Dive Into DOOM, Volume 1: Of Temples and Techbases
Welcome, everyone, to the first edition of a series I’d like to try out. I’ve been playing objectively too much DOOM lately, to the noticeable expense of other things I’d like to get done, so here’s an article that makes me feel like I haven’t been strictly wasting my time. Dive into Doom is a potential irregular series where I do short write-ups about five DOOM WADs that I’ve played recently. With nearly three decades of community support, classic DOOM has amassed a ludicrously large library of user-made experiences, many of which are extremely impressive, high-effort projects that are honestly more fun to playthrough than pretty much any of the actual commercial classic DOOM titles. If you’re interested in giving them a shot, it can be difficult to know where to start, what might be too difficult for you to really enjoy, etc., and hopefully this series can help provide some answers to those questions, and also just bring to light some hard work that might be unappreciated by people outside of the niche of the DOOM community.
For the format, I’ll introduce the WAD, write a little about my overall thoughts, then dedicate a little section to my favorite and least favorite maps, as well as a bit on the map that gave me the most trouble. By talking a bit about these things, I can hopefully help describe the general positive qualities, negative qualities, and design philosophy of a given megawad. This time around, I’ll be covering 5 fairly high profile projects that served as my introduction to custom DOOM. There’s not much more that needs to be said, so let’s get into the WADs!
#1: Eviternity (Dragonfly et al, 2019)
Eviternity made my Top 11 Games I Played in 2021 list, coming in at a solid #6 on a list populated by some extraordinarily strong contenders. It was the first custom DOOM WAD I ever played. I had seen it been lavishly praised for its visual chops and gameplay design, and eventually I decided to give it a shot myself. Needless to say, Eviternity impressed me enough that I went and played at least four more DOOM WADs. If you’re familiar with it, it’s not hard to see why.
Eviternity is largely the work of the mapper Dragonfly, with some additional mapping credits going to veteran designers like Skillsaw and Jimmy Paddock. It uses a custom texture pack and features many original music compositions by Jimmy Paddock. There are some really good songs in here, and the custom texture pack serves very well for Eviternity’s varied aesthetic. Eviternity is divided into six episodes, each of which having a different aesthetic, and all of them are executed really well. There’s some familiar stylings, like the hell and techbase episodes, but there are also the more out-there ice and heaven-themed worlds that felt extremely refreshing and still don’t resemble a lot of other maps I’ve played. Eviternity’s maps are intricately detailed and feature some extremely impressive architecture, but how’s the actual gameplay?
Luckily, it’s just as good. Eviternity is challenging, as pretty much all of the campaigns on this list are, but it feels fairly consistently fair. It makes use of a few custom enemies that add a new layer to combat, and I definitely appreciate cutting the Baron of Hell for an enemy that actually serves as a significant threat to the player. Some of the other custom enemies, like the Nightmare Demon and Former Captain, slide almost unnoticably into the flow of combat, feeling like they’ve always been there. There are big hordes of monsters, but aside from the chapter-closing “boss” levels (which are mostly huge arena fights), it never becomes slaughter-y or tedious. What makes Eviternity’s gameplay so good is that it feels like it strikes a balance between the more incidental combat that the commercial WADs sported and the more intense, discrete fight-based encounter design of something more modern. It’s able to capture the best of both worlds in a way that really makes playing through the WAD a joy.
Favorite Map: It might seem unassuming on the surface, but I’d list Map 24: Gossamer as my absolute favorite DOOM level of all time. I adore the aesthetic ‒ I interpreted it as a demonic port town on a sea of blood ‒ and the level has a really impressive economy of space that really pulls the whole experience of exploring the map together. There’s just something about this level that I absolutely adore and it stands out as my top pick from Eviternity’s roster.
Least Favorite Map: It’s hard to pick a map from Eviternity that I actively disliked. The only two that really stand out in my memory as being below par are Map 12: Brisk, which I just remember being generally not very fun to play, and Map 26: Transcendence, which had a fairly annoying “big-guns only” combat gimmick that wasn’t really that compelling. It’s hard to say that Map 26 is the worst level, considering its mind-blowing and engine-lagging architecture, and the surprisingly fleshed out objective of unchaining a demonic tower protruding into heaven itself and watching it sink back into the depths it came from is honestly sick as hell, so I think I’m giving to to Map 12.
