Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Blind Alley S., "Spirit World - Headquarters" (BNDALYS.WAD)

by Gene Bird

Spirit World - Headquarters marks a bit of a turning point in Bird's published level design. I would characterize all of Gene's maps released thus far as stringy and linear with occasional hubs and spokes. BLNDALYS is not overwhelmingly different in its execution but there is one big change in how he executes this trope, somewhat heralded by his previous release, Monster Mansion. The "S" designator denotes the level's position in the overall running of what could have been a late-occupying episode for Doom II. BNDALYR would have been MAP27 and this would have been MAP28. Things change, though, as the letter "Y" was ascribed to MAP15. Spirit World - HQ is a MAP01 replacement for Doom II and was released in early 2003.

I've wrote this before but I'm not done writing it yet. Blind Alley has a pretty simple plot that boils down to your hometown being invaded. Gene didn't add a lot of context as to who, when, or where, so you're free to imagine it as your hometown or Doomguy's or someone else entirely. Many of the level settings have a pinch of real world flavor. There's a sewers network for Nukage; a sort of pier for Boardwalk; and even a palatial estate (at least as far as Bird cared to render) for Monster Mansion. Spirit World - Headquarters is about what you might expect as long as you almost completely disregard the Doom II-derived title. This map has virtually nothing to do with the original MAP28.

The big change-up: BNDALYS starts with a sandbox! Bird had a small-scale one of these in BNDALYR but the over-inflated size and opening area gives Spirt World - HQ a completely different character. Gene claims that the level has a ton of health and ammo but I don't find the former to be entirely accurate. There are three large buildings in the first segment and two of them have blacked-out alcoves on the side that house, among other things, hitscanners. It's pretty easy to get a good bit of health shaved off before you realize what sort of danger you're in though at this early in the level you're not really set back from a clean restart.

Spirit World - Headquarters is a bit cheeky, too. The main building has a sort of step-pyramid construction that brings to mind the Tyrell Corporation. The southeastern structure is actually a warehouse that's storing... sets of the props that tend to populate all Doom levels. Some of the objects are plants in a sort of lamp-lit arrangement but the others are red and marble columns as well as evil eyes. You sort of lose the DoomCute once you enter the building proper but there is at least one fun moment where lost souls are kept in a wall cage like, I don't know, a fish tank. Other details, like the crane in the western storage unit, are more on the banal side of DoomCute.

The most interesting detail to me is the cool-looking forest-like area at the northeast edge of the map. It's been about a year but it still looked familiar and, sure enough, it's literally copy-and-pasted from The Warf. Even the monster placement is functionally identical - lacking and the player enters both rooms in a similar fashion to find Blind Alley's piecemeal release, though, makes it more challenging to believe in any sort of specific timeline of creation. Who made who? It'll be interesting to hear Gene's own recollection and see whether this little grove managed to find its way into any of the other Blind Alley entries.

Bird has a simple but effective combat style that puts you behind the combat shogun and asks you to blast the absolute shit out of monsters. BNDALYS is no different in this regard but the Hellspawn-toting alcoves in the opening area add a bit of depth to the formula, whether or not you need it in order to be satisfied. There is a wrinkle that some source port players will be unable to enjoy as Gene actually has a clumsy ghost monster generator, encountered partway through the level's second half. If you want to fight the spooky zombies then you'll have to play this in vanilla or a source port that emulates the arch-vile ghost bug. Without, you know, needing a manual entry in a compatibility document. You can otherwise stand in awe at the archie through his little candle-lit window and wonder just what the heck is going on in there.

There are a few neat combat scenarios, too. One of my favorite moments occurs toward the end of the first half once you've accessed the northernmost building. Getting on the roof causes a decent-sized squad of beasties to teleport on to the upper tier of the opposing office pyramid, making for one of Bird's more dynamic ambushes. Enemies teleporting in as an indiscriminate horde are a mainstay of Gene's encounter design but the execution felt particularly well here. The beefy battle in the yellow key grove toward the end is just about as fun as when I played it in The Warf but it feels like it's cheating to mention it.

This is probably the most difficult Blind Alley level to navigate to date! It has several switch- / puzzle-type scenarios that lead to secret areas and which are required in order to progress through the map. The two main ones are encountered early on and while they are both fairly obvious by my standards it may throw the average player for a loop. Not that such an individual is really clamoring to play Spirit World - Headquarters in 2021. For the uninitiated, each of the warehouse buildings has a usable wall that must be activated in order to access the path to the next major switch. They're marked by decorated textures so the onus is mostly on the player for recognizing and speaking the secret language of Doom.

Secrets aside, it's still Bird to the core. I talked about the sandbox at the beginning of the level but this is still very much a linear mapset. The office and storage building complex only gives the player a huge yard where they are free to divine which building must be explored first, soon discovering that each must be accessed in order. The second half of the level is a typical, stringy Gene dungeon but it feels unusually inspired. The marble room with slow-rising staircase looks pretty cool and the reception / security station is a little delight with the aforementioned lost soul sconce. This is followed by an attempt at jazzing up a few plain room shapes with odd ceiling structures. They sort of reminds me of the things that Flynn and Krause put up except those were usually made in the image of some kind of futuristic machinery. More like the ending room / starting area of The Warf / Monster Mansion, say, and less the opening structure in the former.

Spirit World - Headquarters is one of the coolest Blind Alley levels yet. I mean, it probably won't tickle the fancy of anyone who is looking back from Community Chest 4 to CCHEST2 as BNDALYS also made it in as the latter's MAP16. It's a fairly relaxing play for Doom veterans, though, and if you enjoyed any aspect of previous entries in the series then it's an easy recommendation.


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