Sunday, December 30, 2018

Caverns of Darkness (COD.WAD)

The Chaos Crew may not have started out as Christopher Lutz's baby but it ended up that way. Three authors of incredible power - Chris, Pedro Puicón (NokturnuS), and Emil Brundage (NaturalTvventy) - were gathered together with one Joel Murdoch. The last was a programmer during the source port boom and had his hand in a lot of engines that were created for the sole use of one Doom mod. You know, stuff like Mordeth, Millennium, and Eternity. He also worked on Caverns of Darkness which has a leg up on the previous three projects because it was actually released some sixteen years ago as of this writing. Published in 2002, it's a twelve-map episode for Doom II. We have been spared from having to use its custom source port because of Graf Zahl's painstaking work in translating its effects to ZDoom with an indispensable patch.

The story takes place after Doom II. Some six years later, to be exact. Everything is hunky dory and everyone is living under a new era of global peace because surviving potential extinction at the hands of the embodiment of evil managed to put things into their proper perspective. It all goes to shit again, though, and you're part of the force sent to secure the most recent invasion point. It appears to be a mine owned by the UAC but there's more to it than meets the eye, especially since the abandoned yet fully operational facility offers no initial resistance to your investigation. Then all Hell breaks loose and you're the sole survivor left with no choice but to continue the operation... alone.

Doomwiki informs me that the ZDoom patch has a custom map translator in order to interpret Caverns of Darkness's new sector and linedef types. I'm not entirely sure what effects these added but none of it appeared to be outside the realm of a voodoo doll script, no matter how convoluted. I'd like to see someone with far more technical know-how weigh in here and tell me how ignorant I am. I definitely noticed the new monsters, though. The first thing that you'll see is some of the zombies erupting into lost souls when they die. The walking undead are thus tougher to chew through on average, engendering a slower-paced game since you aren't sure whether one is going to pop up and present as a much sturdier obstacle. At least, not unless you die and start over again.

All of the custom monsters share the same sort of theme of presenting a situation as normal up until the player is surprised. The most annoying of these to me is the completely invisible Hell knight,  first appearing in MAP04. The only ways to determine when one is nearby is to be there the moment it wakes up, see the green plasma bolts from its ranged attacks, or hear its roaming noise and hope that none of the many other monsters who share its sound are within range. I got a laugh out of the rocket trooper though the first time you see one might be a game-ending encounter. They look exactly like the normal rifle-toting zombie which is where the confusion arises. There are also some transparent enemies that can walk through walls but aren't exactly like "vanilla ghosts" because they're not exclusively vulnerable to rocket splash or monster infighting. Some of them seem to spawn with switch triggers and others, well, I'm not sure.

Most of Caverns of Darkness understandably takes place underground as you battle your way through a sprawling UAC compound but Lutz and co vary things up with several breaks in the open air before you go down into the deepest, darkest places. So much of the experience belongs to Chris and understandably so. He's responsible for 75% of the levels, though when you factor in the sheer length of NokturnuS's "Hydrosfear" and "Hellmine" as well as Brundage's "Command Control" you'll find the split to be a bit more even. clutz's levels are uniformly shorter in comparison; half of them including the two secrets are essentially isolated set pieces.

They're nice, though, because they portray the depth of an author who has been characterized - not unjustly - for having an "insane lust for detail". Some of the bits here like MAP07 ("Lava Processing") remind me of his landmark debut, Inferno, but you can see how going limit-removing and having more freedom with midtexture cheats to fake over / under geometry caused things to explode. You'll see oodles of perilous catwalks; a wireframe roof that you can climb on and fall through; leaning ladders; a crazy security scanner; and wide use of transparent textures and other native Boom freebies. The last bit isn't so stunning in what the features are but in how they're used.

The stuff that breaks the mould came as a bit of a shock, starting with MAP03 ("Hell & High Water"). The level has an almost arcade sensibility where you need to DoomJump your way through a tight network of pillars before the timer of your current enviro suit wears off. If you fall off you have to start over - hopefully finding another powerup - all the while being wary of a handful of roaming lost souls and one revenant who's guarding the exit switch and might toss a homing rocket or two your way. MAP08 ("The Pit") is one of my favorites because of how it seems to propel you into a scripted action sequence with exploding ventilation ducts. Your current situation seems so perilous that you continue to push on further into perdition until you can go no farther and must stand your ground.