Hardest Map: Map 32: Anagnorisis is an hour-long, crushing experience. It sounds unappealing on paper, but the experience of facing up to Anagnorisis, being constantly showered with projectiles from the cliffs beyond the massive, city-sized techbase complex until you finally get the chance to turn the tables is immensely satisfying. Anagnorisis is extremely difficult, and the idea of doing the map saveless knowing that concluding fight is coming sounds like it would put my stress levels beyond something safe, but I would consider Anagnorisis my second favorite map in Eviternity and definitely the WAD’s hardest.
#2: Back To Saturn X Episode 1: Get Out of My Stations (Esselfortium et al, 2012)
Back to Saturn X is, as described by BTSX E1’s text file, a “three episode partial conversion for Doom II”, making it technically the largest project that I’m covering here. Of course, we’re only talking about the project’s first episode, which is still nearly the length of commercial DOOM II, so I think it’s more than enough to cover on its own. Besides, BTSX E2 isn’t even 100% complete yet, and BTSX E3 hasn’t even seen the light of day. BTSX (both E1 and E2) is also featured as an official add-on in the Unity Port of DOOM II, meaning that it has the potential to become one of the most played community WADs out there. Those who may have played BTSX E1 on the Unity Port might also be slightly confused, since a lot of the map titles were changed.
The reason those changes were made was due to one of BTSX’s signature quirks. All of the map titles, episode titles, and a significant portion of the intro screen text were all taken from song titles, album titles, and lyrics from the band Guided by Voices, which is a cute quirk, but also has its drawbacks. Map titles aren’t particularly reminiscent of the actual map tied to them, and the map titles are also very long, which can make it very hard to differentiate the maps in your head. This is also accentuated by BTSX’s design philosophy. BTSX is kind of like the Doom 3 of DOOM II WADs ‒ it’s solidly designed throughout and extremely aesthetically consistent, but the lack of variance leads to a lot of the experience blending together in my head. BTSX’s maps are composed of a lot of very samey techbases, all of which serve as very solid levels, but all of which feel relatively interchangeable, and there aren’t very many stand-out stepieces or particularly memorable fights throughout. Maps don’t really have much character of their own, which is pretty unfortunate, as that’s one of the things that separates level design in DOOM from the level design of more contemporary games. Levels are intricately detailed with BTSX’s custom textures, but with how detailed every level is, it just kind of becomes the norm.
Again, the saminess of BTSX’s levels isn’t a deal-breaker. The levels are well designed, but it’s better to experience them one at a time, rather than marathoning the whole episode. To be honest, I think it probably would’ve been fine if some of the stages were cut to trim down on some of the least memorable ones. BTSX feels like it has a longer runtime than it really needs, and I can’t really visualise myself going back to play individual maps for fun, because I can barely remember which was which. I know that I sound extremely negative here, but again, BTSX plays well and is definitely a very solid choice of Bethesda-supported add-on, since it plays relatively similar to Knee-Deep in the Dead with the difficulty cranked to Plutonia-esque levels. It’s solid, but not earth-shattering.
Favorite Map: Not many individual levels in BTSX stand out in my mind, but one that does is the WAD’s concluding challenge, Map 24: Tough Skin River [aka Map 24: Within Reach in the Unity port]. BTSX’s combat is largely incidental, but Tough Skin River brings discrete horde fights into the mix in a fun and refreshing manner. The huge horde of imps requires some clever manipulation of teleport patterns to get out of alive, and the title match against a massive horde of monsters in the caves is the stand-out moment of the entire WAD, and one of the most fun fights I’ve ever encountered in a DOOM game. And, not to toot my own horn, but I also did it on my first try, which probably affects my perspective a bit. All of this action being set to the level's incredible MIDI, Jimmy Paddock's "Within Reach", leads to Tough Skin River being the map that really stands out for me.
