The original Blood is high on my never-actually-crafted list of favorite first person shooters. The speed felt natural, the locations varied and interactive, the weapons inventive, the difficulty just right. I don’t think there’s anything about it that I would change. Monolith didn’t agree.
Blood II is the inevitable sequel, basking in a new engine and the original’s former glory. Anti-hero Caleb returns to fight his old cult foes the Cabal; this time reorganized as the multinational conglomerate “Cabalco.” Genetic experiments and armed commandos make up their invincible new army, along with a few magical enemies and beasties ripped from another dimension. The update to a modern-day setting gives the series a chance to refresh, but instead ends up placing the game right in the same environments and clichés well-covered by its competition.
Blood’s early-1900’s setting and horror flick camp made it something different and special. Blood II’s dingy urban cityscapes and quasi-future military arsenal make it another “me too” shooter alongside the likes of SiN, Kingpin, even the infamous Daikatana. The action is still appropriately bloody, but the camp has been dialed down noticeably. You gain a story that the original lacked, though at the cost of losing gag levels based entirely on movie references, or whatever zany ideas the design team had. The jokes get pushed off to text-only level introductions (with a weird sense of humor, like cynicism trying awfully hard to be darkly funny) and the game itself focuses on typical running and gunning.
Almost all levels take place in locations inside the same anonymous city at night. Some city levels even act as hubs, forcing you to repeat areas while heading to a new destination. The central idea is that you’re always hot on the trail of Gideon, Cabalco’s leader, and hopping from rooftops, labs, and cathedrals while he throws out minions to slow you. In-engine cutscenes lay out what limited story there is.
The Lithtech engine renders all these areas reasonably well, and impressively for 1998. Architecture is pretty blocky, lighting fixed and basic, but textures are sharp, edges are clean, enemies have plenty of polys and some excellent designs. Drudge Priests, with their bony appendages, and the Shikari, looking somewhat like razor-sharp gorilla skeletons, are great examples of something other than the standard humanoid foe. The only downside is that Lithtech doesn’t do software renders in a manner worth serious consideration – hopefully less of a problem these days, but that depends on your setup. Overall, this version of Lithtech does a good pass at realistic locations, and it’s unquestionably a better-looking show than Quake II.
Though the tech is there, the level art lapses behind. Dark blue and grey are definitely the new brown, and most of your areas will be lit in the same uniform shade of moonlight. Tiled textures make up the walls and ceilings, with details, decals, and room props limited. Even startlingly impressive areas (like the cathedral’s central chamber) lead to yet more simple stone passages and crypts for the rest of the level. This is one of those games where the levels just feel too similar. There’s a ton of them, spread across four mammoth chapters; many levels large, some curiously short, but this is a rare case where having so many of them makes the game drag on. The blocky, plain architecture simply funnels you to the next area, and there’s nothing close to the level interaction the original relished on the Build engine.
Blood II somewhat makes up for this with the occasional killer set piece. Riding the glass elevator to the top of an enormous skyscraper turns out to be little more than a showcase (I was hoping for a battle with a helicopter) but it’s an impressive one. The height you ride to, and the distance you can see the city sprawling below, both show examples of what Lithtech brings that the competition didn’t. The following airship level is equally memorable, with the city scrolling below through hazy clouds, as is the bridge level a few chapters later. Do these make up for the bland corridor crawls and boxy rooms of the rest of the game? Nah, but the occasional variety is still appreciated, and reminiscent of the frequent change-ups in the original.
But a few neat levels can’t excuse the humdrum gameplay. Blood had some notoriously wild weapons, and the sequel does give a nod to a few of them – the Tesla cannon, voodoo doll, and sawed-off shotgun all return. But others are strictly basic filler from the FPS armory. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, double Uzis, remote mines, and sniper rifles appear, all of which carry a heavy “been there, shot that” feel. One of my favorite things about the original was that the pistol, that old FPS staple, was replaced by the brutal, “homemade” flare gun (it’s still here, but redesigned and weaker). Here, you start out with ho-hum twin Berettas. All guns have secondary fire modes, though only a few are actually useful, and many can be dual-wielded for more power. In a neat touch, there are more weapons across the game than you can actually hold, forcing you to eventually make decisions about which to keep and which to toss. But the fact that you can still carry 10 of them at one time, and that many are just repeats (there’s little difference between the twin Uzis and the Assault Rifle) removes any of the tough choices.
