Review: “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” (Retro Computer Game)

2015 Artwork Rise Of The Triad Review sketch

Back in the 1990s, some great FPS games – like ID Software’s “Doom“- got all of the fame and glory. Although this fame and glory was richly deserved, it also meant that other great FPS games of the time quickly ended up languishing in obscurity. Apogee’s “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” (from 1994/5) is one of those games.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I played this game a couple of times when I was a kid and I even ended up buying a budget copy of it on CD quite a few years later.

But, after both discovering a “Rise Of The Triad”-themed “Doom” WAD and realising that I’d foolishly given my physical copy of “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” away to a charity shop quite a while ago, I eventually decided to re-buy this game on GoG for about four pounds. But, as you’ll see, it was money well spent.

I should probably point out that, at the time of writing this review, I’m about halfway through the game. This basically means that I’ve spent most of a weekend playing it regularly, which is enough time to get a general impression of the game, the gameplay, the level design and lots of other stuff about the game. Still, I thought that I should probably mention this fact nonetheless.

I should also probably warn you that this review will contain one (cartoonishly unrealistic) gruesome image.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War”:

Yes, that's a RSAC advisory in the corner of the screen. Does anyone remember those?]

Yes, that’s a RSAC advisory in the corner of the screen. Does anyone remember those?

The story of “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” is that you are a member of a UN special forces unit called HUNT. Your team have been tasked with investigating the mysterious activities of a cult that owns a monastery on a small island near Los Angeles.

However, soon after you arrive, your boat is blown to smithereens by the cult members and it’s up to you to fight your way through the island and stop the cult.

Unusually for the time, this game actually explains the story to you through a series of still frames at the beginning of the game, like this one:

As much as I hate to criticise "Doom", the story in it was told through text screens rather than through cool pixel art graphics like THIS.

As much as I hate to criticise “Doom”, the story in it was told through text screens rather than through cool pixel art graphics like THIS.

“Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” uses a heavily modified version of the “Wolfenstein 3D” game engine (eg: pretty much the first FPS game engine ever developed). And, when I say “heavily modified” – I mean it. Seriously, there’s a ton of stuff in this game which was far more advanced than even anything from the the old “Doom” games.

What am I talking about? Well, for starters, you can actually look up and down and you also have the (somewhat limited) ability to jump if you step on one of the game’s many jump pads.

Plus, when you die, the game will sometimes switch to a third-person perspective to give you a gory re-play of your death (seriously, this sort of thing didn’t become common until genuine 3D game engines were invented) This game also includes things like destructible objects and bridges made out of floating platforms that you can actually walk under.

Plus, you can do THIS... on the "Wolfenstein 3D" engine!!

Plus, you can do THIS… on the “Wolfenstein 3D” engine!!

Yes, there’s also a power-up which gives you the ability to fly. The only other FPS game to have implemented something like this at the time was Raven Software’s 1994 classic, “Heretic“. In fact, the only signs that the game is running on the ancient “Wolfenstein 3D” engine are the fact that you can only carry four weapons at a time and the fact that all of the walls are made from square blocks.

In addition to this, the game also includes a few other things that were way ahead of it’s time. The most notable one of these is that you have five characters who you can choose to play as. With the exception of one other FPS game from the 90s, this sort of thing wouldn’t really be seen again in FPS games until the late 2000s when Valve released their “Left 4 Dead” games.

Best of all, you can also choose your character's gender too. Seriously, this game was released 20 years ago and many modern FPS games don't even include this feature. And, yes, the guy at the bottom of the screen is called "I.P.Freeley".

Best of all, you can also choose your character’s gender too. Seriously, this game was released 20 years ago and many modern FPS games don’t even include this feature. And, yes, the guy at the bottom of the screen is called “I.P.Freeley”.

Each of these characters has slightly different abilities and these can have a surprising effect on the gameplay. Some characters have more health points, some characters can run faster and some characters have better accuracy.

Likewise, the bad guys will actually shout different things at you, depending on whether you’ve picked a male or a female character (eg: “shoot him!” or “shoot her!”), this is only a tiny part of the game but it’s still a rather cool design choice.

In addition to this, “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” was designed by none other than Tom Hall. As such, the game is absolutely crammed with eccentric humour. Seriously, if there’s one thing I miss about 1990s FPS games, it’s the humour. Games were just funnier back then and they had more personality too.

To give you one of many examples, one of the power-ups you can find in the game is a “God Mode” power up. As well as giving you infinite health for thirty seconds, it also turns you into a ten-foot tall god who can obliterate enemies using magical powers:

Wooooo!!!!!

Wooooo!!!!!

