Friday, February 14, 2020

Catastrophe (CATA.WAD)

by Kevin "Magikal" Reay

The first Community Chest was something like a Broadway Melody of 2002. A few of the involved authors had been publishing stuff for a few years - as early as 1998 in the case of Rex Claussen. Many of the contributors had not displayed their creative force until '02, though. Kevin Reay's debut was the mastadonic Industrial, an impressive and cryptic array of sector machinery. He followed it up late in the year with Catastrophe, a Boom-compatible MAP01 replacement for Doom II. The author specifically recommended the use of Legacy over other ports due to some effects that fake complex three-dimensional geometry. I didn't notice any shortcomings in ZDoom, though.

CATA actually has a bit of a plot, but it's scanty on some of the details. It's a classic "mission gone wrong" scenario where you're in a compromised position. It isn't clear whether you are the sole survivor of a squad or a single infiltrator who got caught. In either case, you're stuck somewhere in a complex in Hell with the only escape route being toward the banks of the river Acheron and up one of its tributaries. Whether it borrows from Dante's cosmology or an even more classical Greek tradition is left up to the imagination of the player. You're stranded, though, and must battle your way out of what turns out to be a highly secured compound.

Industrial was a sprawling smorgasbord of challenging gameplay scenarios whether it involved raw combat, traps, puzzle elements, or simply navigating its layout. Catastrophe has all of these same pieces as well as a certain focus that the former lacks as you spiral outward from your home base. Kevin sets the tone at the beginning with a switch puzzle where the reward is a super shotgun and ammo. Failure results in getting slammed by opposed packs of former human sergeants led by kickboxing skeletons. The central starting location is heavily fortified with a moat of revenants; an outer yard policed by arachnotrons; and cardinal-direction chambers that feature their own, miniature scenarios.

Figuring out how to proceed is a daunting proposition but Reay tries to help you out with the copious midtexture bridges. The blue key still presents an essential conundrum but if you pay attention to the geometry of its pedestal then you will be pointed in the right direction. Having it grants access to what I think is the single biggest progression wall. The bifurcated catwalk chamber isn't horrible on its face but moving beyond there to the Hell noble balcony is rough. You're basically safe from the green fireballs but it takes awhile to grind down the Knights and there aren't enough shells to kill everything on the platform. I had to depend on the Barons to take a walk toward the yellow key and then jump down into the arachnotron moat to clear out the first two. This is the opportune moment since you will probably have a lot of bullets and it's relatively trivial to stunlock them using the chaingun. From here you can easily clear the other six and figure out the return elevator to the central hub. Which, you may have determined, has a lot of shells tied up in shotgun guys.

At this point, Catastrophe gets a little weird. Kevin uses Boom's instant and silent teleporters for a couple of mindfuck moments that feel like proto-Impossible. There's an infinite stairway toward the red key card and, immediately afterward, a maze of Dr. Lao. The entanglement is actually pretty small and not difficult to navigate in spite of the fact that the expanded location is hidden on the automap. A lot of its real estate is tied up in a pair of doofy rectangular spirals. I'd be more wary of the inevitable revenant-from-behind given the prevalence of this sort of setup in Industrial. The labyrinth ultimately ends in a strange, fiery room with a meaty teleporter invasion but you don't want to exit without havin the blue skull in hand unless you're thirsty for an immediate return trip.

The second half features a handful of large, setpiece areas. The concrete sluice is a stunning piece of architecture and has some wild, entrenched opposition. The mancubus end chamber and outdoor courtyard fight give you quality time to cut loose with rockets, always a delight. The area behind the yellow skull door is a wicked cool infernal cathedral with a lovely cheat that adds the appearance of a more complex three-dimensional space. It has another great visual in having scads of monsters appear from the semblance of a lower basement in the middle of the floor, the "doors" slamming shut on your approach. It's a great scene and while you don't get another key you do snag the BFG.

This is the final piece of the central structure's puzzle since you weren't going to be clearing out the revenants any other way. It also draws a line between the mysterious two-Cyberdemon alcove and the guarded ammo cache / invul sphere. Your last treat is an enormous, underground magma chamber that purports to be the river Acheron. It looks pretty cool and is mostly about the scenery since the majority of the combat is a long, slow ledge crawl up multiple tiers. Some of the effects of the blood altars aren't immediately apparent but you don't have a great many places to poke around during the climb.

Catastrophe has a similar spirit to Industrial but its pacing feels less stop-start. A lot of this is due to the layout and not feeling like you're only inching along in progression whenever you make some headway. I appreciate the size of the extraneous chambers compared to, say, the escape rooms of death in Kevin's debut. The door may still slam shut behind you in some scenarios but the resulting combat is fairly up front and offers you room to react and maybe even take cover. Apart from occasional, skeletal sneak attacks, of course. The heart of the complex is perhaps the biggest exception, which would make sense given that it was likely the first thing to be built by the author.

CATA won't make you a fan if you hated INDUSTRL, of course. Its puzzle game is still quite dickish at times but it also feels front-loaded in this regard. I feel that Reay took his craft to the next level. The silent teleporter bits add some neat wrinkles in the presentation, first keeping a key tantalizingly out of reach and second transforming a previously simple triangular room into its own adventure. I also appreciate how the BFG feels like a key unto itself since it's so essential to unravelling the central compound and the red skull. It's interesting to see the appearance of the level move away from homely, classic Doom II and toward more complex and beautiful architecture / detailing the farther you travel. At the same time, the heart of the structure has Reay's craziest puzzle stuff with things becoming more simple the further you travel from the beginning area.

I really enjoyed Catastrophe. I was dreading Kevin's maps in the original Community Chest due to the level of virtriol I'd seen levelled at them. After having played this and Industrial, though, I not only understand why they are so maligned but am also eager to see the bittersweet swan song of his unique genius.


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