Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Area 51 (AREA51.WAD)

Area 51 is - what else? - but a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. Released in 1997 by Keith Hickman (contributor to Squadron 417) and Garth Donovan (aka Ziggy Gnarly of Twilight Warrior fame), it's a two-map minisode for Doom II, replacing MAP01 and MAP02. If you didn't know, Area 51 is shorthand for a notorious US Military Air Base in Nevada, aka Groom Lake. Since Doom's release, it's been pretty common for authors to take the sci-fi route and throw all of the wonderful monsters we've come to know and love under the banner of aliens from another planet. It's no surprise, then, that someone would come along and put them in the one place they're suspected to be in popular culture.

The setup is virtually indistinguishable from any other PWAD.TXT, except this time, it's Area 51 instead of some misbegotten outpost on Titan, or Sirius, or Tei Tenga. At least you're working for a shadowy government that has classified extraterrestrial experiments rather than a shadowy corporation that has classified extraterrestrial experi - errr. Anyway, Area 51 cut off contact with whatever government officials routinely monitor it, and you're sent in to discover what happened and in the event of an alien takeover (which is suspected) you're supposed to... Well, they claim that a UFO that may or may not exist in the compound will be your only escape vehicle, but if you've slain every alien in the outpost, you should be able to walk out the front door. Right?

Area 51 is firmly an early 90s Doom PWAD. It's a nebulous quality, but all the hallmarks are there, like starting things off with the tongue-and-cheek Mission Impossible theme and then rolling into the non-sequitor of Billy Idol's "White Wedding" for MAP02, which continues the surreal feel. There are also a bunch of custom resources, including things like arch-viles rotating in stasis, disassembled Spider Masterminds, lots of signs and such to remind you where you are, and stuff like plasma rifles propped up and down for armory visual effect, though that begs the question why the zombies aren't using the weaponry themselves.

Of all the monsters Hickman and Donovan decided to replace (not that I'm suggesting that replacing monsters is a simple task), they appropriated the SS Nazi for the classic gray alien, though I wish they would have used some DeHackEd to make them do something besides shoot bullets. They also turned the cacodemon into some kind of overmind creature, a giant floating brain with markings similar to the grays. They add a bit of flavor to the adventure; I mistook the land-bound aliens for workers decked out in rad suits, but I'm sure that had to do with the place you first see them, that being a radwaste storage facility.

A few of the progression steps are kind of cryptic but the Area 51 facilities aren't big or complex enough for the hiccups to really trip you up unless you just plain shut down. The lift to the yellow key door was really the only thing that caught me, besides figuring out where the yellow key itself was. I guess there's a mandatory "secret" in MAP02, but if you can't puzzle it out, you're hopeless. I do like some of the more robust bits of flavor, like the various bio-scanners. Hickman and Donovan even go so far as to explain why you're able to fool the scanners in the beginning and why it might fail, taking care to arrange the exact scenario described in the .TXT in the level itself. It's some cool world-building stuff and very much appreciated.

Area 51 will never rank among the most polished Doom products to grace the archives, but it's got a ton of character and is far from being among the community's more forgettable offerings. Plus, you get to kill giant flying brains and scummy classic gray aliens. What more could you ask for? Well, besides "The Mothership", which MAP02's ending clearly hints at.

by Keith Hickman and Garth Donovan

Main CompoundMAP01
This is a big, colorful base level filled with all manner of monsters. After fighting your way through the fence and the security checkpoint, you're in the meat of the level, a diamond-shaped network of hallways that serves as the nexus. Each of the major areas is gated off in some fashion by a key and has a definite theme. Well, maybe not the computer area to the northeast, which opens up the central diamond to a big shootout with the floating brains and some troublesome Barons you might as well try to telefrag. The nukage area is to the northwest, but you may not be able to figure out that the catwalk thing extending from the caged area is actually a lift. Combat is pretty slow as it's reliant on the SSG and there is a ton of Baron flesh to grind through. I dig the color of the nukage, though. Most of the fun stuff is behind the red key door, where you'll find monsters trapped in stasis, a workshop for building Spiderdemons, and the main office, complete with picture of the Cigarette Smoking Man. I didn't figure out that the Spiderdemon compound had light switches until I'd already killed everything. The best action happens on your way back to the blue key door, though if you pilfered the secret BFG, nothing will stand a chance. If you didn't, well, I guess the Spiderdemon / imp horde in the central area might have some teeth to it, or not as is the case with hot plasma rifle action.

MAP02The Sump
A big ol' slugfest through the bowels of Area 51. The new textures in the entry tunnel help to give the level a bit of a different feel during the intro and once you get past the ridiculous slow lifts the action picks up with that shootout over nukage. "The Sump" is full of big, open areas that lead to somewhat hectic shootouts. The layouts themselves usually offer enough cover so that you rarely feel exposed, as in the toxic cistern area to the far east, where the most dangerous monster is down in the trenches with the trash.The only way to cock up is to miss the armory, which contains precious plasma rifles. Of course, with the CYOA gameplay, it's perfectly possible to wander on by during your first visit, which left me facing a whole bunch of floaty brains with a combat shotgun as my only real weapon. The best fight is on the approach to the saucer, which has a lot of moving parts, including a surprise arch-vile in a "Refueling Base"-style container while revenant rockets head at you from afar, and the wide-open saucer bay makes all of its denizens somewhat dangerous, including the otherwise cannon-fodder grays. The spaceship is pretty DoomCute, and I love the alien control system


1 comment:

  1. I remember playing this wad when I was little. Pretty cool.