What’s Awesome, Doom?: Thy Flesh – Turned into a draft-excluder

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A draught excluder or draft stopper is used to eliminate cold draft and slow heat loss. It is placed in the bottom crack of doors and windows.

– Wikipedia

All of a sudden, so much of my life makes sense…

Like what the heck that long, sand-filled thing I used to pretend was a scary snake as a kid was. Also what the heck the title of Thy Flesh – Turned into a draft-excluder means. The only remaining question: how the heck is this WAD so good?

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Matt “cannonball” Powell nabbed a Cacoward last year for draft-excluder, and it was well-deserved. The WAD’s got it all: unique, asymmetrical layouts; beautiful E4-inspired architecture; hard-but-fair battles. It mixes classic corridor-shooting with high-stakes set-piece moments. And there’s such intense creativity and love oozing from every aspect of it. Frankly, I was ready to proclaim draft-excluder the finest OG Doom episode I’d ever played… up until the last three maps.

It begins in the best possible way. draft-excluder‘s opener, “The Lost Bastion,” throws you directly into the fray — face to face with a baron of hell. Contrary to your initial impulse, the name of the game here is Don’t Panic. Try to fight everyone from the start and you’re probably doomed. Move too fast and you’re likely to backpedal into a demon’s mouth or the muzzle of a shotgun. Stop moving and die. Survival requires that you weave your way around the small ring-like arena that represents about 75% of the map’s playable area, picking off the hitscanners before you settle in for the long haul of infighting and berserk-packing the survivors.

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The majority of the maps in draft-excluder follow a similar pattern — they’re short and sweet, tightly designed and shaped around a single concept, and they refuse to give you a moment to catch your breath. The cyberdemon at the heart of M2 is the prime example. The map would otherwise be a simple affair: all you really need to do is collect two keys and open two doors and you’re home free. Except there’s the towering sentinel perched right in the middle of everything; since it can’t be killed with the ammo you’re given, you have to contend with its rockets for the entire span of the level. You’ll be dodging and hiding while rockets pelt you from one direction and fireballs from the other.

On the plus side, it’s just as likely to help clear out the opposition blocking your path as it is likely to oneshot you out of nowhere.

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Encounters like this one — open door, see tons of monsters!… let cyberdemon take care of them for you — are obviously geared toward starting infighting, but that’s encouraged in almost every encounter. Thinning the herd without expending ammo will help boatloads, given draft-excluder‘s high difficulty and fairly sparse ammo and health placement.

The need for infighting, as well as the more concept-based mapping does fade a bit, though, with things getting a little more traditional as you move toward the middle of the WAD. M3 has a huge, gaping chasm as its main attraction, with a constant blanket of fireballs crossing the gap to visit with you. But there’s also a pretty traditional labyrinth section off to the side that takes up a good portion of the map’s playtime.

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By M4 and M5, we’re mostly back in familiar territory. As far as gimmicks go, M4 all leads up to a tense slaughterfest battle — the first in the WAD — with a spider mastermind looming ahead and a horde of demons pressing you from behind. Otherwise, it’s generally the type of encounter design that you’d see in other classic Doom WADs, only better-crafted and far more varied.

Also worth noting is that M4 contains one of my favorite fights in the WAD, a close-quarters teleport trap with demons and barons. You’re armed with a rocket launcher and have to herd the demons deftly around the room while firing rockets into their midst and not killing yourself with them. Just like in the opening map, cannonball provides barely enough room for you to move around as long as you don’t panic. There are lots of encounters like this — tight quarters with beefy enemies — but there’s also always enough time to assess the situation, to switch to the right weapon for the job, and enough room to move around if you keep cool and herd the enemies just right. It’s a sign that draft-excluder was tested and tested well; if you don’t have some good outside testers, it’s very easy to screw up when designing a fight like this — either making it impossible without the deep prior knowledge you have as the WAD’s creator, or overcompensating and completely neutering the encounter.

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M5 is the pinnacle of the corridor-y, labyrinth-y design — a delightfully nerve-wracking slog through dark and deadly tunnels — before we shift back to concept stuff for M6. “Temple of the forbidden Gods” takes the Cyberdemon Shuffle from M2 and ups the tempo. It’s a series of set-piece moments with cyberdemons at the center. Navigating a cage-like maze while a cyberdemon lobs rockets from beyond the bars. Darting from cover to cover, under fire from above. Leaping gaps in the dark as rockets fly all around you.

The concept is fantastic, but in practice it doesn’t quite gel. This is where the mapset began to grate on me a bit, since the cyberdemon encounters were so hit or miss. The reputation of fairness that cannonball’s maps have built up to this point falters, with the whole thing feeling a little too luck-heavy for my taste, especially the very first one where you have to navigate a maze of bars but not being able to take your eyes off the maze to watch for the rockets flying up your ass. “Temple” is the most visually-impressive map in the WAD, but also the weakest gameplay-wise, with a shockingly awkward, unfair, and frankly amateurish final confrontation to top it off.

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M7 is a vast improvement, turning back to the tighter design of the early levels. The entire thing is comprised of five major encounters (six if you count the enormous secret area). A fairly tedious spectre/lost soul berserk fight introduces the map’s main arena, but the other two battles that take place there are intense and thrilling. There is a final run-in with three cyberdemons in a woefully enclosed space at the end, but if you can dodge them long enough to get a sense of the area, it’s a simple task to nuke the one baron blocking the exit and just make a run for it.

draft-excluder‘s conclusion, “Palace of destruction” brings those slaughter elements of earlier maps back with a vengeance. The entire map is a huge hall dressed in garish colors and filled with every enemy type in the game. Quality-wise, it’s up and down. The cyberdemons it throws at you are easier to deal with and less finicky, but there are traps with other monsters that may require several retries until you get a hang of exactly where you need to stand and what weapon you need to use.

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It’s quite the satisfying last map, ripping through hordes of demons with rockets and BFG blasts. Certainly not subtle, but satisfying. “Palace,” though, for all its action and grandeur actually ends on a weirdly underwhelming note. The guardians defending draft-excluder‘s final portal are a pair of spiderdemons on faraway perches who you can just stand in place and spew plasma at. They pose almost zero threat and the most challenging part of the battle is how boring it is sitting around, waiting for the masterminds to die.

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draft-excluder is a phenomenal mapset, despite these problems in the later levels. If nothing else, it taught me how much I hate cyberdemons. There are two ways every encounter with them can go: either you survive unscathed, with nothing but a depleted ammo belt to show for it, or you die — usually in one shot. You are, at almost all times, one hit away from death, even at 100% health. cannonball’s use of cyberdemons makes this problem even worse. But maybe it’s just me and my dislike of the poor cyberdemon that got in the way of me fully enjoying draft-excluder‘s latter maps; if you’re a real Doomer and actually like cyberdemons, you’ll probably love everything the WAD has to offer.

Even if you’re like me and get frustrated by chancy encounters with cyberdemons, draft-exluder has plenty else to offer. It is gorgeous; it starts by emulating the look of E4, but then raises it to a new level. Its layouts are fresh and unexpected, and its combat finely-tuned and challenging. The only maps that suffer a bit from a drop in quality are 6 through 8; the rest are utter brilliance, and that includes the secret, “Thy Mappeth Faileth.” That’s 67% brilliant and 33% slightly-less-than-brilliant. I’d say that qualifies as awesome on any scale.

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Thy Flesh — Turned into a draft-excluder requires DOOM.WAD and should run on any limit-removing source port. If you’re not sure how to get it running, this may help. And for more awesome WADs, be sure to check these out!

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