Wot I Think: MDK2 HD
Review, Death, Kill
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.