Sunday, March 19, 2017

Temple of the Ancients (TEMPLE2.WAD)

In some ways, Temple of the Ancients is the sort of project Rex has been leaning toward since he began his authorial career. While he may have tested his levels in ZDoom, they weren't really specific to it until he started to embrace jumping in Military Research Complex. Phoenix Rising saw him play with the idea of if not the actual mechanics of a Hub arrangement and Paranoia involved the incorporation of scripted events to push the gameplay slightly beyond the tried and true limits of Doom. TEMPLE2 then takes both of these elements and welds them together for a dashing adventure, released in 2000. While Temple of the Ancients is another five-level mapset, it sits in map slots 10-14 instead of the MAP02-MAP06 block that Phoenix Rising and Paranoia had. This is the one time I can't really guess at why it's structured as such since Claussen has used the MAPINFO lump to set skies and music.

The plot is kind of reminiscent of Stargate, with archaeologists finding an "alien artifact" while digging in the Black Hills (in South Dakota, and from personal experience a very nice place to visit) for... dinosaur fossils. No, Rex! Paleontologists dig for petrified specimens! Archaeologists look for anthropological remains! I suppose the stratum being at least 65 million years old is why the turf-trespassing archaeologists felt comfortable calling the ruins alien. Anyway, the governments of the world got involved and as they learned things about the structure they discovered gateways capable of sending people... somewhere. A number of the test subjects didn't return but the ones who did tended to come back as primal murder machines.

Eventually they figured out a way to... reinforce the genetic structure of the travelers to prevent the mutations caused by the gateways, only to find that the three gates led to a corresponding location thousands of miles away in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Of course, the fancy-pants archaeologists finally got their comeuppance for dabbling in dino digs when all sites connected to the alien ruins and teleporters were invaded by ELFs (Extra-terrestrial Life Forms). The international task force contained the threat to the Command Center and terminated the links, forgetting of course the earthly nature of other three sites, but they become another team of casualties. That's where the specialist comes in. And, uh, you're not actually the super soldier, you're just a trainee playing through a holo-recording simulation of the mission. Ooooookay.

Each one Rex's 2000 (and 2001) releases was themed around resources from other, arguably more modern First Person Shooters. After Hexen II, Quake II, and Half-Life, Claussen decided to experiment with a slightly more recent game. As a result, TEMPLE2 features a lot of Quake III Arena's textures (plus some of both Q2 and the original) as well as derivative sprites from Quake II's weapons. The Q3 stuff is new to me and while I'm not entirely sure  of them gelling when intermixed with the Doom II textures I can't deny that they add a certain... flourish to the mapset's presentation. One of the neat tricks involves layering midtextures to create the appearance of curved surfaces, like grates and arches, though it won't hold up to careful scrutiny.

Temple of the Ancients is a decent example of a hub setup. Like fellow 2000 hub Hell Factory, the levels are pretty short. Thankfully there isn't a lot of gophering between maps, the main exception being traveling to the outer grounds of the temple itself (MAP14) only to pick up a key - or two - and return to the hub, MAP10, plus a short trip back to "Power Plant" (MAP11) in order for you to turn on the jump pads. I don't mind that the levels don't feel inextricably intertwined; when Doom plays so fast they have to be pretty beefy for the separation to not feel arbitrary. The jump pads thing feels like a missed opportunity but it's clear that the scope of this release is pretty small. There are only two instances of jump pads in the game, one to break into the inner recesses of MAP14 and a series of three used in slaying the boss. I was hoping for something a little more Metroid-vania-ish but, like I said before, the scale of this project would have to be a lot larger for such design conceits to truly work.

Your weapon progression is pretty much tied to the keys you've picked up. The opening level has an armory with goodies in it and each display triggers a mild ambush when unlocked. You can be fully kitted out (minus the BFG) before moving on to the intermediate maps - "Krakatoa" and "Valhalla" - which may tempt you to blow all that plasma gun ammo on Rex's usual complement of thick beasties. I'd save it for the bosses, though. They're nothing unusual but the PG will make the Spiderdemon fight so much simpler and save you some time on the awkward Cyberdemon roundabout.

The off-center Quake II stuff isn't horrible but the weapons lack punch and character. There are a couple of exceptions. Making Quake's uber Thunderbolt the reskinned chainsaw feels dirty considering how much stroke the original had but I can see that there wasn't really anything in the Quake II kit to thematically fulfill a chainsaw function. The other thing is the "kickback" from the regular shotgun that you'll use for much of the first two levels and which takes up like 70% of the middle of the screen. It's really fuckin' annoying especially when fighting monsters like Hell knights in enclosed quarters since seeing the monster start to attack is so integral to knowing when to dodge. Thank goodness you can grab a semi-secret chaingun early on in MAP02 and the rest after a short stopover in the Temple proper.

The other detail - more bemusing than anything - is Claussen's penchant for picking out parts of his previous PWAD presents. "Command Center", "Power Plant", and "Krakatoa" are relatively original to my eyes but "Valhalla" borrows the shooter gimmick featured in Phoenix Rising's MAP05, the secret graveyard of A Hex On You's MAP02, backlit cross window wall from MAP03 of the same, and the ubiquitous spiral staircase with a secret chamber that I've seen in every major Rex release since it first appeared in Military Research Complex (discounting Arena). I'm glad that Rex decided to borrow the more intriguing aspects of his previous level design but it's becoming a bit much, completing the HEX_ON_U grand slam by cramming the southern tip of "The Ramparts" into the southeast corner of MAP14. I hope "Valhalla" is his way of interring this recurring resurrection... but I see having peeked ahead that the spiral stairway's iron hold even extends into The Darkest Hour.

