Doom 2, Boom-compatible, 7 maps
The Doomworld Mega Project, which has no standards for entry, has a simple draw: the haven it gives mappers who just want to contribute to a project, without stressing about fit or quality. Similarly, events like DyingCamel's Demons, which do have standards, place far more weight on community involvement and won't reject shakier maps if an honest effort was made, which is entirely fair. Being a fan and participant of them, I want to emphasize that relaxed activities like these are great. Obscure sets like JP LeBreton's WAD Wednesday Anniversary series have some of my favorite maps. A small side effect, though, is that standouts can lose themselves in the shuffle.
With that in mind, the premise of Antaresian Reliquary, a compilation of pretty damn good community project maps by antares031, is simple. Now, after you tell her that he is good—and also mention that he's the creator of the megawad Struggle, which was awarded a 2018 Cacoward—your grandma no longer has to download many separate wads to track his maps down. "Fuck yeah, this is my shit!!!" she emails in response.
The compilation, which covers a wide range of themes, has a strong bond in antares031's distinctive style. It's a lot like Erik Alm's of Scythe 2, plunged into a reality distorter that makes everything larger and more intricate, more screwy and messed-up. These maximalist tendencies peak in "Purgatorial Technologies," a fleshy nightmare of sentient skin and intestines overrunning what was once a functional research facility (the UAC were giant idiots as usual). As mouldy's celebrated megawad Going Down and standalone map The Eye both showed, this "Shores of Hell"-like conceit can be amazing with half the detail. In antares031's world, though, everything is fractured and twisted. Walls crack, and flesh spills through the gaps. Heaps of meat encase equipment that holds onto functionality, barely, in faint flickers. Above, in the ugly mass of flesh, large eyes peer down blankly. There is a sense that if you stood still long enough, the mass of flesh would spread to assimilate you too. It's uncanny and gross and legitimately cool. These days, creators like Xaser and the BTSX crew excel at crafting beauty with masterful visual economy, which I love too, but maps that aspire to the intricacy of Breach or Saturnine Chapel are rare and precious.
antares031's philosophy is all action, everywhere. The Reliquary takes after the high-paced slaughter-lite of many of today's popular megawads, and cranks up the "comical carnage" dial to the max. You'll be racing around, chewing stuff up with your new buffed weapons: like the machinegun you start with instead of a pistol, or a super chaingun that feels like it could carve through walls. At any given moment, a colorful cast of monsters might be out for you, bouncing you from one safe pocket of air to another, but you'll never be too far from those medkits that will keep you gasping for one more breath.
That intensity makes the difficulty options very relevant. HNTR offers a well-balanced experience comparable to many wads on UV. If you play this, lose no sleep over "missing out on the full experience"; it's fun, and on the main maps, it keeps around two-thirds of UV's monsters. HMP is somewhere in the middle of that and UV, which at times is extremely chaotic, almost reveling in its extravagance. That can make for more adrenaline rushes and cinematic sights, but expect some abrasiveness as a trade-off.
Doom 2, Boom-compatible, 17 maps
A great cauldron of pitch, meant to immolate the corpse of a titan. A mass mausoleum for the victims a 1000-year plague, pulsing with their despair and hate. A sacrificial altar the size of a city, in supplication to mad Outer Gods. You are in all of these places, and others darker still. You are ready to fight and kill, but you know that even if your body leaves here, the rest of you never will. Abandon all hope.
Like Sunder before it, Abandon is immediately arresting to behold, though in a way which is divergent from many of the other visual powerhouses this year, even those in a broadly similar idiom (Bastion of Chaos, Technicolor Antichrist Box, etc.). Part of this is likely simple port spec, but there's something more fundamental to it than that. The sombre vistas under funereal skies, the sordid burrows steeped in shadow...all exude an air of evil, of spiritual decay and rot. The art achievement of Abandon is in utilizing the idtech1 engine and its particular capabilities—infinite draw distance, the gloom inherent to simulated contrast, functionally infinite vertical variation, a potential dynamism of any particular sector—to achieve a sense of sinister, unfeeling vastness and latent malice which is only enhanced by the visual abstraction. Far from merely looking the part, though, the environs of Abandon are legitimately perilous, rife with baffling geometry and shattered terrain which suspends much of the journey over inescapable abysses of fire, poison, or ichor, with the slightest misstep spelling a horrible demise. The sense of oppression is deep enough to drown in, though in its way, it's also intoxicating.
