It's been a long time since the serpent rider hunt began. And it's been an equally long time since we first saw Raven Software take the Doom engine and make it into something even more amazing than the game for which it was created. The wizards at Raven have worked their magic with the Quake engine this time around, and Hexen II is an amazing thing to see. It all started with Heretic, and the first of the serpent riders, D'Sparil. Little more than Doom with more inventive graphics and a touch of a story, it is still fun to play after all these years. Then came Hexen, and Korax, the second serpent rider. In Hexen, hubs were used instead of the typical level design, and three character classes were introduced. Now comes Hexen II, and the hunt is on for Eidolon, the last of the serpent riders. Hexen II features four character classes and some basic elements of role playing are brought into the game. You may choose between the Necromancer, Assassin, Paladin or Crusader, each possessing their own unique abilities and weapons. Unlike the previous games, Hexen II also provides for character statistics and experience, in true role playing style. While still only a basic implementation of a typical RPG system, it works well for this type of action oriented game. The Crusader is similar to the Cleric of Hexen, and the Paladin a beefed-up version of the Fighter. The Necromancer is a dark version of the Mage. New to the classes is the Assassin, and the game's first female character. While not as physically strong as the Paladin and Crusader, she makes up for it with speed, dexterity and the ability to blend into shadows. The levels in Hexen II are hub-oriented, similar to the system used in the first Hexen. While still as disorienting as it was in that game, remember that this time around we are playing in the Quake engine. That's right, no map! While merely annoying in Quake, it's downright aggravating here. Raven has made up for some of this by providing some wonderful level design. It's a bit easier to navigate the hubs when the layouts make some sense architecturally, and that was quite adequately done here. Each of the hubs in the game revolve around a central theme, there being a Medeival hub, a Meso-American hub, an Egyptian hub, and a Greco-Roman hub. The Medeival hub is the most smartly-laid out of the four, with the sections representing the inner court, King's palace, stables, etc. You truly feel like you are navigating inside a real structure, with the hub sections making sense. The ancient caverns of the Meso-American hub are a little disorienting because many of the caverns look similar. The Eqyptian hub is probably the most brilliant graphically. Bright daylight, amazing wall textures, and wonderfully realistic pyramids and ornate decorations make this truly a set of levels to remember. This time around, the generals of Eidolon are none other than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Famine, Death, Pestilence, and War. Each guards one of the hubs. Once past them, you are able to pursue your final mark, Eidolon. Sound effects in the game are about what you would expect, some the same as Quake, others adequate for the new situation. I did notice some fluctuations in the sound effects as more things happened at once. Music is extremely well done. Similar (really, really similar) in theme to the original Hexen, the CD audio track is a real treat to listen to as you wander the levels. Gameplay is exactly what you would expect, Hexen II being an actual Windows application now, that gamepad becomes a good option for controlling the game. Puzzles require a bit more thought than the usual 'use the red key on the red door'. This time around, you will need certain items to progress past certain points, and some of these items need to be manufactured first. While not a lot more brain twisting, it certainly makes more sense than finding a red key lying around. The first release of Hexen II had some bugs in the graphic display area. I found that I could not run the game full screen in high resolution, but it would run in a window, albeit with problems of it's own. ActiVision's web site provides information on running the game in 'safe mode', which did indeed clear up the problem for my video display. A patch came out very quickly, and I am happy to report that it has cleared up the problem altogether. I feel the need to mention this, since 'out of the box' the game had serious problems. Safe mode did work, and that was also an 'out of the box' solution. I recommend getting the patch in any event. So, is the game fun? It sure is, it's exactly what I have come to expect from Raven, and that is a quality of level design and inventiveness that takes the technology used and pushes it to the edge. An action game with a good engine and poor graphic and level design is still a poor game. Hexen II takes the flexible Quake engine and polishes it so that it shines.
Bottom Line: Brilliant level design, lovely textures, layouts that really work. Hub design is made even more frustrating by the lack of a map function. Some fluctuations of sound exist. Serious graphic display problems in the first release may cause some frustration, get the patch.