Doom 2, Boom-compatible
Preacher is a self-described musical conversion, built around tracks kindly authorized for use by gothic metal band Those Poor Bastards. Staged in a moody, dour, vaguely phantasmagorical world -- visiting such locales as decrepit gothic bastions, old West fortifications, nightmare noir realms, and magisterial theaters of violence -- it can be interpreted as the quest of a theomaniacal undead cultist to expunge the foul-breathed demons and all that is unholy from his private realm. If, of course, the power of Christ compels him.
That quest is destined to be a bloody and messy one. Above all, Preacher sets out to create a chaotic experience, one where you are given all the raw tools to enjoy yourself but not sermonized on exactly how. A number of design elements work to that end, notably: pseudo-randomized player spawn spots; intricate and terraced layouts; open paths and dynamic architecture for fluid monster pathing; and a helter-skelter placement of mobs that throws any semblance of order and reliability to the wayside in favor of more primal thrills.
It is a really good looking set too. The core assets are cobbled together from diverse sources, but they share a similar grainy feel that places them at home under the same steeple. Every map holds its own architectural and sensory delights: elegantly coiffured facades, breathtakingly imposing towers, the warm red glow of demonic aura, creepy pools of shadow you'd think just have to be packed with spiders, and so on. I was taken by how so many levels, despite the necessary abstraction of their floorplans, could realistically be an actual place. There is enough atmosphere that it certainly couldn't be thrown in an old pine box and expected to stay put!
Make no mistake, this is also a silly wad. Item pickups such as Jesus spheres, prayer itself appearing in weaponized form, and the ever-present cackling of our hero as ambiance -- I won't spoil it all -- are just the tip of the funeral pyre. Darch, to this date most well known for 2013's whimsical GZDoom TC Pirate Doom (yes, that is him too), is a refreshing case of a creator who is not only playful but also committed to roundedness in more fundamental areas. The main concept is compelling enough, the execution ornamented with enough comic flair, that Preacher would be memorable with a quarter of the depth. But the love and commitment to fleshing it out, to exploring qualities any given player is unlikely to notice or truly appreciate on their first playthrough, is what lifts it to this higher plane of being.
Doom 2, Boom-compatible
If you’ve been playing Doom for a long time, chances are there’s little to be found in its cartoony world that you find genuinely unsettling anymore. You think blithely to yourself, “Ah, another 20-foot tower of flesh and metal with a rocket launcher for an arm; maybe I can lead it across this canyon made of intestines to help me dispose of the hundred screaming murderskeletons over there.”
Dimension of the Boomed is seriously creepy, though. If you play a lot of Quake, the first thing you’ll notice is that DotB is a dead ringer. If you don’t play Quake, what you’ll notice is the feeling that everything is subtly, cosmically wrong, a feeling like the crumbled civilizations you crawl through and the horrors you face are just the equivalent of a tiny rat-maze that you’re trapped in as the entire universe teeters around you. The word you’re looking for is “eldritch,” of course – and DotB manages it without throwing a single tentacle at you. Part of it is the sinister, unidentifiable ambient soundtrack creeping under your skin. Part of it is the way the mapset uses the most advanced Boom features and surprising faux-3D mapping tricks to make the game feel like it’s not quite Doom anymore. Part of it is the subtly different palette mingled with the equally subtle but absolutely exquisite lighting.
But a lot of it is the journey itself. Like Quake, it takes you from a gateway techbase into realms that hint of much more ancient things, ultimately ending in some kind of iron-runic-futurist pocket plane where Doom’s spider enemies are established as the overlords behind it all. Each realm is unnerving in its own way, but the highlight is map 04, “Necropolis,” which starts out eerily silent before jamming you headfirst into the jaws of several terrifying and hectic fights for survival among its many crypts and byways. Throughout the episode, you’ll tangle with a few enemies drawn from Quake, including the dreaded Shambler and Spawn, but it also hands you some nice quality-of-life changes, like a faster chaingun and a less spongy Cyberdemon.
The fake episode selection screen at the end of the set hints at two more episodes to come – one made for ZDoom and one for Eternity, presumably intended to get the most eldritch mileage out of the features available for each port. And if DotB is what Urthar can accomplish with the least advanced of the three, then what’s in store for us next? Windows into other dimensions that we can see but not reach? Leaping Fiend enemies? A puzzle-based Cthon fight? We’ll just have to wait and find out.
Doom 2, limit-removing / DeHackEd
Struggle is probably the biggest, fattest project released this year. It is a full megawad (33 maps, actually) for limit removing vanilla engines that starts relatively small, but quickly expands into the 30+ minutes per map territory and after a palate-cleansing dose of early episode 3 quickies ends with some near-hour-long beasts. Solo mapper megawads are always a Herculean task, but antares truly didn't hold back here. Earthly techbases, industrial complexes and outside locations, it's all eye candy. The final maps are breathtaking massive temples in the vein of @Manbou's single-colored ornate structures in Water Spirit or A Resplendent Emerald Green from JPCP.
