Saturday, March 08, 2014

Feature: Haunted House demo

Title: Haunted House
Creator: Codetech84 & Megabyte (KFH Games)
Release Date: May 2002
Length: 5 Levels
Level Format: Continuous
Story: New
Graphics: New
Sound: New
Dos/SDL: Dos

This article is going to take a closer look at one of the most praised demos ever: Haunted House. Released in May 2002, this demo had quite an impact on the Wolf3D community. The mix of survival horror combined with brand new graphics illustrated that this demo could be the start of a unique new mod. Unfortunately, a full version has not surfaced so far. Which is too bad, because the demo shows a ton of potential.

The demo is set in Ireland, where a group of archeologists meet on a stormy night. They have discovered the location of a large, hidden mansion that potentially contains a lot of treasure. You play John Hamilton, a man hired to decipher the symbol language used within the mansion. But when you get to the mansion, things have gotten ugly. The archeologists were attacked by mysterious creatures. Some died, while others fled. It's up to you to find out what happened.

You start out in the garden of the mansion. It is awfully quiet, and the suspenseful music only adds to the tension. On top of that, it seems you have no weapon in your possession! This cannot end well, and it isn't long before you encounter the enemies: zombies. The creatures are quite slow, but extremely menacing. Don't get too close, or they will turn you into one of them. The unconventional start - no weapon - coupled with these slow creatures is a change of pace compared to the original Wolf3D. This game is focused on survival, not action.

As you start out without a weapon, you will need to rely on other tactics in order to survive. It's an original approach for a mod, and it's one of the reasons why this demo is still remembered many years after it was released. For instance, the zombies may be deadly but opening a door is just too damn hard for them. The player can lock them in and be rid of them (for now). It's an interesting tactic, and it forces the player to really think about their approach instead of just going in with guns blazing.

There are weapons in this mod, and you'll encounter the first one soon enough: one of the recently killed people dropped a knife. But the knife is not as powerful as the knife in the original Wolf3D was. The zombies take damage, but they are still able to bite you. It's another way the creators force you to take a different approach, but it fits this setting really well. When playing a Wolf3D mod, the player often bases his/her expectations on previously played mods or on the original Wolf3D. The knife is an early signal that this mod will deviate from the more action-packed gameplay the original Wolf3D provided.

It's this change of gameplay that makes the demo stand out. While the action of the original Wolf3D can get quite tense, this demo amps it up by making the player feel as if they're outnumbered and outgunned, and have to explore the environment and make the most of it in order to survive. The weapons need to be balanced quite well in order for this to work, and this is done really good. Only one weapon that is too powerful could destroy the survival vibe this game is going for. Luckily, this doesn't occur. The shotgun, which the player expects to be powerful, is relatively powerless against the zombies. This makes the weapon more of last resort, and keeps the player focused on utilizing other tactics in order to get out of the mansion alive.

The biggest perceived flaw of the mod, at the time, was its difficulty. It was quite unforgiving for new players because the mod instantly drops you in the middle of the action. As such, it could limit the appeal of the mod because some players just are not ready to invest time in discovering the gameplay mechanics. Which is unfortunate, because getting a grip on them is extremely rewarding. Instant action ala Wolf3D is, in a sense, instant gratification. This mod is a slow burn and more challenging, but therefore also more rewarding. And it isn't unfairly tough - the player just has to get used to the mechanics. It's a bold choice, but in my opinion the right one - it makes the player identify with the main character that much more, because the player gets caught in an unfamiliar setting as well. It's true survival horror.

The coding features all seemed focused on adding to this survival feel - the weapons are not as strong as in the original game, the zombies are slow, there's lightning outside and reloading is added, which is another addition that makes the use of weapons more tactical and tense. Reloading at the wrong time can force you into a corner which you might not get out of. The features are all focused on enhancing the concept of the game; they are not here for showing off.

There were indications mid 2005 that the creators were still working on turning this demo into a complete mod, but it has been quiet ever since. Codetech84 and Megabyte are still working on mods as KFH Games, but if Haunted House is still planned as a full mod is unknown at the time. Which is too bad, because the demo showed so much potential. It was original in its gameplay mechanics, had its own style and was, as scary as it was, quite fun as well. It is one of those demos you want to see more of, and hopefully one day we will.

Where Can I get it?: You can download the demo HERE, or by clicking on the screen at the top of this post. Balames87 did a blind playthrough of the demo, which you can find HERE.

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