Wot I Think: MDK2 HD

By Andrew Smee on October 25th, 2011 at 2:35 pm.

Imagine if they're remade it to have THESE graphics.

Overhaul Games have taken BioWare’s MDK2, and run it through the HDizing machine. Did we want that? Has it been worth it? We needed answers, dammit. So we got the fine Andrew Smee to play this new version all the way through, and tell us Wot He Thinks.

This HD remake of a third-person classic is as affectionate as it is impressive. I’m all about preserving old games in a manner that neatly skips over how old I’m steadily becoming. It’s important, speaking with history in mind, to archive these games and to render them playable on modern systems. Films get Blu-Ray re-releases after all, and if Star Trek gets to have all their scenes cleaned up and the CGI redone, there’s no reason why old videogames can’t have a spot of makeup too. MDK 2’s back, and it looks lovely.

It looks like my memories. I went back and played some of the original MDK 2 during the weekend, and the difference was genuinely shocking, so easily had this HD remake slotted into my recollection of the game. What were previously giant blank walls and jagged everythings in the original are now detailed illustrations, the massive sci-fi environments completely in keeping with the pulp comic book presentation. The textures are painted on with bright and colourful high resolution detail and the lighting and shadows do their thing in subtle ways. The whole package delivers a familiar playground in a disarmingly non-showoffy way, so the graphics all look natural – really, how I’ve always imagined they’ve looked. Because it’s always looked this good. Right? There must be something corrupted with my old version if it ever looked that blotchy.

Your time with MDK2 is split between the three titular characters: Max, a six-armed cigar chomping robot attack dog, Dr. Hawkins, a mad scientist responsible for Max and a state of the art Coil Suit, and Kurt, the lowly janitor who begrudgingly wears said Coil Suit into battle. The three characters share equal play time, taking control of each one chapter after another, often going in to rescue the previous character from the inevitable trouble he’s found himself in just previously.

The three share the same third person action game viewpoint but approach the levels in vastly different ways. Kurt most famously uses the Coil Suit’s sniper abilities to zoom into distant targets, and his levels are designed to exploit that. They’re often huge, with the faintly bizarre goal of shooting floating balls to unlock doors made into a giant spacial reasoning puzzle: not only do you have to shoot these switches in turn; you have to position yourself in a find a way to get a line of sight on them. It’s a peculiar case of a hidden object game spliced into a third person shooter. The investigatory nature of Kurt’s levels coupled with his relative fragility enforce an unhurried, cautious approach, one that goes hand in hand with the serene pleasure of floating around on the coils of his ethereal sci-fi ribbon parachute of startlingly beautiful design.

It’s a big difference from Max’s sections, who uses his six legs to wield a selection of guns with the sole objective to reduce all alien foes before him into a thin green paste. There are sections where I didn’t take my finger off the fire button for minutes at a time, continuously sweeping chainguns, uzis and shotguns across waves of enemies, continually running out of bullets and constantly mixing up the weapon loadout using a smart inventory menu. It’s a straightforward kind of chaos, and isn’t as interesting as Kurt or the Doctor’s sections, but it’s still good old simplistic fun. That is, when you know what to do: the level design can be a little standoffish at times, presenting arenas of complicated arrangement coupled with unending waves of enemies.

The infinite respawning of bad guys, even after you’ve destroyed the actual enemy spawners, can turn the riotous fun into dull drudgery of just trying to find that damned exit door so you can leave behind the dozens of enemies continuously rushing at you. The ceaseless waves serve to make the Arena Complete, Door Unlocked! feeling difficult to come by. But Max has a jetpack, and I can forgive a lot for a good jetpack. I can even forgive that getting hit by explosions knocks Max off his feet, requiring a second of dead time watching as he stands up again. Because is that really the game’s fault when you’re supposed to dodge everything? Sure, alright, it is a little, and it’s a bastard at times, but the answer generally is to Play Better. Play Better, me.

Then there’s Dr. Hawkins. If Kurt was a hidden object game, then the good doctor is a straight up point and click adventure game. You’ll find yourself patching together all manner of contraptions from components hidden around the levels, with proper shooting action kept relatively light, though he’s more than capable of looking after himself, armed with a nuclear-powered toaster of your own devising stocked with a variety of bread-based ammunition. The humour in these sections is fantastic, and it’s a real breath of fresh air to be so inventive amidst the third person shooting. It should be the standout section of MDK 2, but unfortunately, the ideas are better than the implementation.