When it's on, though, it's pretty cool. The computer logs in "Command Center" are a nice little feature and I like the opening segment of power plant and the way it sort of moves toward raising the water level so you can swim - literally - across the channel to where the imps have been teasing you. "Krakatoa" has a decent complement of gimmick fights and while "Valhalla" is overwhelmingly banal in its cannibalization and symmetry it's got a nice atmosphere and a few fun encounters. "Temple" suffers from a bit of the same but the stuff that isn't tied up in the level's elbow is cool enough. The whole hub uses a few instances of stealth monsters, especially in "Valhalla", but one of the real nasties - a sneaky skeleton - is stuck in a secret.

If you haven't been methodically playing through Rex's back catalogue then I doubt whether the biggest criticisms will leap out at you. In some ways I prefer it to its comrade in arms, Hell Factory, because of it feeling more like a hub with spokes and less resembling a dense network of smaller levels, interconnected and made confusing by being diced up to form separate sections of a hub. Word on the street is that Rex is updating Temple of the Ancients, adding five more maps and straightening out some of the tricks into actual 3D geometry among other things. Until then you can investigate the legends of this hidden temple.

by Rex Claussen

Command CenterMAP10
Mild action vs. typical Doom trash monsters made a bit tricky due to low lighting and a couple of networks of hallways built to allow something to get the drop on you. The logs are a decent way to build the world but the multitude of key doors lay out your goal along with the color-coded armory locks that will afford you goodies from here on out.

1st Return: Back via the natural Power Plant loop. The blue key armory goodies come with some mediocre spawn ambushes. Lots of chaingun ammo and a chainsaw cruelly resembling Quake's Thunderbolt.

2nd Return: Both keys in hand, it's time to clear out the rest of the armory, which will leave you completely kitted out. The RL and PG ambushes are pretty stronk, but small groups of Hell knights and revenants are no match for even the super shotgun.

MAP11Power Plant
Throwing on the heavy action with more imps, zombies, and an invasion by some toughs toward the end - a revenant and a few Hell knights. Now that the stakes are higher you'll start to hate the shit out of the shotgun's kick since it tends to block your view of the monster you're looking at. The action itself is pretty good with a secret chaingun pickup if you can goat your way up to the commando that drops it and there's a cool bit where you have to flood a sluice in order to get to the other side. Swinging around the periphery of the reactor and activating its four switches is this level's nadir. Because it didn't immediately impress upon me, the "antidote" is actually a Berserk pack located in a crate in the upper storage area.

2nd Visit: Yellow key in hand, it's time to access that one locked room in the antidote yard. The opposition is laughable, especially having grabbed all the gear in the armory, but I guess the first Baron appearance is notable.

I decided to take this portal since I grabbed the yellow key first. It starts out with a spooky cemetery feel, the opening arrangement being cribbed from the secret graveyard of A Hex On You's MAP02. This level also includes the ubiquitous spiral staircase sporting a secret sphere chamber seen in four other Claussen projects, the backlit cross silhouettes from HEX_ON_U's MAP03, and the main boss fight mechanic featured in PHOENIX's MAP05, minus the whole platform leaping thing. Is this the mythical "Valhalla" where Rex lays his favorite level segments to rest? Besides the uncanny familiarity it's also mostly symmetric, the main exceptions being the room south of the outdoor pool and the aforementioned circular staircase. As a result it feels pretty dull but the crypt area showcasing the arachnotrons manages to be a decent fight. The main monster gimmick is the lovely "Stealth" property, so have fun with that.

I went here rather than use the red skull key, which was a good idea. "Krakatoa" is a pretty novel level, a volcanic alpine valley plus an adjoined temple that starts out with scattered imps who also figure in the level's western battle. The main approach's surprise attack for those seeking ammo is pretty good as far as it forces you to really use jumping for your maneuvering. Some might find distaste in the eastern platforming bit; just be glad it isn't the superdeath Quake / Q2 lava. The Cyberdemon fight isn't exactly hard but if you're not aware you might take a swim in the cinders since circle strafing on a set track is a bit tougher. Not exactly a thriller but interesting all the same.

MAP14Temple of the Ancients
A very short first stop where you can pick up both the yellow and red keycards, only having to fight a couple of revenants. The initial look at the temple is pretty cool but making a trip this short makes me feel more like a gopher than anything.

2nd Visit: I came back to see what the jump pad led to but it's just a door that requires a red skull key. Oh well!

3rd Visit: Glad I didn't come back until I had both skeleton keys. The interior of the temple is a couple of huge, boxy rooms with an annex that's ripped from the southern portion of of HEX_ON_U MAP01, the only change being the specter ambush becoming stealth demons. There's a big fight in the yard before the inner sanctum but the only real threat is in the arachnotrons. The finale is a multi-part boss shooter; the main obstacle is in using the low-grav jump pads to get to shootable switches for three different pillars. I don't think that the monsters will give you too much trouble but you never know.


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