Oblivion is a Doom 1 episode by Stormwalker, who last year gave us the spectacular and surprisingly underrated Flashback to Hell. This is a lighter, more bit-sized release than Flashback was — one that you can probably finish in an afternoon, especially since it’s nice and easy on the challenge. It plays pretty casually, even on Ultra-violence, until the last couple maps, where the stakes rise, and rise quickly.
In Oblivion, like Flashback to Hell, Stormwalker’s mapping style is unmistakable. Every room he creates is polished to perfection, without getting caught up in unnecessary details or going nuts with sector counts. Oblivion is styled to some extent after Doom‘s first episode without using it as a crutch or really trying too hard to emulate Romero’s design. The differences start with texturing; Stormwalker drops in a fair number of Community Chest 4 textures to put a fresh spin on Phobos.
The defining feature, though, is the way levels are laid out — and the way you progress through them. All but two or three of Oblivion‘s maps employ a heavily centralized layout, with a large (frequently open-air) hub-like area from which you strike out to complete your objectives and return numerous times. As you progress through the map, this hub opens up and allows access to more and more areas.
Progression is linear, usually from one key to the next, but there’s a strong sense of freedom and discovery nonetheless. It’s quite common for you to have two or more routes to reach your next objective. There are plenty of points where you’ll be working your way down a path, find the key you’re looking for before you reach the end of said path, and then have the choice of continuing to see where it goes… or turning back and using the key to get deeper into the level. Tons of areas are totally optional, with some simply opening up quicker routes between areas you’ve already been to. And there are lots of dead-ends that exist just as an optional place where you can kill more dudes and pick up more stuff.
Just as an example, you’ll almost certainly find the first map’s exit door long before you’ve explored the majority of the map. But it’s not a trick — you’re totally free to simply end the map and head to the next, or to continue exploring. Then there’s at least one out-of-the-way locked door in a later map that has nothing critical in it and can be completely forgotten about. If you remember it after you pick up the red key, though, you can open it up for some free armor.
It’s touches like this that come together to make Oblivion feel less like the creator is in control, and more like you are. Tracking down all of the WAD’s little nooks and alcoves, or finding alternate paths, is incredibly rewarding. Stormwalker is even kind enough to provide plenty of easy-to-find secrets for the idiots like me who normally can’t find any.
Basically, the joy of Oblivion is the unexpected, from the map layouts right down to the monster placement. Symmetrical and asymmetrical designs are woven together seamlessly, but even in areas that are symmetrical, monsters are hardly ever placed symmetrically. And you never know when to expect a trap; they hardly ever spring right when you pick up a key. Instead, there’s lots of tiny traps during normal exploration: an imp here, a couple spectres there. You never know when or what the map is going to throw at you next.
Stormwalker’s WAD design is understated. The brilliant little touches he works into his maps don’t revolutionize mapping or blow players’ minds. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. But you’d better believe he deserves it.