Saturday, October 5, 2019

My Top 10 Least Favorite Doom Levels

I've been playing a lot of Doom lately, and I have found that there are some levels in the game that I absolutely don't like at all. So let's talk about that. Here are my personal top 10 levels from Ultimate Doom that I think are just terrible.

To preface this, Doom is a fantastic game. I have spent countless hours playing it and making custom levels for it myself. That being said, in the original game, the most beloved levels are almost always made by id Software co-founder John Romero. Romero made almost every level in Episode 1, and he apparently had a set of rules he followed when designing those levels to make them aesthetically pleasing and memorable. Some of those rules were:
  • Change the floor height when changing the floor texture.
  • Use transition textures when changing wall textures.
  • Be strict about texture alignment.
That last one is one that I feel is very important. What this means is... here, I'll just show you. Take a look at these two screenshots below:

Look through the window at the hexagonal pattern on the wall across the water. Notice how the lines of the hexagon pattern don't line up in the top image? These are misaligned textures. The bottom screenshot is one where I went in and properly aligned the textures so they look better. That is how the game should have looked when it shipped. Yet...

Texture alignment is very important, but you'll find that it is maybe the least important thing to level designer Sandy Petersen. You'll also find that most of the following levels are Sandy Petersen levels. Look, I'm sure Sandy Petersen is a fine man. But you're about to get a whole lot of Sandy in this list.

These levels are in the order you will encounter them, and the screenshots shown for each level are some choice areas that might jog your memory if you're unfamiliar with the level name. Additionally, I am only covering Ultimate Doom in this article, so no Doom 2 or Final Doom here. Those might come later.

So let's begin.

E1M9: Military Base
Level by John Romero

I just praised Romero and the first level I mention is a Romero level. Anyway. Military Base is a boring, brown level that is not at all indicative of John Romero's level design aesthetic. In fact, there are only two levels on this entire list that were made by Romero, so I'd say that's a pretty good indicator of how great his authoring skills are. In any event, the man is not exempt from having a few stinkers under his belt, and Military Base is far and away his worst effort. If you had told me John Romero made this dud I wouldn't have believed you. But here we are!

The level is basically a hub area with connecting rooms all around it. The hallmark of the level is the cage full of imps in the middle of the starting area. That's about all anyone remembers in this excruciatingly bland level. To be fair, however, Romero did follow his own level designing rules with this one and deliver a competently designed and textured level. It's just boring to play. Fortunately for the player, this is a secret level and you can choose to not play it if you so desire. Now that I think about it, all of the secret levels in the original Doom aren't very good.

E2M3: Refinery
Level by Tom Hall, Sandy Petersen

Sandy Petersen's levels in the original Doom are generally pretty rough, but some are far worse than others. Any time a level comes up and I let out an audible groan followed by, "This level," 100% of the time it's a train wreck that Sandy Petersen cobbled together. In fact, every level in episode 2 is a Sandy Petersen joint, which is why episode 2 of the original Doom is absolutely awful. Fortunately, Sandy ups his game in Doom 2 and actually has several levels that are my favorite levels in the entire Doom series!

It should be noted that a few of these levels are also credited to Tom Hall. What has happened here is some of these levels were started by Tom Hall and "finished" by Sandy Petersen. So why am I crapping all over Sandy but giving Tom a free pass? Because Sandy was the one who was supposed to finish these levels. His finishing touches are what we're playing in the final game. He had every opportunity to correct questionable level design and rampant misaligned textures, and he didn't.

I understand the randomized nonsensical texture choices are supposed to be "the hell taking over" or whatever, and that's fine. But there are much better ways they could have shown that effect.

Anyway, Refinery is a bad level.

E2M4: Deimos Lab
Level by Tom Hall, Sandy Petersen

Everything about Deimos Lab comes off looking like a fan made level you'd find online. It starts off interesting enough, but you'll soon step through a teleporter and discover that this "lab" bears absolutely no resemblance to a lab in any conceivable way.

The texture work is all over the place, and it's so haphazard and ugly that it alone could ruin the level. Hardly any texture is aligned properly, and if it is, it's seemingly randomly aligned here and there. There are also a lot of crushing ceilings that don't make any sense in this level. Because you often find random crushing ceilings in a laboratory, right?

I don't have any clue why this level was constructed and textured the way it is. It's super ugly and an absolute mess.

E2M5: Command Center
Level by Sandy Petersen

Parts of this level could actually pass for a command center. The rest of the level, however, is typical Sandy Petersen texture randomization. A vast area of this level is a wooden maze, which absolutely screams "command center" to... no one. Then there's a cramped marble textured area that's just the worst. This level is absolutely terrible, and when I think of terrible Doom levels, this is one of the first ones that come to mind.

The wooden maze area is confusing and ugly. Randomly there will just be a gargoyle head on the wall or a skull that looks like a switch but it's not. There are a lot of decorative items randomly placed as well which come off as extremely amateurish. In the above screenshot, there's so much going on, and yet nothing is going on at the same time. It's a paradox.

Command Center! A chore to play.

E2M6: Halls of the Damned
Level by Sandy Petersen

Speaking of chores. The level starts off with a bunch of default stone textures everywhere, almost like Sandy forgot to go back and jazz up the opening of the level. Soon you'll be wading through damaging floors, which is always fun, until you manage to flip the switch that opens up the door leading to the level proper. The switch isn't aligned properly either, by the way. Anyway! Once inside you'll see a bunch of gray walls with sections that are obviously doors that will open up later. You'll soon wind up in a wooden area with eye rolling horizontally scrolling textures and dark corridors. The dark corridors, which I assume are the titular halls of the damned, are incredibly dark. Good luck getting through them without turning your brightness up, because this area is pitch black. You'll go from one dark area into another dark area and eventually find a key before using the map to find your way back out of this mess.