Awe-inspiringly ominous as these settings are, this is only half the story. These insane edifices and nightmarish necropolises are all host to fights worthy of their demented splendor; if what you want is blood and death and death and blood and ululating hordes and screaming guns and apocalypse without and eschaton within until there is nothing left but the husk of you, barely standing atop a mountain of corpses, howling under the light of dead stars as they in turn howl silently back, well...you've come to the right place! As a longtime fan and student of the slaughter genre, I'm confident that there currently is no finer encapsulation of its ins and outs to be had. Again, the most obvious stylistic comparisons are to Sunder, and particularly that mapset's weaponization of its terrain as the player's true nemesis, but Abandon's endless feast of fights seems to touch lovingly upon nearly every notable trope in the "slaughter" and "gauntlet" playbooks from the dawn of the style up until the present, while outright inventing dozens more over the course of its lengthy 17-map duration. "New life from old," indeed.
All of this goes without saying, of course, that this an extremely difficult, demanding, and time-intensive endeavor, requiring a deep knowledge of the esoterica of the genre (or a willingness to learn through countless failures, if nothing else). It's the veritable antithesis of a "casual playthrough," though I'm told its air of incredible spectacle is engrossing enough to make it enjoyable for a certain temperament in a godmode playthrough, or even in -nomonsters mode. Regardless, it will not be for everyone, not even after the introduction of support for skill settings (and co-op compatibility) in a planned update. To a significant portion of the playerbase, the design philosophy which Abandon so passionately exemplifies represents a wanton hyperbolic processing of the game, far beyond anything its original creators could have ever intended or imagined, leaving it a monstrous and mindless caricature of itself. They are half correct: Abandon is undeniably monstrous, in both contour and animus. It's also anything *but* mindless, a masterclass in turning everything that makes Doom the game that it is up to 11, creating an experience that is as immersive and exhilarating as it is oppressive and unforgiving.
Doom 2, vanilla / DeHackEd, 22 maps
He just wanted a simple life, but those sons-of-bitches had other plans. Rudy’s back, and this time, the dollar reigns supreme! One man. One job. Forty million dollars. The Union Aerospace Corporation is at it again—genetically engineering supersoldiers who've run amok—and they need Rudy to clean up their mess. He took their money, but he doesn’t have to take their shit! Rudy’s going to solve this the only way he knows how: blood, and by the gallons!
Rowdy Rudy II: POWERTRIP! is one of the most delightful throwback projects of recent memory as well as a hell of a lot of fun. In the early days of Doom modding, there was boundless experimentation with the limited, crude tools that were available, and the talent pool of artists, musicians, and mappers was much more limited. Music was sourced from websites offering midis of pop culture songs, while sprites and textures would be reused across numerous projects. While playing Map 11, "Ambush!" I was overcome with a sense of nostalgia; here I was, shooting dehacked flamethrower troopers—sprites that had circulated within the community since the "Doom Skin Archive"—while jamming to a midi of Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin.
If Rowdy Rudy II is so “archaic” and indicative of projects from twenty years ago, why is it listed as one of the top ten projects of 2020? Simple, the formula still works! Rowdy Rudy harkens back to legendary projects like Doom2 X-Treme GOLD! and All Hell is Breaking Loose by giving you that original Doom gameplay, but changing up the artwork and arsenal, while offering a bestiary that’s new but familiar. Rowdy Rudy succeeds in 2020 because the level design plays to those strengths while not constraining itself to gameplay mechanics of that era. Make no mistake, Rowdy Rudy would have been a challenge to players in the late nineties, but compared to many modern releases, it’s approachable. There’s a certain simplicity to monster placement that doesn’t rely on modern traps or engaging in full-on slaughter-style gameplay.
If you play only one wad this year, make it…Rowdy Rudy II: POWERTRIP! Wimps need not apply!