The Wheel of Dubious FPSes Episode 01-02: Daikatana and Red Faction II

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ArbitraryWater

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Edited By ArbitraryWater

John Romero’s Daikatana

ArbitraryWater is about to make you his friend.
ArbitraryWater is about to make you his friend.

Developer: Ion Storm

Release Date: May 23, 2000

Time Played: About Nine Hours

Troubleshooting: Light, mostly just works with the fan patch (this is a new thing I’m gonna put in here, which is the amount of work it took to get this game running in an acceptable, streamable fashion)

Dubiosity: With the fan patch? Probably like a 4 out of 5

Doomiosity: Very few pentagrams, very disappointed

Would I play more? Listen, I would consider playing through this game again, solo, for like charity or something. I did not hate my time with it.

I think there are few flops more notorious in the history of video games than John Romero’s Daikatana. It's a little before my time on the internet, but the hype cloud and ensuing fallout of this game was one of the big things the internet cared about during the late 90s, and honestly feels like it serves as the precursor for disappointing game releases of present day. If you haven't read Masters of Doom, I highly recommend you do. I read it for the first time this year, and the later chapters of that book really paint a damning portrait of this game's development, John Romero's leadership at Ion Storm and the work culture that led to this game becoming the punchline for "overhyped trash." Knowing the lurid details of Ion Storm’s penthouse office (it turns out air conditioning the top floor of a skyscraper in Dallas is expensive!) and the various missteps made during Daikatana’s development (namely, switching from the Quake 1 to Quake 2 engine midway through) really helped, uh, enhance my experience with this seminal(?) game. The seminal game I bought for 97 cents and decided had to be the centerpiece of my weird, questionable, and obscure shooty shoot wheel. Also, to be entirely honest, it’s not entirely terrible? @justin258 and I played through the entire thing co-op and it was hardly the worst thing I've done to myself this year.

Daikatana.jpg
Daikatana.jpg

Oh, to be clear, Daikatana is a mess. Even “fixed” with the essential fan patch, even without the limited save system, even without AI companion babysitting, even with a co-op partner, and even without the game’s surprising abundance of overwrought bad cutscenes, it’s a mess. There are fundamental problems with it that go beyond occasionally(?) crashing and not being able to leave without one’s buddy Superfly Johnson. There are layers to its dubiosity, but there’s also clarity in its madness. I can say authoritatively, as a person on the internet who has accidentally turned his brand into playing weird garbage, that I think this game is interesting? It’s interesting. It’s not good. But I think as we all know by this point, it’s my eternal curse to forever be drawn to things that are more interesting than they are good. That’s a Dubious Wheel promise.

While I could probably break down the specifics of Daikatana’s confusing, ugly, and occasionally jarring level design, I think there are enough videos (including my own playthrough) to hammer the point home. There have been enough things said about how genuinely awful the beginning of the game is, between the abundance of dimly lit, extremely green industrial environments or the dimly lit, extremely green enemies that inhabit them. I get the impression that’s where most people stopped, and I do not blame them one bit, because shit is genuinely terrible. That said, the game gets notably better once you get out of that first dark future “episode” and onto later environments. You wouldn’t KNOW that because most people never got past trying to shoot those fucking mosquitoes with the garbage ion blaster, but at the very least the game’s terrible initial first impression eventually leads way to something… less bad. Still a surprising amount of “where the fuck do I find this key item” syndrome going on. If I wanted that I’d play Hexen.

Finally a game that dares to say
Finally a game that dares to say "What if the weapons hurt the player more than their enemies?"

Daikatana’s greatest curse might be that it was made by a bunch of people who clearly played a lot of shooters and clearly had a lot of ideas. In a lot of ways it resembles the game that Romero wanted to make for ages, without anyone else there to tell him no. For some reason there are RPG mechanics, and you can level up both Hiro Miaymoto's (seriously?) stats and the titular “Big Sword” itself. That has the corollary effect of starting you out feeling kind of shit, between weapons taking slightly too long to fire (tied to the "attack" stat, which is different from the "power" stat) and the Daikatana itself feeling like straight garbage until you power it to level 3, at which point it becomes monstrously overpowered. Of course, once you get a few levels in you things get a lot better. Like, the movement in Daikatana is actually pretty great? Once you get a few points into speed and jump, you can fuckin’ zoom across the (far too large) levels and eventually rocket jump over a surprising amount of geometry. It's still a Quake engine game, so I guess I can see why it has a small-but-dedicated deathmatch scene.

