This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
With E3 in full swing, attentions might be turning right now to Bethesda's new DOOM, the fourth major entry in the shooter series—but the original Doom of 1993 remains one of the greatest design achievements in games history. It's a perfect killing engine, an over-the-top bloodbath of ludicrously fast movement, powerful weapons, and lethal enemies. These factors work in concert, making dodging incoming fire from the varied cast of demonic antagonists vital, unlike the bullet sponge nature of modern gaming's heroes. It's such a unique and brilliant place to play in that even now, two decades on from its last official release, the game's community continues to produce incredible mapsets. And I spoke to one of these mappers, Paul "skillsaw" DeBruyne, about his magnum opus: Valiant.
Valiant is a 32-map "megaWAD"—a term used for full campaigns, named after the file extension used by Doom maps. As much as the base game, it is a triumph of level, monster and weapon design. Paul, not content with the hellspawn available in 1994's vanilla Doom II, came up with his own modifications to improve it, bringing it more in line with the blood-rush thrills of its predecessor.
"I love all of Doom's monsters, but several of them [in the sequel] seemed really vanilla to me—the Imp, Demon, Hell Knight, and Baron especially. Other monsters have interesting projectile patterns that require more player engagement to avoid, or have attacks that can zone the player out of areas. Those behaviors and those strengths really feel more complete to me. I was just trying to make Imps, Demons, Hell Knights, and Barons more interesting from a gameplay perspective."
"Interesting" is one term for it, but I'd likely go with "a fresh new hell I wasn't prepared for," or simply: "Oh God." Paul did away with the high-health, slow-moving Barons and Hell Knights, replacing them with two far more deadly variants. Cybruisers are equipped with a rocket-launcher, the deadliest weapon monsters can have, direct hits one-shotting armor-less players and massive area-of-effect damage making perfect positioning vital. Pyro Knights, meanwhile, sport a custom-made stream of fire that moves faster than anything else in the game.
"I wanted them to still be good walls of meat, but also dangerous when used at range," Paul explains. "The new versions are way, way more likely to actually kill someone. In order to compensate for their much increased threat level, I tried to give the player some extra audio and visual cues—the Cybruisers make a stomping noise, and the Pyro Knights are always [lit up]."
Paul didn't stop there. Smaller changes were made to other enemies. The plasma-spewing spider-walker Arachnotrons now have a chance to vomit out the head from their metal body when they die, creating a low-health, highly-lethal Arachnorb that floats around. Paul created this so he had a flying threat that could be used in swarms but didn't have a pile of health to grind through, like the Cacodemon.
The Cyberdemon and Spider Mastermind, Doom's boss monsters, were left unchanged but used sparingly in map design. The lowliest of the zombies, troopers, and shotgun guys also maintained their usual roles: cannon fodder. I mean that quite literally—one of Doom's greatest details is that the only ammo that will drop is from these weaker enemies and their chaingun-toting cousin. Killing ranks of them with a single shotgun blast feels stellar and lets mappers refill the guns of players using something other than an ammo cache, and in a more exciting way.
Changes to the player's arsenal were less in number but as great in effect, as Paul explains:
"I've always thought the chaingun was pretty much crap compared to everything else in Doom II. In the first Doom, it was awesome because most of the monsters had really low health and you could take out lots of them really effortlessly with it. Doom II's monsters have so much health that they're a pain to kill with it. You just want to use the super shotgun, or rockets, or cells all the time. I kept raising the rate of fire on the chaingun until I was excited to find boxes of bullets."
In this he succeeded. I'm now worried about going back to Doom II or onto other WADs that don't use Valiant's upgraded bullet-spewer. It's a last resort no longer, leveling hordes of enemies in moments and providing decent damage even at the very edge of Doom's short engagement range. That's another of Doom's great choices—there is no long-range, instant-hit weapon like a sniper rifle, and while all projectiles can travel infinitely, they're relatively slow. It forces you into the nitty-gritty of a fight, where deadly melee attacks can take you down and your shotgun proves most destructive. It also makes dodging between criss-crossing rockets and plasma not only fun, but a necessity to close on targets.
Valiant gameplay of map one: "Bad Reception."
Designing maps around that is, of course, a challenge. Paul's first WAD came out in the late 1990s, when he was 13: "I didn't even have internet access at the time—I remember purchasing what was essentially a 700-page Doom-mapping textbook and CD-ROM, and learning from that, using the tools provided on the CD."
But it wasn't until 2007 that he began working on Doom mapping in earnest. A question from a friend lead to him trying out Alien Vendetta, one of the more famous Doom conversions, and he hasn't "been able to get enough Doom since." Valiant is the sum of the work of the past eight years. It's split into five episodes of six maps each, plus two secret levels. Each episode has a theme, with the finale set on the Moon.
This is where some of Valiant's best maps can be found, for me, including one that combines two levels from an earlier mapping project, Lunatic, into a single, massive affair. However, across its length Valiant hits every type of map, every size, and scope and number of enemies you could hope for, and it does so expertly. It always matches and often surpasses the work Doom-makers id Software did themselves, back in the early 1990s.
I ask Paul what he'll do next, now that the megaWAD is finished, something he considers the endgame of his Doom mapping:
"I'd say, 'No more megaWADs,' but it's pretty much a running joke that anyone who says that ends up doing one again. If I do another it'll be a few years off at least, but I think even then it's unlikely. I've made a few maps and have a handful more ideas for a short desert and ancient ruins-themed episode, but it's still a long ways off."
"A long ways off" can't come soon enough.
You can download and play Valiant right now, assuming you've a copy of Doom II to hand, too.
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