Thursday, August 23, 2018

Firetop Mountain (FTMTN_V2.ZIP)

by Glen "glenzinho" McColl

The Fighting Fantasy series of books were a British innovation from the two dudes that founded Games Workshop, primarily responsible for WarHams as well as my favorite tabletop game of all time, HeroQuest. The works were choose-your-own adventure books but they also folded in pen and paper RPG elements for a more interactive experience. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was the first of these volumes and it inspired a young glenzinho enough to make a single level for Doom II. The end product is a MAP01 replacement for GZDoom but it's a very big adventure with a monster count that swells as a result of scripted spawns.

The Warlock's name is Zagor and like all dead sorcerers tend to do he has brought himself back from the void to commit devilry. This time, though, he is in the employ of the nefarious demonkin of Doom. The maleficent magician's manse is mushrooming with monsters from Hell while the eponymous enemy himself has reincarnated into the now-warped shell of an arch-vile. It thus falls to you during your errantries of eradication to slay the Warlock and purify Firetop Mountain. Then, perhaps, you can move on to the year 2525 - if man is still alive - and give Richard Evans the good news.

Zagor isn't the star of the show, though. That would be the titular téton, looking more like a mesa sitting in the middle of the map. I love the smoothed sloping; it sets the landscape apart from the stepped appearance seen when trying to make naturalistic scenery in non-slope ports. It looks better at a distance but still holds up fairly well when close up. While the slopes are nice, there's no crazy room-over-room geometry and the level's interior walls remain vertically straight, just with inclined floors in the tunnels. Still, that's a leg up over flat-floored caverns and stone staircases. If I had to pick out one missed opportunity it would be Flattop Mountain. Not because it doesn't have a nice pointy peak. Rather, it resembles something like a volcanic caldera but the penultimate area - a large, magma-filled chamber - has a flat, closed ceiling.

The action can be easily divided into to portions. The first half of the level occurs in the wilderness surrounding Firetop and includes a river that comes from and goes to nowhere, several forests, hills, lakes, and incongruous plutons. The ground itself is essentially flat but has numerous gentle depressions that keep it from feeling completely stale compared to the mountain sitting in the center of the level. There are a ton of enemies spread out through the wildlands and while you won't find any neat vignettes as you explore - apart from the curious holdout point with the triangle flag - there are plenty of surprise encounters like an army of lost souls lurking beneath the surface of one particular body of water.

You can explore in whichever direction you want and in turn pick up supplies and weapons before embarking on your task at hand. Getting inside the mountain requires the red key and it's actually located on its exterior portion. It isn't entirely straightforward but that's less a case of getting lost and more a classic key grab fakeout. Just get used to the idea of mowing down hordes of demons and imps along with interjecting larger monsters like mancubuses and arachnotrons and remember where all the health and ammo you leave lying around is in case you need to return to it.

The interior of Firetop Mountain is classic dungeon crawler Doom composed of tight passages connecting larger chambers. There are plenty of monster closet surprises to keep you on your toes - some of them actual midtextured holes - alongside other traps and setpiece fights. The blue key ambush with its hefty number of ground floor opponents later accented by cacodemons is probably the closest thing you'll see to "modern" notions of difficulty and player pressure. And it looks pretty cool, too, with the cacodemons providing dynamic lights in the darkness! A more typical earlier encounter is some kind of dungeon fielding a ton of monsters. It plays out just like you'd expect though the mop-up arch-vile came as a surprise.

A lot of my underground fun was courtesy of glenzinho's various tricks and treats like the lengthy secret chain that nets you the BFG (and the Glenfiddich shrine) and the quarry / pit trap fight. The latter doesn't appear to serve any greater purpose in terms of progression but it's a fun little detour. I also appreciated the two different instances of finding secret passages under the surface of the lava. You absolutely have to take the first one since it leads to a switch that raises a platform in order for you to cross the lava river for the yellow key but the second one is purely for giggles. I also like that there's a brief return to the outside area where you can finally leap to reach the megasphere if you so desire. Just don't be surprised if the author throws down some monsters to spice up your return trip.

The final moments include Doom's biggest bads in sequence. All of them are pretty easy should you have managed to find one of the BFGs hidden throughout the level but the Cyberdemon / revenant battle might give you a bit more trouble considering the initial staging of the skeletons and the various blocks strewn about the room. The big bad is another incarnation of the Diabolist, a fire-wielding foe who cooks you as soon as he sees you. He also has a few other troublesome attacks that make squaring up a much more dangerous and attrition-heavy encounter compared to just zerging him down with the BFG.

One of the biggest treasures of this - for me - is glenzinho's original soundtrack, apparently composed back in 2002 and 2005. The opening garage-metal flourish sets the perfect tone for dwarfcore but the author switches tracks as soon as the level loads with a minimalist, even haunting synth score. It's almost spoiled by the cavalcade of roaming monsters on UV but ought to sound just right on HNTR or after you've bought yourself some silence. When you finally enter the mountain there's a track change to something similarly ethereal but with a stronger feeling of tension. Just what you need when you're skulking around a dark deathtrap dungeon. The garage metal that closes out the piece is pretty kickass for a finale; its rhythmic rather than melodic focus lets it slide ride into the background. You might not appreciate the sound quality but the lack of polish gives it a very authentic feel.

Firetop Mountain is a wicked cool adventure level from 2012 that manages to have its cake and eat it too by splitting the free exploration and dungeon crawl elements into the first and second halves of the map. It's always fun to play something that feels like it belongs to its own microcosm rather than the endless parade of techbase, city, and Hell levels. Perhaps you will find the strength to finally look up at Firetop Mountain.



  1. There's an Arcane Dimensions (Quake) map with the same name; any relation?

    1. I strongly doubt it. If I had to guess I would say that it may be referencing the same Fighting Fantasy book.

  2. Every time I look at that title screen I read it as "Warcock". I think I know what my next Doom mod is.

    1. I think the Bill Clinton mod already has you covered