Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Highlands (AP_006.WAD)

by Alex Parsons

I played five of Alex's levels before coming to AP_006. I saw that a few of them were almost certainly tested in ZDoom but nothing appeared to stray outside the realm of plain limit-removing ports. The Highlands is the first of the World's End series to correct my assumption. This is a MAP01 replacement for Doom II and was released back in the summer of 2002. The author recommends an "advanced port" but I strongly suggest an .EXE like (G)ZDoom, which implemented z-collision beyond idtech1's original infinite height. Eternity and Legacy ought to work fine as well. The last is the chosen port for the only demo that anyone has ever recorded for AP_006!

The World's End series does not have an overarching plot. It is named after the debut level and is almost exclusively a sequence of locations whose titles could just have easily come from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. You started out in a sort of imp-infested badlands and then ventured into their hive - The Underground - to exterminate them. When you emerge on the other side you appear in The Outlands, a slightly more hostile wasteland that serves as a buffer between World's End and the Foul Ruin. The latter is a vast bastion of entrenched evil. From there you move on to Sinistrad, a gateway to the heartland of Hell's forces. If you had any doubt as to the strength of their numbers and discounted their vigorous defense in AP_005 then your trek through The Highlands will shatter your illusion.

Visually, AP_006 isn't anything that we haven't seen before. It's the same granite rock, green grass, and lava pits aesthetic explored in The Outlands and parts of Foul Ruin. The defining factor is the depth of height. It gives the image of travelling further into demon territory where the cracks in the earth are so much deeper. You start out at the tippy top but your plane of action has a lot of peaks and valleys as you progress. The first encounter sort of gears you to this dynamic by encouraging you to perform a one-way circle strafe up some platforms and then falling down to begin anew. It's an exception, though; the player's vertical movement never feels this fluid in any of the following fights. Parsons mainly trades in player exposure through limited movement space vs. more revenants than you may be comfortable with. While you can manage the first few bouts there will come a time when the only winning move is to RUN.

This moment comes early and is the primary reason why I believe that The Highlands expects a port without infinitely tall actors. Your first few leaps of progression take you to the east side of the level and also usher in an enormous wave of cacodemons. I don't think that the starting ammo is enough to hold them off and the first, tiny cave is a terrible place to do so from. The natural push appears to be further east and down a couple more platforms except the bottom of the pit is policed by a horde of demons. I believe that the intent is to leap over them - unless you screw up - and then fight off the cacos from the larger, more defensible cave. After you kill a few lurking revenants, of course.

The only other way I could see this playing out is through some pro-tier Berserk fist play. To me, the only other forward path would involve dropping as close as possible to the cavern at the bottom and then immediately dusting the skeleton guards. It seems like a joyless fuckfest, though, unless you get your jollies from excruciating Doom melee. Leaping over the demons and using the boxes of shotgun shells inside the cave to fend off the cloud of cacodemons flows so much better. The surprise at the end of the leg appears to rely on you not having killed all of the pink guys, too. Your mileage may vary. If this seems like a fun routing experiment to you then don't delay!

As painful as figuring this out was, it was worth it to me because the rest of the action consists of a couple of great setpiece fights plus a bit of filler. Fair warning, though: if you hate the idea of grinding down tons of revenants and cacodemons with the super shotgun then, well, you're going to have a bad time. There are 330 monsters to kill and the SSG will be your primary weapon. The chaingun provides some supplementary action but it's mainly used for sensible sniping. It's definitely handy for rooting out a couple of area denial monsters and supposing you have the bullets makes for a decent last-ditch weapon against your main aggressors.

The first of the big battles is probably my favorite in terms of its raw action. Stepping up the staircase past the teleporter materializes a wave of revenants who push you into a new and dangerous cliff face. You have skeletons at both ends, occasional interjections by cacodemons, a helpful chaingunner, and a pillar in the center to prevent you from just rounding your enemies up. Parsons's ideal of skilled play appears to be forcing players to dance their way through mid-tier monsters while prepping super shotgun blasts. The raw mechanics at play aren't much different from the starting fight but it lasts way longer and the monolith makes for a good wrinkle. There's a second wave of revenants, too, but it's easily handled by employing the secret Berserk fist that you might have picked up ages ago from the protection of an Invul sphere.

AP_006's last big encounter feels more clever because of its core components. The ground floor has imps teleporting into semi-random locations at a nice tempo, there's an arch-vile standing high up on overwatch, and again a few cacodemons coasting in as spoilers. I like the setup because you can sort of circle-strafe around the imps as long as you're mindful of having to rush to cover whenever the archie starts to attack. This will likely be the foot of the cliff complex he is standing on top of. It's more fun when you have it figured out, I think, than the revenant clusterfuck that comes before it. The three Barons in the exit teleporter alcove prevent you from easily squeezing past them and just skipping the fight altogether. I bet that you could plie the previous invul to your advantage if you were just racing through, though.

Parsons's finale is conversely easy to skip but tough to max. The two arch-viles stationed at the exit appear to be almost impossible to straight-up kill, furthering the whole "monsters pushing the player forward" schtick. The lava isn't even tagged to hurt you so if you get blasted off the middle platform then you are basically stuck... unless Alex also expects you to use the jump feature of some advanced source ports. It seems like a super cheesy way out, though. You can lure the left one out without falling off your safety ledge so the fight becomes much easier provided that you have enough health and armor to tank a single arch-vile blast.

The biggest difference between the author's previous levels and The Highlands is its sense of scale. AP_001-AP_005 tended toward cramped affairs so the dynamics of their encounters were fairly limited and leveraged monotypical thing placement in cluttered areas. This gives the monsters more organic opportunities to surprise the player during an ongoing fight and is a mechanically simple way of creating a complex battle. Foul Ruin was a very large level but its architecture reflects its claustrophobic setpieces. Its most memorable encounter showcases an unusual variety of monsters but none of them play to their individual mechanical strengths since they all teleport at random into the same small, tiered arena.

AP_006 feels more newschool in comparison. It is a very revenant-heavy level but Parsons actually utilizes them and most of the rest for what they are good at. The skeletons are inherently versatile and the imps function as light obstacles to keep the player from just blazing through and force them to spend extra time in exposed situations. Cacodemons provide surprises from unexpected directions and demonstrate early on that they can follow the player to just about anywhere outdoors. Barons are annoying but substantial road blocks who more or less disappear after the opening only to return for the big finish. Chaingunners are effective area denial enemies but Alex has been using them since The Outlands. They're not so ubiquitous here but no less dangerous if ignored. The structure of the arch-vile overseer and revenant roundabout wouldn't work without architecturally open areas to give the player - and monsters - more space to move around in. At least, not without becoming slay-you-dead bouts of congestion a la Sinistrad.

The Highlands was a difficult level to get into but it's worth cracking the nut. Provided that you don't mind going all in with the super shotgun, of course, or tons of skeletons. The difficulty slider erases a ton of the grind just from UV to HMP, eliminating more than a hundred enemies. The main draw then will be a simply textured but complex naturalistic landscape, sort of a higher-stakes version of The Outlands given the height at which all the action takes place. I'm cautiously optimistic to see where the trip to Mossvale Estate brings me.


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