Saturday, November 24, 2018

dead.air (DEAD-AIR.PK3)

by Xaser Acheron

In 2015, Tormentor667 hosted the Doomjá-vu competition where authors attempted to take a generalized layout of E1M7 and then twist it to their own desires. This was where Xaser produced dead.wire, a creepy level that was swamped with static and leveraged textures from Chasm: The Rift. dead.air's roots are ultimately buried in a dump of assets made by then-RNG breadbug now-breadguyfly. He submitted to another competition, this one hosted by Joel of Vinesauce. Both works interestingly ultimately took 2nd place in their respective events. The very basics remain the same, too, since this is also a MAP01 replacement for Doom II to be played in GZDoom. If it sounds like there are a lot of similarities then let me assure you that they're largely superficial.

The story may sound familiar if you've played XA-DWIRE because the premise is essentially the same but the subject matter - or, rather, the setting - is a bit different. You are a technician who's been sent to investigate an issue that has the UAC's news network on the fritz. The station was subject to some unusual signal interference, prompting the organization to shut it down until a highly-skilled engineer can take a look at it and work all of the bugs out. I imagine that they were less than forthcoming about the true nature of the corrupted transmissions, though, leaving you unprepared for your subsequent surreal experience.

dead.air is a very different beast from its predecessor as far as its gameplay goes. Both have some sort of mundane made cosmic horror theme going on but XA-DWIRE's atmosphere is more intimate, heightening the tension. Most of the suspense and mystery here is relegated to the opening, which also repeats the element of difficult-to-see enemies composed of static as you travel down mostly featureless, pale corridors. It's an interesting beginning and also brings to forefront one of the work's major motifs. Each hallways is accented by a color but the typical yellow has been replaced by green. When placed alongside the incumbent red and blue it reflects the RGB color model that is typical of video displays.

Two of the links are "broken" but the third when followed appears to exit through a screen into an alleyway (a very cool touch) where the meat of the level begins. At this point Xaser turns toward keeping the player off-balance through combat scenarios as opposed to the sort of slowly-revealing reality and deliberate deception that dominated dead.wire. The alleyway is a tiny corner of a treacherous cityscape and features monsters on every ledge as well as veritable hordes lurking around corners. This sort of prepares you for the quality of the following scenarios but it resets the tone more than anything else.

The style of combat is slaughter with a tactical element but the feel is a bit different in that most of its monsters - the main exception being the revenant (renamed to "thrall") - are derivations of their Doom counterparts. The imp and demon analogues are the most familiar but the former has a distinctly different look sans spikes and plus a long, curved beak (hence "birdman") that brings to mind the plague doctor masks of the Black Death. You'll battle two varieties, one of which is basically the same. The other feels similar to the super imps from S.T.R.A.I.N. in its rapid volleys of fireballs and is recognizable for its absent eyes. The new demon meanwhile has NO openings on its face whatsoever, making for an unsettling contrast.

The focus on optics becomes even stronger as the cacodemon replacement is introduced. The Gazer's exaggerated rictus looks eerie when combined with its singular, wide-open eye and the fact that its fast, slightly-homing projectile is the same eyeball seen pierced in spikes elsewhere in the level. The motif reminds me of Unhinged which features both things of an ocular nature as well as monsters created from webcam shots who come off as voyeurs intruding into our dimension. dead.air's conclusion is draped in just as much mystery as its opening so there is no immediately clear relation between the emphasis on orbitals and television concepts beyond the latter's function as a visual medium.

dead.wire came with a new complement of weapons and its spiritual sequel is no different. Where the former had some semblance of familiarity by keeping the regular shotgun, though, each of these armaments is unfamiliar and it all begins what is essentially a revamped pistol, though it occupies the first slot. The Ion Blaster fires fast projectiles that work fairly well against the base monsters and can be upgraded by finding modules secreted around the level. It never supersedes the utility of the rest of your arsenal but it's a decent weapon and consumes no ammo. Once things get underway, though, you won't be in much danger of running out of munitions and even if you do then you're probably screwed because the key scenarios are essentially tailored to their featured weapons.

The second and third slots are found relatively early on while tooling around in the city section. You'll probably get some isolated use out of them in the challenge segments, too, but they're mainly urban assault armaments. The machinegun sits number two and is a considerably faster-firing chaingun. It's the one hitscan weapon you have so if you absolutely positively need to instantly hit a target then it does a good job in skirmishing. The shrapnel cannon occupies the third and pierces through monsters, which is good, but is quirky to use because its projectiles have a definite arc. You will need to turn off autoaim and use freelook if you want to hit anything from a relative distance.

Getting used to this early on is a must because your rockets have been replaced by a grenade launcher whose projectiles are also subject to gravity on top of being pretty small and easy to miss while you're in the heat of battle, causing you to cook yourself as you dodge around. Its arena uses both circles and the color green and plays to the weapon's strengths through deploying monsters in hordes and having a lot of vertical height variation so that you can shell enemies from near or afar. It's not easy, though, since Xaser has stationed revenant towers at several places that make lingering a losing proposition.

