Saturday, June 8, 2019

Phobos: Anomaly Reborn (PAR.WAD)

Chris Lutz has a more or less independent property in marshaling The Chaos Crew's Caverns of Darkness. His earliest obsession, though, was to reinvent the original Doom under the guidance of his own image. This started in 1998 with the release of Inferno and was followed by some work on replacements for The Shores of Hell and Knee Deep in the Dead. His passion project took a backseat when he joined CoD, though, and by the time he got back to the trilogy he was so displeased with his older works that he began anew. Thus we were fortunate enough to receive Phobos: Anomaly Reborn. This episode one replacement was released at the beginning of 2003 and imprinted on Doomworld's curators enough to find a spot in their coveted Top 100 WADs of All Time. Lutz identifies Boom/MBF as the target port and his language implies that it ought to work with either but it was also found to be compatible in a then-contemporary version of ZDoom. There are some caveats, though, and I'll get to those in a bit.

P:AR shares many of the same texture themes as the first episode but it is not a remake, something clarified in its story. The rest of the information isn't entirely clear but I believe that I have the right of it, now. It is actually a sequel and takes place some time after Earth is recovered. You, the Doomed marine, have been sent to investigate another insurrection on Phobos. The UAC never knows to leave well enough alone and began to construct a new series of Research Colonies. Everything was fine until they started excavating experiment chambers for Site Beta. Certain structures - and artifacts - were uncovered. The information regarding the antiquities is classified but the implication is clear since you're sent in as a fixer. The trajectory of your mission requires you to begin at Research Colony Alpha and then make your way to the dig site via train.

Phobos: Anomaly Reborn is clearly related to the style that Lutz explored in Caverns of Darkness. Where CoD was a relatively consistent fusion of techbase and underground areas, though, P:AR has a clear delineation between its man-made portions and the ruins below. The transition occurs in E1M5, "The Dig Site", where the tech and artifact themes briefly brush up against each other. The last three levels are different enough from the execution of CoD because they feel more like the sort of underground world that a fanciful subterranean civilization might inhabit. This includes things like fresh water and mysterious, viny vegetation.

Caverns hit you with molten rock as early as its MAP02 but it was more or less consistent in its motif of the UAC trying to exploit the Hellish lava as a source of power, resulting in the wages of cinders. There is no evidence of Research Colony Beta ever tapping into such a rancorous reservoir. The uncovered ruins, though, demonstrate aptitude at harnessing the energy of lava as well as water. In one of my favorite sequences of sector machinery the player can activate an apparatus that uses both to generate steam. This in turn is sent to move pistons whose action opens a door. Each liquid brazenly cascades from the fortress facade featured at the opening of "Subterra" (E1M6).

The level has a clearer division between the west and east, though. The former shows off a cool contraption which exploits the flow energy of moving water to turn gears in order to raise a bridge. The latter uses lava to make a copy of the red skull. Note the subtle touches that hint at the inferno's ultimately destructive nature. Compare the well-kept western staircase to the crumbling eastern ruins. Or, for that matter, the complete failure of the door-opening device. It simply explodes, blowing a hole in the wall around the otherwise inoperable hatch. The exit sequence could even be a metaphor for the fate of the fallen civilization. Water is first introduced into the cylinder, quickly followed by lava. The liquid of life flashes to steam, the mixture turns to blood, and from it springs a raging furnace.

Another interesting aspect to Phobos: Anomaly Reborn's pacing is the aesthetic transition. I had no idea about the underground stuff so when I saw "Hangar B" (E1M1) I was prepared for a cavalcade of technically ornate but visually exhausting techbase levels. While the structural detail is peak Lutz throughout, the author makes effective use of negative space - quite literally in the latter portions of the PWAD. The comparatively simpler landscapes and open areas give his setpieces some room to breathe and the player enough of a visual break to be able to see Chris's broader vision. As opposed to, say, a morass of filigrees.

The Research Colony portion frontloads P:AR with tons of neat special effects, from the mundane (catwalks that you can walk under) to heavy weaponry blasting walls apart to lethally bladed fans. One of the more esoteric bits has a couple of transport ships that you can actually step inside. The one to drop my jaw was a pit which stored a couple of crates in "Dissolution" (E1M3). At the appointed time the bay will flood, starting from a small pool and gradually expanding until it covers the entire floor. Then the level rises and the crates with it, leaving you to navigate an elbow-deep swamp which must be navigated by running across the floating boxes. There are a couple of great-looking elevators - my favorite in "The Dig Site" (E1M5) - and plenty of midtexture wizardry to create realistic props like tanks, bulldozers, and personal aircraft.

