Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The CHORD Series

by Malcolm Sailor

as featured in Super Serials

Malcolm Sailor was a pretty prolific author in Doom's heyday. While he was a participant in several famous projects (most notably The Talosian Incident) his real claim to fame is his CHORD series, five single levels released from 1997 to 2000. Not all CHORD levels are created equal; while each showcases Sailor's attitude toward nasty, challenging gameplay, the first two are more embryonic, displaying less of the highly-tuned architecture, detailing and lighting that characterize the latter three. In fact, CHORD2 stands farther apart with a much larger level size, including a vast outer yard with castle battlements that flies in the face of his usually carefully-orchestrated encounters.

Sailor considers CHORD to be the only series of maps he's done that's worth playing. I disagree, but it's hard not to see where he's coming from when he's poured so much effort in to these few offerings. The CHORD levels - particularly the latter three - are gorgeous and carefully over-balanced on UV. It's hard to compare them to works like The Plutonia Experiment or Hell Revealed; Sailor has carved out a playstyle all his own and berserk packs are typically the first means by which you communicate with your opponents in his typically claustrophobic battlegrounds. His levels also feature a variety of locales, from subterranean caverns to Hellish mansions to sinister lava-bound towers.

Certainly, at its highest level of difficulty, the CHORD series isn't for everyone, so if you're suspicious at all of being overwhelmed you should dial it down to your comfort level rather than just throwing up your hands like a petulant child. It's worth experiencing; Sailor put oodles of effort into these levels. At the very least, take a good look at CHORD_NG, CHORDG, and CHORD3. Not necessarily in that order. Sailor has left his mark on the Doom community, and while the kind of UV difficulty he aimed for has been far outnumbered by "slaughter" maps, it has held on to its niche appeal, and the latter maps are at the very least worth looking at.

Beginning with a bang, Sailor has this medium-sized MAP25 replacement. A lot of the action is in place but the visuals leave something to be desired, apart from his very attentive lighting. The Hellish mansion is crawling with monsters and features plenty of skeleton fisting on UV. Speaking of monsters and lighting, you'll often find enemies prohibited from stepping out of the shadows, which ups the already claustrophobic and unforgiving difficulty. The level isn't devoid of interesting architecture, as evidenced by the exit room, but it's certainly behind the latter CHORD levels in this regard.

There are some big differences between this large castle level, for MAP26, and its forebear. The chief one in my opinion is the size. Sailor doesn't strike me as one to waste his space, so the enormous outer yard surrounding the castle battlements - and the battlements themselves - strikes me as an incongruity. Whatever he thought about his experiment, he clearly didn't pursue it much farther. It's still got great lighting and some nice architecture on top of the punishing battles. Another interesting oddity is the use of monster teleporting walkover lines which amplifies the awkwardness of several encounters.

This MAP28 level is where Sailor hits his stride, with excellent lighting, interesting architecture, and carefully staged fights that will have you running for the difficulty setting. CHORD_NG takes place in some kind of tower in the middle of a lake of fire; you run about, exploring its four major chambers and trying so desperately not to die. The opening room sets the tone with its chaotic four elevator combo but there are plenty of battles to keep you anticipating the worst, like the grueling elevator / baron battle or several messes of revenants, fear fodder for those who lack the mettle for kickboxing skeletons.

Sailor takes things deep in the underground with a MAP29 replacement that's maybe not as tricksy as CHORD_NG but even more oppressive with its glut of high-HP monsters. Granted, there aren't many more than 70, but with the way they're used, you'd think this level was three times as a good way. CHORDG is full of gorgeous marble structures and earthen caverns and has plenty of heavy weapon activity. You'll grind down a lot of hell nobles, several waves of skeletons, and some very nasty arch-vile placement with the heavy weapons Sailor so carefully supplies. The only thing that's missing is ample ammo and health, but that's par for the course.

The final installment of the CHORD series replaces MAP27. It's a return to the Hellish mansion of the first two, but with a gorgeous makeover and a dark, red rock basement. It's just as much if not more demanding than CHORD_NG, with a very limited ammo pool and tons of tricky encounters that will violate your feelings of self-security; Sailor flexes his design muscles to the point that the now-alien clomping of the Cyberdemon evokes a sigh of relief, but it's a major lull as you'll find out when you start the final elements rolling. A fitting, fisting finale for this very challenging series.


  1. If you load up everything in this series at once you actually end up with a five-level episode (or minisode, depending on your qualifications) from Map25 to Map29. Convenient, isn't it?

    I know Richard Wiles' dickiexx.wad series will run this way as well but there are sky issues; different maps have different intended skies for their atmosphere and thus running it as an episode, you won't see the intended sky in a lot of the maps, altering and sometimes hurting their atmosphere.

    And it won't work for Dr. Sleep's Inferno series either; some maps will be unchanged plus two of them, Crossing Acheron and Virgil's Lead, both use Map03.

    Finally regarding Malcolm Sailor, I know he made the (much) less popular NOSUN series as well.

  2. Oh, and I forgot to mention, I would have loved to see a sixth wad, for Map30, in the series, as imagining what he'd have done for final battle with the Baphomet makes my mind wander.

  3. There's a large white square under the CHORD3 review - something broken? Is it supposed to be this:

    1. uh, yeah. every now and then blogger changes their video insertion code and it occasionally breaks things (the perils of being entrenched in the Blogger system), but the implementation has gotten much simpler over time. it SHOULD be fixed now, but I can't check it from where I'm at right now