Doom 2, Boom-compatible
Avactor: End of the Fifth Circle, a sort of lavish spiritual successor to the author's earlier Hide & Seek, is without doubt one of the most grandiose adventures of the year. Set on a ring of mysterious islands host to a primeval deathcult, the game's distinctively stylized Mesoamerican/Caribbean jungle theme is immediately captivating. Equal parts genuinely inviting shady green tropical beauty and imposing, morbid monuments of unfeeling stone--all very Temple of Doom, if you will--I reckon it would be fair to say that no other WAD this year has offered quite so many vistas that compelled me to stop to drink them in, true, but more importantly, most of these are not merely cosmetic but fully realized, where the promise of adventure is not merely teased, but well and truly waiting for you to dive in, guns blazing.
The magic of Avactor's wonderfully immersive realization of its world goes far beyond simply having a well-curated set of custom assets and lush visuals. While each of the ten featured islands could, broadly speaking, be fairly described as a stretch of jungle with some creepy old ruins in it, Eradrop wrings an astonishing amount of both narrative and level design mileage out of what at first seems a fairly static (if striking) theme. One barren, mountainous island houses a great ironworks in its molten heart; an ancient burial site lays a curse on the corsair fleet which despoiled it; a particularly charnel funerary complex is merely the gateway to a vast subterranean nether-realm older than human memory. More than scenic backdrops, each of these scenes is expertly paired with intriguing progression schemes and a veritable feast of clever secrets that make the settings come alive in a way that many fine WADs might well be envious of. Whether scuttling precariously along the face of a crumbling ziggurat while floating horrors belch death from afar, gradually reassembling a titanic bridge to pierce an ancient sanctum, or giddily racing through the fiery underbelly of an oracle temple which has just collapsed in on itself around you, every stage of the journey holds something new, remaining fresh and compelling all throughout its considerable length.
This beautifully realized setting alone would likely have been enough to warrant the mapset a place of honor this year, but I was delighted to find that its "more is more" philosophy fully extends to its gunplay as well. Make no mistake, this is an incredibly violent WAD, and will see these islands of the dead blanketed with veritable mountains of fresh corpses long before all's said and done. The generally spacious, expansive design naturally invites great numbers of monsters (each sporting a fetching new getup ala Cannibal Holocaust), while the richly layered environments and cornucopia of weapons and ammo afford nearly endless scope for combating them as you see fit. Just as with the engrossing progression beats, Eradrop is equally surehanded in constructing marquee encounters on both grand and intimate scales, punctuating the general bloodletting with a wealth of truly memorable climaxes, often with truly imaginative staging. As something of an old hand at this, I was particularly impressed by the WAD's trap sense--no other set in years has managed to catch me off-guard as often, or to as successfully play upon my expectations of when, where and even how danger would be present, which meshes naturally with its "forbidden temple" theme.
A triumph of location-based design, Avactor's depth, breadth, and quality of content epitomizes all of the best aspects of the "adventure map" genre while being bloodier than a Xibalba abattoir to boot. My kingdom for another canto!
Doom 2, GZDoom
In space, no one can hear you scream… or shoot… or singlehandedly take down a demon invasion. Paul Dechene’s Dark Universe aptly captures the most harrowing feeling of all - being left alone to deal with the demons that Hell has inexplicably decided to bring right into the spacecraft that was once manned by your fellow space marines, who just moments before were going about their day without fear or worry. With 6 full-length maps, Dark Universe leads you through a journey of fighting your way through a spacecraft on the brink of destruction.
The premise of the gameplay of Dark Universe is, at its base, simple- as Dechene lists in the text file, “just find the switch that opens the exit and find the exit.” However, the world that he creates in Dark Universe is one that leaves you aching to be able to explore every inch of every map, scouring for ammunition and supplies to help you along your way to avenge your fallen comrades. The environments have a flavor much akin to titles such as Mass Effect, with high-quality texturing, lighting, and details that bring an eerie type of life to the ship. Perhaps most notable is the excellent and strategic use of GZDoom effects that really solidify the feeling of fear, and sometimes up the ante and make you carefully calculate your steps, lest you get sucked out of a broken airlock or hull breach and end up a victim to the cold emptiness of the infinite void. And watch what switches you press - you may end up in an even more terrifying parallel world.
If the danger of being sucked out into the unforgiving field of stars wasn’t enough, every area of the map is crawling with demons, including a brand-new mechanical monolith that, while not as large as some of the other denizens of Hell, packs just as much, if not more of a punch. Something - or someone - lurks around every corner, perhaps, even, zombiemen that may wear the faces of your former colleagues. Watch your step, pay close attention to your surroundings, and keep your trigger finger steady and ready. Each step forward brings you to a fear-inducing final fight, with demons bursting through the almost supernatural barrier that had separated them from you- until now.
Dark Universe combines the best of Doom’s underlying lore with many of the features and aesthetics of a modern FPS, bringing new life to the idea of fighting demons in space- and making it feel totally natural. The cherry on the space cake? This is only the beginning. We have much more to forward to in this universe, and while much of it is uncertain, one thing is not- it will be bloody, and it will be brutal.
The Adventures of Square: Episode 2 - BigBrik Games
If you ask me, the Doom community is at the beginning of another mapping renaissance, a shift in the broader ideals of the mapping sphere. If the ‘90s were all about working within the classic limitations, the 2000s were about the exploration of greatly expanded limits and features, and most of the 2010s were a challenge-driven neoclassical resurgence, then the last couple of years have been about amalgamating all of the lessons from past eras and broadening our horizons to the point where they seem almost limitless. Even as many of the best Boom mappers are making products so feature-rich that they could be mistaken for ZDoom sets, the best G/ZDoom mappers are picking and choosing the features that best meet their design goals to deliver an incredible sense of consistency and polish. Either way, it’s become pretty clear that mappers are looking for something new.
The Adventures of Square got its first Cacoward in 2014, so it may or may not be fair to say that BigBrik has helped lead the charge, but E2 certainly has its finger on the community’s pulse regardless. This is a game that pulls out all the stops and uses whatever features it needs to pull off wave after wave of new content and fresh ideas, all while remaining completely true to its nostalgic inspirations. It’s a game where you get to leap around in low gravity, manage a limited air supply as you traverse airless outdoor sections, and make epic escapes from a rising flood of molten cheese – and every concept is executed with such care and polish that it feels perfectly natural, right down to the respawning air tanks. Underlying the varied and challenging gameplay is the huge amount of flavor the team has injected into this episode (which is set on a moon made of literal cheese, for Chrissakes), including a never-ending supply of pun-laden one-liners and a dazzling array of enemies and items. Case in point for everything that makes Square awesome is the new Strongman enemy, which picks you up and throws you across the room or catches you with a grappling hook and drags you up close a la Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, all while spouting archaic insults at you.
All of this is just to say that the Square team hasn’t let anything stand in the way of making their game absurdly fun to play. Every gun is ridiculously satisfying to use, every enemy is fun to fight, every map is a blast. Every inch of the game is dripping with character, from “basic” lunar settings like an orbital space station and an enormous cheese crater to really outlandish playgrounds, like a fake Wild West resort where the circle cultists dress up as cowboys.
All in all, E1 may have already been the coolest Doom TC since Urban Brawl, but E2 raises the bar in every way. And if a small team of dedicated modders can make something like The Adventures of Square…well, what can’t the Doom community make?