Verbosity will be used and abused.
This list is very subjective. They are my favourites and maybe not yours. This is the best Ultimate Doom and Doom 2 have to offer in the single modification department, when the technical limits of their engines are stretched and creativity is forced to run rampant. Give me material that’s creative in music, story, and visual splendour. Here are the Doom levels, in no particular order:
End Game MAP07 ‘Water Treatment Facility’
by Lee Szymanski
Released: January 2, 2004
Lee’s initial Doom 2 work was pleasant but nothing too amazing, including his X-Fire deathmatch series along with single level contributions to The Darkening Episode 2, 10 Sectors, and Alien Vendetta. In 2004, Anthony Soto released End Game, a small WAD of leftover maps as he was leaving the Doom community. I wasn’t expected too much from a thrown together assembly of a few authors’ forgotten work, but amongst the heap was Lee’s awesome all-new level, ‘Water Treatment Facility’. The Ultimate Doom episode 4 orange sky and post-industrial theme make this level very reminiscent of Quake 2 and Parallel Team’s Fragfest Initialized.
Technically, the first thing to note is that it actually works in doom2.exe. There are no visplane overflows or HOM glitches which is quite an accomplishment given the level of detail in view at all times. The layout itself is fairly small, but areas are traversed multiple times. This is not in the form of depth-first search (as found in most user-created WADs) since the design is more organic. The non-linear layout allows for a different gaming experience over multiple sessions. The best part about revisiting areas are the visual changes as the level progresses. Platforms raise out of the water, stairs are built to allow new paths, and elevators lower to reveal power-ups. The four secrets are all clever; especially the one that involves raising water in the main outdoor pit to reach rockets in a raised alcove.
Doom isn’t capable of room over room, but Lee manages to play with sky heights enough to make the space look more 3D than it really is. It’s similar to the techniques used in his Crucified Dreams level (MAP11: ‘Tarantism’, which yes, I personally named after a song off The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute) where variable sector heights with a sky ceiling and strategically placed architecture stretch the base engine to its creative limit. To add to that, Lee makes heavy use of every lighting effect known for the original Doom engine. Ola-style smooth lighting, floors and ceilings with different light levels, and crates casting vertical shadows are all used but again, this is done using the vanilla engine. To display these effects before End Game’s release, Lee had released four demo WADs (compatible with doom2.exe), entitled 3D Examples, Split Door, Elevator, and Lighting Effects. Some of the room-over-room work is a more fancy derivative of Iikka Keränen 3D special effects demos (dating back to 1998) and I even alluded to vertical lighting in Doom back in the summer of 2000. Given all the tech speak, the gameplay is quality enough that these effects never look or feel gimmicky.
It’s a shame this wasn’t released on its own or in a more renowned project since End Game is pretty much a B-sides dump WAD. However, I’m going to file Mr. Szymanski into the annals of time. I just used this article as an excuse to digitally scribble down the word, “annals”.
Dystopia 3: Re-birth of Anarchy MAP11
by Iikka Keränen
Released: May 25, 1996
I feel out of obligation that I must include a level from this seminal release. I’ll cut to the chase as this level is the first to include a double 3D bridge. This means Iikka faked a room-over-room effect and he originated the use of instant moving sectors with invisible floors by using unexpected behaviour in certain Doom 2 linedef trigger types. This led to the development of horizontal swinging and sliding doors along with the later implementation of voodoo doll scripts for the Boom-compatible source ports. Of course, his bridge design was later dwarfed by Jonas “Chrozoron” Feragen’s Hell Revealed II: MAP19 five-story bridge, but that usage didn’t look quite as pretty (why was STEPTOP such a common texture? It was one solid colour with no semblance of “texture”).
In the map’s design, you can see multiple nods to Iikka’s other levels in the series. Ashy walls with wooden supports (MAP09, which was previously released as mines.wad), platforms leading to small elevated stucco buildings windowed with gothic trims (MAP06), streams crossing through the middle of the level with a bridge to get across (MAP06), a red stoned tower leading to a switch (MAP02, MAP06), and narrow indoor areas connected by white-railed stairways (MAP07). These were used as a stepping stone for developing a design language, with all these elements appearing in Requiem MAP08, MAP13, MAP16, and MAP22, making that WAD almost a homage to Dystopia 3.
