Thursday, April 23, 2015

Unloved (UNLOVED.PK3)


The 2010 Cacowards had two really polarizing releases. One was the infamous Stronghold, which spent forever in development Hell before being quickly pushed out the door. The other was Unloved, another GZDoom showcase, but with a decidedly different bent. Unloved is technically a small mapset, clocking in at five levels, the first of which is really a hub that connects everything together. It's got a ton of new monsters to chew through as you plow through its dark experience. Paul Schneider eventually started Unloved 2, but stopped to pursue a career in game development. And now, he's "converting" the original Unloved into an Unreal 4 engine game! Good luck with that.


Anyway, Unloved is a dark and atmospheric adventure with what I would call an implied narrative that you experience as you play it, with plenty of details that are open to the player's interpretation. All that Schneider gives you is that you woke up in your house, alone. You mess with a few buttons and an armoire slides aside to reveal a hole in the wall. After some unwise investigation, you're suddenly in the thick of it. As you explore the disturbing worlds that appear upon the fringes of your home, you find unusual analogues of reality that serve as links back to your own. The story raises more questions than it ever answers, and in this context, it's probably for the best. To beat a dead horse of H. P. Lovecraft's, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown".


I'll be up front. I don't like the core combat of Unloved. It's not because I don't like the enemies; all of the new fiends that Schneider has pulled up are refreshing additions to the bestiary and for the most part not overpowered. It's just, shooting monsters in corridors and very tight spaces forever. There is rarely anything at all compelling about the architecture and while Paul hides it with painstakingly rendered eye candy to keep things looking busy, at the end of the day the gameplay that results from this style is unmistakable. The one concession I'll make is that it is definitely a series of horror-oriented layouts. Giving the player enough freedom to run around at the speed of light would undermine the sense of claustrophobia and vulnerability that Schneider tries to engineer. Granted, you can still make a player feel hemmed in and vulnerable without resorting to the geometry of the level itself, but when the action of Doom II is taken in this direction, many authors tend to do it by creating large spaces and then painting them with wonderful patterns of bodies. It lacks a feeling of... intimacy, and that's where Unloved works.


That's not to say that the entire mapset is bankrupt of excitement. It's just very slow paced, a fact emphasized by the comparatively slow introduction of weaponry. The amount of enemies you will dispatch with the shotgun and chaingun alone make the combat shotgun feel like a major progression point. My favorite combat moments were few, but pretty powerful. You'll probably find this predictable, but the two big slaughter fights in "The Living Room" and "The Halls Below" where I got to run around like an ass were great. I also liked the cacodemon battle in the void encountered during your second trip to "The Halls Below". Also, for being limited to the shotgun, the yellow keycard graveyard fight manages to cut the fine line between boring and frustrating. As for the rest, imagine a sliding scale with yawning on one end and pulling teeth on the other. Playing on HMP is likely to be a much more manageable decision.


Where Unloved ultimately succeeds is in its horror / adventure trappings. I absolutely love the house hub that forms the backbone of the level. The chill music might be at odds with the intent of the mapset, but it lets you know that this is the place where you can relax, in spite of the looming shadows of the buildings that surround your shelter. The way it dovetails entries and exits to the phantasms only to ultimately bring you back via other, unsettling simulacrums brings to mind Dark Seed, an adventure game series that attempted to straddle parallel dimensions and which had the main character's psychological state as a major plot point. I think that the lines between reality and the other are a bit more blurred here, given the dark trappings that surround your home turf, but it's all in good fun given that the cast call has a rendition of "Thriller" for its backing track.


Schneider has done a fantastic job with his texturing, pulling from a variety of resources. Blood will be the most familiar, but I also recognize elements from Heretic and Hexen figuring into the more occult trappings. The fact that so little of the settings draw from Doom, except perhaps the gory organics of "The Living Room", helps to distance its identity from its source game, and all the little details that have been placed around only heighten this disparity. It's a shame that the author rarely chases the more interesting facets of Doom architecture, but as I mentioned earlier, it's hard to be the absolute authority of the players' experience if you give them tons of room to vault around in.