Chris's crazy machinery reminds me of INF-LUTZ's E3M7 but his layouts are more reminiscent of E3M6 in the way that they're heavily interconnected both physically and visually. The actual playing area in which you can move is relatively limited, though. You aren't on rails or anything - mostly - it's just cramped. The overall combat feel thus leans toward the claustrophobic. NokturnuS's MAP09 feels like a natural extension of this style, just with an emphasis on sheer monster density over elaborate effects sequences. Lutz opens things up a bit in MAP07 and MAP08 but this mostly applies to their starting sections. Each falls back into his groove once you get past the initial shock.

Caverns of Darkness has another theme that only comes through in Lutz's material. You'll periodically find sunken chapels featuring a small selection of Christian iconography in the normal course of the game and the second secret level, MAP12 ("The Stand"), has you fend off a demonic invasion from such a ruined shrine. The first, MAP11 ("Symbol of Grace"), is an otherworldly jaunt into an apparently abandoned yet intact church and awards you CoD's secret weapon. The Holy Cross occupies slot 8; while holding it, your punches kill any monster in one hit. It's a powerful relic and extraordinary benefit during continuous play.

All of this is building to the finale. After you defeat the guardians of the fell ziggurat and step on a dais, you are bathed in divine light and lifted to the perfect height at which you can pump rockets into the last portal. When taken altogether there's an impressive implied history. In my imagination the cavern complex is very old and the ruined chapels stand as waypoints on a pilgrimage to a place where the border between our world and Hell's is at its weakest. The existence of the altar suggests that either the evil has been sealed in a similar manner in the past or all of these sites were constructed because there would be a need for them in the future. If the latter isn't true then the same power responsible for giving you the Holy Cross has seeded the locations with desperately needed supplies for a modern warrior.

In fact, at least one of the chapels is heavily implied to be sacred ground where demons cannot tread. This whole thing may have been kicked off by the UAC building some crazy energy core device into the corner of the church seen at the end of MAP08. If all of this seems terribly cliche then I entreat you to consider it within the broader context of the Doom community. Some of its members are so deadly serious that the demons are explicitly reimagined as aliens, often from another dimension, because giving any sort of acknowledgement to a facet of Christendom would be unpalatable. It's rare to see the portrayal of anything approaching a benevolent deity in a WAD; the only ones in my immediate memory are Lost SeraphimThe Inquisitor III, and Hell Awakened, the latter only coming across in the ending text screen.

Returning to the nuts and bolts of level design, NokturnuS has both successes and some disappointments. The parts of his two levels that identify most with corridor shooters are for me the least satisfying. Unfortunately for MAP09 ("Hellmine") such segments span the entire level, the icing on the cake being a token amount of ammo presented for the soul-crushing finale. I really enjoyed MAP04 ("Hydrosfear"). At least, once I got beyond the central-western courtyard. The network of ledges in the water-filled chasm make for a scenic and "real" location in a way that none of Pedro's previous levels felt and the open air really lets his signature spigot of cacodemons shine.

NaturalTvventy's MAP05 ("Command Control") is one of my favorites. It feels like a crazy theme level even more so than any of Lutz's entries because it's just a joy to explore and actually gives you the freedom to do so up until you have the first three keys. There are of details like the rail network, turntable, and devilish track switch as well as nightmarish murder machinery that echoes some of the twisted gore found in The Beginning of the End (Part 1). I also enjoyed just how badly things seem to go when stepping foot on the eastern shore, what with all the lost souls appearing from the infernal fissures. Its open-air segments contrast against the congestion and claustrophobia that makes up so much of CoD's action. The only other real reprieve comes with Ramirez's cliffside trails in MAP04 since you can always escape to the relatively safer lower tier at the cost of having to return to the main access point.

