Monday, August 4, 2014

Back to Hell (BAK2HELL.WAD)

There have only been a few OG Doom megaWADs, but there have been dozens of episode replacements. Back to Hell, finished by Dave Seager in 1995 and released, perhaps, in 1996, is one of those many Doom eps that struggles to get some kind of recognition in a field dominated by E1, E2, and E3 tributes of all shapes and sizes, not to mention stuff like the Serenity trilogy. Why, I'm practically smothering it in the process of writing this review! BAK2HELL draws some inspiration from the original Doom, and it's definitely Hell-themed, but Seager's take is distinctly his own.

The story should sound a little familiar. Earth survived the invasion and Doomguy, for all his troubles, became the head of UAC's urban redevelopment branch, sitting high in a posh office while the rebuilding went on. Of course, you don't just go through Hell and back without some lingering issues, and he finds himself beset upon by creeping sleep, sleep deep in the deep. He survives his nightmarish flashbacks, but one daymare while dreaming in his office gives way to a real issue, where demons infiltrate the secret lab in the UAC HQ basement. Doomguy thinks it's another invasion, but as events reveal, it's really a smash and grab with our hero as the target. They drag you back to Hell, but they're not going to get any payback if they're just putting you back in your element...

Back to Hell has some interesting level design. Its interior spaces tend toward realistic "myhouse"-style rooms and layouts but Seager nails some neat stuff with (mostly) original Doom textures that I've never seen before, plus the occasional imaginative architectural structure. It starts out looking pretty basic at first but picks up in E3M3 and doesn't really drop off, though you'll find the occasional clusterfuck maze or something jammed in to curb your enthusiasm. E3M7 is probably the worst at this, with an enormous and empty set of brown steel corridors to the northeast, but there's a lot of dead space in E3M6 as well. The scale is there, but the spectacle is lacking. There are some custom assets to liven things up, but they're basically edits of existing stuff, albeit cool edits.

The levels seem more balanced for low health and occasionally hard-to-find ammo and attrition is the biggest threat you'll face as you traipse through his Hellish wonderland. Barons are used pretty sparingly, all things considered, and Seager is not one to give you the almighty chaingun unless it's in a secret or something. The chaingun is pretty good at trivializing OG Doom, though, so it's to be expected. Just don't expect the cacodemons to be walkovers. There are also tons of secrets, sometimes seeming to serve a purpose and sometimes looking like deathmatch sniper windows. It's fun chasing them down, since a few of them come with a good weapon or two.

Yes - you should play Back to Hell. It's got more character than your typical Doom ep, given that it isn't just rearranging Romero and Petersen's furniture. The main reason to avoid would be a hatred toward claustrophobic encounters and levels with buildings that have a lot of small room. If you can look past that, or in fact enjoy rifling through Hellish interiors like a post-apocalyptic survivor, then have I got a PWAD for you!

by Dave Seager

Dave opens up with this distinctly Hellish level that feels more like a naturalistic setting with all the winding, curvy caverns and stuff. It's got a bit of a "Hell Keep" homage in the start area with the plain ol' pistol vs. imps and cacodemons, and that shotgun room with the falling floor, but the rest is clearly from Seager's brain. Well, maybe not those cramped, metal tunnels, but that isn't really E3M1. Lots of pistol play and some shotgun stuff. Also a lot of enemy ambushes in dark rooms, which are always a treat when any moment you might find yourself back to the lowly pistol. I do like his architecture; the caverns, too plain.

A "slough" of despair, to be sure. This level has several distinct parts. The opening has a bit of a "Living End" in the walkways that surround the crater with the fortress in the center and trench to the north is a bit of a raceway with more than a few stations of imps throwing fireballs at you all the way. There's also a congested, jagged cavern that's pretty cool in terms of sector wizardry. The pressure is on to find a gun and some ammo on pistol start. The gun you can get from a sergeant, but ammo is more readily available from one of the many secrets. The demon cave is a situation where the hesitant will fail. There's a cool extended secret at the end with a hidden chaingun. Obviously Seager knows how powerful it really is! Fun level.