Another thing that Schneider does really well is the hub system. As mentioned, I like the house and the way all the other levels connect to it. You'll have to find all six keys to exit, starting out with the keycards and then moving on to skull keys, revisiting earlier levels where clearly locked doorways once checked your progress. It's easy to forget where you once saw some of those doors, as I did with the assorted keycard barriers, but you do get a sense of unraveling mystery as you relocate them and explore your twisted nightmare. Early experiments in hub design like Tei Tenga and Hell Factory had you constantly jumping back and forth between levels, rarely giving the maps enough room to breathe. Unloved does the opposite, though as a result it's usually the player that's dying for a breather.


As I mentioned earlier, I have no bone to pick with most of the new enemies that appear. Now, they often felt ineffectual considering how they're usually thrown into the enormous meat grinder that is Unloved's network of corridors, so whatever niche they would usually exploit in a more dynamic firefight is nonexistent. It's hard to fault enemies for their placement, since that's really the author's decision. The most consistently frustrating enemy in this regard is the arch-vile, which should come as no surprise. I have a hard time thinking of any scenario where an arch-vile appeared and didn't pose a considerable threat, except for maybe the trio down in the drowned basement of MAP02. The entirety of the blood cathedral in MAP03 is another painful experience, though I did like the initial chaos following the enemy reveal. There's just no good way to deal with all the bullshit that follows without some hardcore doorway camping.


And, well, you can cut down on a lot of that by dialing the difficulty down, which will leave most of Schneider's horrific atmosphere intact, if not quite as oppressive. Unloved is not a top-shelf GZDoom run and gun mapset. It is a bleak, slow-paced journey that packs scads of enemies into tight spaces and corridors. I feel that it succeeds at establishing the world it attempts to, though whether your interest will be held through the countless denizens of the deep is ultimately up to your preference. Target HMP or HNTR - you won't be missing much.





UNLOVED
by Paul "BlueEagle" Schneider

AloneMAP01
Well, it kind of looks like a bedroom, but the imagery is a little disturbing, like you're in a Dark Seed version of the real world. The decor is exquisite, though, and after a few switch pulls, it's down the chute, into the thick of it.

Second visit: I like that the mirror is a two-way portal between worlds with your initial entryway boarded up, it's a cool touch. I also like that the house opens up, giving you significantly more props and stuff to explore, hinting at future progression points. At this point it looks like things get a little non-linear, which is neat. I decided to check out the mothballed room.

Third visit: I was just after the combat shotgun, but I didn't know there'd be a super spooky grave right next to it. Time to explore, I guess?
Fourth visit: After coming back from "Lost Childhood" I was overjoyed to find a new passageway containing the rocket launcher. Looks like things are finally coming up Doomguy!
Fifth visit: Something has changed in the attic...! But the bars are rusted shut.
Sixth visit: Finally with the blue key in hand, though unable to use it until you've suffered a spooky experience.
Seventh visit: I don't remember those bars! Maybe the Living Room wasn't as optional as I thought it was. Anyway, with every avenue exhausted, it's on to the final door.

MAP02The Basement's Basement
The "true" basement is a disgusting slaughterhouse filled with torn-apart corpses and similar victims of dismemberment. You spend a lot of time pistol-whipping zombies and chainsawing demons as you investigate the cells. It's pretty slow-paced with all the eye candy relegated to the decor but stuff picks up once you grab the shotgun. While claustrophobic, the only time it really shows is at the ambush at the end of the wooden hall. You otherwise have more than enough room to deal with your foes.

Second visit: A compelling return to the red skull key door that turns into a brutal slugfest in the cramped and drowned basement. Claustrophobia is the operative word and it's an experience exacerbated by abusive arch-vile placement. Rockets would make the worst fights a lot simpler, but several situations stand to turn into irrecoverable scenarios. The most memorable encounter, the teleporting horde of chainsaw zombies, feels like something only tenable by furiously pushing through.

The Living RoomMAP03
Doomguy with a shotgun takes on the hordes of Hell in this organic and blood-inundated level. The gameplay is all about a singular pressure put on the player as you face down mixed packs of enemies composed of imps, demons, revenants, blood fiends, and golems, with the occasional Hell knight. It's... very slow going, and the sheer drudgery spoils the atmosphere of the level a bit. I love how the whole thing opens up as you explore the organic section and the initial mobs are exciting but I would have loved to see a combat shotgun or even a chaingun by the time I reached the hallways leading down to the study. The yellow keycard fight succeeds at establishing pressure in a way that echoes the level's opening, with a feeling of creeping horror as your shotgun barely beats back the tide.