The underground levels feature just as much careful detailing but the tricks and cheats are relatively understated. Excepting the awe-inspiring sector machinery - which I've already mentioned - Lutz utilizes both light and color contrast. In keeping with the fire vs. water theme, of course. The author is careful to feature the structures, both man-made and other, with halos of light that quickly diminish into darkness. They make for gorgeous screenshots but reinforce the enormous sense of scale when you actually move around. "The Beneath" (E1M7) is sneaky in how its deepest, fiery caverns are hidden inside the generally waterbound level geometry. The crazy colored lighting in its final gatehouses is done by one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book: custom textures.

"Railbender" (E1M4) is a tech demo unlike any of the surrounding material. It's much shorter, first of all, but more importantly is a moving train level. Thomas van der Velden explored this concept in TV1998 and more famously in Revolution! but his execution was limited by the vanilla executable. Chris knocks it up a notch in Boom with scrolling floors that also push objects so when something dies it moves away and toward the edge of the map. It even allows him to use scrolling props - e.g. the blighted trees - to approximate moving scenery to give you a more realistic feeling of relative motion including parallax. It's probably the best-looking demo of a train map that I've seen to date, even forgetting Lutz's few scripted events.

I've read several criticisms levelled at Anomaly Reborn. The most common slagged the level of detailing as interfering with the gameplay. The only time where I felt this to ring true was in "Railbender" because the exterior cars give you precious little room to maneuver. I liked that there wasn't anything as soul-crushingly difficult as CoD's "Hellmine". The main drag on my combat experience was an early and pervasive emphasis on baron vs. shotgun / chaingun action. At the very least, they do not carry the same level of immediate threat as in, say, Crusades. The Rocket launchers and plasma guns will not be your workhorse weapons but you'll have them for those encounters where it really matters, like the underground invasion of "The Dig Site". You might need to shotgun a Spiderdemon to death to get one or the other in the finale, though.

It was interesting to see just how few Barons - or even zombies - were in "The Beneath". "The Lost Barracks" (E1M9) is the most zombie-centric and has quite a few hordes for you to dispatch. Imps are plentiful with cacodemons making a strong showing as lords of the mid-tier. Their ability to fly makes them powerhouses in the complex subterranean landscapes of P:AR's later portions. Spectres are also used to great if potentially frustrating effect. I was surprised to see that Lutz made a modification to the Mastermind but it's nothing unusual and makes sense within the context of the only level in which it appears. Pistol start players have a small but notable handicap to overcome. Spawning starts you off at 55% health in order to simulate the effects of the plane crash that occurred just prior to loading up E1M1. This gives you a bit of a handicap when picking up from scratch.

Anomaly Reborn is a natural extension of Chris's style circa Caverns of Darkness. All of the crazy special effects are there with the author trying his hand at increasingly elaborate sequences. It feels more grounded in other departments, though. Part of this is due to a relative lack of the crazier midtexture geometry like wireframe roofs and metal-ribbed catwalks. Not that you won't have to navigate any iron-wrought balance beams, mind you. Heck; E1M8's walkways suspended in shadow feel kin to CoD's "The Stand". The episode also feels simpler due to the limited bestiary. Caverns had some crazy bonus monster behavior on top of fun times with arch-viles and revenants. Moving from there to P:AR's more or less traditional kit gives the set a classic feel in a way where doing it in Doom II would not.

On the other hand, Reborn is still farther away from a traditional experience than Lutz's debut, Inferno. While it earned a lot of enmity for its almost entirely atmospheric E3M1, Chris's take on Hell is closer in the spirit of its execution to id Software. Part of this is due to the dense, interconnected layouts that fit the original's exploratory style. P:AR has a more deliberate pacing and while the individual areas are visually linked it's much harder to get physically lost. The fights themselves aren't necessarily cinematic but some progression points are which may be a little less intuitive. You may have to take a daring leap from the tip of a crane or grab the second enviro suit whose protective case has recently been broken for another trip through the slime.

Sure, all of the crazy scripted stuff like the exploding power core of E3M9 don't come across as DTWiD but Inferno feels more organic in a way where Phobos: Anomaly Reborn does not. It might just be the crazy themes that Lutz tried to tackle in each level as opposed to P:AR's thematic consistency. This may be a point in 2003's favor, though, since the very same detail is one of the primary reasons why some folks judge Knee Deep in the Dead's level design to be inherently superior to the Hall and Petersen show. Chris was clearly an aesthetically-minded guy back in 1998 but moving to Boom-MBF removed some of the limits to his creativity and allowed him to cripple processors instead. P:AR can't help but be more detailed and spectacular in its effects than Inferno. It's interesting to think of what an earlier follow-up would have looked like.