The StyxsE3M3
Well, if this city is "Pandemonium", then you start out in the styx, travel up the Styx, and then hit the city proper. Seager provides a different interpretation that is a bit more literal, establishing a city worthy of being the capital of Hell. And, well, when you first step out of the canal, it IS pandemonium, with shotgun guys poking out of maybe a dozen different windows with imps at their sides and roaming around. When you finally silence your opposition you have to perform a painstaking survey of the city blocks, which feel kind of like "Downtown" but with Doom monsters and all crammed and congested as can be. I think you know whether you love or hate that sort of thing. Some cool effects like that half-open gate you squeeze through and the red key barrier, plus the various ways Seager delivers you between buildings without using alleyways. Also, fantastic architecture, at least the stuff outside the buildings. Love the moment when the ceiling lifts up with those columns.

The mystery of the eternal staircase. You are forever crawling upward through this level, until you reach the top, after which on UV you're going back down, because its exit is at the very bottom in the molten cistern you begin near. You won't be able to stick around, either - there are a ton of cacos in the center, and they are hungry for you. The map is full of nice, monolithic architecture, like that arc of marble bleachers and the central area, but traveling up and then down the staircase wears thin fairly quick and the difficulty in such places is mainly due to attrition. The black-out room with the cacos, imps, and sergeants in the balconies is a little rough. Killing the cacodemons that originate in the starting area is a grind.

Evil CompE3M5
A dark, tense fusion of tech and Hell. Starts off in a cavern, moves into an empty base, and then things go pear-shaped. Seager does a good job playing with light and shadow, and not seeing enemies and the like is one of the top ways to wind up with bullets / fireballs on your ass. The yellow key doors are a nice way of pushing the player forward by locking him out but they're a red herring - there is no yellow key, at least not on UV. The dynamic lights to the northwest and the anti-gravity chamber to the east are some cool effects. I'd say that the health feels a little tight, but I was pretty clumsy with those imps in the computers.

E3M6Fist Fight
An enormous level with a lot of open space, disregarding the cramped interiors of the buildings and that layered area to the west. It's also not that threatening unless you get clipped a lot by zombies from afar. I do like how the outdoor area builds up by lowering a wall once you exit the massive marble building (which is pretty cool). I'm not that keen on the area behind the yellow key door, it feels more cinematic than anything with its empty area and scattered monsters. The Knee Deep in the Dead homage secret has some neat imp ambushes to keep you on your toes and is also the way to the secret exit. Good luck finding it! There are a boat load of hidden chambers in this level.

Haunted HouseE3M9
A refreshing map that toes the line between "my house" Doom and something not so boring. It's mostly low-tier opposition but the initial influx of imps might be hard to handle if you can't lay your hands on a shotgun, quick. The way I explored, I grabbed a chainsaw and found myself a little under the weather for a lot of the map. There's plenty of ammo for the shotgun, though, and a secret chaingun that should make you invincible should you find it. Lots of fun secret passages. I love the graveyard and catacombs section that marks the end of the level, very neat and claustrophobic.

E3M7The Sentinel
The core of this level has some super cool ideas. I love the opening Hellish mines that segue into the infernal dining halls, and there's a nice, big entryway to the northern area with its neat tech chamber. Those big, mazey corridor areas are pretty much filler incarnate, though. The big secret area that dominates the northeast part of the level is one and that dual-level wood / cage to the west is the other. The Cyberdemon tower in the middle is kind of novel, I guess, and the raising / lowering shutters make him more of a threat when you don't see him attacking quite so often.

The EndE3M8
The finale! There's more than enough ammo to kill the Spiderdemon, but grabbing some of the secrets for some armor wouldn't hurt, if you can figure out how to get to them. There's a lot of open area to get gunned down in so you'll probably use the supporting rock structures for cover while you whittle him down. If you make every shot it, you won't have long to go with the chaingun!



  1. Fun wad, I guess it is mostly known for e3m9 which is one of the earliest examples of a level where you can get more than 100% secrets (see DSDA).

    1. I didn't know that! I think whenever someone does talk about it they mention the UV dead end in E3M4 "Cacochase"