Your enemies range from standard military grunts to grossly overpowered supernatural monsters. While the humans can be fun, and some limited location-based damage means you can hit headshots or pop tanks on the back of soldiers to explode them, the other enemies can just be too much. Part of this is due to bugs – The massive Drudge Lord can shoot fireballs whose explosions pass cleanly through walls, making their extreme damage tough to avoid. The skeletal Shikari hops around in a way the engine can’t quite support, and frequently ends up in a perpetual whirling attack or stuck on top of your head.
Part of it is also due to intent. Tiny enemies like the spiders latch on to your head, distort your view, and rapidly suck your life. They’re hard to see and hard to hit, and purposely placed in cramped corners that make them hard to dodge. The Shikari’s whirling attack causes incredible damage at close range, and their armor is so strong that they can’t be killed before they can reach you. Soldiers have perfect aim and reflexes all the time with hitscan weapons that, at the actual code level, are impossible to dodge.
Meanwhile, your weapons are needlessly weak, even on the normal difficulty, and most enemies (with the exception of an occasional shotgun to the face) take too many bullets to drop. Any enemy other than the early, piddly humans can take multiple grenades without slowing down, and even the human soldiers can absorb 30-40 assault rifle bullets while laying into you the entire time. Put a group of three or four together and you’re done. Strong weapons like the howitzer aren’t that strong compared to the enemies you’ll want to use it on, and ammo for them is still scarce.
Life pickups are further limited, and only reliably found by killing innocent bystanders (a nice touch for Caleb’s immoral character). That’s fine for labs and the city, but they’re not as present in most levels, and even then don’t fully repair the damage you’re taking. Combine this difficulty with the bland levels and the massive amounts of cheap damage, and you’ve got a game that’s more fun to rip though with God mode on than to try and play as intended.
Sound is quickly annoying. Weapons and effects are okay, enemy taunts are certainly not. There are only a few recorded that get reused endlessly (“You will die a slow, slow death!”), often repeating themselves just seconds apart. Caleb’s wisecracks are pretty limited too, and though the game gives you a button to trigger a random one on a whim, you won’t find much reason to use it. Most just aren’t that funny. And once again, it seems like Army of Darkness is the only movie the designers have ever seen. Granted, the first Blood used that flick as a crutch too, but backed it up with references within the levels and the occasional brilliantly lifted enemy type (especially in the Plasma Pack). This one is content to just throw the lines out like they should automatically count.
On a final note, the usual multiplayer options are available, and the engine is merely competent in that regard. The weapons will ultimately decide whether you want to play this instead of other Deathmatch options, and as I said, the set is pretty vanilla. You also have an option to play single-player as other characters – the “Chosen” in the title. These are three of Caleb’s cronies with slightly different abilities, but the same set of weapons and the same order of levels. You only get the story as Caleb, with cutscenes disabled when playing as any of the other Chosen. Their differences aren’t crucial enough to really justify playing a second time, and playing them the first time instead of Caleb would just be stupid.
I feel like I’ve trashed this entirely based on comparisons to the original Blood, but that’s the risk you run when you slap a “2” on a popular title. The first Blood was epic, the second Blood is strictly average. Tiresome levels, combined with unbalanced difficulty, made this game a hard one to enjoy. I think it can all be explained by noting that a completely different design team worked on this game, and maybe Blood just meant different things to them than it did to me. But to me, the sequel they made isn’t worth playing.
Occasional wicked location or set piece. There’s a story this time that plays out through the levels. A few guns are creative and fun to use.
Dull areas abound, cheap damage accumulates, simply not as funny as the original (or just funny in a way I don’t follow).
“When you get to Hell, tell ’em I sent you. You’ll get a group discount.” – Caleb