Saturday, March 7, 2020


by Brad "Vorpal" Spencer

2001 was a pretty big year for Brad. When I last left our hero we had just seen Maximum Breakdown in 1999, a level that tested some of the fledgling ZDoom engine's capabilities. 2000 gave us the publication of Atomic Tomb, a hard-hitting OG Doom level in Spencer's swampy style, as well as a few deathmatch releases (Freonic Craze, Fury of Procyon, and Terror's Wing). 2001 brought one more of the latter - Sector X-9: Silo Control - as well as the first version of Alien Vendetta, which had five Vorpal ventures. Nexus came in between and marks the logical end of the author's trend from ZDoom to Boom, finally settling into vanilla. A result of his participation in AV, perhaps? This is a MAP01 replacement for Doom II and should play back in anything, though Brad takes care to stress the original .EXE.

Nexus does not have a story. Rather, Spencer attempts to provide some insight into its creation. The author intended to make something arcade-ish due to his fondness of shooters like Darius and Galaga. Rather than have individual maps for each level, though, the sections are separated with "airlock"-like segments. The presentation is great since the appearance of these areas is consistent, stocked with supplies including a refill to full health, and scrolling graphics that inform you of the oncoming tier. The stations have other goodies, too, like ammo, but get what you can because once the door to the next area shuts you're not coming back.

Brad gave each of these levels their own name in the .TXT. "Prelude" is the opener. It is a single, simple room to kickstart the action by dumping you into the thick of a fight with some zombies, a few beefier monsters, and a drip feed of lost souls. It's a little disorienting but nothing that an experienced player can't handle. "Sideswipe" comes next. It's a "J"-shaped techbase corridor as well as a bit of a shocker. The enemy density is through the roof given the ground floor invasion of zombies and incumbent demonkin. If ever there was a time to sit back in the recharge room and deal with the initial army then it's here. It's not like pushing to the arachnotron-guarded teleporter and advancing to the imp-encrusted upper platform is to your advantage.

"Leap of Faith" takes things to an even greater extreme. The punishing setup is based around two lines of large columns set between opposed balconies of revenants. The beefy roaming monsters - cacodemons and Hell knights - are great space blockers considering that you're driven to handle the opening wave of zombies first. Spencer has placed rewards atop the end point of each column for deft players but they seem like cruel reminders considering the chaingunner staffing. The most important bit - don't accidentally pick up the rad suit until you're going to enter the slimy skeleton sections, preferably after killing the revenants.

"Hall of Heroes" has more of a trappy feel. It isn't as difficult but the first fight is a lock-in vs. three Barons. The decorations make maneuvering tricky. The ambience of the crypt is neat and builds to the breakout moment where you enter the eponymous corridor and potentially trigger an ambush. It can be an ugly fight since the alcoves fill up with chaingunners while zombies led by arch-vile generals teleport to block you off at either escape route. You get a major power upgrade, though, since Brad takes this moment to give you both the rocket launcher and plasma gun. There is a very fast way to cheese the ambush due to the nature of the trigger and the provided weapons. It may not be sporting, exactly, but it beats the hall of pain.

"Redemption" is a cyberdemon-studded boss shooter finale, minus the brain. It's a game of survival with a super-crazy beginning since there are three Cybies, two arch-viles, and not a lot of cover. You only have to last until a timed trigger takes Romero's head out but this will be easier said than done for the average player, not to forget the throng of pain elementals. The situation is tough on UV but Spencer knocks most of the challenge out on HMP, removing two Cyberdemons and both archies. It's one of the only truly noticeable changes. It's interesting to see just how little Brad tweaked between settings, one of the other major examples being the removal of the cacodemons in "Leap of Faith". If Nexus seems too much to handle early on then you might as well give it a miss because it isn't going to get any easier.

I like the idea behind the level's style but the execution is more than arcade tough. The final scenario is a great example of how fiddly the combat can feel, leading to frustrating gameplay when the author's boot is placed so firmly on the player's throat. I don't know whether Nexus ideally embodies arcade-style gameplay. Every title has its own quirks but I think of there as being a generally straightforward approach to their challenges. Doom's predilection toward dungeon crawler-like traps runs counter to the image that I have in my head and this figures pretty heavily into the map's encounter design. The linear progression and "airlock" / recharge stations feel like the cleanest manifestations of Brad's intent. It would be nice to see something in this vein that is less insistent on cramming monsters down your throat.

Speaking of which, all of Nexus's stages except for the opener leverage teleporter-introduced monsters as a gimmick. Well, the last one is via boss shooter. The constant introduction of low-tier zombies in parts 2-4 gives the final product a feel somewhere between lock-in arena fights and the Invasion genre. In this aspect, one of Doom's features is intuitively exploited for the intended arcade / angle, echoing the waves and patterns of enemies that appear during a shoot 'em up. The setup actualizes when moving into the second stage since it's naturally advantageous to hang back in the transition area and let the mess of enemies come to you. It might have been more true to form had Spencer used imps instead as far as dodging projectiles goes but they don't have the same popcorn impact as mowing down zombies with the chaingun.

For those who love the challenge, though, Nexus offers yet another enemy-rich blastathon for you to sort your way through. The level's middle serves as a solid example of "newschool" combat. In fact, each of the stages has its own distinct flavor of action. I'd love to see more maps in this format, if not necessarily the particulars of the setups.


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