Review: “Brutal Doom – Hell On Earth Starter Pack” (Stand-Alone Mod/ WAD for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ “Freedoom: Phase II”)

2016 Artwork Hell On Earth starter pack WAD

If you’ve played any of the classic “Doom” games within the past six years, then you’ve probably heard of a famous mod called “Brutal Doom” before.

In a nutshell, it makes the classic “Doom” games a lot faster, slightly more modern, somewhat more challenging, a bit more militaristic and a lot more visceral/intense/gruesome than traditional “Doom”.

I’m not exaggerating about the “gruesome” part. “Brutal Doom” is probably the goriest computer game ever made. And, yes, I’ve tried not to include screenshots of any of the really gruesome parts of the game in this review. And, yes, this is much more difficult than it might sound.

Fans of “Doom” on the internet often either seem to absolutely love or absolutely hate “Brutal Doom”. Personally, I played it for a while in 2013 (and briefly again in 2015 too) but, once the novelty value wore off, I went back to playing the “ordinary” versions of the old “Doom” games. However, today’s article isn’t a review of “Brutal Doom”.

After seeing this footage of a new set of “Doom II” levels that has been specifically designed for “Brutal Doom”, I thought that I’d give the “Brutal Doom – Hell On Earth Starter Pack” a try.

Interestingly, you don’t actually need a copy of “Doom II” or “Final Doom” to play this WAD, since it comes packaged with a copy of “Freedoom” and the “GZDoom” source port (as well as the latest version of “Brutal Doom”).

So, you can play this game right now, even if you’ve never even seen a “Doom” game before. However, due to it’s high difficulty (even on the “Hurt Me Plenty” setting), I’d recommend getting some practice on the classic official “Doom” games before playing it.

Since the version of “GZDoom” included with the WAD was too modern to run on my computer, I ended up playing the “Hell On Earth Starter Pack” using “ZDoom” instead (it also seems to be compatible with Zandronum and a couple of other source ports too). At the time of writing, I’ve played almost all of it, but I’m stuck on the final boss battle.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Brutal Doom – Hell On Earth Starter Pack”:

Screenshot_Doom_20160320_081144

The “Hell On Earth Starter Pack” is a 32-level WAD that contains new textures, weapons, monsters, music and levels. Although it’s intended as a “Doom II” replacement, one interesting feature is that this WAD is divided into three episodes (“Hell On Mars”, “The Battle Of Los Angeles” and “Behind Hellish Lines”). Like in all classic-style FPS games, each episode has it’s own distinctive look and theme.

However, unlike many old games, you can play all three episodes as one continuous storyline if you want to. So, you don’t have to worry about losing all of your stuff between episodes. In other words, this structure is the best of both worlds.

“Hell On Mars” is a fairly classic sci-fi style “Doom” episode. Although it might sound like it’s a collection of generic techbase levels, there’s a surprising amount of variety here that helps to keep things interesting.

The episode begins in a UAC base on Mars, before progressing to a nuclear power plant – before culminating in an epic charge through a monster-infested building with an army of helper marines at your side. Then there’s the obligatory boss battle, which is a clever twist on the “Bruiser Brothers” battle from the original “Doom”.

Needless to say, I started whistling the theme tune to "The Simpsons" here.

Needless to say, I started whistling the theme tune to “The Simpsons” here.

This boss battle is more challenging than it looks!

This boss battle is more challenging than it looks!

The second episode, “The Battle Of Los Angeles”, is both the best and the worst episode in this WAD. As the title might suggest, the episode is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Los Angeles and it is absolutely epic.

Not only did one of the levels remind me of part of “Final NeoDoom“, but there are also a lot of epic set pieces, different locations and sprawling urban levels. This episode is cinematic – but in a good way.

Yay! This reminds me of "Final NeoDoom", or possibly part of the original "NeoDoom".

Yay! This reminds me of “Final NeoDoom”, or possibly part of the original “NeoDoom”.

Yay! It's the classic Cyberdemon/Spider Demon battle from "Doom II". Who will win? Well, that's obvious!

Yay! It’s the classic Cyberdemon/Spider Demon battle from “Doom II”. Who will win? Well, that’s obvious!

However, all of this cool stuff has something of a downside. If, like me, you’re using a slightly older computer – then expect a lot of lag during about three levels of episode two. In fact, the slowdown got so bad that I actually had to resort to cheat codes (the “freeze” command in ZDoom, to be precise) in order to get through those three levels.

 Fun fact: this screenshot only has a slightly lower framerate than the actual gameplay did!

Fun fact: this screenshot only has a slightly lower framerate than the actual gameplay did!

This is a shame, because these levels were extremely well-designed – but they are just too intense for older computers to handle at anything more than an almost unplayable 3-5 frames per second.

The final episode, “Behind Hellish Lines”, is more of a classic “Doom” style episode. It’s a horror-themed episode that is set in hell and, as such, many of the level have a fairly classic look to them.

Meh. At least it runs quickly on older computers though :)

Meh. At least it runs quickly on older computers though 🙂

They’re reasonably well-designed levels and, thanks to some clever sound design, at least one of the levels is genuinely disturbing. Instead of background music in one of the later levels, the soundtrack is taken up with the anguished howls of your fellow space marines. The episode culminates in a truly spectacular boss battle – which I am still stuck on at the time of writing.

