Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Assault On Chextropolis (CQAOC.WAD)

by "Stormwalker" aka "Vordakk"

As of this writing I haven't reviewed the original Chex Quest trilogy but I did play some of it quite a bit and still have the CD that I got out of the box. I even went so far as to download CQ2 and distinctly recall something claiming to be CQ3 where the first level resembled an archaeological dig site. If you're a diligent fan and remember what I'm talking about (because it doesn't look at all like the actually released third episode) then please tell me! Chex Quest still has a fan community though as far as popularity goes it looks like it's probably somewhere between Hexen and Strife when it comes to modding. Vordakk is one of those who still remembers which is why in 2018 I can play Assault On Chextropolis. It's an E1M1 replacement for the CQ3 IWAD and requires (G)ZDoom.

It comes with a story, too! It's delivered through text in the titlemap and basically boils down to everything being hunky dory on Ralston (Chex Warrior's home planet) when an unidentified object is sighted on a collision course, its projected trajectory landing near Chextropolis. Scientists eventually determine that it's another Flemoid spaceship and is virtually invulnerable to the planet's orbital defense system. The IFC broadcasts a distress signal but it will be days before any help arrives which is simply too long to wait. Their only hope is Fred Chexter, the man who put the Flemoids down six years ago.

If you haven't played Chex Quest before then it's basically a Doom reskin. The weapons behave exactly the same and all of the regular monsters have an analogue with a similar amount of health though the weakest varieties use melee attacks instead of hitscans. The enemies added in the sequels don't bring anything terribly new to the table but it's interesting seeing the CQ3 beasties in the flesh for the first time. Vordakk plays pretty well to their strengths and while the original Chex Quest is laughably easy for this crusty Doomer there were times when I actually felt threatened. Heck, I even died once!

CQAOC explores a broad variety of themes in the same level, starting in the rugged wilderness surrounding Chextropolis before moving onto the city itself. This includes a museum; a movie theater; a sewer network; and the IFC's local command post. Afterward it's off to the crashed meteor ship where you do battle with the big bad. All of this is done not in Digital Cafe's minimalist style but Vordakk's own aesthetic standard which is admittedly far more apparent in the naturalistic settings that dominate the central and south-western portions of the level. The rest is serviceable and clean as befits the textures which were made to reflect the humanoid-constructed portions.

I thought that things would be a lot crazier because of the initial monster count but a substantial portion of the Flemoids are tied up in the movie theater area which is itself a polished reiteration of the original Chex Quest's E2M2. The three movie theater rooms have tight rows of seats and a concentration of mostly ineffectual monsters, particularly if you've managed to snag the electric spork. It's an unsatisfying string of encounters considering that there's nothing challenging about the combat and it's done three times over. It's the least enthralling portion of the level but it doesn't last terribly long considering that all of the monsters are composed of the weakest Flemoids.

I'm actually a little disappointed because so much of the city section feels like a "good parts but more modern" version of the second episode and from what I can tell this also extends to the last few levels of the third. On the other hand, it's not like Jacobi made a ton of easily adaptable resources that fans could use to make an enormous variety of levels. If my memory serves correctly the goofy parody sprites and textures made up most of the wow! factor when exploring the urban environments. Chex Quest is charming but the complexity of its initial level design is somewhere between Wolfenstein 3D and the original Doom. It's nice to see all of these assets applied to a frame supplied by an experienced WADsmith such as Vordakk.

The true issue is that there just isn't a lot of untapped potential in CQ's assets. They're simply not versatile; conversely, the abstract nature of Doom's art and level design appears to have contributed to its longevity. There is no unspoken expectation to render a museum because a large portion of its assets were not dedicated to such a purpose. By the same token I wouldn't be surprised if people found it difficult to make a Duke Nukem 3D city level and not include the locations that its many props were created for. Meanwhile some Doom authors are content to just make something that looks vaguely like a truck using the stock textures and then let the player's imagination do the heavy lifting.

It looks like Stormwalker has honed in on the similar state of specialty resources between CQ and Duke3D because he tries to stretch the Chex Quest premise just a little further toward the Build Engine games. It isn't anything specific to the gameplay but the author has done a small amount of voice acting which you'll hear in scripted locations. They're internally referred to as one-liners and while they have nothing on Duke's motormouth it definitely takes the feel of Assault On Chextropolis just a little closer toward the kind of immersion you get when playing in 3D Realms.

Vordakk has some really cool encounters to fight your way through. One of my favorite fights occurs in the sewers and uses the neat wall Flemoids in a four-way ambush where you're caught in a crossfire of dangerous projectiles. I was shocked the first time I encountered the Flembominations, partially since I had never played Chex Quest 3 but mainly because the way in which they're re-seeded into the level comes as a clever surprise. The organic layout of the meteor interior and use of tougher monsters makes for a harrowing step up in difficulty considering the otherwise straightforward corridor shooting you've been doing up to that point.

The majority of the combat isn't very challenging but most of this is due to the characteristics of the monsters. The cacodemon equivalents are slightly less rare than the Barons; the toughest of the regularly-appearing Flemoids are all demon analogues; and the brunt of the invaders are the mostly harmless zombie equivalents who move slow, only attack in melee, and die very fast. In this sort of setup the base pistol - err, zorcher - actually feels like a useful weapon because you aren't fighting a war of attrition where victory is largely defined by how quickly you eliminate hitscanners. The most threatening of the regulars for me were the fast-moving but durable Stridicus and the Flem Mine / lost soul because of all the problems inherent in dealing with flaming skulls sans the bright warning flames.

One of Assault's most appealing qualities is the fact that it _is_ a "good parts" summary of everything Chex Quest has to bring to the table. Vordakk has fun with the monsters and shows some of the more dynamic encounters that can be wrung out of the base resources. He also puts enough polish into the architecture - now freed from vanilla's constraints - to let the concept stand toe to toe with the other myriad themes that have been rendered in the Doom engine. I doubt whether it'll make converts of anyone who found the original CQ to be too cartoony but it ought to be a nice trip for people who are still fond of the old Chex-branded escapades.


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