Except Lutz was already working on E1 and E2 before he joined The Chaos Crew. He finished three levels, actually, all of which are included in Reborn as the majority of the cheekily-titled SubP:AR episode. These outtakes are shunned by the author but I greatly enjoyed them. More so than Inferno's original secret level, anyway, which is also included here as E2M7. E2M8 is notable for having an actual tower that you can duke it out in, cramped though it may be. E2M6 - "Deimos Anomaly" - is my favorite for providing an alternative take on the other side of the Phobos portal. E2M5 has a lot in common with P:AR's "Hangar B", most recognizably its network of transport rails. It's less a first draft though and more like this E1M1 is a complete rewrite. I wrote up a separate, detailed review since it was so stealthily released that DoomWiki didn't bother to mention it in its article.

It wasn't going to end with Reborn, either. Lutz rolled into another project - Deimos: Anomaly Unleashed - and even had a distinct style in mind. His screenshots of an older, slightly Gothic UAC base are intriguing but it does not appear to have moved beyond the in utero first level. It's a shame because I would love to see his re-invisioning of the Doomed outpost. I've borne witness to other takes on mothballed / abandoned stations, most notably 2016's Terra Nova: Alpha Accident and Nihility: Infinite Teeth. Neither Wraith nor Years have a predilection toward "scripting" and midtexture / sector abuse. Particularly since neither one targeted Boom's featureset, convenient though it may be.

Reborn is completely playable in modern versions of ZDoom. Some of the effects that Chris mentioned in the .TXT have been smoothed over judging by a comparison between both it and Eternity. The particulars of bits like the explosives are still off by a bit, though. Some of the SFX are silent while in others the height is off, appearing over gun barrels rather than at the tips. He also had some scripts to kill you if you took a tumble in certain locations. A few of these were apparently broken back when he tested in v0.33. The most notable example that I could find is E1M4's train ride. With all of Lutz's art and artifice I highly recommend using the Eternity engine for an untainted experience.

P:AR is not a warm nostalgia trip through 1993; it is very much an episode aimed at folks who find its para-realism antiquated. To this end, Reborn is a fantastic demonstration of how far the Boom engine can be pushed to deliver an experience that emulates the more dynamic environments of post-Doom shooters. It's also gorgeously detailed and lighted and its cheats invoke the image of slopes and other impossible applications of idtech1 geometry. I wasn't sure whether Lutz was capable of outdoing himself after Caverns of Darkness but I now suspect that there remain further heights to his sector engineering.

by Christopher Lutz

Hangar BE1M1
This level shares some basic similarities with Lutz's E2M5 from SubP:AR but it is decidedly its own. It's a dense and interconnected shipping complex joined by cargo transportation rails as well as criss-crossing catwalks and elevators. The tracks are actually a hazard and aren't there to help you move around. As an opening Chris doesn't show off a huge number of tricks but you do get bits like a crate that you can punch through. It starts off a memorable sequence which ends in the acquisition of your first green armor. I also like how he handled the ships in the northeast hangar. You can physically enter them! The spinning lights in those corner rooms are pretty cool, too. No real combat standouts since so much of it is plinking away at monsters with the pistol. You do get a shotgun but there are only a handful of demons compared to the zombified staff and imps.

E1M2Toxin Refinery
A bit more like what I expected. This level features nukage but if you fall in it then you're generally going to die. It makes for some perilous platforming, particularly with the busted catwalk bit on your way to the distant pumping station. The wireframe dome to the west is a neat setpiece. The thing that blew my mind - though I'd definitely considered the possibility - is the moving platform which is used to access the blue and red key doors. A very neat visual. The ambiance of the room is pretty cool, too. It's a shame that the overgrown organics are tucked into hideaway secrets because they add some great visual variety. The combat is quite the grind; Lutz debuts plenty of cacodemons and Barons and your strongest weapons are the shotgun and chaingun.

Another portion of the UAC's waste treatment facilities. It manages to avoid feeling quite as slow through fielding a smaller complement of monsters. It also affords the player a couple of rocket launchers, ideal for the few Baron-centric encounters. The level has a few great effects. The first consists of the Half-Life industrial fans seen at the beginning. Explosive plungers feature, too, and remind me of similar explosives in Caverns of Darkness. The most impressive static centerpiece is an enormous crane, visible from the beginning and essential to progress. The gradual flooding of the cargo bay is the thing that really blew my mind, though. The blue key door is a delightfully dickish detail.

E1M9Lost Barracks
A simple installation layout with a few twists. Using the gun battery to blow open the barrier to the red key is pretty cute. I also like the several secrets that require destroying objects, most memorably the power supply for the plasma gun. The complex is full of zombies and imps; several progression points involve handling hordes which have built up around natural chokepoints. You get a showdown with a Cyberdemon in a helicopter bay that would make Gusta proud. It's not exactly thrilling between using rockets and shotgun shells. Having the plasma gun and its secreted ammo might speed things up, though. Exiting into the rail station from the previous level is a clever touch and makes the Phobos base feel more contiguous.

