GENE-TECH BEFORE THE STORM
by Nigel "Enjay" Rowand
Enjay was there at the start of Doom's community in 1994 and he's been consistent in pushing the old, creaking game into new directions with his work in the ZDoom engine. Gene-Tech is his latest release, and one that comes after a bit of an authorial hiatus. It's a single map for any Doom IWAD to be played in GZDoom, but it isn't short by any stretch of the imagination. The story is pretty simple; Gene-Tech is a shady corporation on Mars (DUN DUN DUNNNNN) that has been making some stunning advances in genetics and cybernetics, but word has it that the source of their good fortune isn't human. The rules on first contact scenarios are quite clear on the situation and as such you're sent to investigate and end any security threats to the human race.
Gene-Tech is practically a brand new game, albeit one map long, that looks utterly unlike Doom. It features extensive use of models, a lot of which will look very familiar to children of late-90s PC gaming, some more than others (SiN). The research colony is staffed by a broad variety of human guards wielding all sorts of weapons, all of which you'll eventually get your grubby mitts on. There are also some non-human enemies, most of which are security robots that somewhat remind me of Strife's technological terror constructs, the major exception being the guard dogs. Not to be a spoiler, but the extraterrestrial faction is none other than the Strogg. Enjay's use of Quake II's weapons makes way more sense when his add-on is poised as something of a prequel.
The gameplay is something like a hybrid between Doom and Quake II. The guards that populate most of the complex move more like zombies than humans but the abundance of powerful hitscanners like super shotgun guys and chaingun / machinegun troopers makes cover and health major assets in this corridor shooter. Some stuff like the robots can still be outmaneuvered, but I spent way more time popping around corners than jumping and jiving. Enjay's most punishing encounters, like the Strogg slaughter waves or some of the larger rooms staffed with humans, usually have some kind of an out so that you don't get turned into mincemeat. Sometimes that out is in a secret, but secrets are the spice of life. The final boss is probably the nastiest encounter you can't cheese, but if you save up some BFG ammo for the wave of tanks that arrives partway through, you can zerg it and pillar hump your way to victory.
Oh, yes. The BFG. Another reason I say the gameplay is hybridized is that your armaments feel like a fusion of the loadouts from both games, starting off with the fist, which you can upgrade via a berserk, and the magnum, which is actually a guest appearance from SiN. The shotgun, super shotgun, machine gun, rocket launcher, plasma rifle, and railgun feel pretty much just like Quake II's, though there's a distinct difference in feedback that I'll get into later. The heavy magnum / chaingun is basically an upgrade over the magnum that lets you use that handy bullet ammo. The BFG behaves more like Doom's, I believe, though I didn't do a lot of tracer experiments to verify. It certainly doesn't act like Quake II's.
What really sets Gene-Tech apart from Quake II's combat is how great the weapon feedback is. The Strogg went through these long, drawn-out pain animations. Because of how much time they took, they seemed to just soak up bullets while they played out. They were also immovable objects, shrugging off powerful hits in favor of falling flat to the ground for those outlandish painstuns. Enjay's take on things gives your attacks some much-needed agency as you actually apply some horizontal thrust, letting you finally push the Strogg around (and uh I guess the other enemies), plus the hitstun animations feel shorter, with the occasional long stun that doesn't seem to be quite as agonizing.
Another feature that adds some flavor to Enjay's base is the inclusion of NPCs. I don't know if I'd count the hostile science workers who may surprise you with their foolish bravado, but there are a handful of peaceful office-worker types that give Gene-Tech's facility a more lived-in feeling. You also get a bunch of clones of one guy in particular. They deliver story stuff to you in text dumps, and that's all they do, but it's appreciated to give your activities some context. And to think, I thought that crate in the stock yard was just an homage! Seeing the same NPC relating story info every time is a little distracting but I was more bemused than anything at his dogged persistence.
Gene-Tech's level design feels like it mostly borrows from Half-Life with its utilitarian interiors, though there are no shady corporation break rooms or offices, which might be something Enjay envisioned back when this wasn't one single map. I think that his exterior architecture is far more compelling, comparing the station's outside to the interiors, but truth be told corporations don't give a shit about the buildings that the drones work in, leaving all the wild ostentatious stuff for Gene-Tech HQ. You do run into some strange here and there, like the cool-ass yet inexplicable molten metal room, since Enjay is good enough to give the larger rooms some set pieces that will burn into your mind. There are some nice details in the models that he uses, though they can't always distract from rectangular room syndrome.
The gameplay is pretty much corridor shooter / room clearing to the core. Human enemies are usually hiding around corners and robots in monster closets, which honestly makes a lot of sense from both aesthetics and practicality standpoints. A few keys gate off large portions of the level and some areas are optional legs that you don't have to poke your head into. Toward the last third of the map you'll find yourself subject to Strogg slaughters, where a bunch of mechano-mutants rush you from black hole portals. Stuff like invul powerups and the BFG should you have it will make these encounters much easier to cope with. I think the worst fight you have from an entrenchment standpoint is getting into the teleport bay where you first encounter the Strogg since it's flush with tough human guards, not to forget the pair of robot guardians.
Gene-Tech is pretty cool. It would have been nice to see this develop over a handful of levels, but Enjay only had so much time on his hands, and being able to knock Strogg gunners and iron maidens back into long death slides was alone worth the trip for me. Heck, anyone suitably motivated could make their own mapset; he went through the trouble to put in resources you won't even see in the normal game, like light amp goggles, all of which can be seen in the "Zoo" map (type "map zoo" in the console). If you are a fan of those late 90s 3D shooters, especially Quake II, you ought to give this a play.