Saturday, July 4, 2015

Beta Labs (BETALABS.WAD)


Few game communities are as obsessed with the vagaries of the development process as Doom's. At this point, we've seen enough beta and alpha materials for an editorial reconstruction on par with The History of Middle-Earth. I've seen plenty of projects come and go that derive some amount of influence from the alpha / beta materials. The ones that are dead-set on using the Doom Bible as their design document have not fared well. The others grab the unused resources and then make something that's like Doom, but not, as reflected by the sensibilities of the authors. Beta Labs is one of these latter projects, a joint effort by Serious_MOod and Chaingunner, two crazy dudes from Russia. Released in 2015, it's an E1 replacement to be played in limit-removing ports, but its architecture and design are far from being a carbon copy of Knee Deep in the Dead.


Beta Labs doesn't have a story, though many of its levels are clearly evocative of the names of their slots, more so than the original Doom, at least. It's an interesting collection of design decisions that stands at odds to the now slavish reproductions of Episode One. For starters, there's the difficulty gap. The authors have left a lot less health and ammo lying around, and the gameplay of Beta Labs is on the whole more claustrophobic than the original Doom, with plenty of instances where enemies are set against you either in monster closets or teleport ambushes and you've got to somehow hold your own against them. Excepting the scanty health lying around in E1M7, I think the hardest level in here in terms of combat is E1M3.


There's also the curious replacement of the health and armor bonuses with evil scepters and skullchests, respectively. The placement of these items coupled with their graphical prominence lend a sort of arcade-like feeling where the mechanical benefits of the bonuses are second to the fact that they contribute to your item % in the tally screen, as if to validate its existence given that most Doomers in my experience do not give one whit as to whether they've found every item. This emphasis on the bonus pickups feels like a return to Doom's roots per Wolfenstein 3D, something that's only a gameplay change in the way that it's been presented.


There's only one actual gameplay change that I noticed, and it's the rifle, which replaces the pistol. It fires just slightly faster than the sidearm, which isn't much of a boon, but any fire rate improvement is appreciated. I somehow tricked my mind into believing that the machine gun (chaingun replacement) was faster, too, but after a brief comparison I've concluded that any difference, if it exists, is negligible. All of the other graphical differences - like imp fireballs, the beta lost souls, and the bayonet - are completely cosmetic, serving only to further associate the episode with Doom's development history.


The architecture and layouts are all pretty cool, if cramped, giving the mapset a unified character that is less concerned with Doom's open scale and more the realities of utilitarian design. The office chair props go a long way toward giving the mapset a lived-in feel that escapes the original trilogy. Certainly, they will offend players when they function as hindrances to their maneuverability, but it only fuels Beta Labs' emphasis on congestion control. Serious_MOod likes creating areas that do not serve a purpose in the scheme of the map as an obstacle between the player and the exit switch. There is less "dead air" here than in his previous release, Dark Side of Deimos, but I believe at this point that the author's use of pauses in the level's action is an attempt at building tension. Chaingunner seems aligned in philosophy, which makes for a fairly contiguous experience.


Beta Labs is pretty cool. I kind of wish the levels were a little longer; MOod and Chaingunner are pretty good at weaving "realism" into Doom while avoiding the banal (like not putting in a bunch of nearly identical sleeping quarters in E1M5). If you like cramped, oppressive original Doom gameplay, or just have a hard-on for the cut beta resources, this one's for you.



BETA LABS
by "Serious_MOod" and "Chaingunner"

Hangar 2E1M1
by "Serious_MOod"
MOod sets the tone and lets you in on some of the gameplay quirks to come, like the alpha treasures in place of the bonus items and the catwalks over nukage. It's a pretty harsh level; early on, you're pitted between imps and spectres on one side and a crowd of lost souls on the other. It's definitely the standout fight. Some pretty cool rooms in here.

E1M2Laboratory
by "Chaingunner"
Pretty cool level. Good connectivity, and also pretty claustrophobic, though with about as many enemies as the previous level, it's paced pretty well. Not a whole lot of big combat going on; you might get outgunned in the early game, depending on which direction you go, but all the shotgunners will put your ammo situation into a runoff. I like that little bit with the fucked-up staircase to the east, a nice set piece. There's also a med bay, I think.

Supply DepotE1M3
by "Serious_MOod"
Whoa. Things take a turn for the awesome with this slice of nightmare. MOod continues the trend toward cramped gameplay but starts throwing the player into tight scenarios where you're struggling for room. It's only appropriate that the machine gun makes its debut, given that it will beat back the worst of it until you can get some room to waltz with your shotgun. The spectres and demons that see you if you break to the red key door first is a nice touch, since they'll move to confront you as you try the other direction. The fights in the yellow key area are the nastiest, but the texture arrangement makes hunting spectres in the pit to the southwest pretty tense. Very cool.

