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Going through the highest rated PWADS with at least 50 votes on Idgames archive

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I've decided to do this for some reason. I settled on 50 votes because 100 returns too few results, and 25 too many nonsense files. I'm excluding GZDoom because my laptop can't handle its more recent iterations, which, in most cases, you actually need. Therefore, I'm skipping Pirate Doom unfortunately. Any comments regarding my musings here are welcome, however critical. Alright, now let's get to it.

-Crusades: An Unholy War by Richard Wiles

A 1999 epsiode for Ultimate Doom dethroned Going Down ? How odd. Let's see what it's all about. I'm doing this with PrBoom+ -complevel 3, on Ultra-Violence, pistol starting on every map and no mid-level saves. Should I end up breaking any of these rules, I will specify every time I do so.

E4M1: The Awakening

I should have known considering the votes. I went in not expecting much, but this turned out amazing. The gothic hell atmosphere is done splendidly here, both thanks to tasteful texture variety and superb lighting. Monster placement also makes the map surprisingly tricky for something so old, without being overwhelming. A+ work.

E4M2: Night-Watch

A worthy follow-up with a more classic aesthetic. I like the surge-like approach of forcing the player to dive in the melee in order to acquire sufficient ammo. The non-linear progression works well and reminds me of Suspended in Dusk. However, it has its shortcomings, as the red key puzzle did stump me for quite a while until I carefully surveyed the automap and realized there was that one blue door I had forgotten about. I did make a safety save so as not to miss the secret exit, which itself was easy to find, though quite clever nonetheless. I ended up needing that save, as that last Baron was surprisingly tricky and I didn't want to restart the entire map when I had reached the final exit after 40 minutes of gameplay. Sorry about that. Overall, bigger and better than E4M1.

E4M9: Running Scared

Suddenly, techbase. Much like the original Episode 4. Anyway, running scared ? From Barons apparently, although that first one isn't too threatening with all those shotgunners and barrels in the area. Actually, the shotgunners are the true threat in most of this map. I like the stingy ammo placement which forces you to strike at the most opportune moment, sort of like all those stylish speedrunner moves. Interesting to see a timing puzzle, easy though it is. Once gain, the red key is the last one and requires some thinking to reach, this time in the form of a narrow ledge walk which you can only barely notice is possible. Is this going to be a trend ? I do like puzzles, which is why I hope I don't end up forced to look anything up. Pretty good level which I beat in two attempts.

E4M3: Berzerker

That's two maps in a row where Richard Wiles just uses the original music for the map slot. Surprising, as E4M1 had custom music, while E4M2 used a different Id track than the default one. To his credit, I totally understand the decision in this case. Because everything about this level screams "Thy Flesh Consumed", from the visual style to the utterly frantic action which probably earned this map its name. I must commend the author for milking a high threat potential out of the usually boring Doom 1 enemies, Lost Souls and Barons especially. I'll admit, I didn't quite manage to conserve enough firepower to get 100% kills on this one. Crusades is all good stuff so far, though I'm starting to miss the atmospheric awe of the first level.

E4M4: Haunted House

Speaking of, here's a moodier level at last. I threw my rule about not save scumming right out the window for this one as it is incredibly nasty. Killing all the Cacos via infighting helps but even then there's barely enough ammo, which means you're forced to basically ignore the Barons for most of the map. Such a thing is made harder by the fact every area has to be crossed multiple times, which punishes you for rushing excessively. I chose to exit rather than try to punch the final Baron out, by the way - well, stepping on the Berserk made me step on the exit, but I'm pretty sure that's what I would have done anyway. Although, I almost had enough shells left...

E4M5: The Witching Hour

Wow, that was a dickish level. Being forced to dodge pairs of Barons in extremely close quarters multiple times while you don't have anything to kill them with complicates things more than a little. I was lucky to have them infight with most of those free roaming Cacos, but that was all a fluke as carefully manipulating enemy movement in this configuration is for all intents and purposes impossible. The other memorable moment is when you have to strafejump to the blue key after clearing the way from a pack of teleporting Lost Souls before your only radsuit runs out, while being sniped from all sides by Barons and Imps. Ridiculous. So, this map. Satisfying to play ? Yes. Fair ? I'm not sure.

E4M6: Trooper's Graveyard

Yeesh, beware of hazards. Exploding barrels everywhere (necessary for ammo conservation), pain sectors in the worst possible situations... that final Cyberdemon fight especially. Other than that, this map is full of situations where you have to fight a high amount of monsters, including some chunky ones, while in a minuscule enclosed space. That warehouse courtyard with all the barrels where you get sandwiched between a Baron and a bunch of shotgun guys in particular is very dangerous, and so is the first Caco swarm where you get caught between said Cacos and at least five Lost Souls, while both doors out of the room are locked. This map in general seems to have a thing for pincer attacks... Well, once it's all done it all feels more reasonable that the pure WTF of the previous map, anyway.

