Monday, December 24, 2018

No Sun Series

by Malcolm Sailor

as featured in Super Serials


Malcolm is much better known for his CHORD series - specifically CHORD_NG, CHORDG, and CHORD3 - but he had another span of single-level releases that spanned from 1996 to 1997. The NOSUN levels are an interesting bridge between his early works, which felt increasingly aligned with the authors of Master Levels for Doom II, and his time spent working as part of Black Star Coven and John Bye. I assume that both Bye and Anderson served as an influence in the way Sailor approached lighting as detailing. While the location / adventure-oriented level design did not survive through to the final stage of his authorial career it's an interesting period to consider.

The plot of NOSUN starts out on a sardonic dystopia where almost all of the Earth's population is imprisoned and most of the planet is polluted. Some aliens apparently want it, though, and to that end they constructed a facility on the surface of the sun. They're poisoning it with the intent to invade after it dies and most of life follows. You're forced on a suicide mission to secure the insidious installation - using the alien technology to survive - and then take the fight to their home planet. The concept takes a turn toward early sci-fi serial somewhere during the .TXT and then follows it through to the end, DoomCute to the core.

CHORD's beauty is not as big of a talking point as its unrelenting difficulty. Late-career Malcolm loved to start the player in the hole with only a Berserk pack to dig themselves out. NOSUN is far more accommodating and, like many of his early levels, the apparent moments of peak difficulty are often balanced out by powerups like invul spheres. This trend would even continue into his Short and Hard package. It still has some challenging moments, though, and while there is a lot of love for NOSUN4 I found its early gameplay to be excruciating due to highly restricted player mobility.

Two of the levels are relatively sprawling adventures that give the others a much greater sense of place since the remainders have a narrow focus in their locations. They lack the same level of world-building beyond representing a pit stop on your great journey. I'm more intrigued by the solar machinery of the first level or the clumsy underground metropolis of NOSUN3 than I would be during a replay of the flying saucer of the second; the temple to the alien god in the fourth; or the gauntlet / flight to the surface as portrayed in the finale. I naturally tend toward exhaustive expeditions, though, so you may find yourself enjoying the more compact components of the campaign.

I wouldn't have guessed at the greater depth of Sailor's back catalogue based on the only three levels that he would vouch for at the end of his career. It's been an interesting journey, though, and nice to see how his overall style progressed from something like the Master Levels to overlap with his work on TALOSIAN. This isn't really for diehard CHORD fans but should be a great play for anyone who enjoys maps that try to tell a contiguous story through their sequential narrative action.

Your adventure begins on the extensive alien base built on the surface of the sun. The initial layout is kind of tight but it soon spills into a large tunnel complex from which you can see the alien machinery and fight on its questionably solar surface. There are a lot of heavy monsters to be fought including Barons and arachnotrons. You'll also have to put up with some awkward arch-vile placement and a Cyberdemon security system. The world-building witnessed through all the sun-stealing technology makes this pretty cool to explore.

You board an alien ship and make your way to their homeworld to put a boot in their asses. The entirety of this map takes place inside the spacecraft. It isn't very big so the combat is congested and leaves the player feeling hamstrung in terms of mobility. The level is at its most annoying when you enter the engine compartment to dispatch some mancubi. The irregular, stair-sloped chamber makes it difficult to dance through their fireballs. I like that Sailor still managed to fit in an exploratory secret.

The vessel reached its destination and docked in an underground alien city. Your objective isn't completely clear but you're poised to wreak havoc as you stumble through like a bull in a china shop. The metropolis is difficult to read because so many of its squat building facades are featureless but this helps to add to the strangeness of your experience. The final image suggests a massive complex, the surface of which you barely scratch. There are a bunch of heavy-hitting monsters much like the original but the overall tone is more trappy, not that Malcolm doesn't soften the blow by providing some strategically-placed invul spheres. They don't exactly help with the specter / Cyberdemon gauntlet, though.

After traveling across the deserted planet's surface you duck down into a cavern containing a shrine to their alien god. This is a very tight map and just about every area features severely restricted player movement. The first central structure is frustrating because its jagged fissures are actually player-blocking lines that are easy to get hung up on. If you can get around those, though, it has a pretty neat wave-style finale that makes up for the awkward beginning.

You've ruined the poison plan, wrecked up the alien city, and despoiled their god. It's time to get the Hell out of there. The end is an underground gauntlet, most of it occurring in artificial structures, but comes with a solid bunch of set piece encounters including an aerial ambush on a bridge and combat in a cargo bay versus a horde of imps and their arch-vile overseer. It's just as linear as the previous adventure but pretty fun to fight through and a nice finish if not quite as big in scope as the first or third levels.


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