A train level! The cheatery done with the scrolling scenery makes this the most convincing one that I've played yet. A lot of the cars are transporting machinery so you don't get stale room clearing. On the other hand, they're a pain in the ass to climb around or on. Falling off won't kill you in ZDoom but the train will quickly leave your ass behind. As a result this level is technically brilliant but may frustrate players who don't like skirting around on ledges to maybe get a shot at a Baron of Hell. The cacodemon assaults might be a bit much, too. The most outrageous aspect of the scenario, though, is that the Phobos locomotive runs on coal.

E1M5The Dig Site
This one is about less special effects and more  the aesthetic and mood. The diagonal steel girders are neat but the true showcase is the enormous underground scene glimpsed first from the starting area balcony. It has a stunning look and I felt the tension build as I slowly made my way to the ground floor. It comes with an appropriate enough fight, too. Not too crazy but not too easy. My favorite bit of sector machinery is the elevator that takes you down to the hangar bay. The utility vehicles look pretty cool, too. I dig the bulldozer. The scenic view of the marble teleporter pad is another great, ominous visual. An awesome adventure.

Leaving the Phobos theme for the ruins below. The marble palace has a Caverns of Darkness vibe. It's a neat take since all of Lutz's substantial CoD levels were techbase-antiquity hybrids. The sector machinery on display is among the most impressive of the set. You'll use flowing water to spin wheels to turn gears as well as generate steam to push pistons that open doors. The combat is pretty good, too. It kicks off with a hectic shootout since you have a healthy mix of shotgun guys on the ground to grab your attention. Meanwhile a peanut gallery of imps at various hights pelt you with fireballs. The spectres and cacodemons as mobility spoilers are the final ingredients for a dynamic shootout. Lots of gorgeous visuals; I like the look of the lonely outpost to the northwest as well as the initial palace facade. The eastern annex may be the most difficult portion of the journey. This is simply due to your limited movement while under siege from cacos and lost souls. Oh, and the Cyberdemon on the return trip if you want to hit 100%.

E1M7The Beneath
In the darkest depths the highlights are quite literal as you see the world through Lutz's carefully diminishing auras. This is a great adventure level that leaves a lot of the author's trademark sector machinery in the toolbox. My favorite cheat is a tie between the infernal cavern complex in the deep and the orange light cast in the firey lost soul sanctum. It's darkly beautiful. Every inch is dripping with atmosphere and the relatively sparse monster population lets you drink it in. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of Barons but the dearth of zombies is even more interesting. The combat is almost exclusively against imps, spectres, cacodemons, and lost souls. It felt a little slow since the common imp seemed to be especially resistant toward my shotgun blasts. The wide, open spaces means that the meaty monsters rarely feel oppressive.

Anomaly RebornE1M8
The setup with the metal tracks in the void sort of reminds me of Caverns of Darkness's "The Stand". This is a much simpler concept, though. The biggest surprise for me is the modified Spiderdemon but the simple attack change works pretty well. Especially if you goad it into fighting the initial Cyberdemon. The arena looks nice for a final fight location and the surprise wave almost got me. Not a whole lot of spectacle but I enjoyed the callback to the teleporter pad seen back in E1M5.



  1. Finally! I was waiting since a while for this review to be posted. I must say this is an interesting wad and Chris Lutz is a talented mapper. It's also interesting he chose Boom/MBF as the standard port this time and a rather unusual change of starting the game with only 55% health (like you said, to simulate a plane crash). I agree that Eternity Engine should be used for getting the best experience of this wad. It is my favorite source port and I try to use to play many popular Vanilla/Boom/MBF sets unless PrBoom+ is the better choice in some cases due to complevels. I heard that Eternity will get one day complevels, though. That would be excellent to have and it would help in rare situations like UAC_DEAD that is unplayable in Eternity based on what I remember.

    Though speaking of PrBoom+, which would be right complevel to play P:AR? I have been testing PrBoom+ as of lately and started becoming one of my favorite ports after setting it correctly (I never liked how the default settings look with squished status bar and plain weird resolution) and I'm wondering if it's either -complevel 9 (Boom) or -complevel 11 (MBF). I'm asking as it might help other people who read this page and use PrBoom+. Note that I haven't started playing it yet, I've still got a few more exams to finish in next 2 weeks (I'm busy with Master Degree) and after that I will hop into this wad in Eternity Engine.

    BTW aren't the wads Alpha Accident and Nihility both from 2016?


    1. You are right about AA_E1 and Nihility re: 2016.

      vdgg recorded all of his UV-MAX demos for PAR using -complevel 9 so I don't know whether Lutz actually used any of MBF's features.

    2. Thanks for clarifying!


  2. I'd have sword you reviewed this mapset already.