Least Favorite Map: I know I just spent a substantial portion of the review griping about the saminess of BTSX, so it might be initially frustrating when I cite Map 19: Bingo Pool Hall of Blood [aka Map 19: Christmas Golf Asphyxiation] as my least favorite level in BTSX E1, but hear me out. The sudden switch from the corridor-and-room based design of pretty much every other BTSX level to the sudden huge-open-field-lousy-with-boss-monsters design is not something BTSX remotely prepares you for, and the way you have to approach this map completely differently from the rest of the WAD slams the breaks in the pacing hard. This is one of those maps where you need to die and restart repeatedly on your first go around to figure out a route that gives you even the slightest fighting chance, something the rest of the WAD isn’t really built around, and the sudden spike in difficulty is honestly really obnoxious. I never wished that I hadn’t pistol started a WAD more than this one when I got faced with the archvile-heavy open field of this map.
Hardest Map: Map 19 gave me the most trouble given its placement in the map order and sudden difficulty spike, but Map 24 is objectively harder (and, according to the text file, “nigh-impossible” in solo with multiplayer enemies). Map 24 is challenging in a fun way and doesn’t grate as much as Map 19, however.
#3: Community Chest 4 (Various Authors, 2012)
Community Chest 4 is a little different than any of the other WADs I’m discussing today. In contrast to everything else, the Community Chest series is moreso a collection of disparate levels than a continuous campaign experience. Community Chest 4 is the least consistent WAD in this set aesthetic-wise, design-wise, and quality-wise. As you’d expect, different maps from CC4 play completely differently, and there’s a general mix of exploration-oriented maps, combat-oriented maps, and even some vaguely puzzle-based maps. Some maps are constructed entirely from original DOOM assets, while others sport custom textures and visuals far beyond anything in the original IWADs.
It’s kind of hard to talk about Community Chest 4 in the same way that I can talk about the other WADs in this set, since it doesn’t have a single, consistent design philosophy or a consistent aesthetic that groups everything together. It’s best discussed on a map-by-map basis, but I don’t really have the space for that here. Either way, Community Chest 4 does provide a solid sampler of the different gameplay design philosophies DOOM levels take on, with the introductory levels feeling classically labyrinthine, while the closing levels play as full-on slaughtermaps. If you want to get a general taste of what custom DOOM can play like, Community Chest 4 is great for that, since it’s sort of like a curated collection of 33 single maps (yes, I said 33: there’s a secret easter egg map in the Map 35 slot, which I didn’t even know until after I started writing this article), but if you’re looking for a consistent experience, it’s not really going to deliver on that front.
Favorite Map: The combination of Maps 20 & 21 form a single cohesive campaign that’s pretty cool, but my favorite single overall level was definitely Map 24: Detachment. It’s an intricately detailed derelict techbase that genuinely looks worn and destroyed. There are hints of hellish influence that add a lot to the already strong ambiance of the level. It’s packed to the brim with great setpieces, my favorite of which being the ambush where a cyberdemon and his posse ambush you from behind a collapsing wall. It has a surprisingly strong sense of storytelling and feels like a genuine adventure through a facility that has long since fallen to the demons. It’s a fantastic level and easily my favorite in CC4.
Least Favorite Map: Funnily enough, my least favorite level comes right before my favorite, with Map 23: Melting Universe II. The gimmick of multiple distinct environments fusing into a chaotic and surreal level isn’t a bad one, but it requires a much defter hand than was used on this map. It’s just overall kind of ugly, lacks any fun or interesting combat, and fails to live up to the promise of its aesthetic motif. You’re definitely not missing anything if you skip this one. Dishonorable mention to Map 32: Mutare, which is frustratingly claustrophobic, kind of ugly, and irritatingly difficult due to the tendency for fights to be massively overcrowded.
Hardest Map: Though it’s honestly a toss-up between Map 32 and Map 30, I think I’m going to have to give it to Map 30: Ragnarok. Ragnarok is absolutely brutal, with its consistent use of damaging floors forcing you to play lightning fast, budgeting your radsuits as you confront absolutely absurd hordes, like the massive group of revenants and the cyberdemon at the start, or the almost strictly RNG-based legion of pinkies and eight (8!) archviles that appear next to the BFG. What gives this level the edge over Map 32 is that there’s really no chance to save-scum because if you aren’t actively moving, you’re getting bombarded with revenant missiles. Possibly the most difficult level I’ve ever managed to scrape my way through.
