Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Other Side of Phobos (OSP.WAD)

by Karthik Abhiram Krishna

K.A. had a lengthy span of small solo releases. His most active period spanned 2001-2003 during the slow burn following the source port boom. Karthik's main claim to fame is 2002's Congestion Control, which found a coveted spot in Doomworld's Top 100 WADs of All Time retrospective. I would not have guessed this while playing most of his pre-CCT material, though. The good news is that 2002's OSP is a giant leap forward in terms of level design. This makes the transition from rough and semi-competent to award winner a little less jarring. The Other Side of Phobos is an E1M1 replacement for the original Doom.

Abhiram has included a more in-depth story though it's ultimately business as usual. Doomguy's squad of space marines stormed the Phobos base and the sole survivor is presumably waging war in Hell with an army of one. There was another installation on the opposite side of the same moon, though, and the UAC was just twiddling its thumbs in the hopes that no one would find out about its trans-dimensional gate. It's inevitably attacked by infernal forces and you're part of a different squad sent to clear it out. Everyone but the player either dies or is possessed. Ever the diligent soldier, you are committed to finishing the mission. Alone.

OSP represents a paradigm shift in Karthik's level design. I don't know what the catalyst was - maybe studying Romero's architecture in order to build a recognizable but not "pure" E1 map. It definitely paid off, though. All of his older levels utilize the same plane of action but The Other Side of Phobos has two. This may not sound like much but it's a wonder when the author is using features such as windows to push interconnectivity. Abhiram clearly finds stairs to be too difficult since every vertical transition is accomplished through either riding a lift or leaping out a window. This is the quickest way to return to the main area's outdoor section after snagging the blue key, for instance. It makes the map feel more fun to explore and better portrays its three-dimensional space.

I still see some of the weird corridor spaces of Out of Phase but the author has come a long way from Ick and Chaos Punch. He has attempted to soften the look of the level by filing off many of its hard corners into 45-degree diagonals. There are also a few freestanding platform / wall hybrid things and the construction of the western bunkers once again belies his awkward methodology. You wouldn't know it but for looking at the way that the lines are drawn on the automap, though. The little tech maze feels the closest to Karthik's early levels but it works since the playing space isn't as cramped, setting just the right amount of claustrophobia.

The human element is present in some of the map's cheekiest moments. My favorite is the yellow key door off the starting area. Right before you snag the card a series of blue locked bamboo poles come down to direct you to the next objective. If you should return after snagging its device then you'll find a similar red obstruction in place. There's also a secret room with an obtuse opening mechanic given that its trigger is near the player spawn but the teleporter itself is unavailable and unviewable until you enter the final, outdoor area. Abhiram also demonstrates the ability to create monster closets but uses disconnected platform walls for a couple of the tech maze alcoves. I like to think that they represent the monsters tearing down the barriers to ambush you.

Most of the combat is not particularly challenging but the closer confines gives the plethora of hitscanners better opportunities to whittle your health down. If you let them get in too many cheap shots then you'll be SOL at the finale. The awkward Baron fight kits you out with a rocket launcher but you have to survive two spectres bearing down on your ass in toxins to ride the elevator up. It's much simpler if you grab the secret enviro suit but you have to be able to soak the damage that you'll take when you run around the star platform. Your mileage may vary if you're capable of figuring out the soul sphere secret. As far as pure fun goes, I had the most in the courtyard with the nukage pool since you can move around a bit and in fact must do so in order to snag more shotgun ammo.

The Other Side of Phobos isn't the most distinguished E1 map that I've ever played but it's fascinating to see Karthik make such a major leap in development as an author. It would be a cute entry in an E1-themed project; I like it more than some of the submissions to DoomCenter's two-week contest, at least. If you can't get enough of being Knee Deep in the Dead and aren't too picky about whether it emulates Romero's style then give this a shot.


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