I have two enduring memories of the MDK series, and the first is of MDK2 on Dreamcast having some of the worst controls I’ve ever suffered in my life. Face buttons to move? Which hate-powered bastard machine would inflict that upon players? (The answer is apparently “BioWare”. No, really.)
The second is that the original MDK is one of the first action games I can remember with an actual sniper rifle, capable of zooming in across the level and blasting the heads off distant targets. Whether it’s the first use of a sniper rifle in a shooter I don’t know, but it made an impression on my younger self. As such, every time I’m killed by some camping bastard in a modern FPS, I curse the day MDK was released.
But that’s the first MDK, and we’re here to talk about the second! Or, well, this HD update of the second, but I suppose we’d better discuss the game on the whole before getting into the nitty-gritty of the update.
The big difference here is the addition of two extra protagonists, each with skills and abilities of their own. Other than the first game’s protagonist (space janitor Kurt Hectic, equipped with a “coil suit” giving him a parachute, a sniper rifle, and a chaingun) we also get to play as Dr. Fluke Hawkins (a mad scientist) and Max (a six-legged, cigar-chomping robot dog).
Kurt is the most “traditional”, bounding through levels comprising a mix of sniping, platforming, puzzle-solving, and frantic action. Players have to use his parachute to glide from platform to platform and float on updrafts to reach new areas, while sniping out blue balls (that inexplicably function as switches), and using additional power-ups – like a sniper mortar, or bouncing sniper shells – to hit distant targets in enclosed spaces. While shooting the hell out of every alien in the vicinity, obviously.
Max focuses more heavily on gunplay, with each of his four arms able to hold a weapon of your choosing. If you’ve never wanted to play as a dog quad-wielding two miniguns, a guided rocket launcher, and a shotgun, there may be something wrong with you.
Doc Hawkins’ levels are the most unique of all, with a heavier focus on puzzle solving. The good doctor lacks the physical capabilities of the other two (he’s unable to haul himself up onto platforms, for instance) and has to rely on selecting an item in each hand and combining them to help him proceed. That’s not to say he doesn’t have combat; it’s just that he has to combine an atomic-powered toaster and a loaf of bread to inflict damage. No, you read that right; he shoots nuclear toast.
Which should tell you something about the sense of humour in this game. MDK2 doesn’t take itself even remotely seriously; it’s as irreverent and silly as they come. This is a game in which the initial villain is named Shwang Shwing, for goodness’ sake – and let’s not forget the atomic toaster or the cigar-smoking dog.
This was, of course, back before in-level dialogue became incredibly commonplace, and sure enough mid-level laughs are few and far between (unless farting aliens makes you giggle like a three year old, anyway.) While there are some small set-pieces to retain the comedic atmosphere – a pair of aliens kissing, before pulling away and looking innocent when they spot you – the humour really comes down the cutscenes bookending each level.
Thankfully these are genuinely amusing, with a good amount of absurd comedy on offer. The voice acting has dated somewhat, but this impacts the humour less than you might think; cheesy voice acting is a surprisingly good match for a game like this. It’s just a shame some of the intonations seem a little off.
Humour aside, playing MDK2 HD raises a lot of interesting points about how design has changed in the last 11 years. MDK2 was a hard game, and while MDK2 HD has been tweaked somewhat to make it kill you slightly less often, mathematics tells me that slightly less than a lot is “quite a lot.”
This is of the era before regenerating health and the game has no qualms about punishing you for wasting the limited supply you have. A degree of auto-aim assists with the actual murdering of the aliens, so learning enemy attack patterns and how to dodge them are far and away the most important skills you can have; lacking caution for just a few moments can reduce you to a sliver of health for the foreseeable future. And this, for what it’s worth, was on the medium difficulty setting. I suspect the “Jinkies!” setting would just cause my computer to kick me in the groin for half an hour. For better or worse most enemies are fair; when you get the hang of how to fight, most deaths will instead come from inept jumping.
Mercifully we’re allowed to save anywhere, which makes some of the nightmarish platforming sections (in which one misstep either kills you or sends you back to the start of the 5-minute section) far more bearable than they could’ve been.
The difficulty isn’t the only thing, though. MDK2 HD has a distinct lack of hand-holding or signposting, which is just weird these days. It’s eerily disorienting at first – how was I supposed to know shooting that tiny thing would open up a door? – but it clicks before too long, and there’s something oddly satisfying about having to work out where to go, or what a puzzle actually wants you to do, instead of simply going through the motions of what the game tells you. This does become a minor issue when you’re trying to work out where the exit is while enemies are respawning all around you, but that’s where our old friend the save function helps us out once more.
Less palatable is the use of space. This is a game full of huge, wide-open areas with sod all in them except a few enemies, and lengthy corridors with absolutely nothing interactive with them at all. It’s possible that Back In The Day these were impressive pieces of architectural work meant to build atmosphere, but now they just look like angular strips of poor pacing.
The actual HD updating is decent but a little uneven. Our protagonists have all been given a full makeover and look fantastic, for instance, but not everything else holds up in quite the same light. One or two of the enemies look a little basic and, while lighting makes everything look a bit spiffier, the environment textures are still rather repetitive. I suspect that’s all down to the original’s lower polygon count rather than the HD transition work, but it’s a fault nonetheless.
For the most part, though, the game holds up. The blasting is as enjoyably visceral as you’d expect in a game with an infinite-ammo chaingun, and it’s surprising how many puzzle variants are packed into a third-person shooter. I’d be happier if the Doc’s levels were excised completely (some issues, in order: decade-old physics puzzles, follow-the-criss-crossing-wire against the clock, and mazes) but they’re not as problematic as I remember, and when the wonderful music kicks in and you know you’re about to shoot a lot of aliens with four guns at the same time, it’s hard to suppress a grin. Holding your face in place is harder still in most of the end-of-level cutscenes, although for entirely different – but no less excellent – reasons.
Nostalgia-seekers will probably have picked this up already, and those who haven’t probably should. As for a newer audience, well! If you’re interested in playing through a game from back when games were still complete and total bastards, updated and tweaked so it looks a bit nicer and runs a bit smoother, then you should probably do so. It’s no longer as astonishing as it once was, but MDK2 HD is a solid update to a solid platform/shooter/puzzler that anyone who isn’t afraid of a lack of signposting should contemplate.
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