Caverns of Darkness is a wonderful, immersive adventure but you'll want to play continuously in order to get the full experience since the Holy Cross must be carried over from a secret level. You can pick it up at any point and play, though; it's definitely amenable to pistol starts. Just be wary of NokturnuS's "Hellmine". HMP cuts its initial monster count down by half which should foster a much more breathable environment. It's great that Graf Zahl put in the work to make this playable in ZDoom because it's definitely worth it.

DON'T FORGET to grab the patch for ZDoom here!

by The Chaos Crew

by Christopher Lutz
Chris quickly shows how capable he is of turning less than 90 monsters into a full-fledged adventure. Part of it involves limiting you to the shotgun and chaingun which stretches out the amount of time you spend trading shots with toughs like Hell nobles and revenants. Of course, it just encouraged me to get the mixed monster groups to do most of the damage themselves. The other is how many special effects he's crammed in to the level, from oodles of midtexture props including mine carts and torch sconces; mining machinery; deep water surprises; TONS of ambient noises; and moments like the dam outlets opening. This could have easily been its own single-level release. Fortunately, there's more...

MAP02Six Feet Under
by Christopher Lutz
Pistol start ammo will be tight but you get the combat shotgun pretty early. D_RUNNIN is like an old friend and the overturned truck gives me a very slight UAC_DEAD vibe. It's all underground caverns, though, and features even more machinery; a warehouse with forklift; and several ruins that somewhat resemble Christian churches. The tough monsters feel easier to dance with since Lutz has afforded you the SSG but he still has one big surprise, even if he borrowed it from Memento Mori's "Between Scattered Corpses". While the layout is just as dense as "Surface" the different blocked tunnels and elevations make it a bit tougher to navigate. Very cool; the TNT plunger that reveals the ruins is a cute feature.

The Symbol of GraceMAP11
by Christopher Lutz
A lonely chapel - perhaps a reliquary of another time. This haunting scene has a neat effect using silent teleporters but its main purpose is to put a holy cross in your hand. Don't miss it if you're playing in continuous mode!

MAP03Hell & High Water
by Christopher Lutz
A short but intense platforming level in very deep water. There isn't a need to jump but you're against the enviro suit timer. Chris is good enough to give you a breadcrumb trail to the start of the pillar-hopping. He also hands you both shotguns to ward off a handful of lost souls who will be your major confounders as well as the sole revenant who you'll have to deal with at the end. If you fall off you can grab one of several other suits and start over again. When it fades, though, you'll die. Quickly.

by Pedro Francisco "NokturnuS" Puicón
An enormous, elaborate complex built into a series of water-filled canyons. It's closer in shape to his Realm of Shades levels since the huge, outdoor areas are more like a water hazard for you to dodge into and then take a teleport to get sent back to the center rather than the sort of "roam at your own risk" of DemoniZed. It's a little tough to get into because the monster placement in the Hell Knight power array is so stifling and when you duck back to plot your strategy you find a moderately-paced drip feed army at your heels. It isn't until you break through and go up the elevator that the level starts to truly shine. The network of ledges is fun to explore, the sniper placement isn't oppressive, and you never know when a pain elemental is going to wander within reach and cause a minor panic. By the end you'll have so many rockets that the final hordes crumble under classic suppression fire. Too bad about the annoyingly slow teleporter feed into the black key annex.

MAP05Command Control
by Emil "NaturalTvventy" Brundage
N20 steals the show with this large, exploration-heavy level. It's just really dangerous to start looking around and while you can jump in the water you won't want to get lost in the lake because a cloud of monsters is bearing down on you. There are a lot of cool little scenes to stumble upon, like a graveyard / mire or a railroad switching track, and he lays the atmosphere on pretty thick when you finally reach the titular outpost. You've got to explore the western half of the level in order to locate the three keys required to get inside. While that makes up most of the fun sightseeing, I can't help but admit a certain grotesque wonder at the nightmarish torture / assembly line and the other ways where Emil has thoroughly portrayed the awful fate of the UAC satellite.