For my money, though, the most Romero thing about it might be how the weapon roster is esoteric to the point of obnoxiousness. Each of the four time periods has a totally different set of weapons, which is as admirable in its ambition as it is frankly absurd. A lot of the guns very much feel like a parade of “wouldn’t it be cool if” prompts without consideration for why most video games suffice with a shotgun that acts like a shotgun. In Daikatana, the first shotgun you encounter is a six-barreled automatic shotgun that discharges all of its rounds with one pull of the trigger and can be used to rocket jump, which *sounds* cool but just leads to you wasting a bunch of ammo or getting caught between barrages. No, you’re not going to use the mine launcher or the actual rocket launcher to rocket jump too much, because you’ll blow yourself up with their surprisingly large and dangerous splash radius (which is the other running trend of a lot of Daikatana’s arsenal: high friendly fire potential.) It goes on like that for pretty much every “episode” (Snake staff that shoots poison balls that can bounce off walls and hit you? Check. Magic fire staff that shoots giant fireball? check.) until the last one where they decide to finally give you a regular-ass pistol and shotgun. Sure. Only took the entire game.

Look at that smiling long-haired man. He doesn't know the tragedy that awaits him
Look at that smiling long-haired man. He doesn't know the tragedy that awaits him

So yeah, uh, you probably shouldn’t play Daikatana, even with the fan patch. I cannot stress that enough, for as much as I do not regret playing through it myself and would, in fact, not be against playing it again for various charitable purposes. Quite simply, among the crop of both old and new classic-style shooters there are better prospects for your time, ones that are perhaps less historically infamous but significantly more playable. That said, if you do decide to take that 97 cent plunge at least rest assured that it has interesting™ ideas and is not the worst thing ever. I mean, fuck man, I was looking at Redneck Rampage on sale, going “hmmmmm” and then wondering what I was doing with my life. I did not buy Redneck Rampage. I did buy Daikatana! Take that as you will. Hopefully Romero will make a good video game again one of these days, because Empire of Sin sure did seem... well-intentioned when I checked it out a couple months ago.

Red Faction II

Did you know that John Romero worked on the nGage version of Red Faction 1? Because that factoid is more interesting than anything in Red Faction II
Did you know that John Romero worked on the nGage version of Red Faction 1? Because that factoid is more interesting than anything in Red Faction II

Developer: Volition

Release Date: October 15, 2002

Time Played: A little over 90 minutes

Troubleshooting: Light

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Geomodosity: NOT NEARLY ENOUGH

Would I play more? no.

One of the reasons why this “season” of The Wheel of Dubious FPSes is mostly fixated on games from the mid 90s through the early 2000s is twofold. First, it’s after shooters had become more than “Doom Clones” but before the genre had been fully codified (or CODified, am I right? High five.) and cemented during the 360/PS3 generation, which means there are *ideas*. Second, I don’t think you could pay me to play most of the mediocre to bad console shooters of the mid-late 2000s, especially once everything transitioned from being set in World War II to being set in A Modern Conflict Set in Brown Nondescript Middle Eastern Country and Sometimes Russia. I’ve got bad news: gaming for me may be a religion, but Haze just kinda seems shit. (i.e. not worth the novelty of me eBay-ing a copy or going to the trouble to set up an emulator.) I apologize to everyone who was anticipating an endless string of Korn jokes. I don't know any. Except their music. Heyo.

However, Red Faction II is a reminder that, uh, maybe most shooters weren’t super great on console during the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era either. Or rather to use a reductive hot take that I formulated about 30 minutes into this Red Faction II stream: “First-Person Shooters sure did spend a lot of time playing catch up to Halo and Half Life.” Now, I played a few hours of the first Red Faction before this stream, as a barometer for its comparative dubiosity and general quality as a first person shooter; it seems totally “fine.” However, compared to its sequel, it’s a masterwork of game design. If you'd ask me what "the thing" about the first Red Faction was, it's that it's a shooter set on Mars, and uses the "GeoMod" terrain deformation engine. So imagine, much to my shock and astonishment, Red Faction II does not take place on Mars, nor does it actually have much of the environmental destruction and terrain deformation that more or less was the entire selling point of Red Faction the First. That's like if Halo 2 did not have recharging shields or a two weapon limit. So what doesRF2 have?

