Past few days, I’ve been working my way through the meaty innards of Flashback to Hell, a megaWAD by Stormwalker, a name I admit I’m not at all familiar with. There’s some Cacoward talk surrounding it already, so you can pretty safely assume it’s good, but all I knew going in was this: it’s a classic-styled WAD. 15 levels. And with a story — something that a lot of WAD-makers leave out but I really appreciate when it’s there.
I dove in with some definite expectations. I knew what I was getting into; I expected your standard oldschool WAD. All the enemies and weapons we know and love. Mostly standard resources. Nothing too groundbreaking or attention-grabbing, but something solid and well-crafted to wet my whistle. See, I haven’t just been away from blogging for the last half-year. I’ve been away from Doom too (oh, real life — why must you deny me all the things I love?), and I figured this would be a nice, safe, predictable WAD to return to. Sometimes what you crave more than anything is the classic, the simple, the tried-and-true.
And Flashback to Hell was that. For a while, anyway.
I was right at home for the first batch of maps. There’s a pretty standard formula here, each map an obvious tribute to the Doom II map that originally occupied that spot in the lineup. Flashback‘s Map01 has heavy “Entryway” vibes, as you can see. 02 captures the dark, watery feel and even some of the same design of “Underhalls” — without being a ripoff. 03 immediately comes across like a “Gantlet 2: Gantlet Harder.” You even find weapons for the first time around the point you’d have found them in Doom II — though that of course means my pet peeve is present here: half the arsenal available on the first level, and a super shotgun right there in Map02. Granted, Flashback was designed for pistol starts, so it’s probably not fair to fault it for that.
On that note, you really should play these maps from a pistol start. I didn’t at first, but I quickly built up a huge stockpile of ammo and basically all the weapons about three levels into the WAD. “Wow. This is easy,” I was saying to myself. Then I happened to die once, so I restarted that level and discovered to my dismay that the maps were brilliantly balanced for pistol starts. Maybe it’s just me, but the difference between the two modes of play seems more drastic here than in other WADs; you go from a cakewalk to a really satisfying challenge just making that small change. I would go as far as to say pistol starts are a must.
So it goes without saying that the difficulty is spot on for the most part. There’s a great curve, with the early maps being on par with the harder Doom II maps and later ones actually being just beyond my ability on UV. And it’s fair, with a few exceptions. The one that I’ve got to mention is a trap in the second-to-last level which is completely down to luck whether you’ll survive. Two arch-viles will pop in and, depending on how the RNG is feeling toward you that day, very likely incinerate you instantly. Worse, there’s absolutely no cover and thus no effective way to combat them in the room they show up in. The only way I’ve found to actually get past them is to sprint through the room and open the door at the end, diving into a cramped room full of pain elementals, just hoping you don’t get utterly smoked on the way.
Full disclosure: I’ve yet to survive this part legitimately on UV. It’s not hard. It’s absurd.
Otherwise, my only complaint about the tricks and traps throughout the WAD is that they tend to be predictable. It’s a small nitpick when so many WADs are designed this way, but I can’t help feeling just a little disappointed that grabbing a key so often results in enemies spawning the second afterward. In contrast, unpredictability is the norm for almost every other situation: stuff like a lack of symmetry in both level design and enemy placement. Or clever placement of enemies behind corners or in nooks so you’ll be surprised by them even without the map having to spring a teleport trap or monster closet. I think more enemies in this WAD caught me unawares — just by virtue of their placement in the room — than in any other WAD.
So — level design in general? It varies from good to fantastic, and improves pretty linearly as you work deeper into the maps. The journey feels like a trip along with Stormwalker as he develops as a mapper. The first few maps are good, then it starts crushing it from Map06 onward. A good amount of Suspended in Dusk-esque connectivity is prevalent throughout. It’s really, really good at leading you to the next objective; with a few exceptions, you’ll usually be at the appropriate door just after picking up its respective key. Switches are good about hinting at what they did as well, and I only got lost once or twice, and those were because I overlooked some dumb, obvious detail.
