Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Zen Dynamics (ZENDYN_X.WAD)

I don't know much about the progression of the ZDoom modding scene. I do know that early works like Tei Tenga and Hell Factory are lauded as being watersheds of things like hubmaps and cutscenes, and I also know that Xaser's Zen Dynamics is heralded as the progenitor of most modern weapon mods in one way or another. Released in 2005 (with an update in 2006 making some major changes and adding a level), Xaser replaced every weapon in the Doom arsenal and added a few more just to give you something to think about as well as threw in a ton of new enemies for you to ponder on. At a modest ten maps, you get something of the feel of how these things change gameplay, as well as what the ZDoom engine was capable of at the time.

It's actually got a story, too. In a post-Hell on Earth world, a weapons development corporation - the Zen Dynamics of the title - merged with the worthwhile leftovers of the UAC to form a new conglomerate of military technology. Presumably, each organization had their own focus, with Zen creating a bio-mechanical soldier as the ultimate warrior and the UAC remnants focusing on gate travel in such a fashion that it wouldn't lead to Hell on Earth pt. 2. But, well, fiendish saboteurs make fools of us all! The story isn't clear on whether Wright was possessed by a demon post-invasion to seal his allegiance or whether he was actually a Hellspawn kicking around since the original invasion and just biding his time for the opportune moment. Somehow, I doubt this distinction matters. Anyway, you're the bravo-designated bio-weapon, and Earth's only hope against Baphomet.

Most of Zen Dynamics's maps owe their origins to a .ZIP of previously unreleased items Malcolm Sailor published back in 2000, with the exception of MAP02, which borrows from Brian Vanetta's danzig15.WAD, therefore sharing a trunk with the obscure MAP08 of Lord of the Flies. You can see the difference between those and the things Xaser has clearly added, sometimes creating a bit of a dichotomy between the simpler stuff and areas that are just too busy to stand toe-to-toe with Sailor's spartan elegance. A lot of the time it's the tech stuff that looks odd when juxtaposed, but it isn't the only thing. Now, that's not to knock all the cool animated doors and swinging doors and collapsing walls and stuff that I always think I'm going to get in a ZDoom mapset but rarely ever do. It's not an unwelcome coupling, just odd at times.

Now, the real meat of this package is the loadout. The basic attack is a machete with a Devil May Cry-ish combo system that has a reflecting block, is way stronger than a punch to start with, and only gets worse when paired with Zenroids. I like the execution of the 'roids; they become your "1" primary until used, refilling your health and upgrading your attack power. I wish the mapset were longer so you could see the effects of a second dosage more often. The last "1" slot is the bloodsphere, a Hellish artifact that drains your health (and armor) and fires bouncing blood projectiles. It's really useful if you're flush with life. The alt fire, not something I messed around with. The magnum is a nice replacement for the pistol, with a slow but powerful fire that easily handles the low-tier Doom trash. The alt is kind of a poor-man's SSG, firing however many bullets you have left with a spin-up delay weighted against your remaining ammo.

The streetsweeper isn't as crazy rapid as I've seen but it's better than the normal shotty in terms of power and can load multiple shells for single-trigger skirmishing via the alt-fire. The double-barreled shotgun is a beast, 'nuff said. There are two SMGs, the latter of which can only be found in the secret maps. I like the ChaosZero's sheer power for taking down low-tier enemies. I suppose the Zen-II would better for stunlocking were it not for the fact that both weapons must eventually be reloaded. The assault rifle's greatest defining feature is the grenade launcher, making it kind of a rocket launcher replacement. Kind of. You also get plasma SMGs, of all things. They're the workhorse weapon for several maps, especially "City of Dis". Like the SMGs, they'd be great for stunlocking were it not for the reloading, Zen Dynamics's most visual feature. I didn't horse around with their alt-fire too much. There's also a nailgun, a pretty potent weapon in its own right. It's great for distance attacks and has a scattering alt-fire that, again, I wasn't too keen on.

