John Romero is back, baby — and he’s brought a new Doom level with him.
No, you didn’t read that wrong. Over twenty years after the game came out, Romero’s back with a freshly-baked map. Maybe the first of many, if we’re lucky.
Welcome to Tech Gone Bad, though the WAD’s file name, “E1M8b,” may be a more fitting title. This is Romero’s take on “Phobos Anomaly,” one of only two maps in the first episode that he didn’t make himself. Being E1M8, it’s a classic showdown with the Bruiser Brothers, only with a twist. And much ado before you get there.
[Edit: As of April 26th, Romero has released one more map, Phobos Mission Control, his version of the remaining E1 map that wasn’t his sole creation — E1M4. It’s very awesome.]
By original Doom standards, this is a pretty lengthy map. On your way to the anomaly, you’ll work through grey and tan base stuff, nukage sewers and moldy green tunnels, and a maze of computer terminals and circuitry. All the Episode 1 motifs you love, all in one map — and all contained neatly in two large buildings on a sea of nukage.
It’s not the prettiest map, but there are tons of impressive landmarks and distinctive architectural features. Romero still knows how to use space brilliantly, and the mapspace unfolds in a way that feels both meticulously-planned and totally effortless. Whether it’s out on the massive exterior’s precarious walkways or deep in the trap-laden labyrinth behind the red key door, fights are quick and decisive. And there seems to always be someone behind you, no matter how thoroughly you thought you cleared out the room.
If you’re expecting difficulty on par with Episode 1, think again. This is a map that takes into account the 22-year learning curve we’ve collectively had. It leads with a brutal ambush — maybe too brutal, given that there’s very little else approaching the same level of danger for the rest of the map. Your biggest enemy is health deprivation; few individual encounters are all that threatening, but the damage you take over the course of the map adds up, with opportunities to heal few and far between. Not to forget the molten cracks all over the place, which you’d best steer clear of if you want to reach Deimos with something more below your knees than two crispy stumps.
Above all, Tech Gone Bad is delightfully unconventional… as odd as that may be to say of one of the men who made the very first maps for Doom. But this is also a man who hasn’t been a part of our close-knit little map-making community for the past 21 years. He’s not bogged down by our conventions — those mapping sensibilities we don’t even think about consciously, but almost all of us abide by. We’ve come a long way since John Romero was making Doom maps, and maybe there’s a lot we could teach him. But there’s also a lot he has to teach us.
Romero doesn’t fit the mold of our great creators, and that means he can do something most of them can’t: He can surprise us.
Don’t download Tech Gone Bad looking for more of Knee Deep in the Dead. That’s not what this is. It’s not just a nostalgia trip. This is the Romero you once knew, but with twenty extra years of cleverness (and cruelty) added to the mix.
Who am I kidding? You probably stopped reading this after the third sentence and ran off to grab the WAD. But just in case you didn’t, go do that. Right now. It hurts real good.