Requiem MAP03 ‘Poison Processing’
by Iikka Keränen
Released: July 4, 1997
This leads us to Iikka’s entry to Requiem which was a bit unorthodox given his wadography. This is where you really start to see Quake’s colour schemes and architecture leaking into his design decisions. His Addictive Deathmatch Series was released five months after Dystopia 3, making exclusive use of brown brick textures trimmed with dark metal and aged green brick. Requiem following a few months later, although most of its levels were created before Addictive. While these early levels took nods from Dystopia 3, this MAP03 along with the secret level MAP31 (a Doom 2 remake of Quake E1M6 ‘The Door to Chthon’) use a dark custom texture set that was more in line with the tenebrism of Quake’s engine. The harsh shadows in the texture design and creative geometry gave a look and feel nobody had really done before in the Doom engine. This was basically the forerunner to the GothicDM series (which Iikka also contributed to).
I find the best Doom 2 levels take a nod from Doom Episode 1 by giving glimpses of where the designer will lead the player into, but don’t just let them loose upon every possible branch when starting from the root. Completely non-linear designs such as Polygon Base feel a bit too sloppy. I’d rather have a controlled pathways with some foreshadowing. ‘Poison Processing’ pulls this off by placing pillars and access bar doors as barriers while allowing the player full view of rooms and alcoves. Near the start, the player can see the exit door past a wooden fence but it takes a good 15 minutes until they actually traverse the map to get to that room.
The level setting itself is mostly underground in a sewer environment, following the prototypical medieval designs with a central canal and elevated side walkways. There are plenty of embellishments involving “water”falls and walkway steps to make enemy fights more vertical and to also be more visually appealing. This sector usage also became a new theme used by Iikka, with side areas of Addictive including sewers hallways. The brown brick perpendicular church designs inspired by Quake make an appearance near the end and they became the main focus of his GothicDM levels. You can see where he was coming from when you consider the Quake add-on levels Iikka was making in parallel to his final Doom productions. The wavy red imp teleporter used after the sewage treatment room is an obvious ode to Quake’s large slipgates. So overall, he allowed darker themes to leak into Doom’s palette to eliminate the colourful brightness of Knee Deep in the Dead’s set. Some nerds view it as a curse; I view it as a blessing. Praise Allah!
The Darkening Episode 2 MAP12 ‘Toxicity’
by Ola Björling
Released: August 5, 2000
On the surface, it would seem Ola’s Tantrum 2 or Venom would make more sensible entries to an all-time top list, but I think his last single player map for The Darkening Episode 2 is a more complete work. The layout is well thought-out and the texture schemes are consistent through every room and structure. Of course, it also contains some of his trademark smoothed lighting, which was as influential on my work as John Bye’s The Darkening Episode 1 MAP08 (‘Discordia’). The level title ‘Toxicity’ predates System of a Down’s pun by more than a year and deathmatch entry MAP16 ‘Devastation’ was also named before Quake 3: Arena’s map of the same name came out. Ola Björling, truly a Swedish icon.
The first room establishes the use of shooting puzzles to advance to the next goal, with distant switches required to be hit by gunshots to trigger a door to open. Otherwise, the flow is straightforward, with keycards and switches used. The layout is mostly linear with a few choices in path and optional side quests that will reward the player with power-ups. However, the interconnectivity of the rooms make the layout much tighter than a usual linear Doom 2 level. Since it is the last single player level in the set, the difficulty is ramped up, especially toward the end with a close quarters Cyberdemon fight followed by a large-scale outdoor plasma fight with more than a dozen arachnotrons and a Spider Mastermind. Overall, the design finds a decent balance between claustrophobic punch-outs and open courtyard rocket fights.
The theme is a mix of Quake 2 base setting and Doom Episode 1, along with the sewer areas actually being inspired by the aforementioned Requiem MAP03 (‘Poison Processing’). Of course, Ola made all the custom textures used on every surface in sight. Bright cement contrasts with rusted industrial metals along with computer panels, crates, and decorative logos littering the environment. A wide range of colours are used while still staying coherent for each adjacent room, even more consistent than some professional designers (Sandy Petersen, I’m looking at you).
by Malcolm Sailor
Released: April 3, 1999
My fellow Canadian was around the community for years, uploading his first Doom II PWAD in 1995. After more than a dozen levels, he started the Chord series. The first two entries were rather forgettable due to the mish-mash of visual themes and too much attention given to symmetrical layouts, likely a result of The Talosian Incident’s influence, which Malcolm contributed to. With the third entry in the series, Chord NG, the feel went from non-sequitur Doom episode three toward Quake-inspired realism. Architecture was created to make physical sense for his dimly lit techno-hell fortification. Malcolm had taken a short foray into Quake mapping but returned to the Doom community, allowing those outside influences to bleed in.