E1M9Main Hangar
by "Chaingunner"
Kind of a sloppy map with some obvious E1M1 homages forming the basis of some of the larger areas. The sniper placement in some of the rooms, like the big ol' jagged walkway area, can be ruthless. But, uh, I somehow managed to miss out on that green armor right off the starting area, which would have helped out quite a bit. I guess the action in the open computer area just drew me forward like a puppetmaster pulling my strings. Be on the lookout for a little author shrine.

Power PlantE1M4
by "Chaingunner"
A more interesting offering from Chaingunner. All the windows and ledges give this level pretty good connectivity. Now, it mostly runs from north to south, and the secret assault rifle / rocket launcher feel like they arrive a bit late in the progression of the level, but the layout is pretty good. There's one good bit when you enter in the northern section where a pack of demons comes at you, which you'll diligently shotgun into oblivion, but most of this is dodging shotgun blasts and fireballs with the occasional lonely lost soul.

E1M5Quarters
by "Serious_MOod"
Another very cool level from MOod. It's a bit more forgiving than E1M3 with a lot less ambushes that set you up next to walls of shotgun guys. There are a lot of optional areas to explore and oddly deserted sections of base, like the locker room / shower area to the northeast and the offices / common area to the southwest. There's also another taste of that nukage catwalk, which is under fire from some imps in an area of the base that you'll never get to explore. Favorite fight, well, it starts with a berserk fest and partway through you'll have to endure a two-pronged assault consisting of spectres in the dark. Both of these are pretty memorable, I think.

ObservatoryE1M6
by "Chaingunner"
Chaingunner does a pretty good job with this slice of UAC tech facility. There's a lot of generic computer stuff that fails to differentiate this from any other portion of the Beta Labs, but you do get the occasional cool thing like the console in the room prior to the sealed-off security door to the north, and there's a pretty cool bit where you grab a rad suit to explore the toxic sluice to the southwest. There are a few glimpses at the greater area of the base, which help to build character. Also, this marks the first appearance of the cacodemon, not that either of the gasbags is any good at presenting as a threat. The biggest threat is having your health chipped away due to a dearth of health.

E1M7Control Center
by "Serious_MOod"
MOod hits it again with another E1-beta labyrinth. There are a lot of ways you'll have to poke and prod this level before reaching the exit switch. Don't forget to flip the switches after you've endured their associated ambushes, which due to their severity (particularly snaking hallway in the midwestern portion of the level) demand all of your attention. There's hardly enough health to justify all the abuse, so save early and save often. It feels a bit more abstract than many of this set's other levels. Well, except for the second appearance of the monorail.

AnomalyE1M8
by "Serious_MOod" and "Chaingunner"
MOod and Chaingunner come together to provide the most thorough example of Doom realism in the entire PWAD. I can't help but feel that the outtake music track (UN17.MID) is a poor choice in terms of building atmosphere... Just goes to show how fantastic "Sign of Evil" is, I guess. Anyway, after clearing this cramped end of the installation (which fields some kind of med lab and a runway), you encounter the anomaly, which teleports you straight to Hell. The opposition isn't as bad as one might think, with the lost souls being the biggest deltas you have to worry about. That and figuring out how to get onto the ledge with all the ammo in very dark lighting. Once you snag the very obvious rocket launcher, you're ready to do most of the heavy lifting.

IF YOU HAVE A COPY OF THIS,
YOU PROBABLY GOT IT FROM /IDGAMES

8 comments:

  1. A lot of neat architecture here. :)

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  2. Thank you for the review again. :3

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  3. I had played E1M1 of this and sometimes I needed to get used to the new items but the one thing that put me off a bit was the amount of switches. I have pretty good tolerance for that but it seemed slightly excessive. Not totally ruining the game, but I hope Chaingunner's maps (if not all the other maps) are a bit more relaxed in this regard.

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    1. I can't say that I found the switches particularly egregious... but i think that I know what you are getting at and yeah, its a bit of a switch hunt at times.

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    2. Which is one of the reason why I stand by my thinking that Hadron is still the best Doom I (UDoom) release so far this year. The cannonball of 2015 is, indeed, very different from that of 2012 and 2013. I even wish he'd do some work with E2/E3 and maybe even some of Draft Excluder and release 'Return of the ConC.E.R.N.' or something of that sort. And if he needs some guidance, well there's a whole thread on Doomworld back from March for it. (Yes, I know this really belongs all on the Hadron review more but I couldn't wait.)

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    3. Also - I gave E1M2 a run and the progression was much smoother. Hopefully Chaingunner has got the message about the switches.

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