It’s all handled by an unfriendly inventory system with obtuse rules. You never really spend enough time with it to really understand what’s going on, and more than once I could see what I needed to do, yet couldn’t guess at what the game deemed as the correct sequence to do so. It may be point and click adventure game logic worked perfectly into a third person action framework, but it sadly brings all the problems of that genre in with it. It’s a terrible shame, as some of the puzzles are just absolute genius. I’m going to describe my absolute favourite part of the game next – actually, what’s one of my favourite parts of any game, ever. Skip the next couple of paragraphs if you don’t want spoilers:

So Dr Hawkins is trapped in a cargo bay, fighting a meddling alien. He’s carrying some ever useful duct tape, magnets, and of course the empty goldfish bowl. In killing the alien invader, you accidentally blow a hole in the side of the ship, exposing the cargo bay to the deadly wastes of space. The vacuum starts sucking everything out of the hole, including the Doctor himself, who’s being dragged along the floor, trying to hold on. Quick, to action! What will hold him down? Yes, the magnets! Select the magnets, the duct tape, combine and problem solved! Magnetic shoes! The Doc is safe. But wait! The air’s being sucked out too! As soon as you strap on the magnets, an oxygen meter appears and beings to quickly deplete. What to do, what to do?! There’s no space suit, no oxygen tank, no helmet! Nothing to…wait. What am I carrying again? What about…the goldfish bowl? Selecting it out of panic, oxygen almost gone, the Doctor pulls it out and plunks it on his head. Peaceful silence. Problem solved!

Isn’t that amazing? Come on, that’s the best puzzle that’s ever been in a videogame. It’s a split second decision, one that you latch onto out of panicked desperation and it works. Putting a goldfish bowl on your head to act as an impromptu space helmet is pure Looney Tunes cartoon logic and wouldn’t fit in any other game. The answer to the puzzle is a joke, immediate in its realisation because it’s a joke, and because the game’s a joke. The game mechanics do exactly what you want them to do, and it’s brilliant. Goldfish bowl on your head, magnets duct-taped to your feet, you go for a brief walk out on the surface of the spaceship. I love this game.

Unfortunately, the colourful environments quickly reveal the age of the design. There’s no getting away from the fact that they’re simply big empty spaces with flat polygon walls, all too frequently delivering box-like room after box-like room. At times there’s no difference between the next arena and the previous. I suppose I remembered this part from the original too, but it just wasn’t a problem for my younger mind back then. One could say that the sparse arenas lend themselves to the clean lines of the comic book illustrations, but when you’re running around on a perfectly flat plane with the walls rendered with one – albeit nicely textured – flat polygon, it’s difficult not to let your mind wander due to the bare-faced emptiness of it all. Sections played as Dr Hawkins aboard the Jim Dandy spaceship, a place that I remember as a crowded Firefly-esque ship filled with character, turn out to be comically huge areas filled with nothing more characterful than empty space.

That’s MDK 2 at its most unflattering, however. Level design varies greatly between chapters – while it does have its fair share of big empty arenas, suddenly you’ll be floating in space between strange alien spaceships, or careening through an exploding space port, or dropping in on an alien opera performance, or fighting in an action-packed urban street system with enemies coming from all directions, neon skyscrapers towering above you. There’s some real highs interspersed between the lows.

Then there are the boss battles, which I was dreading, because… well, boss battles. But as it turns out, they’re pretty good, actually. Each one is based around the strengths of whichever character you’re in control of at the time, so Kurt has to snipe targets so tiny and so far away that they’re not even visible unless zoomed in on from a dizzying distance. Dr Hawkins defeats his foes with a mixture of ingenuity and puzzle solving, and Max just ups and blasts every health bar he can see into oblivion. This careful approach to designing levels around the strengths of the chosen character includes the final boss fight, which can be played with any of the three heroes. The battle is once again approached differently depending on who you pick. It’s also grotesquely disgusting in a way that videogames rarely muster, so there’s that.