There is an interesting room right after this, though. It looks like some kind of electrical room or command post, but honestly the texture work in the rest of the level makes it feel incredibly out of place. It's almost like it was the original look of the level and then Sandy decided at the last minute to throw up a bunch of wood walls and call it a day.

Most of the textures from this point in the level on aren't aligned properly. There's also a vague false exit that comes out of nowhere for no reason. It's a weird "gotcha!" moment that just leaves you scratching your head.

E2M9: Fortress of Mystery
Level by Sandy Petersen

This level is an official level in Doom and not a custom map you'd find on a CD-ROM of 5,000 Doom levels back in the 90s. It is far and away the most amateur level in the entire game. And it's here. In official Doom. All three rooms of it.

You begin in a room that's in the shape of a snowflake or something and are immediately set upon by four Barons. There's also a computer map in this room, because I guess Sandy was so proud of his snowflake design he wanted to make sure everyone saw it. That's the only reason I can think of that a level with three rooms in it would need a full map provided for it in the opening room.

The next room is a room with Cacodemons in it. To the left and right are dead Barons chained to the wall that I guess the Cacodemons hung up with their non-existent hands, and the enclosures housing them are lit by a strobing light with no light source. Radical design. In the center of the room is a shape(?) filled with lava, and in the center of that is a pool of water with a Soul Sphere in it. The lava isn't flowing into the pool or anything; it just stops when it reaches the water.

Then you notice two marble faces on the wall. If you go up and try to open the wall in between them it opens, and a secret is revealed. This room I guess is to show you how keys work, because it's a tiny little room with all three keys in it. The first wall you open has a texture behind it which scrolls up with the door as it raises, which is an extremely sloppy thing to do. Sandy did it in Halls of the Damned, too. After collecting the keys and opening their doors in this cramped little closet, the exit teleporter opens up.

Then you win the level. That's the Fortress of Mystery. The biggest mystery found in this fortress is how Romero didn't at some point put his hand on Sandy's shoulder and tell him to tighten up the level design on E2M9.

E3M5: Unholy Cathedral
Level by Sandy Petersen

This level isn't offensively bad, but the hub area ruins it. You don't even have to go into the center of the level, so it feels like a useless addition. One of the areas in the center room has a yellow key in it which is only used to open a secret door in that area next to the "flo" wall. Your reward for pulling your hair out trying to find the right teleporter to step on to locate it is a Soul Sphere and a chainsaw.

The texture work here isn't atrocious, and a lot but not all of it seems to be aligned properly. The architecture of the level isn't insane, either. Some interesting things are actually done here, but the level just isn't fun to play. This might be Sandy Petersen's best bad level in the whole game.

Right before you leave the level you can test your might in a room next to the exit where you're attacked by a decent amount of enemies teleporting in on a pit of skulls. It's more of a trap than anything, because it's right before the exit room and the enemies just keep pouring in. You might die, and that's by Sandy's design. I imagine him sitting at his desk designing this moment and smiling to himself thinking "This'll get 'em!" right before accidentally knocking over his Crystal Pepsi and ruining some great level John Romero had sketched out on a piece of paper.

E3M7: Limbo
Level by Tom Hall, Sandy Petersen

You'll spend the majority of your time wandering around this level wondering where it was you saw the door that needed the key you just found. It's a clumsy design and you have to wade through damaging floors (again, always fun) in an attempt to figure out where you're supposed to go. And even if you do find the locked door you need, is it the right locked door you need? Who knows? You'll have to run all over the place to find out.

And let's not forget the narrow corridors underground that you have to navigate while hoping your radiation suit doesn't give out. Which it probably won't because there are about two dozen of them down there. Why even make the floors hurt you in that case? The corridors are cramped with low ceilings. The floor is red, the ceiling is red, and the walls are red. It's a very visually boring area.

The level could be cleaned up and streamlined a bit and it would at least be serviceable. As it is, it's one of the least fun levels in the original Doom. Definitely the worst level in Episode 3.

E4M4: Unruly Evil
Level by American McGee

This level should be the first stage of Episode 4, but it's the fourth. Actually, the first stage of Episode 4 is very cool and starts off on a great note. If this were the first level... yikes.

Unruly Evil is incredibly short and very easy. It's also very brown. Unlike the texture roulette that is Sandy Petersen, American McGee instead decided to basically use the same brown texture throughout the entire level. It's an extremely forgettable level and you'll blaze through it so fast it probably won't even register in your mind that you played it. I actually forgot it was here until I started writing this article.

The opening room is pretty nice, actually. It's an interesting design that does some unexpected things. I like that the door behind you that you entered the level through is a few slats of wood. You don't see stuff like that. Also, the hidden area in the first room is pretty cool as well.

This level isn't designed poorly, and it's not that it isn't fun to play, it's just so bland and forgettable.

E4M6: Against Thee Wickedly
Level by John Romero

This level looks very good, but it is a real chore to play. It's not fun at all, and the central hub area filled with damaging lava and later a Cyberdemon is what really hammers that in. You have to use a central pillar with an elevator on each side to navigate the area, all the while hoping the Cyberdemon doesn't target you on the way up or some other random enemy takes a shot at you. Eventually you have to kill the Cyberdemon before you can exit the level. Romero's texture alignment is a little lax here as well. Not following his own rules, it would seem.

As I said, the level looks great, but it just isn't fun.

And that's the end! I'm sure there are some levels in my list that you actually enjoy, but for me, these levels are the worst of the bunch. What are some of your least favorite levels in the original Doom? Additionally, are there any areas in otherwise great levels that really hinder your enjoyment? Let me know!

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