Reissue, reissue, repackage: the HD remake bandwagon continues to roll on, but does revamped old-school shooter MDK2 HD do enough to justify parting with your cash in 2011?
The HD remake concept is a divisive one: for some people it’s a matter of an industry that cared little for its past until it realised money could be made off rehashing older titles for minimum outlay, for others it’s both a means of preserving classics and enabling modern audiences to enjoy them without the impediments of the original hardware.
The latter argument could certainly be made for the likes of the Metal Gear Solid and Ico/Shadow of the Colossus remakes, but then you get a curio like MDK2 HD – clearly its renovation is a labour of love, yet it’s hard to see quite where the game fits into the modern world.
Murder Death Kill
First up, a quick history lesson: MDK2 was the last game Bioware released before deciding to nail their colours to the RPG flag full-time. Originally released on the Dreamcast and PC (as well as a delayed PS2 version) back in 2000, a group of the original developers under the banner of Overhaul Games have given the PC version a fresh lease of life and released it on their new digital platform Beamdog.
MDK2 HD is best described as a third-person strafe shooter, although the actual mechanics vary from level to level depending on which of the three titular characters you’re controlling at the time, as they combine forces to take down another alien invasion. There’s Max, the semi-robotic, cigar chomping dog, Dr. Fluke Hawkins the archetypal mad scientist, and Kurt, the poor janitor who has been suckered into wearing the super-powered coil suit. Their individual characteristics lead to quite different play styles, despite all three being viewed from the same close rear angle: Kurt combines an arm-mounted chaingun with a sniper rifle capable of utilising a variety of ammo, from explosive rounds to looping mortar bombs. His coil suit comes fitted with a ribbon parachute, allowing him to glide between distant platforms and make use of updrafts. Kurt is also able to make use of a variety of defensive equipment like a cloaking shield and decoy dummy.
Max meanwhile, thanks to the cybernetic addition of an extra set of arms, is able to wield four weapons at a time, deploying a selection of the magnums, uzis and gatling guns he uncovers in any combination, as well as strapping on a jet-pack midway through the second level. Dr. Hawkins has perhaps the most unique armoury, dependant as it is on the various household objects he comes across onboard his spaceship, The Jim Dandy. From the obvious – stuff a towel into a bottle of alcohol to make a molotov cocktail – to the bizarre – a toaster that fires atomic slices of bread – Hawkins’ arsenal requires the player to solve some occasionally obtuse puzzles to make the most of his options, although you’ll need to wrestle with the unintuitive item selection method to do so.
Many Distracting Kittens
Unlike in the original MDK, the trio do not appear in the same levels together, instead alternating for the first nine before you get to choose who you’d like to confront the climactic boss. Kurt’s up first, and his scenarios centre round combinations of open air parachute platforming and skilful use of his sniper scope options. For Max, with his heavier firepower and stronger constitution, the fights come thicker and faster as he traverses a series of arenas and corridors densely populated with MDK2′s grotesque menagerie of enemies. The levels featuring Dr. Hawkins are perhaps the biggest departure, being based around some rather simplistic platforming and puzzling out the different combinations of items that will let you progress. In the good Doctor’s stages, the game almost makes a foray into old-fashioned point-and-click territory, although ultimately it never strays too far from its arcade shooter template – even Hawkins can buff himself up into a hulking brute by ingesting plutonium at various points.
While this central triple conceit is intriguing, the action itself unfortunately tends to grind the interest out of it. The shooting, even with the quad-wielding Max, rarely feels like it demands anything more than consistent circle strafing, the platforming is made tricky more by the slightly unpredictable camera and twitchy controls than by the environments themselves, and the overall sparse and repetitive level design – especially on the first three missions – betrays the underlying game’s age quite vividly. Things pick up from around halfway into the game, but even then end-of-level boss fights rarely rise above uninspiring. The occasional diversion into piloting Max’s rocket through asteroid fields or, most memorably, Hawkins’ fish Chuckleberry Finn through a sewer system merely serve to punctuate the core third-person action, and in the case of the former are arguably over all too quickly.
The levels also highlight what is arguably the fundamental flaw of MDK2 HD: what HD elements there are simply cannot disguise that you are playing, essentially, is still a ten year old game, and not one that has aged gracefully. While the principal character models and their animations undoubtedly benefit from the updating, the occasional high quality texture or environmental shadowing can’t gloss over how basic the geometry still is for the majority of areas and bosses, and how sparsely furnished the levels themselves are. The various enemy types have been spruced up, yet AI remains all but non-existent, and in corridor sections the game has an annoying habit of dumping enemies directly onto your head.
Mostly Dumb Killing
The sound is also highly variable – the original theme tune remains insidiously catchy and dynamic, but elsewhere the deliberately stilted vocal performances are drowned out in a cacophany of clashing environmental noises, and I would warn against playing the first boss fight with a pair of headphones – it was one of the nastiest sonic experiences I’ve had in recent times.
And yet, I feel uncomfortable for being so harsh on what is in essence a decade old game, because it does have bags of character, some genuinely laugh out loud moments (in a school playground sort of way) and was clearly put together by the former Bioware staffers at Overhaul with what care the limited fund available to a small developer could allow. Certainly you’ll never see another game from Bioware with this eccentricity of idea and roughness of execution in your lifetime.
But that in may ways encapsulates the whole issue with this current spate of HD remakes: the games must ultimately be judged on whether they stand up against what is on offer today, both as a financial and time investment, and on that basis – unless you have a nostalgic affection for this particular title or are a dedicated retro-gaming fan - it’s difficult to recommend MDK2, HD or not, in 2011.
MDK2 HD’s trio of characters may have personality, but despite the new gloss the game’s mechanics are sadly showing their age. While there’s some fun to be had with its anarchic humour, this HD remake is definitely one for devoted fans of the original rather than today’s player.
MDK2 HD, by Overhaul Games and Beamdog (based on the original by BioWare and Interplay), is out now on PC (reviewed) and Mac, exclusively on Beamdog.