Two lengthy turret sequences in the first 90 minutes, that’s what it has. Having played Black Mesa last year, I can state with some confidence that the original Half Life still does that style of very scripted, set-piece driven video game very well, and I’m pretty sure that game has maybe one turret sequence in its entire runtime. Red Faction II has your band of quirky one-dimensional super soldiers yelling into the main character’s ear at all times about a plot you don’t care about abruptly transitioning between linear, cramped, PS2-sized levels in what was clearly a poor PC port. One of said super soldiers, the guy who drives all the vehicles during aforementioned turret sequences, is voiced by a pre-fame Jason Statham, and that might just be the most memorable thing about my entire experience. Of course, given that the on-foot sections involve shooting extremely dumb AI with a handful of mediocre guns (and once again, very little in the department of actually blowing up walls or otherwise modifying geometry) it’s not great in the moment-to-moment stuff either. I mean fuck man, I’ll say it here: I’d rather play Daikatana again than play any more Red Faction II. Here’s hoping the rest of the wheel manages to keep things dubious without keeping it boring.

You're welcome to follow me on the youtube if you'd like to keep up with my stream archives, or my actual Twitch channel if you'd like to keep up with stuff live.

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Probably that playthrough of F3AR I did, honestly. YO THAT GAME SUCKSStrife
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imunbeatable80

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Great read bud.. no notes, but I will say avoid redneck rampage. As one of 3 people in the world who played that game it bricked two different computers I was associated with back when it came out. I'm sure you could get it up and running now, but my God was it a garbage game.

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Manburger

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Excellent first episode(s)/instalment of this new Dubious season - starting the show with a showstopper! Though I guess the Wheel stops for no one. (Barring a crash to desktop or two)

A fun read indeed!

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Daavpuke

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I cannot believe I came in here to read that Daikatana is better than Red Faction II. Always a surprise, I guess!

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stealydan

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#4  Edited By stealydan

I remember being incredibly disappointed with the single player in RFII. The local multiplayer, however, was fantastic! My buddy and I had so much fun playing railguns-only CTF against bots.

Before each match, you would pick a model for your character out of basically every model from the campaign. You would then type in a custom name for yourself. My favorite model was this guy who looked exactly like Drew Carey (I think it was a boss character). Seeing that name above my character's head on my buddy's screen (yep, screencheating) right before I railgunned him was never not funny!

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ArbitraryWater

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Great read bud.. no notes, but I will say avoid redneck rampage. As one of 3 people in the world who played that game it bricked two different computers I was associated with back when it came out. I'm sure you could get it up and running now, but my God was it a garbage game.

I have once again avoided the temptation to buy Redneck Rampage on sale. Instead you are looking at the proud(?) owner of Unreal 1 and 2, the original Rise of the Triad, and also NecrovisioN for some reason. (that reason? It was 99 cents)

@daavpuke said:

I cannot believe I came in here to read that Daikatana is better than Red Faction II. Always a surprise, I guess!

I don't know if I'm going to become the face of Daikatana apologism or what, but in the state I played it in, it's far from the worst game I've played this year.

I remember being incredibly disappointed with the single player in RFII. The local multiplayer, however, was fantastic! My buddy and I had so much fun playing railguns-only CTF against bots.

Before each match, you would pick a model for your character out of basically every model from the campaign. You would then type in a custom name for yourself. My favorite model was this guy who looked exactly like Drew Carey (I think it was a boss character). Seeing that name above my character's head on my buddy's screen (yep, screencheating) right before I railgunned him was never not funny!

Oh, okay, so this is the best part: The PC version of Red Faction II only has bot matches. No multiplayer of any kind. Just perfect, A++, era of PC ports being absolute garbage.

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Shindig

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Seems like I picked the right time to finish Masters of Doom. Romero really, really lost control of that project.

Daikatana's on my steam wishlist. I'm intrigued by it and the other id alumni's post-Doom work. There is a daft ambition to it that 80 people in Dallas couldn't brute force into existence. I also think there's a great Twilight Zone episode to made from a developer who made an awesome game and then became hopelessly addicted to it.

The stories about John only being in the office to play Doom deathmatch made me chuckle.