The StandMAP12
by Christopher Lutz
Another haunting chapel but this one is in ruins and your arrival sparks an invasion. There aren't a great many monsters but the ammo is kind of tight and they will pile up quicker than you think, eventually ending in a showdown with a Cyberdemon. Supplies teleport in as well, though, and there are several different ways you can use to escape to the relative safety of holy ground. Great stuff; I love the ladders and the iron-wrought tracks.

MAP06Perditions Abyss
by Christopher Lutz
Even more crazy midtexture tricks, the best being an iron-wrought chapel frame that you have to climb up but can also walk under... and fall through! The gameplay is much slower and requires a tactical approach, exemplified first and foremost through the super shotgun room which is a hitscanner Swiss cheese nexus. The only reason that you can't just rush it with the chaingun is because you never know which of the zombies are gonna pop into lost souls. Lots of cool visuals; I like the catwalk around the molten spouts and the ribbed tunnel running from northeast to west. Of all the fights here I would hazard that the sole arch-vile ambush is probably the least fair.

Lava ProcessingMAP07
by Christopher Lutz
This feels like a spiritual successor to Inferno's E3M7 because of the emphasis on laboratory equipment. One of the experiments even revives a Baron of Hell! It's more cohesive, though, since most of the rooms feel like they're part of a much bigger system. There are a lot of cool things to see but it's a tough level to start because the outdoors are crawling with shotgun guys and if you linger in the opening area then you'll be swarmed by lost souls. Oh, and stepping inside triggers the anti-human alarm, deluging the security checkpoint with commandos. Once you get past all that you're free to enjoy the wicked cool glass elevators and volcanic machinery.

MAP08The Pit
by Christopher Lutz
This one feels more like a wild action sequence. At least, I crawled into a ventilation duct and was suddenly pushed forward on a crazy adventure that didn't really end until I could relax at the western door. It looks to serve as the secret base's hangar given a literal rocket ship as well as several helipods; I accidentally skipped the first two because of my explosive entrance into the duct work. The run along the southern edge is definitely my favorite span of combat; my heart skipped a beat when I saw the pulsing visage while climbing the iron staircase frame. The finale is aesthetically interesting but the guardians that you have to dispatch in order to reach the gate are more awkward to kill than anything.

by Pedro Francisco "NokturnuS" Puicón
A grueling, monster-filled slog through the Stygian depths. The scattered bits of UAC machinery look more like they've co-opted a pre-existing infernal installation. Progression is at times excruciating and leans hard toward tactical movement. If you happen to find yourself in a place where the ideal weapon appears to be the rocket launcher but you don't have it yet then I would stick my nose somewhere else. Some of the moments like the criss-crossing catwalks in the southeastern area or the blood canals surrounding the megasphere platform in the northeast are breathtaking and speak to a much larger universe. Large swaths just doesn't feel very fun to play, at least from a UV perspective, and the ammo provided for the finale feels horribly inadequate. Make sure that every rocket - and cell - counts because you'll want to have as much as you can of both when you use the black keycard.

MAP10Caverns of Darkness
by Christopher Lutz
Starts out with an atmospheric tour of the deepest darkness, gives one last gasp of the infernal lab machinery, and then moves on to the meat. The final encounter starts out with a Cyberdemon and somehow manages to naturally pace itself based on how quickly you kill your enemies. Which can be very fast if you managed to get access to the secret chapel. It's still a good fight, even without the goodies, provided that you play combat shotgun peekaboo with ol' Cybie. The finish, which has a touch of divine intervention, is a nice payoff for all the Christian iconography seen through both normal play and the secret levels.



  1. Loved this WAD (and believe I was the one who mentioned it in your suggestions thread) but it's been so long that I remember very little of it besides the odd handful of mental images. I will definitely have to play this again; I never found the Holy Cross, which sounds fun. And I had no idea N20 worked on this, which makes me even more excited for a replay.

    1. N20's involvement lurked in the back of my mind in the years leading up to this but both him and NokturnuS faded into the background of my imagination whenever I wondered what CoD would end up looking like. I also knew virtually nothing about Lutz circa 2002 since everything that I'd played of his was Heretic levels prior to NEIS and, then, going back to the beginning with Inferno. What a time warp! (I'm ignoring 10 Sectors since the concept makes it a bit of an outlier.)