 I've been playing "Doom II" WADs for years and this STILL managed to surprise me!

I’ve been playing “Doom II” WADs for years and this STILL managed to surprise me!

It’s also worth mentioning the two secret levels in this WAD, both of which can be found during the second episode. In keeping with the Los Angeles setting, the first secret level is actually a reasonably faithful re-creation of the first level of “Duke Nukem 3D”. And, yes, this is as cool as it sounds!

Woo hoo! Two of the best FPS games of the 1990s! In ONE game!

Woo hoo! Two of the best FPS games of the 1990s! In ONE game!

The second secret level is a “Wolfenstein”-themed level and it’s a perfect example of the right way to make a “Brutal”-style version of “Wolfenstein”, unlike the “Brutal Wolfenstein” mod for “Doom II” that I reviewed earlier this year.

The focus of the secret “Wolfenstein” level is on fast-paced and intense combat, rather than on gory death animations or on sadistic violence/ moral ambiguity. The decision not to give the human villains (and their attack dogs) in this level any drawn-out death animations (and, more importantly, to leave “cruelty bonuses” out of the level altogether) was a very appropriate one, given the historical war setting . “Brutal Wolfenstein” could learn a lot from this level.

In terms of the difficulty level of this WAD, it’s certainly more on the challenging side of things. A lot of this is due to the “Brutal Doom” mod itself, but the level design is usually good enough to give experienced players an enjoyable challenge, without ever really feeling frustrating or unfair. However, if you’re new to “Doom”, then some parts of this WAD might seem a little on the unfair side.

If THIS looks like a "difficult" part of the game, then you need more "Doom" practice before playing these levels!

If THIS looks like a “difficult” part of the game, then you need more “Doom” practice before playing these levels!

It goes without saying, but all of the levels are the kind of enjoyably complex and non-linear levels that make 1990s-style FPS games so great. Even during the “cinematic” levels in the second episode, you’ll still need to do a lot of exploration and backtracking – rather than just following a single linear path through the level. Modern FPS games could probably learn a lot from this WAD.

However, one minor criticism that I have of the level design is that some of the levels in the third episode include a small amount of first-person platforming. Although this isn’t too annoying, it can get slightly frustrating at times and it breaks up the fast-paced feel of the game slightly.

Dammit! This is NOT what "3D Platforming" is supposed to look like!

Dammit! This is NOT what “3D Platforming” is supposed to look like!

One interesting thing in the “Hell On Earth Starter Pack” is that it contains more of a story than most “Doom” WADs do. Yes, most of the story is relayed through text screens, but it is also told through the level design itself.

For example, near the end of one level in the second episode, you actually get to visit a space marine outpost – complete with fortifications, evacuated survivors and commanding officers.

Yes, unlike in "Doom II", you actually get to see some of the people that the space marines have saved.

Yes, unlike in “Doom II”, you actually get to see some of the people that the space marines have saved.

Visually, this WAD is absolutely stunning. Although it mostly still has a fairly “classic” look to it- there are a lot of new textures here.

Some of the textures have been borrowed from other classic 1990s FPS games (eg: “Duke Nukem 3D”, “Blood” etc..), but there are also some totally new textures here too. In terms of visual design, the second episode is by far the best of the three.

Yes, most of the episode takes place in an explorable city, compared to the more "standard" levels in the other two episodes.

Yes, most of the episode takes place in an explorable city, compared to the more “standard” levels in the other two episodes.

In terms of the soundtrack, it is amazing. Not only does it include reworked heavy metal/ dark ambient versions of a lot of the classic music from the “Doom” games, but even the secret “Duke Nukem 3D” level includes a heavy metal cover of some of the music from that game too.

Since “Doom” is basically just the heavy metal genre in computer game form, it’s great to hear this type of music on the soundtrack. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the sound design is also used to great effect in one of the horror levels in the third episode.

All in all, this is an absolutely spectacular set of levels. Not only are they well-designed and atmospheric, but they also manage to tell a compelling story without ever slowing down the gameplay as a result. Yes, the high difficulty level might be slightly off-putting to new players and the cartoonishly extreme violence of the “Brutal Doom” mod might also be somewhat off-putting to some players but, at it’s core, this is a well-designed “Doom” WAD.

Even though it still keeps the really cool 1990s-style graphics, it’s a very modern game. However, it doesn’t really simplify itself too much for mainstream audiences. Well, there are a couple of times when instructions appear on the screen, but that’s about it.

Ah, yes, good old Captain Obvious. I didn't expect to see him in a "Doom" game though.

Ah, yes, good old Captain Obvious. I didn’t expect to see him in a “Doom” game though.

Regardless of what you might think about the more gruesome parts of this game (which I’ve left out of the screenshots in this review) – if you look closely enough, you’ll find that these levels contain the kind of complex, challenging, intense and strategic gameplay that shows the FPS genre at it’s most mature.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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One comment on “Review: “Brutal Doom – Hell On Earth Starter Pack” (Stand-Alone Mod/ WAD for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ “Freedoom: Phase II”)

  1. […] after playing “Brutal Doom” for a few days, I felt like relaxing slightly and playing something a bit more traditional. So, I decided to take […]

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