And it’s the game’s compelling ways that saves it, in the end. Far from being empty arenas, with the introduction of numerous enemies, those empty arenas turn into laser-dodging danger rooms filled with death and destruction. Wide open plains tedious to plod through are immeasurably more interesting when you’re trying to outrun thocking great homing lasers fired by insane toad men. It resembles Serious Sam at times, in that you never stop moving or dodging incoming fire. The sparse visual look, sad as its presence might be in reminding you how dated the experience is, does indeed melt away in the face of such unrelenting action.

More problematic is the semi-frequent platforming, which ranges from tricky to outright infuriating. Kurt handles the sections fluidly thanks to his coil suit, and you can generally bodge it using Max’s jetpack, but Dr Hawkins’ sections regularly suffer from unfair and downright sloppy edge detection, made worse by a fast, frictionless movement speed. It’s all the more irritating when trying to clamber up frequent pipework sections.

But despite those flaws, MDK 2 has more style and personality than most games can dream of. It’s funny. It’s frequently frustrating. It’s more often exciting and breathless to play, and taking on the gigantic action puzzles and boss fights are rewarding battles to best. Most of all it’s a game confident in what it wants to do: have a laugh. Sure it’s sloppy around the edges, but it never really stops being a giggle. It’s a lighthearted sci fi comic book dream, and this HD re-release is a good a reason as any to return to its unique charms. It finally looks like the pulpy comic book it always wanted to be. Go on, have a go. You might just end up having some fun.

Currently MDK2 HD is only available through Beamdog.

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45 Comments »

  1. The Ninja Foodstuff formerly known as ASBO says:

    Is this MDK as in “Murder Death Kill”? I have a vague recollection of playing it as a youngster but none of this rings any bells. Well either way, looks like something I can get my teeth into…

    • BathroomCitizen says:

      Yeah, that’s actually it.

    • Khann says:

      I thought it was because the characters were Max, Dr (Hawkins), Kurt.

    • Baf says:

      According to the manual for the original MDK, it’s “Mission: Deliver Kindness”.

    • Bobsy says:

      What the letters stood for was actually the crux of the original MDK’s marketing campaign, a total mis-step since the original “real” answer was Murder Death Kill, and the actual game’s tone was lighter than a helium-filled badger. Which is why it’s been retconned into practically anything else ever. I think these days “Max, Doc, Kurt” is the preferred definition.

    • sebmojo says:

      MDK was astonishingly beautiful when it came out. Does MDK 2 still have The World’s Most Interesting Bomb? That always made me laugh.

    • Jackablade says:

      The installer for the original version offered a small mountain of possibilities for what the MDK might stand for. It’s a pity we probably won’t get that any more what with the various Download clients having their own install screens because it was quite amusing.

    • mbourgon says:

      I’m sticking with Mekanik Destruktiv Kommando, because it fits with the suit, and because it’s an absolutely amazing progrock album by Magma.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      According to my research, “Murder Death Kill” actually comes from the movie Demolition Man. There was an interview in PC Format magazine, not long after the movie came out, with the MDK team. At the time, the team were being coy about what MDK actually stood for.

      So, like Rock, Paper, Shotgun does with every article header, PC Format decided “Murder, Death, Kill? New Shiny Entertainment game!” (Or something very close to that, I don’t have that issue anymore) was the appropriately punny headline. Murder Death Kill was not the original acronym, but the rumor got the game a lot of attention from the “Games Are Turning Our Kids Into Killers!” crowd, so Shiny didn’t bother denying it until the game was released and it turned out to not be the gorefest that people who were only paying half attention were expecting.

      There was also an ad campaign for the first game shortly before release that included a lot of different possible acronyms and silly pictures depicting those acronyms, NONE of which were Murder, Death, Kill.

      According to a later MDK 2 interview the real, original, acronym came from the names of Max, Dr Hawkins, and Kurt. (Originally all three were going to be playable as well, but only Kurt is playable in the first game.) But then he said officially MDK is just “MDK” with no specific meaning.

      And now you know the full story, as I understand it.

    • minipixel says:

      MadTinkerer displays knowledge…

  2. WhatKateDoes says:

    Strange but true but I seem to recall the sniper-scope implementation being revolutionary back in the day.

