a lot of replay value, as different strategies will have to be employed for each character.
Hexen is still a fun diversion despite its flaws. It has some atmosphere to it, and it isn't so much a first-person shooter as it is a kind of blend of many 3D-gaming genres, and yet it foreshadows Quake and in some areas even looks past it. It'd be interesting to see a Hexen revival on the Linux platform, with new textures and maps designed for it.