Saturday, August 27, 2016

Final Doom

Well, here we are again. One more trip to the bank. Here's the story: back in the fall of '94, id Software released the acclaimed Doom II, reusing the original Doom engine but packing in a whole lot of extra content along the way. The reusing of the engine was important here. Doom had a vibrant map-making community, so owners of the game who wanted more levels to play could always go find some, provided I guess that they knew a guy who had saved the map pack onto a floppy disk. When Doom II came along, the engine continuity meant this process wouldn't change, and map makers could now use the skills they'd learned before and put them to use in a playground full of new stuff.

BFGed.So as Doom II thrived, so did its level creating community. Thus, in 1995 a group of talented designers calling themselves TeamTNT was deep in the process of making a free map pack for Doom II with 32 new levels - the same size as Doom II itself. id Software, having themselves left Doom behind and moved onto their next big project, wasn't about to let the cash cow go unmilked. They bought the TeamTNT project, and then commissioned two of the designers on that team to make a whole 'nother 32 level pack. Then they boxed the 64 levels all together and released it in the summer of 1996 as Final Doom - just 5 days before id would release its own brand new game, in what I just decided five seconds ago to call The Summer of id. Thus, Final Doom is literally twice as large as Doom II, but because these teams were essentially just creating custom maps for that previous game, there's nothing new in this package. Instead, Final Doom relies entirely on smart design to make or break it. How does it fare?

Let's start with the first campaign, called TNT: Evilution. See what they did there? It's like evolution, except, you know, evil. The general story is that the Union Aerospace Corporation, which was responsible for the invasion from hell that started this whole series, decided they wanted to start their research up again. I guess the billions of dead on Earth the last time around wasn't deterrent enough. "Meh, it's just a portal to Hell, what's the worst that could happen?" They go to one of the moons of Jupiter, start messing with stuff they shouldn't, and predictably get invaded and overrun with demons. A lone marine was busy taking a leisurely stroll at this time, so he becomes the last hope of humanity. And that's it. It's all the plot a Doom game really needs, if we're being honest.

Spectre fist.TNT: Evilution plays pretty much like what you'd expect. Really, the challenge feels more on par with Doom 1 than it does with Doom 2, despite the addition of the latter's content. The levels are fairly straightforward and, sadly, forgettable. There is an exception, which is a level called Wormhole. On this stage, you find yourself in a small room with an elevator at the back that takes you down into a series of tunnels. At the end of that tunnel warren (which is infested with monsters, because it's Doom) there is a lone teleport pad. When you step on it, you get the visual and audio effects of being teleported, but you don't appear to actually go anywhere. The teleport pad doesn't work now, but everything else is the same. You look around and wander back into those tunnel warrens, walking across the bodies of all the monsters you killed, and you start getting really confused and frustrated. Finally, when you work your way all the way back to the start of the level, you get attacked by a bunch of strong monsters that definitely weren't there before, and then it finally hits you: they made a map that was two identical copies of the same place, and even littered the second one with pre-killed enemies to convince you that you weren't somewhere new, all to be able to surprise you with an ambush in your bewilderment. THAT is great level design.

Other than that level, though, the first half of Evilution is bland and unexciting. Thankfully, once you enter the second half of the campaign, the challenge and interest gradually ramp up. This is primarily accomplished through scale - the latter levels of Evilution can get enormous, and you can find yourself easily spending half an hour on a map or more. This culminates in the final stage of the pack, which is a hilarious gauntlet of brutal challenges. First you find yourself looking at a wide grid of platforms. You have to sprint across them, since there's no jumping in Doom; if you run too slowly you'll fall and die. Only one of these platforms is safe, while all the others will instantly melt you if you touch them. When you find the safe one, there is again only one safe spot from there. This continues as an instant-death sprinting platform maze until you reach the other side, at which point a bunch of wall panels open and unleash a bunch of revenants (rocket-launching skeletons) and arachnotrons (plasmagunning cyborg brain-spiders). Surviving them takes you into a smaller room, in which a cyberdemon - the biggest, baddest enemy in the franchise - tries to sneak attack you with its missile launcher. Should you survive him, you must run down a hallway where ranged monsters will barrage you through windows, teleporting finally into a pleasant courtyard with the final boss of Doom II, just for kicks and giggles.

Coffins.That sounds like an insane challenge, and it is, but let me tell you something right now. TNT: Evilution has nothing on the difficulty of its sister campaign, The Plutonia Experiment. Let's hear what one of the designers had to say about it!

"I always played through the level I had made on hard, and if I could beat it too easily, I made it harder."

OH HAPPY DAY. This should be exciting, eh? And sure enough, when I booted it up, I got to level 2 and then was stumped on how to continue. Level 2! The Plutonia Experiment on normal difficulty is like playing Doom II on its hard setting, only with more monsters and less ammo. And that's only at the start of the campaign! It gets harder from there!

How about an example? See that picture above, what with me looking at coffins and almost certainly wetting myself? Well, if I were to turn around, I'd see something even more frightening: a cage near to overflowing with Arch-Viles. To jog your memory from Doom II, the Arch-Vile is perhaps the most sinister enemy in the game. It moves the fastest of all the monsters, resurrects its fallen comrades, and has an undodgeable attack where you explode if it has line-of-sight to you, irrespective of distance. Doom II used them very sparingly; it was almost like a little mini-boss. The Plutonia Experiment, by contrast, has the Arch-Vile Labyrinth. See, after you notice the horde of them caged next to you where you can't shoot them, the room opens into a huge maze, and all the Arch-Viles get teleported into it somewhere. The only thing they give you is a shotgun. Good luck!

