Written by: Stoo

Date posted: July 14, 2010

Approaching the station

You might think it’s logical for a retro gaming site, when approaching any series to start at the first entry and work onwards. It doesn’t always work out that way here, though. For example Rik reviewed the third Monkey Island first as he felt it was the most under-rated and thus more in need of attention. Also there are several series where I’ve started on the second (or later) outing; I got fed up with the first Warcraft, wimped out and headed to the more forgiving interface of the sequel. Meanwhile I don’t even start with Wizardry until number seven in the series, and am unlikely to find time for the earlier ones.

Sometimes though it’s not a deliberate decision, just a general lack of foward planning. And so it is that despite having covered Blood 2 years ago, I never got around to the original. I’d meant to – in contrast to the rather tepid response to Blood 2, the original seems very well thought of amongst discerning First Person Shooter fans. However, my to-do list moves at a glacial pace. Fortunately those stellar guys at gog.com added it to their lineup for less than the cost of a few drinks at the pub, all packed up and ready to go with dosbox. Honestly we retro-gamers have never had it so good and I happily handed over those few dollars.

So then Blood is a dark, horror themed and gory affair, in 20th-century gothic setting. Your character is Caleb, wearer of trenchcoats and deliverer of raspy-voiced one-liners. I would call him our hero but that’s not really an accurate label. Even “anti-hero” is kind of pushing it. Once a gunslinger he’s now a leading member of the secret cult of the ominously named god Tchernobog. The game begins when Caleb and his fellow “chosen” are called forth before their lord… only to find themselves all ruthlessly executed. Several years later Caleb somehow resurrects – busting out of a grave in the process – and sets off to find exactly why his god betrayed him.

Incidentally this beginning is elated in one of the crappiest pre-rendered intros I’ve ever seen, with stiff plastic figures lurching around. Of all the aspects of mid-late-90s gaming, I find these CG videos to have aged about the worst. I guess there was some misguided notion they were needed for a game to look modern. Seriously, a few panels of 2d artwork would have worked better. Still, that’s not a reflection on the quality of the game anywhere else.

Dynamite is far too much fun.

Anyway then Blood is powered by the Build Engine, licensed from 3D realms who famously first used it in Duke Nukem 3D. So it’s one of those “two and a half dimensions” affairs, basically 2D maps with an added height component. Also enemies are sprites. This was outdated technology in 1997; iD’s Quake had already taken the genre to proper 3D and in fact its sequel was only about 6 months after Blood. But seriously, don’t let this put you off. I had far more fun with this one than all the Quakes put together.

You see, Build is put to work creating some truly awesome levels. The sort where you stop every so often just to take it in and doff your cap to the design work put in by the developers. Some maps are jsut the sort of thing you might expect for a supernatural themed game: Ominous stone temples to evil, and deep chasms reaching under the earth. All great stuff, mood, dank and foreboding. What really stands out though are the “real world” maps, continuing in the traditions of Duke.

For example one is based on the Overlook hotel from the shining – dining rooms, bedrooms, hedge maze and all. (In fact there are probably a lot more horror-movie references I missed). Others opt for city streets and one even makes a brave effort at a moving train. Given the limitations of the engine, they’re very convincingly done. The attention to detail certainly helps – kitchen areas, the little bookshop at the train station, smashable windows and so on. It’s a welcome change from the rather abstract enviroments still prevalent in the shooters at the time.

A particularly memorable example is the Carnival – complete with warped music echoing with children’s laughter, fun little games to play (like kick the severed head) and of course lots of horrible things trying to kill you. So it’s all very atmospheric, seriously dark but with a touch of black humour. I don’t think that’s beef being packed at the meat processing plant…

This situation can only end in kaboom.

Your first foes are slow zombies, lurching out of the ground, demanding brains and clambering back to their feet when knocked down. From here on most of the enemies provide an entertaining challenge. Okay the gargoyles have this annoying habit of floating right above you and pogoing on your head when the engine (although allowing mouselook) can’t let you look straight up. The wraiths however will provoke some genuine oh shit moments of adrenaline amd panic. Meanwhile cultists are great fun – shrieking in some unknown language, they dash about flinging dynamite and firing on you with tommy guns.

So it’s with the greatest of pleasure that you can give them a taste of their own explosive medicine. In fact you can never really have too much dynamite here. When up on a ledge, toss it down into the hallway below. If they’re firing on you from the cover of a building, hurl some through a window and enjoy their screams. If they’re chasing you drop sticks with the remote detonator, let them come, then hear Caleb cackle as you hit the trigger. Bonus fun if bodies go flying right across the room.

Many other weapons follow a standard Doom-style loadout (shotgun, machinegun, rocket launcher, scifi-energy-blaster thing), although for variation there’s a flare gun too. The flare hits a monster, nothing happens for about 7 seconds, then suddenly they’re flailing about engulfed in flames, until collapsing in a pile of ash. Fantastic (most monsters have a whole separate “on fire” death animation). Also fantastic is the spray-can flamethrower. Weapons all have a secondary mode too – like the rocket launcher firing an ammo-gobbling bouncing ball of napalm that will pretty much clear a room.

Oh but watch out for the defenceless innocents scattered around some map. Or, er, don’t if you prefer. They just sort of run around haplessly until something gibs them, and Caleb doesn’t appear the sort to concern himself with their fate. But then that’s a pretty good reminder of the themes at work here. This is a game about an internal struggle within the forces of darkness, and one gunslinger’s quest for explosive revenge.

A final note on weapons, they each do a different damage type out of physical, fire and magical. Also you have an armour type to match each. It adds a small amount of depth to work out what weapons work better on a given foe. Although a when you reach the first boss (a stone golem thing) you don’t have anything effective so he’s a goddamn frustrating bullet sponge.

So one blip but otherwise i had a lot of fun with this. To be sure, the structure of this game isn’t really much evolved beyond usual mid-90s fare. You shoot lots of monsters, hunt around for keys, progress through a map and hit the exit switch. Then repeat. Shooters have evolved since then – in terms of factors storytelling, scripted sequences and set-piece encounters, and enemy AI.

I hate gargoyles about that much.

That said, Blood executes this formula just about the most successfully of any game of this era and philosophy. The action is really well done, and the environments are atmospheric and immersive even if the rendering isn’t hugely pretty. Also it’s a game with character by the bucketful, one that revels in its little details and giggles to itself as you kick a severed zombie head across the room. Which is why in my opinion the Quakes were rather monotonous and soulless in comparison, for all their superior technology.

Regarding comparisons to the sequel, well, i shamefully admit I’m scratching my head here. I recall shrugging a little at that one, but I can’t remember what it specifically did wrong. Maybe it’s a generational thing; the sequel was up against Half Life which took great strides forward in player immersion. Maybe the sequel didn’t do anything new and cool with its story. Maybe it just never managed to feel as creepy. Maybe I’m writing a crappy review here!

Such useless fuzzy thinking aside though, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one. Okay I’m a snob who only gives top marks to stuff like Deus Ex. Still I had enormous fun with Blood. Some mid-90s shooters actually turn out to be a bit of a chore, to slog through to the end, but this kept me going for a solid week’s post-work evil glee. It’s one of my top picks out of the pre-Half Life generations, so if older shooters at all appeal, give this one a look.