    Reminds me of racing game POD – early games to use 3D hardware that had games running smoother than one’s brain was able to handle back then lol

    • BathroomCitizen says:

      @WhatKateDoes:

      I loved those early games that used 3D hardware too: their engines felt like you were swimming in a sea of butter. My memory still gets a little bit excited when I think about titles like Myth: The Fallen Lords or Sacrifice.
      Those games had graphics that made me happy in a way that today’s games can’t give me the same feeling. I don’t know why, maybe I’m just getting old.

    • CMaster says:

      The sniper scope was revolutionary back in the original MDK – by MDK2 it had been done in several FPSes.

    • Josh Brandt says:

      I’d LOVE to see a POD update… I tried to get it running on modern hardware a couple of years ago and it was not particularly successful. Fantastic mad level design– it was one of the few driving games I really got into.

    • TheGameSquid says:

      @BathroomCitizen
      Actually, I’m not old enough to have really experienced those days, but I often find that these early titles make me happier than newer 3D games. I suppose it’s because developers found that these things actually benefited the game they were developing whereas today they just take it for granted?

      Also, does anyone else think this looks inferior to the original?

      Also 2, MDK1 is much, much better.

      @Josh Brandt
      Did you know POD was released on GOG.Com a few weeks ago?

  3. Bharg says:

    I think I also remember awesome boss fights. What about the awesome boss fights?

  4. Joshua says:

    “It looks like my memories. I went back and played some of the original MDK 2 during the weekend, and the difference was genuinely shocking, so easily had this HD remake slotted into my recollection of the game. What were previously giant blank walls and jagged everythings in the original are now detailed illustrations, the massive sci-fi environments completely in keeping with the pulp comic book presentation. The textures are painted on with bright and colourful high resolution detail and the lighting and shadows do their thing in subtle ways. The whole package delivers a familiar playground in a disarmingly non-showoffy way, so the graphics all look natural – really, how I’ve always imagined they’ve looked. Because it’s always looked this good. Right? There must be something corrupted with my old version if it ever looked that blotchy. ”

    That is like — The best praise a HD remake can get.

  5. StingingVelvet says:

    Wish this was available anywhere else. Beamdog’s DRM is not to my liking.

  6. Dr I am a Doctor says:

    When I was 7, I thought it was like the most boring game I’ve ever played. Glad to see I wasn’t wrong, too bad about my money!

  7. Sepulchrave76 says:

    An excellent read. I really enjoyed this when I was younger, despite it being incredibly frustrating and fairly clunky in a lot of ways that you have highlighted. It was too difficult for me back then, though, and I don’t think I managed to complete any levels past Dr. Hawkins’ first one on the ship. I imagine it’s a lot easier with a keyboard than a DC pad.

  8. reishid says:

    Wish they would do an HD remake of “Sacrfice” on the PC.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Thanks to their texture-scaling technology (which everyone uses now, but Shiny did it first), I can say that Sacrifice doesn’t look shabby as-is on modern PCs. Rather than upping the pixel count, they might want to redo some of the more drab textures and add a LOT more landscape polys, because in high res the landscape is very blocky. However, the character models still look decent by today’s standards.

    • G-Lord says:

      I second that. Although I have both MDK 2 and Sacrifice with the original box in my collection.

  9. adonf says:

    Nice Kirby-like art (Jack Kirby died in 1994 so it’s not him). Is it from the manual?

    • Andrew Smee says:

      It’s from the regular cut scenes and loading screens.

    • gummybearsliveonthemoon says:

      Think “Freedom Force” cutscenes.

    • Turkey says:

      I’m kinda sad that I wasn’t able to recognize or apprechiate this excellent homage to Kirby back when I played this for the first time.

    • adonf says:

      Then I’ll probably buy it just for the cut scenes. That’d be a first.

  10. Ergates_Antius says:

    Jinkies, I’ve made high definition toast!

