When it was announced that BioWare would be developing the sequel to Shiny's 1997 action hit, MDK, there was some understandable concern among fans of the original. While BioWare had become known for its high-quality role-playing game Baldur's Gate, it wasn't exactly known for its quirky 3D shooters. But that's about to change. MDK 2 is everything you'd want in a sequel. It improves on the original's technology and expands its gameplay without losing the off-kilter sense of humor that helped make MDK so unique.
MDK 2 begins just moments after the end of the first game. Mad scientist Dr. Hawkins, his janitor and reluctant superhero Kurt, and the six-legged robotic dog Max are aboard their spaceship celebrating their defeat of extraterrestrial madman Gunter Glut. The ship's computer informs them that a second alien warship has been spotted threatening Edmonton, Alberta, and Kurt is once again forced to don his battle suit and wage a one-man war against the alien menace.
Only this time, he's not alone in his one-man war. Dr. Hawkins and Max, who had little more than walk-on roles in the original, are full-fledged, playable characters this time around. The game is split into ten huge levels. Each level is played using one of the three characters, and each character stars in three levels.
The gameplay on the Kurt levels is pretty much unchanged from MDK, and it's still both unique and enjoyable. As in the original, Kurt's coil suit is equipped with a chaingun, a powerful sniper rifle, and a parachute. The action in these levels generally centers on a combination of precision sniping and gliding.
Max's levels play more like an over-the-top shooter. He has six limbs, two of which are used for walking, while each of the other four can be equipped with a weapon, making him a veritable wall of firepower. In some levels, Max is given a rechargeable hover pack that leads to some tricky jumping and flying puzzles. These act to break up the shooting action, but a few - especially one that requires you to slowly guide Max over a pool of deadly toxic waste - are more frustrating than fun. However, this more annoying sort of challenge is the exception to what is generally a highly gratifying string of outrageous firefights.
The weakest of the levels are the ones in which you control Dr. Hawkins. Instead of wielding an arsenal, he can pick up common objects, combine them with each other, and then use them to solve puzzles. When Hawkins' levels take full advantage of this adventure-game style of play, they're generally successful. It's an interesting departure from the more straightforward action of the Kurt and Max levels. Unfortunately, the Dr. Hawkins levels too often resort to tedious jumping puzzles across deadly terrain. The first of the Dr. Hawkins levels also contains the game's low point: a pointless, awful subgame in which you must guide a fish through a long maze of identical-looking pipes.
Even so, it's a testament to the great amount of imagination displayed throughout the majority of the game that you'll gladly suffer through these occasional tiresome segments to see what comes next. BioWare has packed each level with plenty of interesting content. Virtually every level ends with an epic battle against a huge, multistage boss character. MDK 2 features what has to be among the best 3D translations to date of the intense boss battles from classic coin-op and console side-scrolling action shooters.
The original MDK's levels generally consisted of giant environments connected by tight corridors. BioWare has retained this general structure but has developed its own rendering engine for the sequel. The open areas are now even bigger. Some are truly enormous and appear to stretch on forever. As in MDK, the game's visuals are simultaneously both gloomy and lightheartedly surreal, like a dystopian version of Dr. Seuss' Whoville. One of the biggest incentives to beat each level is simply to experience the next strange, spectacular vista.
BioWare has included a few features in the PC version that were absent from the recently released Sega Dreamcast version. The biggest change is the addition of a much-needed save-anywhere feature. MDK 2 on the Dreamcast was brutally difficult, largely due to an acute shortage of save spots. The PC version also has four different difficulty settings - a big improvement over the Dreamcast's none. Unfortunately, the save-anywhere feature, which apparently wasn't part of the original design, can actually be used to cheat your way through a timed switch-flipping puzzle that composes a large part of one of the Dr. Hawkins' levels - you can just restore your game until you get the sequence right. But if you can resist the temptation to overuse the save feature, it helps make the game a lot less frustrating and more enjoyable to play: It transforms MDK 2 from a long, grueling odyssey, into a shorter, easier, yet still intensely enjoyable two- or three-day adventure.
While console-style action games are becoming more common on the PC, good ones are still rare. MDK 2 may be slightly short, but it makes up for it by being relentlessly ingenious.