If there's one gaming genre that embodies the spirit of late 90s PC gaming, it's the six degrees of freedom shooter. Dropped into a labyrinthian mass of tunnels, players are tasked with navigating complex spaces utilising a full six degrees of freedom while dealing with enemies, hunting for keys and finding exits. Interplay's Descent popularised the concept, but other brilliant games followed in its wake, including Probe Software's stunning Forsaken. And now, thanks to the efforts of Nightdive Studios, Samuel 'Kaiser' Villarreal (the developer behind the EX versions of Turok, Doom 64 and Powerslave) and other talented coders, Forsaken has returned.
The original game launched in 1998 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation and Nintendo 64. It was developed in the UK for PC and PlayStation by Probe Entertainment while Iguana Entertainment UK handled the N64 version. Forsaken featured much the same gameplay formula as Descent, but thanks to its more advanced graphics engine, the visuals are less abstract than Descent, making it easier to navigate the complex structures. The action features a Doom-like quality to it with large numbers of enemies swarming the player at any point - and this mix of hectic action with fluid controls and puzzle solving feels great even today.
It was also a showpiece for 3D accelerator cards at the time. With its fast 3D engine, Forsaken could fill the screen with coloured, dynamic lighting - a look so 90s it hurts - along with large, detailed stages to explore and lots of enemies. It's visually basic by today's standards, with entire maps featuring roughly 18,000 triangles in total - significantly less than a single model in a modern game. Enemy ships seemingly average around 200 polygons while larger foes can be anything up to four times more detailed. It's clearly a product of its time but in 1998, it looked incredible and Forsaken's wide-ranging 3D acceleration support saw it adopted as a benchmark amongst hardware publications.
But it wasn't the only platform where you could enjoy the game, and one port in particular stands out. The PS1 delivered the full Forsaken experience, and it did so at a super-smooth 60 frames per second - a remarkable achievement bearing in mind how far ahead PC 3D acceleration was compared to PS1 specs. It was content complete, with the same levels, gameplay and Redbook CD audio.
Much of the game's visual identity is retained with full colored per-vertex lighting used throughout along with many shared assets. Vehicle and stage complexity appear virtually identical to the PC version. Affine texture warping is, of course, a problem as in other PS1 games but in motion, it's still one of the most impressive technical achievements for the system. Yes, in busy scenes there was a slowdown but by and large, this port was exceptional judged by the standards of the time, let down only by poor analogue controller support - Forsaken arrived in the early days of Sony's dual-analogue controller, the predecessor to the Dual Shock set-up still used today.
Then there's the Nintendo 64 version and this is where things get interesting. It recalls a very different time in game development when platform differences extended beyond visuals. Not only is Forsaken 64 the creation of a different team entirely, it's also a completely different game. On the surface, it looks remarkably similar to the 3D accelerated PC version: perspective correct, filtered textures, bright, colourful particle effects and garish lighting galore.
It looks great, but once you dive into the game, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a different beast entirely with different objectives and stage layouts. In fact, the very first level is a multiplayer map where the player is tasked with emptying the stage of enemy opponents. Thankfully, there is more stage variety in Forsaken 64 than simply defeating every enemy and the levels do ramp up in complexity over time. While it's never quite as puzzle-heavy as the PC and PS1 versions, there are some brilliant stages in there and Forsaken 64 does stand up as a game in its own right, even though - in common with many N64 games - performance is problem. This title targets 30fps and even then, it exhibits slowdown. It's still smoother than your average N64 title, however, so it's difficult to complain.
A sequel for PS2 and Xbox was in development, but needless to say, the title was cancelled and the Forsaken franchise disappeared - but not for long. Some years later, the source code became available and members of the community set out to build a modern version of Forsaken that could run on newer PCs. This goes by the name ProjectX - the codename originally assigned to the game during development.This version updates all aspects of the engine adding new audio, video and interface features. That said, due to a mix of what is likely copyrighted content and outdated code, Project X does not seem to support music playback. It's also missing the introduction video and other features, but for a while, this was the easiest way to play the game on modern hardware.
The good news is that now there's a fully official way to play the game. Forsaken Remastered by Nightdive Studios is basically a deluxe special edition. Every map from PlayStation 1 and PC is included along with all of the Nintendo 64 content too, repurposed to fit the flow of the original release. The end result is a singular whole, with one map also featuring a brand-new section designed just for this new version of the game. All told, you're looking at 32 maps in total.
The new remaster is available on PC and Xbox One, with full 4K60 support for the enhanced X console. We're told that dynamic resolution scaling is in place to maintain performance, but we couldn't find any drops in resolution, but this is an older game with different demands on the hardware. The game is mostly-single threaded, for instance, which places extra demand on a single CPU core. The menu is also fascinating for a console game. You can, for instance, toggle between different types of anti-aliasing, enable or disable ambient occlusion, enable motion blur and more! These seem to have little to no impact on performance, however, instead offering users a way to customise the experience. On the PC side, a few additional options are available including support for higher frame-rates, ultra-wide displays and three different rendering APIs - OpenGL, D3D11 and Vulkan.
OK, so once in the game, what can you expect? Controls are refined compared to the original release on both gamepads and the mouse and keyboard. The complete soundtrack is there including both CD audio tracks and the original songs from the N64 version, which were chip-driven and based on samples. Beyond that, the user interface is completely upgraded with improved fonts and HUD positioning. You can even select between a variety of HUD types. My favorite new feature, however, is the map system. The original game could become confusing at times and there was no map to catch your bearings. With Remastered, a fully 3D rotatable map system in the vein of Metroid Prime has been integrated into the game and it works brilliantly. This is interesting as the game itself utilises a portal system in map construction - basically, each area of the map is isolated into its own chunk, with players navigating from chunk to chunk.
Since the game doesn't support any form of view culling, the portal is drawn to the GPU even when not in view. What's curious here is that some maps are essentially in 4D space. The Mindbender multiplayer map is a good example - from the outside, this tube appears to have two exists with a transparent area in the middle. Fly inside, however, and you're suddenly within a very different space. These two areas exist in the same space but are not the same. This can cause the odd performance issue on Xbox, but it's mostly solid and the developer is looking at optimising the edge cases we uncovered.
Still, whether you play on Xbox One or the PC, this is the definitive version of Forsaken in every way. The additional content, feature-rich options menu and perfectly tuned controls makes for a great time. This isn't the only six degrees of freedom shooter to return this year, however. Key team members that worked on Descent, for instance, have released Overload which is basically a spiritual successor to the classic 360-degree shooter. Between this and similar revivals, it does feel as if the scale and scope of retro remasters, remakes and even original projects based on this classic era is widening.
For years, it was the 8-bit/16-bit console era that dominated a range of retro-themed indie titles, but with Forsaken and the emerging range of titles like it, we're seeing developers tap into mid to late 90s PC games for inspiration. It was an era rich in innovation, with a massive library of exceptional software - and titles like Forsaken Remastered demonstrate that these games can still look good today and provide an experience that honours the past while still feeling fresh and entertaining.