#4: Alien Vendetta (Various Authors, 2001)
Alien Vendetta is one of the most legendary community DOOM projects of all time. Meant to emulate the earlier Hell Revealed and pretty much surpassing it in every way, Alien Vendetta is definitely kind of old, but it holds up quite well. There are so many iconic and deeply influential maps among the roster here that I don’t really have time to mention them all. Alien Vendetta doesn’t hold up 100%, to be fair, and the gameplay leans fairly tedious in some of the later levels, alongside the visuals kind of taking a general nosedive once the hell episode starts, but Alien Vendetta is overall pretty fun and full of standout moments.
The WAD is sort of cut into 3 episodes, with the first and second interchangeably using techbase and medieval-style ruin aesthetics, and the third leaning more into a hellish visual motif. The ruins levels are what really stand out, with some of the prettiest and most adventurous stages taking place in puzzling pyramids or gothic island fortresses. The techbase levels feel a lot more standard DOOM and most closely resemble the early parts of TNT: Evilution, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t stick out quite as much. The hell levels tend to use a lot of green marble and [the extremely ugly, I’m sorry] red rock texture and generally don’t really hold up aesthetically. It’s fine, though, because the feeling of adventure that the WAD is able to capture is honestly really impressive, and it makes the gameplay in the earlier ⅔ quite captivating.
Gameplay wise, the variance between exploration and combat focus that I’ve discussed many times is also relevant here, but the shift is far more pronounced. Once you cross the Map 25 threshold, you’ll be facing full-on slaughtermaps packed to the gills with demons. Map 25 itself has over 1.5 thousand monsters (on Ultra Violence counting lost souls). Some of them can be really fun, but some of them can lean more towards the tedious or crushingly difficult. Unfortunately, there are also some kind of generally boring levels that really don’t do anything compelling with their gameplay on either front, but provide generally too much resistance to be breezed through, which can make some parts of the experience kind of a slog. In the end, though, I think Alien Vendetta’s highlights generally make up for its faults, and I had a positive, if frustrating, experience with a lot of it.
Favorite Map: Without a shadow of a doubt, the best map in Alien Vendetta is Map 10: Toxic Touch. It might seem utterly unthinkable that a self-confessed sewer level is the peak of any gaming experience, but Toxic Touch honestly resembles a subterranean ruin complex more than any tedious sewer system I’ve had the displeasure of playing through. It’s intricately detailed, carefully lit, exploration-heavy, and not a single texture or light feels out of place. It doesn’t have any massively stand-out encounters, but it doesn't need them to hold as a memorable and excellent DOOM experience.
Least Favorite Map: I think the general consensus is that the worst map is Map 21: One Flew Over the Caco’s Nest, and I can definitely see why, but I honestly had a much better time breezing through that short punch-up than I did slogging my way through Map 26: Dark Dome. Dark Dome is ugly, overcrowded, focused on vertical combat that always feels half-functional with DOOM’s inconsistent auto-aim, and features an annoyingly high number of teleporters that link the map together in an awkward and incoherent manner. I really don’t like how perfectly symmetrical much of this map is, as it can make it really hard to remember where things are, and it makes it feel like every group of demons just got copy+pasted at least once to buff the enemy count. This level was by far the most tedious and least enjoyable part of Alien Vendetta.
Hardest Map: Alien Vendetta is generally very tricky, so it’s kind of difficult to narrow down precisely which map is the “hardest”, but I think it’s going to be somewhere between Map 25: Demonic Hordes or Map 27: Stench of Evil for most people. Demonic Hordes has more monsters, but I’d overall give it to Stench of Evil due to its resource deprivation. In Demonic Hordes, you’re pretty much never going to run out of ammo for your heavy weapons, but Stench of Evil is a constant struggle for supplies, with huge ammo-draining encounters that can leave you in a very tough spot without copious and clever use of infighting. It’s also fairly linear, so you can’t easily run back to earlier areas of the map for supplies. This map gave me a lot of trouble and I’m still kind of impressed that I managed to get out of it alive.