Second visit: Oh, well I had completely forgotten about the red keycard door! Which is... followed by a blue keycard door, okay. Then it's on to the yellow skull key arena, which is ringed by some scattered monsters that are a little annoying to dispatch, but nothing tough. At this point, things get really silly, but the only monsters you have to focus on are the pain elementals and let the infighting take out the very varied horde of enemies that attacks you, which after the past few corridor crawls is really fun.

Third visit: Since the other door that's left requires all six, this seems like a good side trip. The dark cathedral is flush with enemies. The initial assault isn't so bad, but the Cyberdemon wave and the wave with the Dark Avatar will almost certainly be cheesed through one of the door ways. Door way cheesing is a major feature of this series of encounters.

MAP04The Halls Below
A cramped set of corridors with the look of an insane asylum. Slaying shadows and soul harvesters and satyrs en masse with the shotgun is pretty grueling, but Schneider forks over the chaingun so you can actually vary things up a bit. It's pretty straightforward and rarely that overwhelming; the combat just comes in drips and drabs. The best fight on your first visit is the return through the foyer-ish area after grabbing the red key, though I kind of like the swarm of bats and drakes as a cool surprise. After I grabbed the red keycard, I had both the red and yellow, so I figured it was time to visit the combat shotgun door in the main hub.

Second visit: In my innocence, I forgot that I had passed up the yellow keycard bars in favor of making a beeline to the SSG. There's also a blue key switch, but it apart from lowering the bars, all you get is a telegraphed battle with the disciples. Together, they unlock a small den of pestilence and a blind drop to a topsy-turvy segment that opens things up a bit, but the real treat is the cage maze in the void, leading to a corridor of slaughter. It pays to have conserved your rockets, because the inevitable arch-viles that arrive after taking the red skull key will be tricky to get around without any explosives in hand. The cacodemon fight on return to the cage maze is an interesting experiment in three dimensions.

Third visit: Yellow skull in hand, it's back to the final door, entering the toxic wonderland hinted at earlier ventures. The big fight on the approach to the fortress requires a tad more sensibility than the big brawl in "The Living Room", so be on your best behavior and wait for the opportune moment to blow your rockets. You'll still be mopping up with the combat shotgun, but maybe infighting will take out some of the worst elements. I like the frantic firefight inside the keep proper; the mortuary, not so much. The bit with the bloody footprints was pretty cool, though.

Lost ChildhoodMAP05
Another instance of corridor mayhem, helped along a lot by the fact that you get to play with the combat shotgun. The set pieces in the major rooms are pretty cool as you progress from the crib room to bathrooms and classrooms, but stuff like the lost soul tunnels are dead weight. I had most of my fun dealing with the suddenly active school pupils. Also, a glimpse of the six-key door, which I assume is your final goal.

Second visit: An elevator that builds a lot of tension before you get bored. There are no scares, just an ominous fortress whose path is cracked and split. The initial salvo of enemies is a ridiculous wave of kamikaze zombies which die pretty swiftly. The scrags and cacodemons constitute an impressive cloud of monsters, but dealing with hordes of fliers in GZDoom is incredibly easy as long as you creep along and keep moving. The interior of the castle is a pretty humdrum selection of claustrophobic fights that eventually gives way to the super Cyberdemon, who has a BFG attack, but if you've saved up all your cells he can be dealt with pretty quickly, leaving you to face the cinematic outtro. The detail with the fading mirror is neat, but Unloved is clearly begging for a follow-up...

SCARY MONSTERS AND SUPER CREEPS

4 comments:

  1. This is by far the most nightmarish wad I've played. There was a "Silent Hill on a bad trip" vibe. The combat can be a bit awkward in confined spaces, but as you point out, Unloved is more about the atmosphere than the usual run-and-gun stuff (which to be fair, makes up the core gameplay of 99% of wads). It's nice to play a genuine hub-type map, there are hardly any of these around, and the hub works much better than in Silent Hill: The Room, since your house is nearly as creepy as the Doom dimension. Unlike The Room, you don't want to just open your front door and walk out into the world of sanity, it makes somewhat more sense that in this case, you would have to brave the terrors of the Doom realm.

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    1. Unloved's atmosphere is king. I could only hope that Schneider brings some more compelling architecture to the mix if he ever gets around to Unloved 2.

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  2. I love transformative levels!

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    1. Check out Community Chest 4 MAP32, "Mutare"

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