E4M7: Bloodbath

Basically the easiest map since E4M2. The progression is somewhat reminiscent of E4M9, especially that green armor secret. I didn't really try to figure out that supercharge secret, but you don't really need it anyway. I just don't have much to say about this one. It's a good breather I suppose.

E4M8: Gateway to Quake

Is that a reference to "Doorway to Quake" from Requiem ? Anyway, this of course doesn't provide the epic sense of climax that a more recent megawad finale would usually offer, which makes sense since it is neither of those things. It's a well built final map for what it is, although I wish that Quake base had a fourth boss monster to duke it out with. Wiles shows us crucified Archviles of all things, and then no fight ? Meh. The best part was dodging the shots of that first Cyberdemon before I finally gathered enough ammo to kill it (right upon unlocking both grids surrounding it, what nifty theming). The giant skirmish after that was cool too.

As for Crusades as a whole, it is solid from start to end but doesn't quite deliver on the promises made by the first level in my opinion. Next up... well it would have been Going Down, but it seems that got triple-jumped while I wasn't looking. I guess the "at least 50 votes thing" is a tad unstable tanks to the frequency of comments. Nice to see the archive still has such a big userbase. Alright, Epic then.

Final rating for Crusades-An Unholy War: ****

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Epic by Eternal

The only familiarity I have with Eternal is his amazing work on Hell Ground, which we'll get to shortly I'm sure. Of course I don't expect this to be quite as good, but hopefully it's good enough ot deserve the third place it just earned. The rules are the same as those I had when I started Crusades, except I've switched to -complevel 9 of course. Let's see now.

MAP01: A Fool's Paradise

I'm slowly getting re-used to Eternal's low-action, puzzle heavy style. The desert environment is well realized, but it seems odd that the sky would look so grey in such a biome. The swimming effect is quite impressive, and I like the small redesigns made on the monster sprites in an attempt make them fit inside this particular aesthetic better. On the other hand, I don't really dig the butchered Mission: Impossible music, and I think re-using the Inferno tally screen is more distracting than anything else. Also, very much unlike the first level of Hell Ground, this map was utterly lacking any kind of real challenge, which if you know me, I don't consider to be a good thing.

MAP02: Sand-Storm

Last I checked, sandstorm is one word. Anyway, what utterly dickish chaingunner placement that intro section has. The annoyance factor only increases when the sandbox structure of the map proves a total chore to navigate through. It's everything I dislike about the realism of Tom Hall's design magnified tenfold. That catwalk secret is also a pain, and the rewards for it are quite underwhelming. In general, this map plays less like run&gun Doom II and more like something out of Medal of Honor or any other standard FPS. I cannot in good conscience say that I consider the re-surging popularity of this type of level design a positive, it makes me feel like Doom's newer audience is losing touch which the true strengths of the game. I did end up save scumming on this map as I have no tolerance for hitscanner abuse worse than Evilution. I will say that the flooded basement section at the end was pretty good, but other than that, I'm really not fond of this outing... the only thing of "epic" magnitude so far about Epic is how obnoxious it is.

MAP03: Arc of the Pendulum

I decided to save on this one too since it's very slow and very long. On a brighter note, THIS is the Eternal i like. Awe-strikingly grand and utterly alien architecture, inhabited by hostile entities of a steadily increasing level of threat. The early switch hunts here are a little simplistic, but the secrets on the other hand are very clever. That double timed run for the backpack was particularly gratifying. Upon grabbing the blue key comes the first big skirmish in Epic, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Past the blue doors, things became extremely complicated due to ammo shortage. My only option was to check if I couldn't have missed a secret Berserk pack somewhere. ...And instead I decided to punch out all the remaining Demons and Spectres as is. I'm not sure which of those two options was the more time-consuming one. The finale with the dynamite was neat.

MAP04: The Helltrain

This one was surprisingly short for an Eternal map. I will concede that the realistic approach here yields much better results than in MAP02. It's a straightforward gimmick that works, and surprisingly enough, can provide some tricky gameplay (that first car, yeesh). The second Archvile is an absolute pain, delightfully sadistic placement. I know I've seen this concept before in some Coop WAD I forgot the name of, and of course TVR!. Though I guess it's a fairly generic video game setting.

MAP05: The Citadel

Visually very beautiful, and that sand slowdown is a nice touch. Gameplay wise, the buildup is very slow (much like MAP01). In fact, the entire chunk of this level preceding the red keys is much easier than the rest of the WAD, and frankly too easy. The only dangerous moment is the Archvile guarding the Plasma Rifle (snatch it or get fried, simple enough). Once you grab the red keys though, things spice up in a satisfying way. Not only that, but the 3D level design of the blue keys tower is just cool. The dual Cyberdemon fight gets a thumbs up from me, but is there a way to actually fight those Revenants ? Anyway, even after beating this map, I'll say it has one Megasphere too many.

As for Epic as a whole, it's a mixed bag that really takes a while to gain momentum. I do recommend playing it, but it's horrendously overrated as far as its final score on Idgames archive is concerned.

Final score: ***

Next up: Flashback to Hell, which I know nothing about.

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