Ask the designers of the original MDK at Shiny Entertainment as to what MDK stands for, and they'll likely give you a different answer every time—ranging from Massive Dollops of Ketchup to My Dog Ken. In fact, they often went out of their way to avoid ever revealing to what the letters MDK refer, simply because that was the one question everyone had when the game was released. The popular belief was that the name of the game stood for Murder Death Kill, since the lead character Kurt Hectic could blast the eye balls out of his enemies with his deadly sniper cannon. But not only did that idea conflict with the game's light-hearted nature and innocently goofy characters, it was also a term taken from a Sylvester Stallone movie (and Lord knows we don't want to associate MDK with that).
After playing the Dreamcast sequel, MDK2, it's now obvious that MDK was named after the three lead characters in the game—Max, the four-armed, two-legged, cigar-chomping pooch; Dr. Fluke Hawkins, the brilliant but clumsy scientist; and Kurt Hectic, the reluctant hero. Whereas in the original MDK you were limited to playing only as Kurt, MDK2 bases all the action on the ability to play as all three characters. The cover art of the games reads, "Out Snipe—Out Shoot—Out Think," which corresponds to each of the characters' strengths. The sniper scope in Kurt's special Coil Suit allows him to pick off enemies from afar. Max's four arms allow him to carry and shoot four guns at a time. The good doctor has to use his big brain by finding ways to use ordinary household items as weapons.
I liked the idea of sniping, shooting and thinking in a one game, but here it's done in three different games. MDK2 is essentially split up into three alternating parts—Kurt's adventure, Max's adventure and Dr. Fluke's adventure. Because each character's missions are built around their various abilities, each part plays completely different, and there's not much to hold everything together to make it feels like one game. MDK2 is a beautiful 3-D action game, and it's pretty fun, but there are problems in the game's basic concept that keep it from being really fun.
MDK2 gets off to a good enough start. A great tone for the game is set by telling the background story through the pages of a comic book, complete with AM-radio narration and fabulously stylized color artwork. The events from the first MDK are related in this way, but then the game shifts to a standard and much weaker 3-D movie mode to set-up the ensuing action. The comic book theme works so well in the beginning that I was puzzled as to why the game falls back on typical video game conventions the rest of the way (except for the loading screens, which label each chapter with a different comics cover page). The movie scenes do keep a sense of humor throughout though—such as when Dr. Fluke uses the toilet—but we won't get into that one. I liked the scene at the start in which Kurt gets ready for his free fall out of orbit by flexing his arms, only to trip over himself and fall head over heels down to Earth. That scene is followed up by a thrilling first stage in which Kurt dive bombs his way towards a rampaging mobile base and must avoid incoming enemy missiles.
The opening act is just one example of how MDK2 keeps the gameplay interesting and fresh. Most of the game is played from behind your character, but once in a while there's a nice surprise. When you take control of Max the dog for the first time, he is shot from the doctor's spaceship, the Jim Dandy, toward his objective in a space torpedo. The game switches to a side view once he's off and hands control over to the player—who then must guide the rocket through an asteroid field. Only then can Max begin his mission. There's also a truly bizarre series of events a bit later on with Max when he has to jump up several moving platforms. Normally this scenario plays out pretty standard in action games, but in this case there's a group of aliens watching from a bubble—cheering every time Max makes a successful jump. It was hard to concentrate in that part of the game because the situation was just so odd, but it was kind of funny, too.
MDK2 plays pretty well throughout the rest of the game as well, but the idea of playing as three separate characters—while unique—isn't executed as well as it could have been. One problem is that you're not given a choice as to which character you'd like to control—the game kind of settles that for you. Just when you're getting into a groove floating around and strafing fat aliens with Kurt, you're forced to suddenly play as Max and adjust to the way he controls. And just you get used to Max, it's time to play the part of Dr. Fluke. I guess this wouldn't normally be a bad thing, but the game is played totally different depending on which characters are being used. Kurt's fighting style is built on stealth. Max's strategy is to run-and-gun the aliens. Dr. Fluke is very weak physically (he can't even pull himself up onto a ledge), but he can create useful weapons—like the Atomic Toaster.
It's difficult to adjust to the different playing styles of the characters partly because the control scheme isn't optimized for each of them. Initially, the control configuration works well. The A, B, X, Y buttons are used for movement; the two trigger buttons are used for jumping and firing; the analog stick is used to look around and the regular directional pad toggles through weapons. It must be a good set-up because Quake III Arena on Dreamcast uses it, too. I think it works great for controlling Kurt, but with Max and Dr. Fluke it's a different story. The problems don't arise for Max until he acquires the jet pack—at which point juggling the camera control with the firing, movement, weapon loading and thrust controls (all at the same time) simply becomes too demanding (not to mention unfair). Since the doc can't do much offensively, I didn't think it would be a problem with him at first, but I was wrong. Dr. Fluke does a lot of jumping from narrow platform to narrow platform in his levels, and it's difficult to perform such precise jumping and landing using the game's unusual control set-up.
After playing as all the characters, I found that I had the most fun playing as Kurt, despite the difficultly of controlling the other characters. The gameplay just seems to suit him better, and visually, it makes more sense for him to be playing in such wonderfully weird world. With Kurt, I felt like I was actually playing the game. With Max and Dr. Fluke, I felt like I was playing a different game—one that involved too much item management. With Max, you're constantly running out of ammo, health and jet pack fuel (at least until you acquire the atomic jet pack). I kind of liked blitzing enemies with four uzis at a time, ditching them when they ran dry and equipping new ones (just like Desperado), but more time is spent looking for items and not enough playing through the level. That's not a problem with Kurt, as he's already fully equipped to fight the bad guys. It's the same problem with Dr. Fluke, however. He has to find items so he can make weapons and such, so he spends most of the time running around looking for things. It distracts too much from the actual game. The items the doc can use are pretty limited anyway, and the combinations are obvious, not inventive like the game wants them to be. It never feels like you can pick up anything and use it—a prospect that I would have found more appealing.
Overall, BioWare did a nice job with MDK2. I like the game's ideas and its approach to the genre. The graphics are truly a sight to behold—filled to the brim with wondrous landscapes and other-worldly designs. The original soundtrack is great as well—especially when the shooting action gets wild. MDK2 keeps the spirit of the original intact while adding some appreciated gameplay variety, but the idea of playing as all three characters wasn't completely realized in the final product. In the end, MDK2 delivers on most of its promises. Had it delivered on all of them, I would have liked it even more.