Limitation projects. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no escaping them. You see a lot of the standard bemoaning about the concept — “Why can’t anyone just make a normal WAD anymore?” — but the truth is you could do a lot worse with one of those “normal” WADs than you could with 50 Shades of Graytall.
Of all the limitation projects that’ve come out in the last decade or more, 50 Shades may be the most compelling. The idea behind all these projects is to put creators in increasingly restrictive boxes — to force them to be more creative, and limiting them to Doom‘s three ugliest textures is one heck of a small box. Other projects have limited the number of sectors, linedefs, or the size of the map, but there’s almost always been Doom‘s diverse library of textures to fall back on in order to keep things visually interesting.
Not this time.
Marcaek has pulled together an almost unbelievable collection of modern Doom talent: Joshy (Resurgence), mouldy (The Eye and Going Down), Ribbiks, (Stardate 20X6 and Sunlust), Xaser (Zen Dynamics and buttloads of community projects), and Mechadon (basically everything ever). All of whom knock it out of the park — though some of the best maps in the bunch come from mappers I’m not really familiar with: Noisyvelvet’s “Count Trakula’s Castle” and dobu gabu maru’s “Astral Nausea,” just for starters.
But we start in a very smart place. Somewhere familiar.
You may not immediately recognize it, but your brain will. James Paddock’s opener, “Entrygray,” is a reimagining of Doom II‘s first map — a sort of “What if ‘Entryway’ was made with only three textures?” (And some bigger, badder enemies.) The result is a great little introduction that helps ease players into the weirdness of the visuals by putting 50 Shades‘ twist on something we all know by heart.
The next four maps are exactly what it says on the tin. Maps 02 through 05 are solid, well-designed maps — very traditional. They don’t transcend the WAD’s limited nature (like later maps do) or try to blow any minds, but they play well and look good. And the fact that I can even say that these maps look good is something incredible, if you recall the textures being used.
By the time you’re three or four maps into 50 Shades of Graytall, you’ve forgotten all about the texture limitation. You don’t even notice how ugly GRAYTALL is anymore. Now it’s all just great gameplay and inventive level design. And that’s when you hit Map06… “Count Trakula’s Castle.”
“Count Trakula” is 50 Shades‘ first epic, a journey in two parts: the chaotic, open fields on the approach to the titular castle, and then the long, branching search for the three keys it contains. Without a doubt the map’s crowning moment, though, is a short dive into a hall of mirrors in the basement, taking full advantage of the game’s notorious visual bug of the same name. The battle that happens there is nothing short of thrilling.
From there on, quality starts to fluctuate a lot. There’s a very Star Trek trend of the odd numbers suffering more than the even ones. 07 leads with a frustrating, unfair revenant-and-chaingunner onslaught and is visually uninteresting overall. 09’s only problem is its difficulty, but it’s a big problem: it ends with a nigh-impossible final battle that I legitimately can’t beat on anything higher than I’m Too Young to Die. Then there’s Map11, which may appeal to slaughter fans, but I honestly find no joy in picking up a BFG at the very start of the map and essentially holding down the trigger until the end. And 13 is a short, breezy romp that’s bizarrely out of place among the titans in the latter half of the WAD, especially when the previous map, 12, would have transitioned so brilliantly into 14.
On the other hand, 08, 10, and 12 are beyond incredible. The first is a wonderful, wonderful slaughter map inside the Mountains of Madness, a bleak, colorless place dotted with beautiful, mind-bending crystal formations. Map10, “Big Dwayne’s Orbital Concrete and Propane Emporium,” is the crux of the mapset — unapologetically grand, interconnected and sweeping in a way that’s hard to even comprehend, but also strangely unassuming. I fear it may be overlooked in the scope of the whole WAD, in favor of other maps with more instant wow-factor and eye candy, but Mechadon deserves to be recognized for how seamlessly he weaves “Emporium” together and how the player can simply go on his merry way through it without once getting lost despite the map’s sheer scale and winding, overlapping paths. Just tremendous.
But it doesn’t end there.
There’s not much to say about Map12, “The Cake Way,” other than to say it is delicious, classic Ribbiks. I hate to repeat myself, but I really wish it had led directly into Map14, though, with its finale bridge-to-nothing cutting directly to the void of “Astral Nausea.” That’s where things take a turn again, at least for the next two outings. 14 and 15 are both way easier than much of the rest of the WAD, and place emphasis on the whole experience rather than on combat. They are beautiful and surreal. Slightly emotional music. Short and on the nose. Maps like “Astral Nausea” and “The Serpentine Lemniscate” are the reason I play Doom.
“Nausea” in particular is too incredible for words — or even screenshots — to convey, but here’s one anyway:
That leaves just one level, not including the credits or bonus map in slots 17 and 18. But rather than spoil 50 Shades‘ conclusion, I’ll just say it involves a tall, dark, handsome stranger named Mr. Graytall.
And his junk.
50 Shades‘ goes out dang strong, with three of its best maps — including two of the most memorable maps I’ve ever played.
And there’s no bad maps in the set. Even the ones I like the least, 11 and 13, aren’t anywhere close to bad. Just not to my taste, and a little out of its depth, respectively. My main complaint is that I think the WAD overstays its welcome by a few inches. Not only in straight-up map count (which could have been trimmed down by a few), but also in the length some maps, a lot of which go on for just one or two beats longer than they probably should have.
It’s a pretty good sign when that’s literally the worst I can say — “There’s too much of this awesome thing.” Ho hum.
50 Shades of Graytall requires DOOM2.WAD and should run on any Boom-compatible 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!