When Hexen II hit the streets, it was generally hailed as the best-looking first-person action game ever to see the light of day. When it came to gameplay, however, most gamers fell into one of two groups: While some loved the new, pseudo-RPG title, others criticized the confusing hub-based level design and the many arcane puzzles. Hexen II Mission Pack: Portal of Praevus represents good news for both groups. Not only does this game offer better graphics than its predecessor, but it also provides better level design, more comprehensible puzzles, and much-improved gameplay.
In Portal of Praevus, the four heroes from Hexen II return to Eidolon's castle to investigate an unnatural winter that has fallen across the land. A fifth character - the Demoness, Eidolon's former minion - also comes to investigate this ill-omened phenomenon. You choose one of these five characters and the game begins with you leaping into a huge fissure to investigate the fortress that lies beneath Eidolon's castle.
The game features 15 new levels, split between two hubs: Blackmarsh (the subterranean castle) and Tibet. In general, the levels are very well designed and seem to be a tiny bit smaller (and more manageable) than their predecessors. The architecture and texture quality are quite spectacular, and you'll often find yourself gaping at the amazing detail of the rooms while archers pelt you with arrows. Raven indeed has a flair for intricate room design, and it has never been more apparent than in Portal of Praevus. Eerie crypts, majestic throne rooms, meditation chambers, and snow-covered courtyards highlight an impressive list of settings in this game.
What sets this game apart is not just the level design, but also the extra touches that accent each map. When you run down the corridor of a Tibetan temple - under the curving wood supports and past numerous candles - you really get the sense that you're immersed in the setting. Similarly, Raven has gone to great lengths to create intricate decorations for most maps, including a number of impressive statues, furniture, banners, and windows. One room near the end of the game has an amazing, highly polished reflective floor. While the Jedi Knight team may still have the edge in overall quality of level design, Raven has no equal when it comes to dressing up a scene and creating exquisitely detailed texture maps.
Raven also creates some amazing polygon creatures, as the new Yakmen illustrate. These Minotaur-like creatures are some of the best-looking first-person shooter enemies yet seen. They huff and puff and shoot little icicle shards at you. They also move like lighting and like to head-butt you into oblivion. When you kill them, they dramatically fall to their knees before giving up the ghost. The other creatures in the game include multitudinous archers, imps, golems, skull wizards, spiders (which are still a bit too powerful), and other familiar faces. The new Were-Tigers are much like their Jaguar cousins, only more powerful and harder to kill.
Unlike Hexen II, which used a confusing web of hubs and interconnecting levels, Praevus uses a much more easily navigable hub system. You'll never feel like you are miles from where you need to be, and you won't be constantly running back over previously covered ground (both of which were major problems in Hexen II). Doors to new levels are clearly marked, and doorways you aren't yet supposed to enter are clearly locked or inaccessible. This cleaned-up hub system helps keep the action moving in Praevus and helps eliminate the old nuisance of running through empty levels looking for that last hidden puzzle piece.
Even the puzzles themselves are a bit easier to handle in Praevus. For one thing, you'll actually find clues located throughout the levels. Plaques typically serve to point you in the right direction, but books and tablets also offer advice from time to time. Also, those items that do provide clues are easily recognizable, so you don't have to bash up every bookcase and crumbling wall just to solve a single puzzle. Even better, Praevus also includes an Objectives Menu, which maintains a running list of the quests you are currently trying to complete. What also helps with the puzzle-solving is that Praevus switches to a "cinematic" view when you complete certain tasks so that you can see what it is you've done, such as which door just opened.
As far as the Demoness goes, she is a welcome addition to the core group of heroes. Like the other character classes, this red-skinned creature has two special abilities that develop as you move through the game. First, she can land safely when falling from a great height, which can be useful in several areas of the game. Second, she has the ability to convert energy attacks against her into mana that she can use for her own offensive tendencies. Also, the Demoness has some impressive weapons at her disposal, including the Acid Rune, Firestorm, and the mighty Tempest's Staff.
One slightly disappointing area of Praevus is the lack of new multiplayer maps. You can now add the Demoness to the mix on existing maps, but there aren't any new ones. Raven has stated, however, that several new Hexen II maps have been developed and indicated that they may simply be made available as free downloads from HexenWorld.
The game does have a few other quirks, which are relatively minor. For starters, Praevus still uses a few too many artifacts in its puzzles. The Objectives Menu helps you keep things organized, but when you start running into unique item after unique item (the bell of this, the incense of that, the staff of what's-his-name), the game starts to feel a bit ludicrous. It would have been a bit better to give the lesser artifacts generic names, which would have made them seem more like the mundane items they are and would have also kept the focus on the more crucial, plot-driving artifacts.
Also, there is one truly annoying new monster that simply throws off the game balance. These little, bloblike creatures appear in caverns, hop around like jumping beans, and spit fire at you. They are difficult to see, difficult to hit, and do an inordinate amount of damage when they attack. The game would have been better if these things were made either less powerful or easier to hit.
Finally, some strange system slowdowns were encountered when using the new Firestorm weapon. It seemed clear that this was the result of texture-swapping, but the fact that it happened repeatedly seemed odd, especially on a Pentium II/300 with 64MB RAM and a Diamond Monster 3D II card. However, after trying to isolate the problem, it seems as if the Voodoo2 card may have been at the heart of the problem, because the problem could not be duplicated on a slower machine equipped with an older Orchid Righteous 3D card.
With its many gameplay improvements and its impressive level design, Portal of Praevus glides easily into the upper echelon of first-person action games. This is clearly a must-have for Hexen II fans, and even critics of the original game should find the new features, creatures, levels, and weapons suitably impressive.