Friday, September 22, 2017

Debut (DEBUT.WAD)


The works of Tony Sideris crop up on a lot of underrated PWAD lists. While his first release, Genesis, faded into relative obscurity, the followup episodes Debut and Post still get word of mouth accolades from classically-oriented players. What amazes me is that the author published all of these levels - a total of twenty-two - in 1996. It's too bad Tony didn't keep mapping into 1997; given where his skills were heading, he would have been a force to be reckoned with. Debut is a bit of a change-up, swapping from Doom II to make an episode for the original trilogy that takes the place of Knee Deep in the Dead.




Like Genesis, Debut lacks a story, but it has an inspiration of sorts. At first glance I assumed that Tony had just given his PWADs purposefully bland titles but as it turns out he was quite the Bjork fan at the time. It's more obvious with the plot of Post, but both it and Debut owe their titles and most of their map names to Bjork's albums and her work with The Sugarcubes. If that seems strange to you, well, it isn't to me; many of my pipe-dream PWADs are patterned after music releases. I'm not familiar with Bjork's output but my musical leanings tend to dig deep into artists as opposed to esoteric sampling. The one noticeable exception to the Bjork reference list is the finale, "Baronoid", which instead borrows from Black Sabbath.


Everything I see in this episode is also evident in one form or another in Genesis, but where these interesting points seemed like flashes or brilliance they become the crux of your journey through Tony's wonderlands. Genesis felt like relatively banal Doom II levels using 1993 beasties for the majority of the encounters and focused almost entirely on shotgun play. The architecture was okay but the most interesting features were tiered playing areas (including stairs) and Sideris appeared to have a predilection toward the John W. Anderson school of sector lighting / lightcasting.


Debut abandons any pretense of Doom II's gameplay by staying within the confines of a Doom episode. There appears to be some sort of cacodemon / Baron quota but the monster placement rarely feels threatening with one major exception. Tony's maps are balanced for pistol start but only because the former human sergeant is such an ubiquitous enemy; all armaments besides the shotgun appear once and then become strictly continuous play weapons. Carrying a rocket launcher will make those Baron fights go by much faster since the author provides plenty of rockets, especially for the finale. E1M8 has no available projectile ranged weapons but Sideris was conscious (perhaps) enough to provide a Berserk pack which makes for an awkward but manageable battle as long as you're reasonably experienced in Tyson play.


Visually, Debut is a paradigm shift, abandoning the boxy layouts of Genesis for something more... organic. And featuring tons of interesting stair work. It's definitely rooted in the abstract with a texture theme that evokes no particular location, featuring a healthy mixture of Phobos STARTAN and green juxtaposed with wood and metal and Doom II's southwestern wallpaper. When tech stuff does appear it bears little resemblance to actual human / machine interfaces and looks more like catacombs and other pieces of functional architecture cobbled together out of computer panels and banks; technology temples, if you will. It's an interesting approach, reminding me of the mad science experiments found throughout mapsets using Doom's alpha textures.


I love Tony's work with stairs. It has a real world sensibility; the original Doom's levels are encapsulated within a void and can be adjusted to promote the ease at which a player flows through the map. The staircase assemblage in the western portion of E1M2 feels more like an elegant if awkward way of providing the player access to multiple tiers of play in a relatively tight area without using elevators or lifts and while moving through it is less than straightforward it's not the sort of showstopper that stops the levels dead in their tracks. It also makes the larger areas quite visually appealing, less like courtyards with windowdressing.


Debut's other great success is in showing off the author's development in lightcasting a la Dr. Sleep. Genesis was more easily traceable to Anderson's work in its use of tiny recesses to cast hall lights, rarely considering corners or other bits of level geometry. Debut kicks it up another notch with the generation of shadows making for some great-looking visuals, even taking care to make sure that monster closets yet to be revealed are properly lit for when the walls tumble down. Just check out the final major room in "Cover Me" or the opening marble promenade in "Army of Me", great examples of Tony's work with lighting.


Any quibbles? Well, nothing out of the ordinary. Debut is a pretty safe play difficulty-wise, even if you're playing from pistol start (excepting E1M8) and "challenge mode" is more of a shotgun grind than anything. Also, for someone who did a lot of work doing lightcasting from tiny recessed wall lamps, texture alignment around said lights leaves a bit to be desired. You'll have to slow down to notice it, though. Some players may be turned off by Tony's use of symmetry in the level layouts but it doesn't characterize entire levels. Major portions, perhaps, a la E1M6 and E1M7, and even then it's not the sort of thing where different rooms and fights are copied.


That's pretty petty nit-picking, though, because Debut is a very cool episode well worth your time especially since it doesn't really resemble any existing Doom theme. I think the closest it could lay claim to would be E4, but it's lacking the brilliant orange sky for contrast, not that I mind Tony's brown anomalous haze. In any case, if you're looking for new Doom maps and haven't yet played these ones, now is as good a time as any.





DEBUT
by Tony Sideris

Former Human BehaviorE1M1
Sideris plies a strange theme with the borrowed Doom II textures, evoking some sort of corporate wasteland comprised of nukage, tech, and wallpaper. It's immediately more interesting than the core of Genesis, featuring neat areas like the central pillared courtyard and the stairway jumbles to its north and southeast. I enjoy the sewer section and its barred interstitial island sitting between the entryway and the eastern tech shore that just sort of rises up and up to the blue key, more like temple ruins than a moonbase. The combat is very forgiving since the two cacodemons are caged away from the player and the rest of the monsters are mostly zombies and imps. Still, there are a few places where hitscanners can get a potshot or two at you.