Very briefly, let me throw in a quick rundown of the WAD’s smaller details here in the middle of the review with no transition. For some reason, I’m super into the couple sprite edits — the arachnotron’s new red eyes and plasma shots and the imp’s grey tongue. They’re totally pointless but cool cosmetic changes, freshening up two sprites we all know like the backs of our hands. Also included, a set of “high-definition” sound effects that unfortunately sound worse than Doom‘s standard effects, as well as a brand new midi score that I’m weirdly not that sold on. It’s all good, but aside from some highlights (Map01 sets things off on a high note and 09 is a really rad “Into Sandy’s City” sendup tune), it just didn’t blow me away. But my expectations are probably unreasonably high.
Lastly, I’m unclear on the story. As described in the readme, the Doomguy goes back in time to the original invasion of Earth in order to take the fight to Hell earlier and save some of the billions of lives that were lost in the attack. I expected to be seeing some familiar areas from Doom II then, but what you get are all new levels — but many of them feel almost like remastered or reimagined versions of the old ones. So… story-wise, are these supposed to be the old areas, or… like, other parts of those same facilities, I guess? Is that why they’re so similar? I dunno.
On that note, the first 8 maps or so are indeed level-for-level tributes to Doom II, and in Map09 it suddenly crams as many of the city tropes from Doom II‘s second act into one map, but by level 12 Stormwalker has dropped any pretense of classic Doom II style and starts doing 100% his own thing. The thing in question is big, ballsy, and modern. It reminds me a lot of Scythe II, but he’s definitely not emulating Erik Alm here. These are fresh ideas and a unique take on some of the more common custom textures.
The end result is some of the best-looking Hell levels I’ve ever seen. The resources are pulled (I believe) from Quake and Hexen, as well as your popular Doom community texture packs, but there’s a perfect marriage of textures. The black brick and dark stone are blended masterfully with the vanilla wood, lava, and glowing stone. I’m a sucker for dark, disturbing, gothic Hell levels, and Flashback delivers that in spades.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about Flashback‘s final stretch. Part of the joy of playing it the first time was finding this totally unexpected, out-of-left-field section at the end of an otherwise classic-style WAD. I’ve already sort of spoiled that surprise, so let me keep all this to a minimum. The last four maps of the WAD are gorgeous, ambitious, and hard-as-nails. I love them, though they’re long enough and not too thematically distinct from one another that while they’re all great on their own, it might drag slightly if you play them in one go.
Aside from that, all I’m left with is a question of theming in general. The shift from this…
…happens over time, so you don’t notice as it’s happening. Looking at it now, though, it’s a little jarring. I’m going back and forth on the whole thing. The WAD starts off with almost entirely stock Doom II textures, and then by the last level I don’t think there are any left. The colorful, stylized Doom look is gone and it’s composed almost entirely of grim, dark Hexen textures. It looks great — no denying that. But I can’t decide if the themes are too disparate to work together in the same WAD. If anything, it’s evidence of how great a mapper Stormwalker is that I only saw the clashing styles in retrospect. He transitions smoothly enough that it just works. For reference, here’s the first Hell level:
Colorful and with plenty of straight-out-of-the-box or lightly modified textures. It’s big and open and gives you room to breathe before you get into the deeper, darker, oppressive depths of Hell you’ll reach by the end.
Just working is pretty much the case for everything Stormwalker’s put together. He’s at home in a classic id style but he has his own style too — and it’s glorious. Everything he does works. What more is there to say? From the classic levels to the modern, everything in Flashback hits it out of the park. It’s got surprises galore, and it will take you places you didn’t expect to go. It’s beautiful and, more importantly, it plays fantastically. If there’s anything more worth saying, I don’t know what it is, so here are a bunch of screenshots instead.
See you next time.
Flashback to Hell requires DOOM2.WAD and can be played in vanilla Doom or on any source port under the sun. If you’re not sure how to get it running, this may help. And for more awesome WADs, be sure to check these out!