Review: “Zen Dynamics” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ “GZDoom”)

2016 Artwork Zen Dynamics WAD Review sketch

Every now and then, you find something that you can’t decide whether you love or hate. This happened to me a while back, when I played a “Doom II”/ “Final Doom” WAD from 2006 called “Zen Dynamics“.

As usual, I played this WAD using the “GZDoom” source port. From what I’ve read, this WAD is specifically designed to take advantage of certain features in “ZDoom”-based source ports, so it’s probably worth using one of these.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Zen Dynamics”:

And, yes, the background to the title screen is animated... in "Doom II"! I'm astonished!

And, yes, the background to the title screen is animated… in “Doom II”! I’m astonished!

“Zen Dynamics” is a seven-level WAD with new weapons, textures, music and monsters which can be completed in about 2-3 hours.

This WAD is notable because an earlier version of it was apparently one of the first WADs to take advantage of certain “ZDoom” features in order to include various modern-style gameplay features. If you know me, then you’ll probably see why I think that this is both a good and a bad thing.

The WAD contains more of a storyline than most WADs do, with animated cutscenes at the start of the game and occasional in-game cutscenes and dialogue segments.

The coolest part is probably this journey through space at the start of the opening cutscene.

The coolest part is probably this journey through space at the start of the opening cutscene.

Unfortunately, there are also the obligatory text-walls too. Although they're in an optional extra intro.

Unfortunately, there are also the obligatory text-walls too. Although they’re in an optional extra intro.

The storyline is fairly standard “Doom” stuff – an evil science experiment (by a man called Dalton) has allowed Baphomet to rise from hell and invade Earth. Of course, it is up to you to stop him. But, more on that later.

Whilst it’s kind of cool that there’s been a lot of thought put into this WAD, the storytelling can sometimes get in the way of the gameplay slightly. Thankfully most of the dialogue scenes and cutscenes are relatively short and/or skippable though, so this isn’t a major issue. Likewise, although each level technically contains “mission objectives”, they don’t really get in the way of the gameplay much:

Thankfully, the "objectives" just describe things you do in a normal "Doom" level anyway.

Thankfully, the “objectives” just describe things you do in a normal “Doom” level anyway.

The level design in “Zen Dynamics” is both good and bad. The levels are often visually impressive, without being processor-taxingly complex (unlike, say, “Winter’s Fury). The levels also contain some new textures, lighting effects and other cool stuff like that.

Like really cool explosions!

Like really cool explosions!

As for the design itself, it’s a mixed bag. The first level is short, claustrophobic and occasionally frustratingly complex. So, it’s probably not the best way to start the WAD. But, many of the other levels are fairly well-designed non-linear levels – although they can sometimes straddle the line between being enjoyably challenging and slightly frustrating at times.

However, the majority of the frustration that I felt whilst playing this WAD mainly comes from the weapons. One of the notable things about “Zen Dynamics” is that it was apparently one of the first WADs to include a “realistic” reloading system.

 Yes, the reload animations are very well-made, but.....

Yes, the reload animations are very well-made, but…..

Whilst the weapons in this WAD contain alternate fire modes and many of them are extremely cool-looking, the fast-paced action-based gameplay of the old “Doom” games doesn’t go well with modern reloading mechanics. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in the middle of a frenetic battle with large numbers of monsters, only to die because you had to stop to reload.

This is most notable in the fourth level, where you descend to hell and lose all of your weapons. The first weapons you find in this level are two plasma SMGs – these look really cool and you’ll feel like a badass when you use them. However, they’re considerably less useful than the “standard” plasma gun for the simple reason that you have to sit through a long reloading animation after firing them for a few seconds.

Whilst it may look cool, expect to feel frustrated about two seconds later.

Whilst it may look cool, expect to feel frustrated about two seconds later.

Despite this flaw, I really loved the weapons in “Zen Dynamics”. The super-shotgun looks and sounds more powerful than it did before and there are railguns, nailguns and all sorts of other cool sci-fi guns. Seriously, although I didn’t like the weapon mechanics in this WAD, I loved the weapon designs.

Yes, this is as badass as it looks.

Yes, this is as badass as it looks.

Another interesting feature is that the “beserker” powerup has been replaced with steroids, which you can choose to inject when you pick them up. This adds an extra layer of drama and immersion to the game, without getting in the way of the gameplay too much (since, most of the time, you find the steroids in areas without many monsters).

Remember, just say no.

Remember, just say no.

“Zen Dynamics” also contains a plethora of new monsters too – from small upside-down cacodemons to lost soul-like creatures that can do a lot more damage than you think, there’s a surprising and refreshing variety of new monsters here for a WAD from 2006. Yes, I’ve seen many of these monsters in other WADs before, but it’s still great to see them here.

And, yes, this totally caught me by surprise the first time it happened.

And, yes, this totally caught me by surprise the first time it happened.

Unlike many WADs, “Zen Dynamics” contains a couple of new bosses too. Although the first boss battle is enjoyably challenging and adds some variety to the gameplay, the final boss battle with Baphomet crosses the line from “enjoyably challenging” to “borderline unfair”.

Not only will you probably have exhausted the ammo for your more powerful weapons earlier in the final level, but you also have to fight him in a small confined space, which also quickly becomes filled with other monsters too.

 This part of the final level is diabolical, both literally and metaphorically.

This part of the final level is diabolical, both literally and metaphorically.

Yes, this level can be completed without cheating and, yes, the final boss (and the teleportation effects he uses when moving around the level) is surprisingly well-designed and looks really cool. But, well, the final boss battle is more than a little bit frustrating – and a few extra health/ammo pickups wouldn’t have gone amiss.

All in all, I’m really not sure what to make of this WAD. On the one hand, it’s crammed with cool stuff and it’s a very interesting example of someone trying to make a more “modern” version of “Doom II”.

On the other hand, it shares a lot of flaws with mid-2000s style FPS games, namely the reloading mechanics and the slight story overload that can sometimes get in the way of the fast-paced gameplay.

Even so, whilst an imitation of a mid-00s FPS game may not be quite as good as a 90s-style FPS game, this WAD still includes a proper saving system (none of this checkpoint rubbish), a proper health system (none of that regenerating rubbish), proper non-linear level design and a proper weapons system (where you can carry more than two guns). So, for that alone, this WAD is probably better than virtually every new FPS game released within the past 5-10 years.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and a half.

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