Monday, September 24, 2018

Inferno (INF-LUTZ.WAD)

I was actually much more familiar with Chris Lutz's Heretic levels than the stuff that made him a legend in the Doom community which is interesting to me since they now represent a whopping 6% of his career. Reclamation and Torture stand right before a veritable winning streak of Caverns of Darkness, Phobos: Anomaly Reborn, The Dying End, and Icebound. Of course, I don't mean to downplay his contributions to 10 Sectors, Doom the Way id Did, and No End in Sight, not to forget the (as of this writing) recently published Hellscape and Dark Tide. The craftsman is a hitmaker and it all started with this Episode 3 replacement released in 1998, the imaginatively-titled Inferno.

INF-LUTZ does not have a given story so you're free to consider it as taking place wherever or whenever you like. It could be an extension of Doomguy's journey through Hell during the original Doom or part of his Infinity Crusade. It's tempting, though, to interpret it as a re-imagining of the original Inferno because of its subtle narrative of the marriage between the demons and the technology that they "acquired" from the UAC. This would explain the origin of the Cyberdemon and paves the way for the Mastermind reveal, not to mention the other hybrid enemies appearing in Doom II.

The big draw to Lutz's work appears to be his aesthetic eye and his debut shows his talent right out of the gate. In fact, it's the sole emphasis of the opening level, which **SPOILER** only has one lost soul for you to actually fight with the rest of them - the only other monsters - appearing as window dressing. The author tries to differentiate it from a viewing gallery by blanking the automap so that you have to build your own mental model and it's easy to avoid a large portion of it. Unfortunately, this is one case where the untitled stock music track undermines the potentially haunting atmosphere. It's still really cool but feels more like touring a zoo except instead of animals it's detailing.

Interesting architecture abounds but Lutz's favorite aspect of Inferno is his use of special effects which he was kind enough to document in the .TXT. The biggest cheats all occur in the later levels - E3M6, E3M9, and E3M7 - including now-familiar stuff like ROR bridges and deep water being used to obscure monsters. The more exotic items consist of blastable walls, which aren't the most reliable bit of vanilla "scripting", and linedef abuse with a spiral staircase that actually completes a 520 degree rotation... which is neat as long as you don't fall inside one of its bottom steps. Complex sector machinery allows for other cool things like an exploding power core as well as a number of imposing reinforced vault-style doors.

Lutz has a pretty good hand on combat. Sometimes the pistol starts ride you for awhile but you'll never suffer for the length of the map. It's still the original Doom so you can only push so far but Chris strikes a pretty healthy balance between sheer claustrophobia, hitscanner heartache, overwhelming hordes, and player exposure. He manages to eke out some interesting combat setups. My favorites include the demon-haunted colonnade in E3M2, the imp-harried catwalk at the beginning of E3M3, and the sheer meat lurking in E3M4's throne room. I would expect much of the difficulty to come from the occasionally spartan item placement, ubiquitous shotgun guys, and good old congestion.

I'm no expert on 1998 but Inferno easily stands alongside the ten picks from Doomworld's Top Ten WADs of the same year. I think that it's a must play, particularly for fans of the original Doom and especially Hell-themed maps. Even more so if you've always craved a greater level of detail in your adventures. I'm definitely interested in seeing how the rest of Lutz's better-known works pan out. Hopefully you'll take some time out to enjoy this evergreen contender of underrated PWAD lists.

by Christopher Lutz

This is a series of fantastic setpieces set in a derelict labyrinth of caves in Hell. It's supposed to be atmospheric but it's undermined by the default backing track. Some of my favorite details involve using lost souls as decorations; I especially like the graves. I suppose that it's easy to get confused since the entire automap is obscured but you're not under any real threat unless you purposefully go swimming in the blood. I managed to stumble upon the exit while missing out on the southeastern and western legs of the level.

A marble fortress featuring a piping nightmare checkpoint toward the end that speaks of the beginning of an unholy fusion with science. My favorite feature is an entirely optional leg that leads to a massive underground chamber containing a blood canal traced by a colonnade. I also enjoyed the leap of faith you have to make in order to reach the final area. The combat is pretty Doom-ish and while many of the rooms are fairly expansive it's still easy to get overrun by demons or surprised by the occasional specter. The yellow key room is my favorite, I think, but there's a lot to like here.