#5: Epic 2 (Eternal, 2010)
I honestly wasn’t prepared for what I was getting into with Epic 2. I was expecting it to be a more laid-back, puzzle-oriented campaign, but that’s not quite what you’ll end up getting. Epic 2 is surprisingly brutal in its later acts, with some genuinely absurd fights, made even more difficult by the WAD’s focus on interior stages. It turns out that Epic 2 is still a community DOOM project, meant to provide a challenge to people that have been playing this game for nigh-on 3 decades. Who knew?
Epic 2 pays close attention to its aesthetics. The WAD generally leans towards an Egyptian theme, with many of the maps resembling desert tombs and temples overrun by the legions of hell, but also spends some time on alien spacecraft and far-off planets. It’s very much an adventure-focused experience, lousy with puzzles to solve and secrets to uncover. It’s fairly slowly paced, and some of the maps are exceptionally large, especially for a vanilla-compatible campaign. The aesthetics and mechanical design tie together very well, as the whole WAD feels like uncovering something lost to time.
The gameplay, overall, isn’t honestly the best. The puzzle solving is mostly intuitive and not too obnoxious, which is nice, since it can be very easy to make levels with a puzzle solving focus overly obtuse; but the combat really isn’t all that great. The combat in the earlier parts of the WAD is largely incidental, which is fine, but when it starts leaning towards showstopper encounters in the later acts, the fights become immensely chaotic and crowded, and generally over rely on archviles to add pressure, which kind of limits the scope of every encounter to “rush the archvile’s spawn point and desperately hope you live”. Map 29, the WAD’s most chaotic and monster-packed stage, isn’t even that difficult, because every encounter is so ludicrously overcrowded that they have to give you multiple invulnerability spheres to prevent the encounters from being literally impossible, which make them honestly kind of trivial BFG-spam-fests where you have genuinely no idea what’s even happening. I like the exploration, but the combat generally doesn’t do it for me. It’s either too easy to be engaging or too crushing to be enjoyable. At least when the combat rockets up in difficulty, the architecture design does, too. The concluding levels look absolutely incredible behind the legions of revenants. Epic 2 has a lot of strong moments, but it ends very frustratingly.
Favorite Map: It’s kind of hard to decide, but I think my favorite map overall is Map 19: Escape. The combat isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but the way it opens in an area that makes you think you’re in another alien ship, only to open a door and find yourself in a modern city under the cover of darkness was honestly one of the coolest moments of the entire campaign. This level really captured that spirit of adventure that I like in DOOM maps.
Least Favorite Map: Epic 2 sort of has 2 “ultimate challenge” stages, one for the puzzle-solving and exploration, and one for the combat. Map 29 is for the combat, while Map 28 is for the exploration, and it’s where the WAD crosses the line into obnoxiousness. You’re forced to comb the entire map looking for eight switches, which, even if you find them early, can’t be interacted with until a substantial ways through this 40-ish minute map, demanding that you run around the map after you’ve already seen everything hunting for switches, and if you didn’t have the foresight to mark them on your automap, then you’re going to have a very bad time. It’s also surprisingly challenging, because you’re likely to use the vast majority of your resources early on with the high enemy count, and then be stuck dealing with the fights that happen after you flip one of the switches, almost all of which feature a very prominent archvile that accentuates the resource drain to the point where, if it gets the opportunity to revive like 2 enemies, you might as well load a save. This map is obnoxious to explore and way too difficult in a way that comes off as cheap.
