Oh, you want a new video, do you? I don't suppose it matters to you that I couldn't play a new game last week 'cos I was in Los Angeles working my little English muffins off at E3 so that you can all feel faintly superior about not giving as much of a shit about it? Have you ever been to Los Angeles? It's like a 7-Eleven with dodgy air conditioning multiplied into a city, and everyone drives like they learned on a pair of roller skates. So fuck it; I'm staying in bed this week. I'm just going to review the last thing I played on Steam, which happens to be Blood: Fresh Supply, a recent port of Blood, the classic mid-to-late-90's Build engine shooter with a title that cuts refreshingly to the nub of the matter. At least until they stuck that "Fresh Supply" bit on the end; that's not even a pun, is it? If they called it "Blood: Transfusion", you'd get the connection, but "Fresh Supply" can be applied just as easily to tissues or underpants.
But anyway, let's talk about the Build engine. The year is 1996... "No, it isn't, Yahtz; it's 201--" IT WAS A RETROSPECTIVE DEVICE, YOU FUCK!! The year is 1996, and Duke Nukem 3D comes out, an FPS that threw out the mad idea that maybe you could design its levels to look like actual places that exist in real life. Now, maybe that sounds obvious to you youngsters who grew up throwing terrorists out of Burger Kings in the latest Plodding Snore-fare, but this was coming off games like Doom and Quake: highly playable and important games, god bless 'em, but whose levels were all based around samey labyrinths and traps and more monster closets than an energy drink enthusiast's bedroom the morning after a major game convention.
As tech improved, it was Duke Nukem 3D leading the charge for using the environment to set the story, to enhance the effect of gameplay by placing it somewhere familiar. "Why not set a first-person shooter in a porn theater?" it asked. "Or in an adult bookstore? Or a strip club? Or a porn studio?" "Yes," said some other developers, "and perhaps also some locations that aren't related to the sex industry?" "Oh, I don't think anyone would be interested in that, but you do you." One of those other developers was Monolith, who used the engine to make Blood, released the following year. Now, playing the Fresh Supply version today, you'll probably have a jolly good laugh at the pre-rendered cinematics. "Haha! It looks like the preliminary storyboarding for an episode of ReBoot! What were you using for graphics rendering, people of the 90s? A fucking bathroom scale?" No, trust me; even at the time, they looked like absolute shit. Still, they bring the story across.
Caleb, a 19th-century gunslinger with a voice like Clint Eastwood if he made a living sucking gravel out of the assholes of bats, is trying to cozy up to the dark god Tchernobog when Tchernobog decides he doesn't quite like the colour of the sweater Caleb knitted for him and promptly murders Caleb and all of his mates. Caleb then basically angrys himself back to life, climbs out of the grave with raging morning wood, and vows to slaughter all of Tchernobog's minions, put all their bits in a breakup box, and shove it right up Tchernobog's galactic arse. With this remit in mind, we proceed level by level through a series of horror-themed early 20th century environments, all mysteriously teeming with references to horror movies from 60 or 70 years in the future, but that's timeless deities for you. Compared to modern video game protagonists who are usually highly bland, but with some attempt at moral complexity, Caleb is more or less the precise opposite. He's very un-bland and very un-complicated; he just wants everyone to die while he screams laughter at their fluttering remains. And you lot made me go to E3, so who are you to judge?
Blood is a product of its time. It was originally shareware, so it has the usual shareware problem: all its good levels are in the first episode, and by the end, it's one uninspired map full of reused assets probably mocked up with old cereal boxes after another. And playing 2.5D sprite shooters when you're used to the full-on photo-realistic 3D models of today is like breaking up with your supermodel girlfriend and going back to wanking off over erotic puppet shows. But the 90's shooter is ever the place to go for a bit of uninterrupted, no-frills, satisfying combat, and Blood's is particularly visceral, which is just as well, 'cos otherwise, they might've had to change the name to "Little Caleb's Adventures in Slumberland" or something.
One thing I really miss about shooters from this time is how the enemies actually had some readable emotion and personality in their appearance; it wasn't all faceless masks, skull-faced demons, or distant silhouettes peering out from behind chest-high walls. You could really get a feel for the indignation a cultist is feeling as you reduce the contents of their torso to shredded sauerkraut with both barrels. Blood also, to my mind, possesses the best "person thrashing about on fire" sprite of any game of its time but would've swept the "Most Likely to Be Blamed for an Atrocity" awards had such a thing existed. The sound design is a match, too; I never get tired of the iconic jabbering of angry cultists transitioning into a powerful shotgun blast, and then a prolonged scream so textured you could almost break it down and pinpoint the precise moment of regret he feels for his misspent life.
On the whole, the core gameplay loop is great; the porridge only starts dripping into the hairdryer when it comes to enemy AI. For a start, all the flying enemies have this weird habit of getting stuck on ceilings in large rooms, and fighting them is like trying to recover your child's balloon from an overhead power line. But the real seam of bullshit running through Blood like a chocolate brown skirting board is that I don't think the developers realized that the second enemy type in the first level is the hardest one in the game, because they've got hitscan weapons.
In the days before anyone could be arsed to calculate such trifles as bullet velocity, you'd just pull the trigger and as long as you have line of sight, the thing dies. And when enemies had such weapons, common courtesy dictated that they should at least cough or say "Hello, I'm about to shoot you!" before they shoot you, so the player's got time to duck or kill them first. Blood's cultists never got that memo; step into their line of sight, and your vital parts will acquire holes like an argument for alternative medicine under any amount of scrutiny. And these motherfuckers are everywhere!
In the higher difficulty settings which, as was usually the case in 90's shooters, just meant "same dudes, but twice as many of the fuckers", one struggles to breathe in an atmosphere of 40% lead! Later on, the game introduces new enemies that are clearly supposed to be tougher, like the gargoyles or the fat butchers with the weird resemblance to Henry Kissinger, but none of them have hitscan weapons, so you just circle-strafe and shotgun, and if anything, fighting them is a lovely holiday, away from the twitchy zero-quarter hitscan safari. I swear, increase the reaction time of the cultists by, like, half a second, and Blood's overall difficulty drops like your mum's knickers in the bathroom of a soup kitchen.
But these were the days when the shooter was still young, and the rules were still being defined, and Blood wouldn't be the same if you fixed its adorable "baby giraffe on the ice rink" stumbling now. The time of fixing it would've been the sequel, but unfortunately, Blood II came out in the early days of full 3D, and if a baby giraffe had been stumbling before, then early 3D made all its knees snap backwards as a lighting gantry electrocuted its face.
- It wasn't very good, was my point: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Other hallmarks of Build engine shooters: exploding walls, the two or three useless gimmick weapons they kept out of the shareware, occasional rampant misogyny
- Give them all that they can drink and it will never be enough