Following Chord NG, Malcolm took part in Gothic Deathmatches 2, which pushed architectural detail to new levels ever seen in the Doom engine, where no surface was left barren. By following this up directly with Chord G, he was at his creative peak where the gameplay worked around the environment rather than the opposing longheld mantra of community members. That didn’t mean the fun factor suffered to the point of absolute distaste, but Malcolm was more interested in very difficult fights in claustrophobic areas. That he provided, with constant baron fights in tight quarters leading to many necessary do-overs by willing opponents.
For this fourth Chord level, he decided to make everything completely underground without any natural sky lighting sneaking in. For him, this concept wasn’t anything new as pointed out by his previous No Sun series and contributions to The Talosian Incident. Dark quarters like this always reminded me of catacombs, specifically Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Cask of Amontillado. There are elements of terror surrounding damp, underground man-made structures created only for death.
He used the prototypical contrasting textures of green marble supported by rusted metal beams and pillars. He showed a remarkable consistency with marble structure proportions where any place a 32 unit high texture was used, the depth of the beam was also 32 units wide. In two places, you can also note the riblet design where a large marble cross-beam is fixated to the ceiling using closely spaced repeating metal attachments. You can see this prototype pop up again and again after this WAD’s release. While his previous level layouts were fairly square, you can tell he wished to stress 45 degree angles in this level where the layout seems to flow more smoothly without jagged wall edges preventing player movement. Outside the submerged building are jagged sandstone wall with rock floors contrasted by torch lighting and surrealist lighting falling into the dark caverns beyond. As he became more in-tune with building consistent and realistic environments, Malcolm because a complete designer. So much so, he was voted into the Doomworld’s Top Ten Doom Level Makers contest held in 1998.
by Malcolm Sailor
Released: September 5, 2000
Now he decides to confound us further by naming the fifth release Chord 3. In a way, it does follow since this level uses texture schemes more similar to Chord 1/2 with chiseled wood and stucco walls mixed in with that rusted metal trimming Doom players have become oh so familiar with. Why are id software hells so comparable to pre-industrial Europe, recalling railways and prefabricated warehouses?
There are still hints of Chord G leaking in with the green marble and an underground theme, but there is now red-hot rocks and a more threatening atmosphere compared to the warmer tones of the former. You can see Malcolm getting into micro-details by carving architecture around the stock Doom II textures (see: WOOD5). It’s kind of a chicken/egg situation as I saw Matt Dixon, a playtest buddy of Malcolm’s, performing the same editing tricks around this time (see: Gothic 99).
The layout involves a fair amount of passing through areas multiple times in order to attain keys and the like, but it’s done in a more circular manner than a linear depth-first search. The finale displays his love for the delayed lowering lift setup as seen in Quake’s E2M6 ‘The Dismal Oubliette’, an effect also used in Chord NG as a method to force the player into dealing with the baddies rather than speedrunning past (like me… in God mode). The quality of this level is very comparable to Chord G and acts as a proper send-off for Malcolm Sailor.
Eternal Doom MAP12 ‘Darkdome’
by Sverre Kvernmo
Released: November 14, 1997
Overall, Eternal Doom’s 32 single-player map collection was an exercise in tedium with its massive layouts containing switches which seemed to lead to nothing due to the requirement to traverse from one side of the level to the other. Sverre’s work emitted the few beams of light in the overwrought experience. His custom textures and three levels were many cuts above Team TNT’s otherwise mediocre releases of Final Doom: Evilution, Daedalus, Icarus, …you get the picture. ‘Dark Dome’ was his masterwork for the Doom engine before he left for the commercial gaming industry to work on Redneck Rampage, KISS: Psycho Circus, and Anarchy Online.
