Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Dark Tide (DT-LUTZ.WAD)

by Chris Lutz

2017 was Chris's biggest year to date. He could have just ridden the high from having helped to flesh out 2016's No End In Sight but he also finished off his ambitious Hellscape, a re-envisioning of Doom II's final episode. His last surprise was a single level release - Dark Tide. This MAP01 replacement is meant for Boom-compatible ports but as with DHS Lutz recommends an engine that has more complex Z clipping. Vertical mouselook is also a nicety to make the gameplay considerably less frustrating. As far as WADs go, you can't get by with just DOOM2.WAD. DT-LUTZ also requires Team TNT's resource package for The Return.

Dark Tide doesn't have a story, but it's obvious to see where it draws inspiration from. This is a huge-ass castle level surrounded by water in the tradition of Eternal Doom's "Darkdome" (MAP12). The only thing missing is Rich Nagel's "Death March" or indeed a custom MIDI of any kind. D_RUNNIN feels tired to me, but I've been playing a lot of MAP01 replacements recently (and more to come), so I have an unusually biased perspective. While the general look of the fortress is similar, you shouldn't run away if you're fearing a puzzle-rich experience. Dark Tide has none of "Darkdome"'s backtracking or indeed anything on the level of the famous skull switch finale.

It's still a rather large and highly interconnected castle. The navigational challenge is in exploring the map in the pursuit of all three keys. One of the structure's far reaches houses a BFG, which is a nice pickup for a few of the more intense fights. The blue key is probably the best situated of the collectibles since it's on a great big ship in an inner dock. The player's natural inclination should be to visit the vessel and check it out since it's visually distinct from the ubiquitous battlements. The latter situation describes the yellow one, but it's located so close to the start that, depending on your strategy, it will likely be the first key found.

The red skull is tucked away in an obscure location. You'll find it if you're fully exploring the castle but if you're not any good at reading the automap then it might present a problem. It's viewable if you dive into the surrounding water and look around the outside, though, which is when I saw it first. Upon reaching the three-key door - no red in hand - I remembered where I had seen it and quickly located the lift to take me down to it. Untangling the castle's layout and building up a geometric mental map is the main task at hand... once you get inside. The particulars of the fortress's architecture make this a bit of a challenge, though.

Lutz - and resident playtester dew - champion mouselook because Chris has peppered many of the castle walls both inside and out with alcoves and windows that are typically populated by chaingunners. Sometimes they're shotgun guys or imps, particularly on the battlements, but hitscanner surprises alight in every corner of Dark Tide. The start ought to set your expectations since player exposure is at a maximum and the author does a great job of forcing you forward into hostile territory. The approach to the entrance door is a no man's land with little if any cover and a couple of cacodemons spawn in behind you once you venture out from the beginning keep. The goal on harder difficulties was to force you into the castle proper where you can eventually find a little hideaway and get your bearings. Determined players can grab the blue armor and tough it out, balancing shots between tower snipers and the meaty cacodemons / Hell knights on the ground.

The interior is still a tough nut to crack. The mancubus / ring o' monsters welcoming party may set you back on your heels and, as mentioned, hitscanners are always waiting in relative cover to score some cheap attrition shots. Most of the actual combat scenarios don't feel inspired but I like the main hall and its Cyberdemon / Baron dynamic. It has a great classic Doom II / infighting thing going on. The yellow and red key ambushes cram multi-front teleporter spawns down your throat and I found the random monster deployment (including commandos and revenants) challenging to react to. The blue feels more like a pitched battle, but this is mostly because of the number of skeletons in the balcony.

The finale may be the most fun fight of the entire piece since its various elements do a great job of interacting with each other. The ever-present hitscanners get to earn the ire of a central Cyberdemon and he does not fuck around. If you fully conquered the castle then the BFG will make short work of the other dangerous elements including two Spiderdemons and an aerial assault force. Some more carefully crafted combat could have been cool but mixing the tactically-oriented sniper placement with more cerebral, "modern" encounter design might come as a bit too much. Throw in the Eternal Doom-style puzzles that I love, and it would have been pulling teeth the whole way.

Chris does take some of the heat off of the typical foibles involved in non-linear level exploration. I was surprised to see so many accessible pickups for mid-tier weapons as well as backpacks. Some of the guns have neat little implied stories in the environmental design, whether it's rocket launchers in parapets like cannon towers or plasma guns having their own gory altars. There's also a lot of health lying around in case you are eternally outfoxed by boxed-up hitscanners. I will say that it isn't impossible or even improbable to clear Dark Tide without mouselook. I did it myself just to see where the hard parts would be! I wouldn't personally recommend it, though.

Of course, DT-LUTZ is gorgeous. Chris has done a great job of exercising The Return's assets and the level has his typically outstanding approach to sector lighting. As with Hellscape, the author has shied away from many of the special effects and painstaking voodoo doll scripting that marked Caverns of Darkness and Phobos: Anomaly Reborn. There are a few midtexture bridges, though, most of which feature in the front-facing fortress facade. It's interesting to see him pull back from careful linedef sorcery, which was so emblematic of his 2002-2003 career. Lutz tried to give Boom the appearance of closing the gap between it and the features of more modern first-person shooters. I feel that some of the Eternal Doom authors like Kvernmo, Schmitz, and Flynn tried to similarly elevate the apparent capabilities of the vanilla executable. Now, in 2017 - and drawing on the influence of the architects of Boom - Dark Tide feels restrained.

This release is a no-brainer if you love the look of castles in general or Sverre's "Darkdome" in particular. If this describes you, then the lack of switch-fu / puzzles may be a disappointment. We are a bit of a minority in the community, though. Take what you can get; the similarly-minded Legacy of Heroes has its own voice as well. The tactically-oriented clearing which is a part of this may be a bit much for some folks, but you can always dip the difficulty down to reduce the sheer attrition. I enjoyed myself; perhaps you can, too.


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