Sunday, December 17, 2017

Ash to Ash (ASH2ASH.WAD)

by Vick "Virgil the Doom Poet" Bobkov

Virgil was one of many authors active during Doom's source port boom, starting out publishing stuff in 2000 but kicking off 2001, which dates the bulk of his material, with Ash to Ash. Later on he would contribute a level to Paul Corfiatis's 2002: A Doom Odyssey and worm his way into a Plutonia 2 map credit. ASH2ASH is a MAP01 replacement espousing the Plutonia theme for Boom-compatible source ports and plays decently in ZDoom with one major exception that didn't hurt my feelings. Suffice it to say, I'd already had my fill of grueling, Hellish ambushes and one broken slaughterfest came as quite a relief.

The story of ASH2ASH is more of a setting and takes place on an island floating in Hell boasting a derelict outpost, doubtless swallowed into unreality by one mishap or another. Virgil does not explain how the player comes to be there but I would assume it as happening anywhere during the adventures of Doomguy across the multiverse. Your only goal is to leave this particular misbegotten corner of Hell alive. Though the odds seem to be stacked against you, there's one ace up your sleeve: a durable environmental suit that will keep you safe from toxic sludge. Translation: no damage floors!

Ash to Ash is a marked improvement over Virgil's previous minisode, Dark Castle. It is still composed almost entirely of claustrophobic combat scenarios and incredibly grindy but the hordes, when they appear, are more manageable and the layout and architecture do a much better job of justifying its existence as a hybrid of incredibly close-quarters combat and cover shooter. The congestion is sure to drive some players crazy but the biggest obstacle to enjoying this level is Vick's skill in the art of the suckerpunch. I'm talking about surprise pop-up traps positioned to trigger when you're all but touching the monsters and the fiends are revenants, Hell knights, and other shock troopers, which are likely to take a huge chunk out of you before you either bring them down or retreat. Supposing the latter is even an option.

One of the elements that I enjoyed the most was the author's adoption of Boom-derived sorcery and other more vanilla tricks to bring the death trap to life. My favorite exchange was the sewer segment to the northwest. It has a floor grating (faux-ROR) standing above a network of toxic trenches; after progressing a bit you have to come back through the lower level of the troughs in waist-high muck. The deep water effect is used in several areas as well as palette effects. Combat in forded spaces is more awkward than anything but the effect is appreciated, particularly in the neat cheat where you plunge down a pipe and then drop into a runoff basin.

There's also a bit of a puzzle element hinging around the large, outdoor area to the northeast which also has a few visual bugs related to its features. The end goal is to snag the blue skull key which you'll do by working some machinery activated by a pair of large, conspicuous pressure plates. You can't get to both of them the first time you enter but once you've made your way through the rest of the northeastern annex you'll be able to fill the soul sphere cistern and claim your prize. I think that there was supposed to be some kind of an ambush but I appear to have broken it by playing this relatively old Boom level using ZDoom's compatibility settings. All the better for me, considering that the way Virgil plans his larger encounters leaves a lot to be desired.

Ash to Ash isn't very Plutonic as far as its gameplay or environmental design goes. The combat is far too cramped, sort of like an unravelled / expanded 1024 map on steroids. 1024 x 1024 levels don't have to be cramped by their nature but it's a difficult fate to escape with the given real estate and a desire by the designer to cram the longevity of a normally structured playing area into a considerably smaller compartment. Vick appears to be unconcerned with accommodating the kinetics of the player in the interior spaces, instead opting for a more authoritarian / cinematic experience. My favorite moments are where the narrow hallways give you just enough room to dodge revenants and Hell nobles, provided you drag them into the right locations.

It won't go down as one of my favorite levels but ASH2ASH is worth wading through, even if only from a technological standpoint. I suggest playing it on a lower difficulty level to avoid getting bogged down by the sheer amount of meat that the author has crammed into its nooks and crannies, especially if you hate fighting revenants in close quarters and awkward arch-vile placement.


No comments:

Post a Comment