Monday, May 11, 2015

Dark Covenant (DARKCVNT.WAD)

Dark Covenant is a PWAD I've seen bandied about as one of the lost classics of 1996. It's a twelve-map episode for Doom II, released by one Keith Phipps. DARKCVNT has no real story, but it kind of runs as an analogue to Doom II's main story. The player wakes up in his or her house, only to find that demons and zombies are everywhere. It's a mad trek through sewers, a ruined city, and caverns, eventually ending up at a UAC facility that takes you to Hell and back again before reaching one of those world ships that the Hellspawn were holding hostage.... It never really occurred to me how ridiculous it was that Hell was holding the Earth's escape fleets hostage with a single button. I mean, it's obviously their rules since they're warping reality, so maybe the device in "Circle of Death" is some kind of Hellish warp interdictor.

Dark Covenant is an old-style Doom II mapset. Its layouts are mostly straightforward with a lot of monster-filled corridors to blast through. That may sound like a pretty one-sided generalization, but it's true. What you see is what you get. Teleport ambushes are almost nonexistent with most of your surprises resulting from monster closets. The most dangerous enemies that Phipps throws at you are the hitscanners, who are available in droves. You won't be lacking for bullets or shells, which is good, because that's what most of your fighting will be done with. It's definitely not easy; I got Swiss-cheesed on quite a few occasions because the droves of low-tier enemies coupled with the prominence of corridors leads you into a false sense of security. Health isn't exactly bountiful, so recklessness is swiftly punished. Recklessness is also one of the few ways to instill excitement.

Phipps may not have the most compelling flow paths, but he can make some cool areas and architecture. I really like his larger levels, especially "Necropolis" and "The Flooded Base". You're also inside a big ass spaceship in MAP12, which is kind of a novel way to end the set and a great use of the change in sky between episodes. I like his big, outdoor areas, since they tend to come with some cool scenery and more interesting monster placement, even if it just boils down to some snipers. "Research Facility" is pretty good in this regard, and there's a nice open area at the end of "The Evil Eye" where you can do some easygoing arena combat.

The other thing that really defines Dark Covenant to me is its soundtrack, a host of Metallica MIDIs that range from "it works" to "LAFFO". Maybe this stuff sounds better in OPL, but some of the tracks just were not translated well. I'm not a Metallica or soundtrack snob or anything, I just found it hard not to laugh. It definitely gives the PWAD a distinct identity, though maybe not if you're unfamiliar with the source material. At the very least, it beats listening to the vanilla soundtrack for the umpteenth time.

Sure, it's not the most compelling Doom mapset I've played, but Dark Covenant sure beats the pants off some of the stuff that was getting released back in 1996, and there are worse things to say about a mapset than that it's linear and offers few surprises. That may just describe the ideal Doom II level for some players. Well, maybe not with all the hitscanners. If you don't mind a little playing on auto-pilot and rockin' it to some Metallica MIDIs, get ready to seek and destroy.

by Keith Phipps

Kind of a menagerie of "MYHOUSE" constructions. You start out in the largest of them, where you're locked inside until you can find the yellow key. Once you exit, there's a half-finished building to explore, a little flat to the northeast with some decent sector furniture, and the northwest structure, which is apparently has a safehouse... for Nazis. Huh. The action isn't too riveting with almost all of the threat coming from getting attritioned to death via the multitude of hitscanners. The big monsters outside leave you plenty of room to dodge in. The pool looks pretty nice.

MAP02Green Water
Your standard sewer level, crammed into the MAP02 slot. Well, "Green Water" has a few things going for it. I like that the nukage is spilling into a blue river, which you'll have to cross to reach the dark temple that houses the yellow key. I don't like that there's a dead drop to the red key, though, which will waste a bit of time as you run back to where you came from. The yellow door / blue key sequence seems like kind of a waste, too. This time, almost all of the danger is wrapped up in zombies, which when coupled with sniper positions become an omnipresent threat, and with most of the health confined to the Cyberdemon's hall, you'll probably find yourself skirting the thin edge of death.