Somewhat contrasting with the modern, dare I say trending look, is antares' decision to touch up enemies with recoloring and mix in a bunch of guest stars from other games, mostly the Raven family cousins. On top of that he replaces the entire arsenal with original sprites from new weapon toys! The result doesn't look entirely professional, but lends an entertaining charm of oldschool sprite replacement projects. Except they're no mere sprite replacements, are they?
The most impressive feature of Struggle is the way it rebalances traditional Doom gameplay with deep Dehacked changes. Weapons behave entirely differently - damage and speed values tweaked, rocket launcher sharing ammo with the new BFG that leaves the player with tons and tons of ammo for the plasma-replacing machine gun, pistols akimbo instead of chaingun... all in all the Doomguy dishes out hurt at a much faster pace. And isn't he lucky, because the enemy ensemble got beefed up across the board as well! Even the basic zombieman poses a threat with his chaingunner-style uninterrupted burst-fire pistol. The revenant shoots non-homing but much faster rockets now. The baby spiders are hitscanners and their momma... well, let's say the odds of the Gotcha fight changed drastically. We meet invisible cacos, lizardmen shooting chains of fireballs, repurposed Heretic and Hexen antagonists and more.
In this redefined battleground, antares strikes a balance and our even glassier cannon hero cleaves through hordes of monsters at an improved pace, so with proper weapon selection even larger walls of meat don't get tedious to clear. I'd say Struggle and its new gameplay shines the most in chaotic large battles with plenty of space to dodge and enemy reinforcements teleported in whenever you look at a switch funny. And luckily enough we get plenty of that, so if you're a fan, dig in. But be warned, this is definitely not a megawad for one-sitting playthrough.
Standalone, Vanilla / DeHackEd
This July, Dr. Revae's team finally released the findings from their archaeological dig in a previously unknown prehistoric settlement dating into the "Early FPS" age. After two years of methodic research they confirmed what has been suspected since their first reports - the missing link between Ultimate Doom and Heretic has been unearthed!
Our hero in this newly discovered total conversion is the titular rekkr, a viking warrior returned home from a conflict, only to find his loving wyf and newborn kuld slain by demons. This understandably angers the berserker and thus begins a bloody quest for answers and revenge. Originally equipped with just fist knuckles and a bow, the rekkr soon finds an odd arsenal that mixes the mechanic with the mystic. A chaingun powered by the souls collected from slain enemies, a strange wind-up super-shotgun variant, a runic grenade launcher or all-slaying magic released from the tip of his fingers help the warrior cleave through an original set of grotesque demonic and undead foes that do well to shuffle around Doom monsters' abilities and establish new rules of engagement. Personally I find the new balance of weapons and enemies to even surpass that of Heretic!
The entire audiovisual side of Rekkr is fantastic. It hits the sweet spot of early 90's aesthetic, particularly the mixture of the grimdark setting, violent monster goring and...a bright pastel color scheme?! There's still plenty of darkness to go around, but Rekkr absolutely captivates the audience best when strolling through lush green forests, by the azure blue sea or *cough* through a fiery red infernos. The almost comic book-like palette goes hand in hand with the pseudo-realistic "doomcute" architecture. "Aww, it's like a small marketplace," you fawn as blood drips from your battleaxe. "Omg omg, look at those adorable drakkars, and those cute windmills are animated!" you squeal as nightmarish flying spidersquids descend on your position. The sound department doesn't stay behind, all of the effects are original, properly chunky and decently oomphy (those are real SI units of sound effect quality) and you can check out the soundtrack in all its bagpipe glory here.
Content-wise we get the full 4 episode treatment. Revae provided most of the mapping and he made sure the difficulty curve is gentle in the IWAD tradition. This definitely adds to a feeling you're playing a standalone game and the newfangled community sadism only bares its teeth by late second, maybe mid-third episode. Like Ultimate Doom, Rekkr's E4 breaks its own canon, but here it's a set of goofy gimmick maps unfit for the "story mode". But if you want to see how slaughter works in Rekkr, or Revae's jab at myhouse.wad... Guest mappers generally hold the high standard, and community sages will instantly recognize the lupinx-Kassman contribution. Spoiler: it's the epic romp through a cliffside seaport that seemingly defies all vanilla engine limits. Last but not least, it should be noted the mapset uses some pretty ingenious technical mapping tricks, so it's not just a new fancy coat, Rekkr pushes the boundaries of vanilla science. Highly recommended to everyone!