E1M2Crying
A largely outdoor experience composed of brick, metal, and vines. This level has two major motifs. First, there are a ton of stairs used in a way that I haven't seen before in Doom WADs. I mean, we saw some in "Behavior", but the way it's expanded on here feels similar to real-world architectural wizardry. Something like the elaborate staircases connecting tiered walkways on either side of actual buildings. "Crying" is also loaded with cages, hemming up monsters in sniper perches or isolating portions of the actual level's differing tiers. Very neat stuff when taken together. The erupting staircase to the east leading to the naturalistic cavern boasting inset lights is a neat leg of the journey. The combat keeps things at a constant but gentle pace, focusing on shotgun action. No real standout fights, though the imps rising into the cages on the walkway approaching the exit make up a nice little moment.

Theres More to Life...E1M3
The big gimmick has Tony dividing the level into four major sections joined together by teleporter pads. There's no confusion since each vignette will be visited in the same order. I'm not sure if the difficulty is a huge step up in this one or if I just blew too much health figuring out the nature of the grates at the opening of the northeast area  (damage floors). The monster placement isn't at all rough, with the author using a couple of Barons as solo minibosses and one bit where you have to tackle two cacodemons at the same time in the more tech-oriented northeast section. As always, the big open area to the east spanning from dizzying heights to stinky sewers is a treat. I like the squat step pyramid that leads you on your jaunt and the secret exit is classic misdirection.

E1M9Coldsweat
A few bits of subverted symmetry in this nukage base. The southern annex leading to the two barons appears to be a largely optional segment; the mystery of the blue key lies in "everything is elevator!" syndrome. If you skip it, though, you'll miss out on all of the shareware weapons. Supposing you don't pass by it your first time or lock yourself out trying to get back up. The slow lift that joins the upper leg of the starting room is a bit too clumsy when I've seen so many faux-3D bridges. The northern area is much more appealing for its swamped-in-nukage feel and imp shooting gallery and features a classic TiC zombie slaughter moment in the northernmost leg made less banal by the colonnades that they have to filter through.

Big Time BrutalityE1M4
Big, open areas featuring grand staircases - many of them paired and curved - as well as a couple of sewers requiring you to drop down into and then navigate. The micro-mazes offer a nice dynamic since the blocking grating isn't revealed on the automap and they're a neat contrast with the more open-air sections, the scenes of sniper-fed crossfire. The Baron showdown appears yet again for the final section where the author takes a sneaky stab at the player in how he has hidden the red key. The fight is fairly decent since the shape of the yard and its eroded space makes for potential maneuvering issues but the main challenge is not slipping up while you slowly whittle both down using the shotgun. Supposing you didn't bring a rocket launcher from a previous level, anyway.

E1M5Violently Happy
A more understated map leaning heavily on corridors liberally painted with lightcasting. The combat is very easygoing, featuring a few solo grinds vs. barons and cacodemons. The more remarkable aspects are things like the blue key, where years of experience have taught me to look in every location but that of the actual switch, and an apparently empty toxic annex housing quite an ammo cache. I also like the shootable wall that displays BATTLE DAMAGE in the northwestern section.

Army of MeE1M6
A blazing fun level. The main series of rooms running from south to north are bisymmetric but the nexus chamber look so freakin' good and the toxic platform room to the west is very different if slightly smacking of "Coldsweat" and fun with copious imp blasting and a Baron of Hell fake-out that leads to a mildly tense key shootout. The demon cages and zombie forces of the eastern section aren't nearly as exciting but I still dig the computer-temple aesthetic of the southern point. The plasma gun plus some rockets appear very late as a secret bonus for carryover players.

E1M7Cover Me
To the northeast, a marble and stone fortress. Heading south and around in a "U"-shaped arc, a brilliantly-lit gauntlet of wood and metal. "Cover" is basically as straightforward as the previous levels in its near-total linearity and in some fashions even easier since there's only one Baron to fight during the whole thing and he's found in a relatively open area. Where it excels is as a showcase of Tony's lightcasting and making areas look neat with staircases like the caged procession that makes up the elbow of the U. Not quite the build-up I was hoping for, but a nice adventure all the same.

BaronoidE1M8
If you've been playing continuously with rocket launcher in hand, this will be a piece of cake. If not, you'll be forced to Berserk punch a handful of Barons in awkward situations, escalating gameplay to full-on challenge mode. Some of the goat men must be revealed through switch play and it's to your advantage to deal with these one at a time. I like that it's not just a Baron arena allowing you to exploit a couple of cacodemons to make the punch job a lot easier.

YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN NOW
WE WON'T SAVE YOU
YOUR RESCUE SQUAD
IS TOO EXHAUSTED

2 comments:

  1. Wow! This wad actually one of the first wads I played in my first days of doom during the 90's.
    I never though someone would actually remember it.
    Thanks for the review, bro.

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    Replies
    1. You are most welcome! Debut and Post frequently make the infrequent underrated / best-of-not-cacoward lists, so they're preserved in word-of-mouth at the very least.

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