Something a bit more interesting... This isn't a necropolis in the traditional sense, but more in the literal, as while life may elude this city, the dead are pretty comfortable just loafing around. I'm starting to see that Phipps isn't a fan of teleport ambushes, with there being an emphasis on incidental combat. Most of your confounding factors are the hitscanner snipers and imps on ledges that are scattered about the level. The rest couldn't be any more straightforward, turning the map into a lengthy combat shotgun grind. I guess there's a surprise arch-vile on your return to the yellow key door, and hunting around for Cyberdemon telefrag squares is kind of novel since there's no obvious correlation between the pads and which Cybs they nuke. Lots of cool architecture, though.

MAP04Forgotten Outpost
Getting away from the more interesting stuff with this fairly abstract but serviceable base level. It's straightforward and pretty linear though Phipps does a decent job at winding the level up in on itself to disguise its lack of guile. The sneakiest things here are the enemies that you sometimes catch peeping through windows, but you shouldn't get too shot up.

Earth CoreMAP05
Kind of in the same vein as MAP04, except there's a lot more room to breathe in, even if it's subterranean caverns linked together by teleport pads. Phipps is a bit more willing to throw revenants and stronger beasties your way, but until the final thirty or so enemies it is a shotgun shoot with occasional dalliances into chaingun fire as the mood strikes you, usually when you're inundated with zombies, a somewhat common occurrence. The linearity of the final tunnel manages to spoil even the plasma rifle pickup, though the lava field of arachnotrons is a bit of a switch-up.

MAP06Cavern of Doom
"Earth Core", part deux. It's a belt-fed slaughter that switches things up by giving you a combat shotgun early on. It's still mostly a corridor shoot, with a few homages to pieces like "The Focus" and "Circle of Death", the latter being one of the most memorable fights if only for sheer monster concentration. I suppose that the pair of pain elementals in the large room to the east is also a potential snafu. There's also the ledge of imps that descends once you get to the yellow key, though they're nothing to be too concerned about.

The Flooded BaseMAP07
The opening area may look awfully familiar to anyone who's seen Scythe's MAP30. Chalk up another classical inspiration! I like this level just like I liked "Necropolis"; they're big, outdoor levels with some big buildings that are sensibly tied together, though getting around might be a little annoying once you hit the eastern side. That staircase in the northeast building is gonna get really old by the time you're done. All of the eastern structures are surrounded by huge dikes, and lowering them will reveal what typically turns out to be a ton of hitscanners. Attritioning out from bullet fire is a very real threat... and really the only one. Getting attacked by the cacodemons on the way to the first switch on the east wall is kind of novel, but the worst they can do is force you off the platform. Which is still annoying.

Another massive techbase level. Phipps doesn't do labyrinthine, though, so this just has a lot of really large rooms and areas. Expect the usual, like reams of hitscanner snipers. I found that the area behind the blue key door was particularly tricky to break into; there are a handful of spread-out arachnotrons interspersed with spectre packs plus a KDitD-style computer platform bordered with shotgun guys sitting in the center of the room. There's more fun had in the outdoor area, which lets you cut loose with all the rockets and plasma you've been saving up vs. pain elementals and some other, less threatening enemies.

The Evil EyeMAP09
More of the same gameplay but with more monster crammed into hallways and maybe just backing off the hitscanners a tad. It's another mix of subterranean areas and tech wings including a large, underground cavern with several buildings built out from a descending lake of blood, one of which is some kind of kooky Cyberdemon obstacle that I think is meant to blast you off the tower, forcing unlucky players to do some retreading. To be honest, it might be better for you to do a round of muck diving, because there's an easy way to neutralize him with the push of a button. After doing some more sewer cleaning, you have a big, outdoor shootout at the eponymous Evil Eye, which is kind of cool. I also missed one of Phipps's rare teleport traps, since it's apparently done via the clumsy false wall method, and I never walked past the port hole.