Montezuma's RevengeIt would be virtually impossible if not for the game's map. I mentioned the wireframe map in my Doom 1 review, but it's worth repeating: this is a great thing. Even when the levels get really big and complex, like the monstrosity here pictured, a quick glance at the map will tell you where you should be heading. It helps ensure that the game's difficulty doesn't artificially stem from getting lost constantly, though there are occasional instances where you might feel stuck looking for a hidden door or switch. But that's not to say the levels themselves don't confuse. A great example is with the textures used. The Doom engine has four different "liquid" textures (all of which are actually solid in practice, of course), in four different colors: blue, green, red, and brown. In Doom, these were used consistently; blue was water and therefore harmless, while green, red, and brown were poison, lava (or burning blood), and acid respectively, and would all therefore harm you. Final Doom dispenses with that logic, so you never really know if a substance will kill you until you touch it. I'm not the biggest fan of that, but it does make the whole thing feel more unsafe.

The Plutonia Experiment plays out like a series of progressively more difficult challenges, always looking for a new way to put you behind the eight ball. In one of the first five levels, you start on a small platform surrounded by poison and switches. You have to run into the poison and hit a switch, which reveals a teleporter behind a false wall. Panicking because your life is rapidly dropping from standing in poison, you rush through the teleporter to find yourself surrounded by enemies, and you'll likely die within three seconds. You can't even overwhelm them with firepower like you always do in these games. Your only chance is to run away as fast as you can and regroup, returning to pick them off more systematically. It's definitely a more inspired campaign in these regards than TNT: Evilution, but the difficulty is staggering.

Revenance.As I mentioned before, there are no new enemies in Final Doom. This gives the experienced Doom player the advantage of already knowing how to fight each of the different kinds of monster the game will throw at you. The designers of The Plutonia Experiment realized this, and attempted to overcome that natural player advantage by making it impossible to fight some enemies the way you're "supposed" to. Take this army of angry revenants, for example. The revenant has two attacks: a seeker rocket fired from its shoulder cannon, and a big right hook punch that makes it look like it's doing its best Mr. Bojangles impression. The rockets are devastating and track you, so the best way to fight one of these things is to get close enough that it wants to punch you, and then unload your chaingun. The bullets stagger it so that its punch doesn't reach you and it dies before it can regroup. It's a reliable, solid strategy. Now, look at this picture. Do you think that strategy stands a chance? NO. You're going to die. You've got to figure out some other way of getting through that fight, knowing that your regular tactics are worthless. It's infuriating and exhilarating all at once.

Speaking of, there's one repeated tactic in the campaign that the game will throw at you, and the only defense is to save frequently. You see, many levels begin with you already surrounded by monsters. You'll conquer one challenging area only to spawn with crap flying at your face before you can really even note your surroundings. It doesn't happen on every single level, but it's frequent enough that you have to prepare for it. And of course, the deeper you are into the campaign, the more ruthless these immediate encounters are. Say, here's a level called Anti-Christ. I'm sure that one won't start off with legions of enemies hurling violent death my way! Frequent saves are all you can do to combat this, because you don't know when it's coming. And if you die, you have to start your current level over again with nothing but a pistol and a few bullets. I'm telling you, that's not winnable. If you die, and you don't have a recent save with all your stuff intact, just quit the game. Ya done.

Smack to DOS.The last level of Final Doom is a grand slaughter befitting the whole ordeal. You start in a small alcove with a few powerful guns and ammo packs, and walk forward to be assailed by a large number of medium-threat demons. When you advance a little further (whether or not you even killed the enemies that were there), the walls fall and reveal cages lined with powerful demons, all firing projectiles your way. In front of you is the Icon of Sin, which is just a big wall texture that shoots out boxes that turn into random enemies. And, of course, a cyberdemon. With a floor of lava. You win by destroying the Icon with a number of rockets fired into its sole vulnerable spot, but you can't really do that with all the other nonsense going on. So you struggle mightily, exhausting all your ammunition, and manage to kill absolutely everything there. The Icon eventually runs out of new monsters to spawn. The area is quiet, corpses strewn about everywhere. It's just you, one on one for the fate of the world, against a wall that literally cannot attack you. And the wall is outrageously difficult. Since you can't jump or otherwise control the height of your shots, you're at the mercy of the stage for rocket height. But no matter what ledge you stand on, your rocket will be at the wrong height to strike the Icon's vulnerable spot. Most spots are too low; one is too high. I kid you not; you'll spend the next 10-15 minutes running off that high ledge, firing a rocket in midair, and praying it was timed perfectly to hit the thing. If you miss, you'll just load your save because otherwise you'll run out of rockets and lose by default. If you hit, you get to do it like six more times to actually kill the dang thing. It's an absolute nightmare of dull frustration, and that's what was chosen by the designers and id Software to end the Doom era.

Look, Final Doom isn't a must-play. It's not even a should-play. But that doesn't make it bad. We've just seen all this before. I'm tired of Doom. I'm tired of playing it, and I'm tired of writing about it, because nothing's really changed. There's a new soundtrack to this game, and that's cool, but it says something when id Software - the game's proud creators - can't even be bothered to mess with the franchise anymore. Heck, they didn't even change the level names between the game's two campaigns; Evilution erroneously reuses The Plutonia Experiment's level names on the wireframe map screen. Final Doom is challenging, technically sound, and occasionally innovative. If I hadn't played Doom or Doom II, I'd also call it great fun. But I have played those games, which means I've sort of already played this one, too. It's a good game. Good, but unsatisfying. Do with that what you will, because like id Software before me, I've moved on.

Bottom Line: 14/20