As for the gameplay itself, it’s pretty classic 1990s FPS gameplay. You shoot bad guys and you search each level for keys and switches, before moving onto the next level. However, both of these elements of the game are handled in fairly interesting ways.

One interesting thing about the combat in “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” is that all of the bullet weapons (a pistol, two pistols and a machine gun) have infinite ammo. Whilst this sort of thing may seem like a form of built-in cheating, it actually works fairly well. Why? Because the unfairly large amount of ammo you carry is balanced out by the sheer difficulty of the combat.

Most of the time, you’ll be fighting groups of several enemies at a time. You’ll be getting shot at accurately by enemies in the distance who are no more than a few pixels in size. You can’t dodge bullets in this game. Whilst the combat doesn’t always require the kind of careful tactics and strategy as the combat in, say, “Blood” does – this game certainly isn’t a completely mindless shooter.

But, even so, the combat in this game is incredibly fun. It’s FPS gameplay at it’s purest and it is a joy to play. Not only that, you also get an assortment of various rocket launchers and novelty weapons that help to add some variety to the combat. Unfortunately, thanks to the limitations of the game engine, you can only carry one of these explosive or novelty weapons at a time.

This is the excalibat, it's a magical lightsaber-like baseball bat that can also shoot exploding baseballs if you hold the "fire" key for a few seconds.

This is the excalibat, it’s a magical lightsaber-like baseball bat that can also shoot exploding baseballs if you hold the “fire” key for a few seconds.

Not only that, “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” was the first FPS game to introduce gibs. If you’re new to the FPS genre or if you’ve only played modern “realistic” FPS games, I should probably explain what “gibs” are.

The word “gibs” is short for “giblets” and it refers to the cartoonishly gratuitous amount of blood and guts that get thrown across the screen whenever someone got blown up in an old FPS game. This was all part of the shockingly rebellious charm of 1990s FPS games…. and this game was the very first to include it:

Fun fact: If you look closely, you'll see that the severed hand is actually giving you the finger. This is one of the game's many amusing easter eggs.

Fun fact: If you look closely, you’ll see that the severed hand is actually giving you the finger. This is one of the game’s many amusing easter eggs.

As for the level design and exploration in this game, it’s a larger part of the game than you might expect.

Although the levels are the kind of interesting non-linear levels that you would expect from a proper FPS game, they can often be extremely large. Not only that, keys and switches (including barely-noticeable pressure switches on the floor) are often cunningly concealed in all sorts of ways.

So, if you’re playing a level in this game, expect to spend twenty minutes engaged in challenging combat with the level’s enemies and then expect to spend another twenty minutes wandering around the level aimlessly, looking for that one key or switch that you missed. Personally, I find this to be part of the charm of 1990s FPS games, but you may or may not find it frustrating at times.

Visually speaking, the levels can look slightly monotonous at times (though nowhere near as much as in “Wolfenstein 3D”), however this is broken up slightly by a whole host of cool graphical touches throughout the game.

Like this wonderful misty desert level.

Like this wonderful misty desert level.

Or these cool glowing pillars of molten lava.

Or these cool glowing pillars of molten lava.

Or even these amazingly detailed and wonderfully cool serpent murals above a few of the doors.

Or even these amazingly detailed and wonderfully cool serpent murals above a few of the doors.

As for the controls, this game can be played using either just the keyboard or both the keyboard and the mouse. Personally, I’d recommend just using the keyboard since, although you can use the mouse for turning, you tend to turn more slowly and imprecisely with the mouse than you do if you are using the arrow keys. Plus, there’s certainly something to be said for the no-nonsense simplicity of good old 1990s keyboard controls.

The music in “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” is as good as any of the MIDI music in Apogee’s other 1990s games. In other words, it’s brilliant and – if you buy this game on GoG – you’ll also get the entire soundtrack as a free download too.

Plus, according to this gameplay footage I found on Youtube if you play the game on Christmas day, then the background music for the first level will be a really cool MIDI rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (which happens to be my favourite Christmas carol). This song is also included on the soundtrack too.

All in all, “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” is an absolutely stellar example of the FPS genre at it’s finest. It has creativity, humour, brilliantly challenging combat and fiendishly-designed levels. In fact, I never thought that I’d say this, but I actually like this game as much as I like “Doom II”. And, as regular readers of this site will probably know, I’m almost obsessed with “Doom II” (or, rather, I’m also obssessed with the many fan-made levels you can find for it on the internet).

Apparently there was also a modern remake of “Rise Of The Triad” released in 2013. Although my computer almost certainly isn’t fast or modern enough to run it, if it’s anything like this game then maybe there’s hope for the FPS genre after all….

Anyway, if I had to give “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” a score out of five, it would get ten.

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