Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oracle... (ORACLE.WAD)

by Jim Flynn and Scott "MadMax" Harper

Oracle is a two-map minisode for Doom II, replacing MAP02 and 03, by the duo of Jim Flynn and Scott Harper. I'm not sure exactly how the pair developed but looking in Harper's assorted .TXTs, it's likely he found a kindred spirit in Flynn, who appeared to be a source of inspiration much in the same way that Anderson influenced Flynn. Overall, I'd say these maps have two things in common. First, they tend toward more surreal, abstract architecture. Second, they are very puzzle-centric, in both good ways and bad ways. The first map is the main one, and it's VERY large, much in keeping with Flynn's design sensibilities. The second is much shorter, constrained to a small, circular area, but (as mentioned) it's similarly complicated.

Oracle takes place on an earth-like planet within the Regulus cluster (77.5 light years from Sol, for those keeping score). Apparently, a survey team discovered an alien base which they're almost absolutely positive is uninhabited, so they're sending you in with nothing more than a pistol, expecting no resistance. They note that several features of the structure appear to be active in spite of its apparent derelict status. So, uh, what's the Oracle? The marine's codename? The secret nature of the alien base? Maybe it's a reference to the minisode's most notable feature...

MAP02 is the main attraction. It's what Kurt Vonnegut might call a blivet, and I mean that in the best way. Flynn and Harper crammed more stuff into this level than I would have thought possible. To go over each area in detail would take more time than I'm willing to spend. Suffice it to say, like much of Flynn's stuff (I can't vouch for Harper), it's a portmanteau of texture themes. The individual rooms are internally quite consistent but individual sections vary widely, from earthen to brick to techbase to molten rock and more. There are some new textures, interestingly enough, though they don't really stick out that much. If there's one thing tying MAP02 together, it's puzzles.

Puzzles everywhere; switch hunts, key grabs, you name it. There are a fair number of traps to contend with, too, but they're not nearly as difficult to handle. The true antagonist is the level itself, the clever brainchild of Flynn and Harper. They've cut you a few breaks, though, by providing you with the mapset's most memorable features, a series of animated textures that clue you in on what switch you must press to cause X result. Some of them are more along the secret variety, like "here's the automap", or "here's the rocket launcher". Others, though, are direct references on how to access the level's keys, and serve as a good marker when you reach a familiar area, to remind you that something important is supposed to happen there.

Among its more memorable puzzles and encounters, I'd cite the main hub (one of the largest and most consistent sections), the whole eastern area with its pentagon platform, twisty tunnels and compact staircases, the northern section for its open-air battlefields, and the western section for its goofy mountain climb. There are some other things, too, like using the teleporter hub to add another puzzle layer onto the exploration angle (as some areas are inaccessible by anything than the starting teleporter), or some of the more impressive architecture using outdoor space to create faux-3D structures.

MAP03 is more like an afterthought. It's a high-octane plasma rifle fight in a circular arena that dissolves into one of the more obtuse puzzle-fests I've played. Getting out of the opening pit is a chore as you're a) being harried by revenants the whole time and b) the switch is located on the back of a crusher you have to activate. From there on it's basically a good ol' fashioned switch hunt as you run around the outer rim, exploring the rectangular (but jam-packed) buildings. The final building is essentially an exercise in timed switches, leaving you in the lurch as you rush back and forth attempting to beat the hatches before they close.

All bitching aside, Oracle is a great WAD. It's more of a brain teaser than, say, The Interdiction Zone, as its puzzles are more long-term than INTZONE's immediate gratification. When you've finally unraveled the guts of the alien outpost, you'll be quite pleased with yourself, and that's considering that you don't even have to explore all of MAP02 in order to make it to the exit. Indeed, there were at least two places I had unrevealed when I had found the exit switch. MAP03 feels more like butting heads with the developers at times, but I still felt like I'd accomplished some minor feat when I finally slammed the exit button. Both of these are fun adventures any Doomer should play, loaded chock full of action and surprises.



  1. Oracle! Awesome review, I still haven't gotten around to playing MAP03, I'll have to record both levels and post them up on YouTube at some point... ~vf

  2. Man I am really enjoying reading your reviews, keep up the good work! I'm becoming quite fond of Jim Flynn's surreal style myself, even though I've only played a few of his levels so far. I'm also looking forward to you doing reviews of the Darkening series as well as some more more classic megawads such as STRAIN and Requiem. I'm usually not a fan of "level-by-level" reviews but I think you pull it off pretty well here.

    And hopefully one day may you work your way up to Speed of Doom :) Though outside of a few modern gems, I think that the picked cacowards are mostly less interesting than ten years of Doom because a lot of modern wads like Legacy of Suffering, Unloved, Knee Deep in ZDoom and RTC seem to focus less on good layout and making fights interesting using layout and focus more on mostly uninteresting gimmicks and offer a more flat experience. However ofcourse there are Zdoom wads that get this stuff right, like Thunderpeak and Hexen:Scourge of Viscerous where the scripts and events add to the atmosphere and the levels in themselves were well composed. :)

    - Deathevokation

    1. Sorry to post off topic and commit thread necromancy at the same time (it's only been, what, THREE years?), but you still haven't reviewed Unloved, and after reading this, I'm worried that Deathevokation put you off of playing it.

      I don't mean any offense to him, or to question his credentials (I've never mapped anything, myself), but I've played Unloved through at least three times, and I love it. It just comes down to a difference of opinion, I guess. A little dark, maybe, nothing you can't tweak with brightness settings if necessary, but the environments are varied, and unique for Doom (they've got a certain Silent Hill vibe), and there's a lot of different kinds of enemies, yet they're thematically consistent. A little Heretic, a little Hexen, a little Blood, all courtesy of Realm667, I think, but no insanely broken custom monsters. I especially like the progression of cultist, acolyte, disciple. It's heavy on the corridor fights, but it's also got open-room battles, slaughters and a giant infighting room. It ramps the difficulty pretty well over the game, too, except for a couple spikes. It's got a hub layout and lets you choose the order you do things to a certain extent, it doesn't overstay its welcome, and it has really cool horror ambiance (not exactly scary,but a foreboding atmosphere). It DOES need you to keep track of doors and keys, but that's not much different from a hub in Hexen.

      I think you'll at least like it okay, and maybe love it. If you don't, it'll still make an interesting review. Please give Unloved a try sometime.

    2. There is no reason that i have not played Unloved except for the sheer magnitude of what I want to play

    3. ...Oh. Sorry. I feel silly now because I threw that wall of text at you. Carry on.