  11. chabuhi says:

    Well, I can’t claim fond childhood memories (I was, I think, 28 when the original MDK came out), but I also remember the game not looking like so much ass as it does now (the non-HDificated version). This is true of so many games of old when seen on today’s hardware. It seems like so many things are better remembered than relived. Going way back it seems like the games I played looked much better on Apple/Mac than in DOS, but today only the DOS versions are available anywhere. I also wonder if those old games would look better on old hardware – you know, like on a low-res 14-inch monitor. Seems like newer, large screen HD monitors make the old stuff look even crappier. If I had time I’d dig an old monitor out of the crawlspace (being careful not to reveal any of the bodies, of course) and see if the old games look better. But I’m far too lazy for that.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      In the emulation scene, there’s a growing trend that you need to properly emulate the quirks of whichever display the original hardware used in order to get the graphics “correct”. The older the system, the more important this is.

  12. bill says:

    I’ve always thought it was very dumb that games have such a limited lifetime. People can still easily and happily buy music from 100s of years ago, or movies from 50 years ago, or books from long long ago… but games, in general, have a very limited lifetime. (which leads to all sorts of problems with publishers, piracy, first day sales, limited creativity, etc..)

    Of course, it’s started to change a little with things like GOG and the Wii arcade… but in general you still find that a lot of old games become almost unplayable, or if not, the relentless pace of graphical advancement means that they age much more badly than other art forms (which have standardised their tech level).

    And strangely, the PC seems to be the worst offender… it’s often easier to run games from older console generations, often with updated resolutions and graphics, than it is to run a directx game from 5 years ago.

    I wish we’d get more of this kind of thing, but I doubt it’s financially viable, or even possible in many cases where the original assets were lost and the teams are gone.
    They should include future-looking contracts when they make games, that include collecting all the high res assets and source code, and the right to them, and keeping them secure.

    It’s a shame that Shiny’s once-vaunted tech for making models increase in complexity as the technology improved never became a standard thing (not that it worked well), and that DirectX and Ati/Nvidia drivers seem hell bent on never being backwards compatible.

    • Fetthesten says:

      From what I understand, part of the problem with graphics drivers not being backwards compatible is the fact that several DirectX features that used to be supported in hardware have been removed. Sounds silly, but usually those features are easily custom-built using vertex and/or pixel shaders, so developers can get exactly the effect they want instead of making do with what’s available in hardware. Still, it does mean – as you point out – that getting older games (which depend on certain features to be hardware-implemented) to work is quite impossible without source code access.

  13. Strangineer says:

    I loved MDK1, yet didn’t care so much for MDK2. I take it there’s been no HD remake of the first?

    • Prince says:

      There hasn’t, unfortunately. MDK is by far the superior game. The sequel annoyed me greatly, mostly due to the poor, repetitive gameplay, but also because Bioware apparently didn’t “get” the humour and creativity of the first game.

    • Strangineer says:

      MDK1 was so much darker, and funny in a different sort of way. I agree. I haven’t played it for 14 years, and I must have been 10 at the time, but I still vividly remember that mission where you had to dress up as an enemy commander and walk around an enemy base :D

  14. phlebas says:

    So is it just a graphical update or have they polished up the level design, introduced new enemies, that kind of thing?

  15. adonf says:

    I remember playing the demo of either MDK1 or 2 on the Dreamcast and hating the controls: buttons for movement and (left) thumbstick for weapon. I guess they did that because the Dreamcast controller didn’t have a right thumbstick. Does the HD version support Xbox-like controllers with 2 analog pads ?

    • G-Lord says:

      I tried the game once on Dreamcast and struggled with the controls. Never had many problems on PC (played it through a long time ago).

  16. PJMendes says:

    I think the soundtrack deserves a mention, since it is awesome (Jesper Kidd). My fave: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9VmiOeRqAc

  17. gayylalgli says:

    I’ll be honest–I don’t know what you’re talking about difficulty-wise–unless you were playing it on Insane. That’s rough, but on PC, with quick-saves (yes, it was released on PC before) it’s much easier. You should definitely take the time to go back and finish this one up. I agree that this is one of the best, most underrated games out there. Also, the soundtrack is gold. Wish I could find it somewhere.
    ALso, the grunts were fantastic. There is one part in the first game were they start dancing.I love this game. It was one of my first PC games post Tribeskinh mat

  18. cjs says:

    It’s on Steam now, BTW, at least here in Japan.