Hardest Map: Map 28 comes close, but I think that the actual hardest map is Map 26: Luxor, and its difficulty comes from a similarly frustrating lack of resources towards the end. It’s very annoying to play a map that’s this long where it feels like you have the potential to screw yourself over 5 minutes into a 40 minute level and not realize it until the end. The exceptionally useful BFG is hidden behind an extremely awkward jump and an encounter with multiple cyberdemons and archviles. The map probably has the most of what I call “clown car encounter design” in the WAD, where a tediously high number of enemies all teleport into the same spot over and over again until the encounter borders on farcical. The final room features a caged archvile that gets replaced 4 times, and a spider mastermind that will also get replaced by a spare, and I really don’t understand why any of these additional enemies were necessary. You can tell that I wasn’t a big fan of this level either, and that’s because it was extremely difficult in a kind of obnoxious way.
Whew, I ended up writing a lot more than I originally intended to here. I expected this to be a fairly short and sweet article, and here I am four thousand words in. Oops.
We’ve covered 5 fairly prominent WADs today, and I generally thought all of them were pretty solid, if occasionally mixed. Because why not, let’s throw a couple of lists in here. I’ll rank my favorite WADs, the hardest WADs, my favorite maps, and the hardest maps, and I’ll update these lists with whatever I end up covering in the next edition of this series, if I ever write it. I think it’s useful both to see how my opinion stacks up on everything comparatively and to see just how many things I ended up covering in this series.
Favorite WADs, as of Volume 1:
#2: Alien Vendetta
#3: Community Chest 4
#4: Epic 2
#5: Back To Saturn X Episode 1
Keep in mind that I like all of those WADs, I’m just ordering them based on my opinion. BTSX is only number 5 because it has the least distinct level design, and just doesn't have the same stand-out moments that the other WADs do. It’s still good, just not as memorable. But how does the difficulty compare?
Hardest WADs, as of Volume 1:
#1: Alien Vendetta
#2: Community Chest 4
#3: Epic 2
#5: Back To Saturn X Episode 1
BTSX doesn’t have fights on the same scale as many of the other WADs, and it ends up being the easiest comparatively, but keep in mind that all of these campaigns are highly challenging. Community Chest 4 probably has the hardest overall levels, but Alien Vendetta is more consistently punishing. Let’s take a look at my favorite levels, in order:
Favorite Levels, as of Volume 1:
#1: Gossamer (from Eviternity)
#2: Toxic Touch (from Alien Vendetta)
#3: Detachment (from Community Chest 4)
#4: Escape (from Epic 2)
#5: Tough Skin River (from Back to Saturn X Episode 1)
Man, I feel really sorry for BTSX for coming in at number 5 all the time here, but I do genuinely like the WAD, I promise. The problem is that it’s hard to discuss on a level-by-level basis. Again, it’s the Doom 3 of DOOM II campaigns. It’s not really about taking things one map at a time. As for the hardest levels, well:
Hardest Levels, as of Volume 1:
#1: Ragnarok (Community Chest 4)
#2: Stench of Evil (Alien Vendetta)
#3: Luxor (Epic 2)
#4: Anagnorisis (Eviternity)
#5: Tough Skin River (Back To Saturn X Episode 1)
This ordering is honestly a little loose, and the #2 through #4 slots could probably be rearranged in any order, but #1 and #5 are fairly set in stone. Ragnarok is absolutely brutal in a way I definitely wasn’t prepared for, while Tough Skin River isn’t really all that difficult in comparison, only sporting one, arguably 2 real title fights to make you sweat. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s definitely not hard as the rest of the list.
So, there you have it. Yeah, I’m not going to rank my least favorite WADs or levels, both because the favorites list for WADs kind of does that already, and because this isn’t a series about complaining about DOOM maps that pissed me off. It’s a series where I talk about all of the really impressive things people are doing with a 30-year old engine. I’m not sure how long this series might end up going for, but Volume 2 is probably going to happen, which will likely cover the official IWADs, so we’ll be doing Ultimate DOOM, DOOM II, The Plutonia Experiment, TNT: Evilution, and Doom 64 (because why not do Doom 64?). As for the actual next article I’m gonna write, who knows! I’ve just been working off whatever bit of inspiration strikes me, and I don’t know what that’ll end up being, though don’t be surprised if a review of the upcoming Pokèmon Legends: Arceus is somewhere close by. Until next time,
SOURCES: https://doomwiki.org/wiki/Entryway The associated text files for each WAD