by Paul "BlueEagle" Schneider
Thursday, April 23, 2015
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.
by Paul "BlueEagle" Schneider
by Paul "BlueEagle" Schneider
SCARY MONSTERS AND SUPER CREEPS