Deeper into the green marble theme but with wood and metal sections, giving this more of an E4 feel. It's all underground. I really enjoyed the opening winding catwalk segment among all the caged imp windows. Lutz does not include a chaingun nor a plasma gun so the combat gets a little hairy at times. It's also a really dense and interconnected map with tons of side passages and secret tunnels so if you try to sprint ahead to find some ammo or a better gun then you might get a little lost. There are both a berserk pack and a chainsaw, perfect for getting some leverage over the numerous imps and demons. The yellow key shrine room is a nice echo of the theming from E3M2's optional area.

A wretched, stinking palace that somewhat resembles "The Citadel" from Doom II. It's an enormous level and the lengthy perimeter sports quite a few demons beside the occasional imp balcony. There are three distinct segments to the compound; the blue key annex is geographically isolated by the water-filled moat. Most of the action is found to the west. It has the density of the previous level's passages and rooms but a better sense of place since it's encased within the ubiquitous marble walls. The author does afford the player every weapon which is nice since you'll find plenty of use for the plasma gun with all the cacodemons and the rocket launcher is indispensable for the numerous barons including the big showdown in the throne room at the heart of the first wing. I really enjoyed the catwalk segment in the blue fortress and the granite tunnel toward the end was a cool instance of corridor clearing. Best part - a big DoomCute sector face.

A massive, underground adventure in Hell's infernal vacuoles. The major spaces of the level are bordered by darkened red caverns but feature platforms on which the action occurs a la Doom II's "Gotcha!". It's just on a more intimate, linear scale. There are a lot of cool visuals like column-bound pathways and twisted islands, not to forget the great hall that eventually opens up into the exit. The combat trades on player exposure and claustrophobia given your available movement space but it isn't that hard what with the multiple berserk packs. An awesome journey.

Doomguy gets to come up for some relatively fresh air and is treated to a succinct adventure. Except, well, this is Lutz's most complex layout yet with its various pathways twisting through the level like a big pretzel. Navigation is made more complex by use of gated passages, sawtooth drops, and oodles of imps which call the surface caverns home. As always there are great setpieces but the author attempts to up the special effects game with some faux-ROR bridges and an "exploding" wall. The latter is a neat moment since it's the only way to bypass the sealed shrine doors, ultimately leading to the yellow key. The brown overworld and blood rivers are a nice, different aesthetic from the typical granite look and I really enjoyed the little cemetery and chapel that serve as the climax.

A big, linear adventure map featuring some more obvious pairings of Hell and tech. Lutz plays with light and shadow in the interior segments but also sends you to spend some time in the great outdoors. A few of the more open areas aren't quite as convincing since the surrounding terrain is featureless and flat but there are a ton of great special effects to pump up the visuals. The bridges always neat but I love the light-up staircase that kicks the whole thing off, the complex machinery doors, and the end-of-level power core which convincingly both blows up and leaves scattered debris. As an adventure map it absolutely succeeds in giving the player something interesting to see every step of the way. I wish that the easily-missed rocket launcher had showed up a little earlier or at least a chaingun but the threat is rarely so immediate that you absolutely need the firepower. It just makes some of the setups feel more grindy than necessary. A gorgeous gauntlet.

This time Lutz completely pursues the marriage of science and sorcery. Sort of a high-def "Spawning Vats" for the third episode. The outdoor fortress facade looks like a typical marble castle adventure but the interior more resembles a mad scientist's laboratory with cacodemon-resurrecting vats; a stasis room / menagerie; and other, less discernible implements. The ammo balance is about as tight as you can get without being excruciating; hopefully you don't miss too many shots. Not blowing ammo on the monsters you can just avoid will certainly help. I think that the cacodemons are the true stars of this level. They feature in four different rooms and aren't confined to small spaces, unlike the wall-of-flesh-Barons. As far as tricksy eye-candy goes, the 560 degree spiral staircase pretty cool.

Thematically this plays like an echo of the earlier E3M3, just focusing entirely on marble and blood. There isn't a lot of crazy machinery or really any tricks apart from a neat little narrative in the northeastern portion of the level where you use a strange device to pump blood into a pit. Ammo is a little tight to start out with but I'd be more concerned about attrition due to damage floors. You'll never kill all of the monsters, anyway; ten of them are Cyberdemons in a not-quite-death trap at the very end. Lutz does have a few cool megastructures. I'm fond of the weird marble / blood fountain structure to the west that you have to cautiously descend down and I already mentioned the sanguine station to the east, my favorite sequence. It's underwhelming as a finale when compared to all of the previous levels but still pretty cool in the grand scheme of Inferno-flavored iterations.