The blue chamber will likely be the least interesting for many players because it is something of a maze whose contents are revealed in chunks composed of squares as you explore. The chaingun replacement is the heavy nailgun and it's well-suited to clearing out the resulting long hallways crammed full of enemies. It even has some stroke when it comes to taking out single targets like revenants and the gazers. The most interesting thing about the setting - I believe that it unravels in different ways depending on the route you choose, ultimately ending with every cell opened up.

The red domain has my favorite setup. It's composed of overlapping triangular trackways and starts out swamped with birdmen. The plasma gun replacement is called the Fusion Mortar and it reminds me of The Sky May Be's rocket launcher. Its projectiles, like the shrapnel and nails, passes through monsters but it does area of effect damage as it travels. This makes it a prime candidate for wiping out large swaths of monsters, especially when they're forced to line up as is the case in the red zone. It's much harder to clear than it sounds, though, since you're exposed to so many birdmen fireballs and Gazers are pumped in with the start of the second phase. It's quite a dynamic scenario.

You can pick any colour you like but you have to tackle all three key wings before you can progress to the finale. It's a big, circular arena that kind of reminds me of Ancient Aliens's MAP29 except "The Ones Behind It All" expanded outward. Here the entire circumference is available and Xaser reveals baddies by lowering the inner ring platforms in a centrally-oriented pattern. It's a cool setting with the RGB theme and it's even better since you're gifted the Antimatter Driver, a God-tier engine of destruction. When its projectile hits it causes a cloud of explosions that emanate outward from the point of impact. It easily chews through everything up to and including the homing missile-launching dual-rocket-armed Cyberdemon replacements called Grafters. The big thing you have to watch out for is its significant kickback, which will fuck up the circle strafe to victory strategy if you're not not thinking about it.

I can't relate the prominent RGB color scheme to the overall story but it's definitely there and the X-Man is fully committed. While you see it in the opening hallway that reads like three different cables, only one of which is completely connected to the warped city (green), it gets pushed into the background aside from the sneakily-tinted bricks where you begin until you make it to the NNN complex. When you finally have the trio of keys the exit brings you to an immense void where the three different colors cascade into a starry firmament opposite the endgame arena. Each wave, when completed, obliterates one of the letters from the central logo - R, B, and then G - with the last one causing all of the outlines to turn white while you yourself become static.

Given that the tile floor in the control room is the same pattern as the creepy opening area I feel like the implied story has you, the repair tech, make it to the equipment hub prior to the beginning of the map. There you were in the process of attempting to fix things when the paranormally-commandeered station went back on air and suck you into its mindbending alternate reality. From the few marine corpses seen as you play trough the level it appears as though the UAC had some sort of confrontation with the signal intruders. Substantial enough to assume that they had triumphed if they were sending one person in to "debug" the secured equipment. I assume that the Ded Things merely played possum until your arrival. I'm not sure about the ending sequence but I doubt whether it bodes well for Joel Dedguy...

In comparison to its predecessor, dead.air feels more mundane in several aspects. Static space was one Hell of a novelty. The RGB scheme is distinguished by the consistency of its execution since we've been spoiled by so many wonderlands using colors both exotic and not. For instance, Void and Rainbow from the same Cacoward season! It also feels less complex in its layout insofar as its apparent use of true room-over-room geometry is limited to the breezeways to the color colosseums, the walkway to the first green room platform, and the overlapping triangles. Being mired in slaughter combat also makes it feel a little one-dimensional considering how early the hordes are thrown at you.

It's all complementary, though. You wouldn't necessarily want crazy platforming and atmospheric investigation broken up by insane bodycount firefights ("God Machine" notwithstanding) and the weapon set is designed for crowd control. Xaser still has some cool effects up his sleeve, few as though they may be. I really like the rotating NNN network hologram in the hub and the color flashes during the finale are a nice touch that I didn't notice the significance of my first time through. My favorite, though, is the sequence that occurs after you flip the final switch. Freakin' awesome. dead.air also has a new game plus mode that starts the level over beginning in the alleyway with the loadout from the end of the previous playthrough. Take vengeance upon your foes and actually level the town while using the Antimatter Driver like its pickup message tells you.

The atmosphere of dead.air is sinister but the focus on combat in droves pushes it and Xaser's excellent soundtrack toward the background. It's minimalistic but it changes based on where you are and the gameplay it highlights so the action-heavy moments have a driving beat and the buildup to the climax is accompanied by an aura of dark wonder. If you're not too distracted by the myriad monsters exploding during the finale then you might notice the backing track getting more complex and disjointed as you move into each phase. It doesn't try to steal the show, instead remaining a subtle but significant contributor.

I love seeing how many different microcosms are created within the community, shining all too briefly. dead.air is another great mini-adventure with a distinct aesthetic which is pretty much what I've come to expect from Xaser. Are more corrupted media formats in store? I hope so. If you have strong feelings against slaughter scenarios and horde-based gameplay then I doubt whether this will court your favor. Otherwise, tune in.



  1. Started out great, but really lost me when it turned into slaughterfest. Kind of like Unloved.

    1. I found dead.air's slaughter to be way more appealing than Unloved's meat grinders.