Genre: Action / Platformer
Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 6 = Fair
Core Duo or Equivalent, 512 MB RAM, GeForce 8800 GT
While BioWare is primarily known for their role-playing triumvirate of Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect, the company’s first title was actually an action game released for DOS PCs: Shattered Steel. Four years later, and after taking a detour in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, the studio released a direct follow-up to Shiny’s third-person (and sniper-heavy) shooter MDK, simply titled MDK2. A decade after the game’s launch for the PC and Sega Dreamcast, Overhaul Games, a division of digital distributor BeamDog, has chosen an enhanced re-release of MDK2 as its inaugural release. The selection is fitting, seeing as how Beamdog, the only source for MDK2 HD, was founded by ex-BioWare employees.
I have to imagine that it felt good for the team to revisit the series. The three heroes—mad scientist Dr. Fluke Hawkins, six-legged robot dog Max, and janitor-turned-warrior Kurt Hectic—are a likeable bunch. Their task consists of one Benny Hill rescue operation after another as each in turn finds themselves the target rather than the savior, with all eventually ending up on the homeworld of the alien invaders whom they stopped from strip mining the Earth in the original. Each character’s portion is slightly different from the others, with the jet-pack-sporting Max able to wield up to four weapons at once, the Doc able to combine random items in order to fight enemies and traverse obstacles, and Kurt able to use his special suit to glide and enter sniper mode. Max’s and Kurt’s levels include more action than Fluke’s, but his have a touch of puzzle-solving about them that the others lack. In addition to platforming, though, their portions all share one thing in common: they can be very, very difficult.
In many instances, the word “difficult” can easily be replaced with “frustrating.” Unlike its predecessors, I found myself becoming more irritated with MDK2 HD than I ever was with the Dreamcast release or MDK2: Armageddon for the PlayStation 2. Don’t get me wrong here, MDK2 has always been known as a tough game from the get-go, but the combination of sloppy platforming, loose controls, and carousel-esque level design had me taking frequent breaks and trying to clean my rose-tinted glasses.
To put it simply: the years haven’t been terribly kind to the game. Time hasn’t ravaged all aspects of it, though, with the elements that have held up being those that formed the core of what made the game so memorable to begin with: its characters, strange sense of humor, and surreal take on action-platforming. There are few games out there, on the PC or otherwise, that are as flat-out strange as MDK2. The cigar-chomping Max approaches his first level in a 1950s-style rocket during a segment that plays out like a weaponless horizontal shooter—an approach later revisited and revised in Jade Empire. Fluke uses atomic-powered toast to kill enemies shortly before the game switches to the perspective of a fish named Chuckleberry Finn. Kurt finds himself in a room surrounded by doors, with all but one leading to walls sporting a fluorescent question mark punctuated by a hole that spit outs a giant boxing glove to pummel him; afterwards, he finds himself in the spotlight on a theater stage having to dance for attending enemies. The stranger designs are often the strongest, and the humor typically hits the mark, though there is the occasional miss (aliens doing the macarena).
The action is at its best whenever the level design affords each character the chance to take advantage of their abilities. Max benefits from medium-sized areas, lots of guns—four at a time means a lot of stocking up—and clear objectives that allow him to strafe and let loose while not being so bogged down in the carnage that progression becomes confused. Kurt is a little different in that he has fewer weapons, but his ability to glide, given enough room, and multiple sniper munitions mean he can take enemies out at a distance. His quick-firing hand-machinegun-thing allows him to lay down a lot of lead while his glide opens up ways to evade fire as he closes in. Sniping was a bit novel at the time—less so today—but having a small viewport showing where the bullet is going and what’s going on around him greatly increases the ability’s potency. The Doc…well, he just needs enough room to toss Molotov cocktails and fire his toaster (and run around like a madman).
The game is at its worst whenever rules are applied inconsistently and in several of the many platforming sections. There are times when the game consciously screws you over. One enemy type in particular fires homing balls of explosive energy that can sometimes be side-stepped or dodged by ducking behind a crate. However, in some cases, the same enemy type can hit you dead on with no line of sight and while on another plane and behind a corner. The loose controls also play havoc with the platforming portions, especially when the game is vague about what’s required. A good example is when I was playing as Fluke and noticed that his right foot was completely off the support beam, floating in mid-air. Seeing this beam from several angles, it would appear that it was as reachable as a few others nearby when it in fact was the only one I could actually jump on. The other beams would result in Fluke hitting them and falling down, while this one in particular would cause him to magically pop up and on top of it. In a world filled with prime platform developers—Insomniac, Naughty Dog, Nintendo, etc.—this sort of voodoo might-might-not approach doesn’t cut it.
Then there are the times when the game isn’t just repetitive but aggressively repetitive. Near-identical hallways lead to near-identical corridors which lead to near-identical encounters—several times over. There were times when I thought I was lost but was actually progressing; I just had no idea because everything looked so similar. The amount of filler can be grating as well, with numerous sequences that go on way past their welcome. I was actually surprised by just how much repetition there was with everything, from the environmental puzzles to encounter composition.
The re-release did bring with it an autosave feature that has been both a time-saver and a hair-puller. The main problem is that it will save at the worst possible moment—say, as you’re falling down an endless chasm. So after the save automatically loads, it’s simply you dying, over and over. However, there are several autosave points, which fix the jams that the first load will get you into. A notable sequence during one of Fluke’s levels has the type of adventure-game idiocy that makes sense only after the fact and caused an endless loop of death. After realizing that I had to use the duct tape I was ‘using’ in my left hand and the recently acquired magnet I was ‘using’ in my right hand together, Fluke could then stick to the floor instead of being blown out of a ship and into space. This was learned after being blown out of the hull breach about nine times. My last manual save was a few minutes prior, shortly before a trying sequence, while the autosave kicked in as I was being blown out into space. Fortunately, one of the other autosaves hit just as I entered the room, but why the game saved at a point that was impossible to salvage (and why there are no time stamps) is beyond me.
A few of the other enhancements include gamepad support and updated graphics. I opted for the mouse and keyboard, which work well. The visuals are solid, too, though the snazzy character models are sometimes at odds with the dull high-res environment textures, and some of the models’ anatomy stands out against the improved texture work; a clinched fist supposedly holding a suit that’s resting over the arms was less noticeable at release, but now with everything being sharper, it’s a touch awkward. I did find performance to be a bit spotty in areas as well, which is odd considering the review system is above and beyond the required specs. The music, mostly generic techno-style tracks in the mold popular at the time, can wear thin, and in one spot the music glitched out with silence being interrupted by short spurts of static until I left the area. The voice-over work has held up nicely, though. Save for the handful of technical glitches, given the game’s age and that era of early 3D, Overhaul updated about as best as a company could.
MDK2 HD certainly has its bright spots, with the humor being much more palatable a decade on than the music and loose platforming. Despite not aging gracefully, the action-platforming genre is underserved on the PC, and MDK2 HD provides a decent and slightly surreal way to kill an afternoon or two for those who love blasting away in tight corridors and off of floating platforms. Dated mechanics and a handful of technical glitches mar the experience somewhat, but in the end, the game is a product of its time, for better and worse.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)