MAP10Research Facility
A more typical level from Phipps with half the monster count and more focus on big rooms with neat architecture. The fountain pillar is a charming primitive effect, and the waterfall texture shows up in a few more areas. It certainly lends a more... man-made feel, though this research facility has a few areas that seem warped by demonic interference, like the square-ish marble and blood room to the west. No real standout fights; at least, none to me. I dig some of the scenery, though, especially the outdoor northern area with the cascades.

Launch ControlMAP11
A very short map with a triple threat - two Cyberdemons start out patrolling the perimeter of the central compound and there's a Spiderdemon round the back. Of course, it should be pretty simple to get one of those elements taken out by sheer infighting, but there are still hitscanner surprises galore. My favorite fight was entering through the north side of the central compound; you can really bust loose and do a lot of monster dodging as you thin the multitude of enemies out bit by bit. Cute rocket.

MAP12Last Ship Out
It didn't make a whole lot of sense at first, since Phipps doesn't show it off, but you're actually on a space ship! The bits outside the playable space are pretty cool when you can see it. I mean, it's all macrotecture, but I like it. The interior architecture, not so much, the nadir being - besides hallways - the inevitable cargo hold. The map itself is a return to form for the author, leading you on a pretty straightforward combat shotgun grind through the bowels of the enormous cruiser. About the most deviant thing Keith does is release an arch-vile that you'll encounter on your way back to the blue key door, but that's hardly worth losing sleep over with the cover you'll have.



  1. While certainly nothing too special nowadays, Dark Covenant was pretty good for 96 standards. I actually like this more than some of the choices that made it into the top 10 for 1996.

    1. I can see this, but the top 100 WADs was not meant to be some kind of objective holy writ in spite of what it's treated as some eleven years later. it would be nice to have people checking out stuff like Osiris, but works like these will continue to survive by word of mouth until the end of civilization

    2. I'm well aware that the top 100 (and Cacowards for that matter) isn't an objective best wads ever list.

    3. really, dark covenant is a fun mapset. i wish the author had built some more spaceship levels.

  2. I love Dark Covenant. So many unique and bizarre choices for a wad. It may have it's simple and archaic points to it, bit it still gets you to this day. Ever been interested in reviewing this: It is made by NT of NEIS fame. I had found a YouTube video of him giving a walk-through/creation story/"why I play doom and you should too" of this. It is a very cool map set!

    1. Xaser recommends END1 enough that im seriously considering putting it on the short short list. added

    2. I liked END2 better. Especially E3M6 was an amazing experience. (I shouldn't worry, though, if it gets reviewed or not, given KMX E XII's completionist nature) - vdgg

  3. It's good for 1996 - and still playable today. I wouldn't say it's the year's 'best wad', but certainly in some aspects certain maps here can be better than some of the 'top 100'-picked maps from 1996.

    1. considering the aforementioned 1996 maps include three different community megawads, that's not saying much, lol. phipps was better at scenery, i think, than some of his contemporaries. i love the "german" style of authors like the moellers and worch, but i adore the sheer spectacle of Phipps's macrotecture when he decides to invoke it.

  4. One of Eric Alm's biggest inspirations. :)
    Thumbs up just because of that.

  5. This one didn't blew me away at all. Probably because I played Unloved a few days before.

    1. With modern source ports carrying many special features, and modern editing tools being more intuitive. I doubt anyone these days could ever be blown away by a wad that not only predates the source code release, but also came from era when the editing tools weren't nearly as easy to use as Doom Builder and SLADE.

    2. it's easy to get swept up in the eye candy and atmosphere of Unloved, perhaps only to realize later that it's hallway after hallway after lovingly rendered hallway with the occasional very cool room. it's a poster-child for "stringy" level design, tho BlueEagle does a decent job obfuscating it.