I have the distinct pleasure of being old enough to recall (if not old enough to be parentally allowed to play) Rise of the Triad back in 1994. I remember fondly the ridiculous flying blood splatters, enemy monk-Nazis begging for their lives, and navigating confusing DOS prompts to get there, but I remember it, and fondly nonetheless. So imagine my swelling of glee when I heard that after nineteen years, Rise of the Triad was coming back, with modern visuals and old-school style, a shooter that laughed in the face of those silly Call of Duty and Battlefield games, bringing real gunslinging heroes to the fray. Then imagine my severe disappointment when I actually played it.
You’ve heard it from me before, I totally think that the 90’s were some of the best years for gaming, and Rise of the Triad tries incredibly hard to embody all those old elements with a fresh coat of paint. First and foremost, though: this is obviously a labor of love from Interceptor studios. As a small batch of people working out of their homes, the level of dedication and unity of vision is impressive.
After that, though, it gets significantly more difficult to find good things to say. While the adherence to the mid 90’s feel and style is admirable, and certainly exists here in droves, the problem stems from the reasons so many of those systems were left behind in the first place. Back when games only needed to be games to be games, Rise of the Triad’s basic narrative of a UN anti-terrorist force made up of a bunch of action-movie stereotypes with varying stats related to movement speed and endurance (and bear names like Ian Paul Freely, but he was around in ’94 anyway) arriving at an island filled with Nazis is almost a welcome break from the decidedly dark and heavy shooter storylines of the modern day. I say almost due mostly to the lack of penache in the whole thing. Plenty can be said for the lo-tech approach, but what RotT’s still-frame comic panel and wooden—borderline petrified—voice acting lacks is style.
I brushed this all off when I first loaded the game up. The worry wasn’t for a driving, character-based narrative, but for gore and bullets galore, and technically, those things are in the game—in abundance—but the entire presentation is just subpar enough to render the entire experience as flat as the old sprites used to be. I picked a slightly speedier character, and immediately found myself rocketing with reckless abandon around the first level with little-to-no control, watching damage indicators firing off at every angle from Nazis I couldn’t see from guns I couldn’t hear. Before I could even consider playing the game at all, I had to go back and pick a slower character, and even then I still felt like I was blasting around the level at full tilt. Most things in the levels are rendered one of three shades of gray or brown, including Nazi uniforms, so picking enemies out from the drab setting got to be a chore, and since I couldn’t rely on the sound of gunfire (which only sounded normal coming from my own weapons) I literally had to run into a wide-open room blast any obvious movement in the face, and then sit and tear around the space until I could determine the enemy positions using the damage indicators.
There is this great image that compare old school map design to modern design. While RotT’s maps are a far cry from straight corridors with cutscenes at the corners, the levels don’t boast much complexity or diversity. There are some elevator platforms here and there, and jump panels to send your character rocketing around collecting floating coins, but other than actively seeking hidden doors (of which there were enough to satisfy the old gamer in me), the levels are little more than mazes with the odd large room filled with Nazis. The weapons, with a few gleaming exceptions, are also dull and rather uninspired. The basic pistol and submachine gun both have infinite ammunition with no need to reload (though one can do so cosmetically) and a decent enough job at killing, but if you want to keep your combo up for big points, you hope for things like a heat seeking missile launcher, or a weapon that conjures rapidly advancing walls of fire.
Enemy AI is nightmarish at best, with enemies either charging blindly toward you or simply standing and plinking at you with nigh-silent bullets. The saving grace of the whole experience came in the multiplayer mode, which at least featured opponents with a sense of self-preservation, and had a feel not unlike good old Unreal Tournament-type games in terms of speed and insanity. Wrap this all up in a package whose visual quality rivals that of games from the early 00’s, and you’ve got Rise of the Triad in a nutshell.
I’d like to finish by saying this: there was a time and a place for the game mechanics of 1994. It ended soon after 1994, sadly, and I have no doubt that had Rise of the Triad reconciled with modern mechanics more, a better argument could have been made for the adherence it held to its heritage. The team obviously knew what it wanted, and the problem is that the audience for what they made is extraordinarily small, and wouldn’t see where they were coming from. I suppose, then, that what we can take from it all is this: if you played and loved Rise of the Triad in 1994 and haven’t played a single game since, you’ll probably love this. Otherwise, it’s going to take a serious stomach to try to enjoy it.