He used a strong colour scheme that was Hexen-esque with black/blue against grey/brown with a few areas containing green and yellow shades. All of them represented natural colours for his huge castle, complete with a moat (well, abstractly) and a rising bridge required to cross. Like other entries in the set, you may literally play the level for hours searching for the series of switches required for the yellow key (perhaps a holdover from “# switches left” puzzles from Quake). The difference from others in Eternal Doom is that a player gets a preview of where all the switches are before being aware what they are actually required for. A smart player will use the automap marker functionality to note where all the yellow skulls are, then once reaching the blocked yellow key, retreat systematically to hit every switch to raise the fountain upon which the yellow key sits. The paths themselves are a series of walkways and tight hallways connecting the main, brightly lit corridor and bordering rooms. At times it can feel as a labyrinth with falling floor traps and barred see-through doors leading the player to search for more obscure branches for continuing on. However overall, it’s an absolute behemoth of a level that effective holds your attention in a striking setting for its full duration.
Phobos: Anomaly Reborn E1M3 ‘Dissolution’
by Chris Lutz
Released: January 2, 2003
Chris Lutz has an eye for obscene detail, to the point where you imagine the architecture building process takes dozens of hours for one measly 2.5D map. Having previously released an Inferno episode replacement, Chris decided to remake the classic episode one of Doom, but instead stressing more realism rather than the abstract structures found in the original game. E1M1 is actually a hangar and its crashed spaceship recalls the malfunctioning vehicles found at the start of Dystopia 3’s levels. For E1M3, Chris created a large-scale crane with an accurate long shadow cast on the mud below. This realism is a continuation of his work on Chaos Crews’ Caverns of Darkness where logically laid out buildings are seamlessly integrated through stone walkways, railways, doorways, and 99 Ways to Die.
Roger Ritenour had attempted to reach similar goals with Earth and Phobos with clever texture-work and doom.exe compatibility, but the preset limitations were obvious to a trained eye. Chris extended these concepts by using complex sectors to attain a multitude of Boom effects, including but not limited to: vertical shadows, dynamite blasts, empty pools filling with submergable water, instantly destroyable walls, floating items (e.g., crates) having their heights variate in real-time, fake 3D floors, and horizontally moving fan blades (hey!).
He takes architectural cues Quake 2, with large rooms experiencing structure damage (caved in ceilings, cracked pipes, smashed translucent windows) and futuristic beam/pillar designs supporting the nostalgic episode one texture selection of cold cement and smooth sheet metal contrasted by dark iron. This level also defines this PWAD as one of the few add-ons to provide complete continuity of the secret level E1M9 leading into a devilishly clever train traversal for E1M4.
Chris has since released a Doom 2 MAP29 remake, The Dying End and he had planned a Doom episode 2 replacement to complete his trilogy. Unfortunately, it looks like the last update on Deimos: Anomaly Unleashed was from July 2004. We can only hope he returns to follow through.
by Russell Pearson
Released: December 6, 2001
Where Chris Lutz uses excessive sectors to accomplish stunning depth to his work, Russell Pearson uses elegant texturing and creative geometry. He has a mindset more in line with modern engines, where the geometry is made to fit the custom texture set and vice-versa. The meticulous attention to detail on texture alignments are right down to aligning the flats on non-90 degree angles, a painstaking process authors rarely perform for Doom.
Quake 3: Arena’s space platform arenas inspired Russell’s medieval structured floating in a black void. It doesn’t quite have the same functionality since Doom doesn’t have an insta-kill sector/linedef type, so instead when stepping off into the void, the player hits an invisible floor and slowly loses health down to zero. It likely would have been more wise to use a voodoo doll trick (that only works in single-player mode), but most enemy resistance is within the constrained indoor areas so the effect isn’t quite as noticeable.
Using modifications to Doom’s wood textures to border the stone and metals lifted from Quake and Hexen creates a drab setting that is rich with original structural ideas used in every room. The indoor walkways at the start reminded me of the streets found in Mordeth’s outdoor areas, with cobbled rock centring sidewalks of smoother stone. Instead of the usual door opening speed, he instead has the worn out large gray stones slowly rising to properly represent the weight of the material.
The most remarkable feature is the free-form non-linearity found in the layout. Without the automap, it may lead to confusion, as most areas contain multiple pathways and not in just in the usual north-east-south-west directions. Of course, this increases the level’s replayability. Halfway through the level there is a bit of deception where steps lead down to a brightly lit pentagram teleporter that you are led to assume to be an exit, merely due to the striking similarity to Doom 2’s MAP15 ‘Industrial Zone’. However, the faux exit instead leads to a series of final arena fights that climax with a tower lowering to reveal the ‘Icon of Sin’ head of MAP15’s author, John Romero. To beat the level, you must shoot him in the face. Maybe I was the only one to extrapolate that bit of humour: kill your idols.