The Scorcher is the true rocket launcher replacement, though it's got more in common with Rise of the Triad's firebomb. It's very powerful, with an alt-fire that's so cool that Xaser was forced to take it from you rather than have you trivialize the final boss fight. It's just that good. The railgun is a railgun, you've probably seen one before. It's very handy in the final fight as it doesn't get hung up on any of the other enemies. The alt-fire is apparently even faster at the expense of power, but what we all need is MORE POWER. The fusion cannon is funky with a BFG-esque alt-fire that requires a bit of careful placement and a normal bouncing sphere of energy, much like Xaser himself, that ricochets everywhere and slaughters everything. In summary, I wonder if Xaser has ever thought about cleaning these up for a level-less release, because they look really fun to play with.

You get a new cast of characters to help play with your new toys. That is, in addition to the regulars. I like the super-imp, whose shield makes it strong against rapid-fire but weak against powerful payloads. The three different ranged attacks it gets might be a bit much, though. I think it can summon little dragons, too. The little upside-down cacos are super annoying but nothing you can't handle. The maelstroms are total jerks, mostly due to sneaky placement and a horrifying firebomb-like attack that just ruins you. They're really at their deadliest - with respect to you - the first time you fight them. There's one scenario where they shine in infighting, though. Tortured souls belch lingering gas clouds and aren't a bad addition. There's some ophidian with hooves that didn't really stand out in my mind. And, of course, the arachnophyte, a flying Spiderdemon that shows up as a boss and then as an ubermonster on multiple other locations. Don't let it catch you out in the open.

The only problem with the Hell's Battery is that you're thrown the plasma guns and a ton of cell ammo when you fight it, so you go and blow all your cells. Maybe it's just me, but the plasma fire isn't a good indicator of the fact that the dude is totally invulnerable from the moment it starts swinging its back gun into position to the moment it's back to moving around, during which time you should really be running around. Those slow-descending bombs are also kind of hard to see the first time you fight him, plus most of his attacks slay you dead if they hit, but really it's the poor acknowledgement of his invulnerability that tripped me up. Granted, it's mentioned in the FAQ, but the document has a bit of the air of SPOILERS about it so I didn't see it until after my first battle.

The only real issue I have with the enemy layout is how, eh, haphazard it seems at times, like just hordes of enemies in areas where there isn't a whole lot of room to move, limiting you to cover shooter gunplay. Not that you want to be out in the open vs. arachnophytes and the like. Sometimes chambers of enemies just whittle themselves down due to infighting, like the end of "Refinery". Don't be afraid to hide, because there isn't enough health lying around for you to fuck up, except when you're handed the bloodsphere, but you're still better off hiding. Note: I didn't play these maps from pistol start, except when it was established via in-game effects. They might be balanced for it (except MAP07), but the gameplay was hard enough with carryovers.

Should you play Zen Dynamics? Hells yeah! It's cool to get a mapset to play along with a weapons mod as thorough as this one. It's also interesting to see Xaser in his infancy. Some seven or more years later, I'm almost certain that his tastes as an author have changed, in terms of how he stages fights and how he details. I wonder if he's got some kind of Zen Dynamics II cooking on the side, because given how he's matured, it would be quite the event.

by Xaser Acheron

Tight, claustrophobic map that introduces you to a lot of the monsters in a close area, thus enforcing learning how to handle stuff like the new weapons and reloads to be successful. The area looks a bit bare besides the tech tunnel you crawl through, and I'm not fond of jumping over the nukage to the exit, but it's a decent enough intro.

Urban DoomMAP02
An odd conflation of a pedestrian-looking "Downtown" outdoors coupled with Xaser's technological marvels. The initial clear is a total pain in the ass, thanks to those maelstrom monsters. Their firebomb-like attacks are incredibly dangerous in the small space you have to move and there are so many other enemies roaming around to get hung up on that you're blown away like a fart in the wind. After you get things settled down the rest of the fights aren't as bad, except for the boss, a Spiderdemon on rockets that's dangerous to stay out in the open against. Hit and run tactics are key. I find the run to the secret exit far more interesting, especially in its construction.

MAP08Core Zero
A big, cool level that skirts the line between corporate HQ and toxic dump. It's obviously some kind of water treatment plant, but it's powered by a reactor. The level doesn't come out and tell you this, but you're supposed to destroy the reactor to open up the exit hatch, which you'll know by a big ol' exit sign over it. Getting from there reactor to the hatch is the tricky part, one you'll need to clear the level for. The opposition isn't so bad once you grab the super-SMG, but it's still cramped and there are a few maelstroms sneaking around to ruin your day. Plus you have to contend with the opening, a good ol' machete fight versus increasingly opposing odds. I had fun, but the machete is way more versatile than a berserk fist. The rooftop shootout and the cistern yard are some of the harder areas due to the amount of exposure you must suffer through, and there's an arachnophyte to best as well. Lots of neat ZDoom features.

More of a cinematic map than anything. You'll see sights like the armies of Hell taking on the Zen / UAC from afar and battle the dude who opened the gates to Hell, who turns out to be a walking pile of artillery. He's a tough fight for being an HP sponge and having a few attacks that will just slay you dead if you get caught by them, like the spreading volley of rockets or the slow bombs from the sky. After that you get a tense battle with a bunch of monsters that teleport in. The final fight is a hilarious clusterfuck; just poke your head in and then duck out, letting the insane infighting do most of your work for you.

MAP04City of Dis
A tough jaunt into Hell. Xaser starts you off with the plasma guns, so you're not too bad off, but the monsters are thick and the combat claustrophobic. Once you enter the city walls you're under an assault from several spider-related enemies, a situation that will crop up again. Busting into the cathedral is the nastiest section, though. It's full of Hellspawn and the arch-vile might descend from his pulpit; it's imperative to dart forward and grab the flamethrower thing as fast as possible and then let the nailgun do the talking. As with MAP02, I enjoyed the chain of secrets to get to the alternate exit. The megasphere room caught me by surprise...

Lost StationMAP00
A secret map, a jaunt to a base of some kind that's been lost to Hell. It's initially a very atmospheric level as you try to navigate your way into the compound (hint: look up!). After some action you grab the bloodsphere and it's on! It's a fine armament to use in the cramped corridors you initially fight through but not very graceful at clearing the enormous opposition that's surrounded the base on your exit. Too many obstacles blocking your projectiles. There sure is a lot of health lying around to goad you into using it, though. That corpse room in the middle of the base is... amazingly overdetailed, heh.

Something more of an old-fashioned demonic ruins level. There is a lot of shooting deadly monsters in the dark, so if you can't see into the shadows, expect a fireball or two your way. The huge aracnophyte room to the northeast isn't exactly dangerous per se but if you don't know about the monster in there, it's probably gonna surprise you in a bad way. The pain elementals and tortured souls feel almost gratuitous at times, but the SSG replacement debuts and packs quite a punch.

The MalebolgeMAP06
Sort of an outdoor Hell fortress. As usual, the initial clear is by far the worst, with multiple arachnophytes floating around in addition to the other myriad monsters lurking about. I'm not sure what the best solution is but cowering behind the door and popping out to fire a few incendiary explosives seemed to do the trick, at least to give me enough safety to start clearing in earnest. Lots of platforming required to make progress and get to the exit, but it's more Doom II-style drops than bamboo pole madness.

MAP07Death Sentence
The boss battle! The first fight gives you a lot of room to move in, which you'll need against those armada monsters. There are two of them that you have to kill before the big kahuna. He's kind of a mix between a boss shooter and a flamethrower; he shoots fire that will slay you dead unless it just barely grazes you and sends out a wave of boss cubes before disappearing and then later reappearing somewhere else. If you brought any semblance of weaponry to the fight, the monsters should be the least of your concerns; infighting and the devil himself should do a good enough job of clearing them out.


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