Mini Review: “Stardate 20×7” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/ ZDoom etc..)

Back in 2014, I reviewed a set of “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×6“. At the time, I’d never played anything quite so challenging and, for a fair while, I considered it to be the most difficult set of FPS game levels ever. Yes, I hadn’t played “VeryHard“, “XXXI CyberSky” or any slaughtermaps back then. So, I guess that “Stardate 20×6” was possibly my first slaughtermap WAD.

So, imagine my delight when I was looking through last year’s Cacowards and happened to notice a WAD by the name of “Stardate 20×7“. Yes, it’s the sequel to “Stardate 20×6”!

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. At the time of writing, I’m part way through the final level and haven’t played either secret level. Still, I wanted to make sure there was at least one “Doom II” WAD review posted here this month.

Pictured: Why I’m only part way through the final level…

So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at “Stardate 20×7”:

“Stardate 20×7” is a nine-level slaughtermap WAD (that also contains two secret levels too) from the designer of “Swim With The Whales” and “Stardate 20×6”. It contains new music, new textures, a new monster and a slight change to the plasma rifle.

Like in “Stardate 20×6”, it fires purple projectiles 🙂

One of the things that I will say about this WAD is that, like “Stardate 20×6”, it has an absolutely beautiful purple and brown/gold colour scheme. Seriously, this WAD is an absolute joy to look at. Interestingly, whilst the first couple of levels have more of an Ancient Japan-style theme, the rest of the WAD has lots of cool-looking sci-fi locations.

The “Ancient Japan” theme in the early levels is cool, although the sci-fi levels look even cooler 🙂

Plus, like with other WADs by this author, “Stardate 20×7” takes a very traditionalist attitude towards the subject of jumping. However, the levels have been designed with this limitation in mind, so it’s barely noticeable when you’re playing. Still, you can rocket jump (since freelook can still be used) and this is incredibly useful at one point in level eight….

Trust me, you’ll want to rocket jump backwards fairly soon after pressing that button!

This WAD has a surprisingly good difficulty curve, with the first few levels being somewhat easier than the later ones. Still, it occasionally contains *ugh* puzzles.

Although the first level has a few intriguing, but solvable, puzzles – I got completely stuck on the second level. After wandering around aimlessly for about 1-2 hours and still not knowing where I should go or what I should do, I eventually ended up resorting to using cheat codes to get to level three.

But, apart from this (and one frustrating switch/platforming puzzle in level nine that I also bypassed via cheats), I haven’t really had any major problems with the level design. However, one annoying touch is that level five ends with a mandatory player death which means, you guessed it, level six begins from a pistol start.

Dammit! And I had the BFG too!

Surprisingly, for a slaughtermap WAD, the levels here are at least somewhat non-linear – with exploration, switch puzzles and keyhunting included at various points in the game. Even so, this WAD certainly has it’s fair share of fiendishly difficult set pieces.

Aside from the epic battle in level nine (you’ll know the one I’m talking about when you see it), the most challenging one is probably a small hexagonal corridor near the end of level five that fills up with several waves of Barons, Hell Knights, Revenants and Arch-viles. Not only do you have little to no cover or anywhere to retreat, but if you dawdle for too long then the Arch-viles will just resurrect all of the monsters you’ve already killed! Still, it is beatable. Just remember not to use all of your BFG ammo at the start of this area!

In other words, don’t do this and you might stand a chance…

Other intriguing set pieces include teleporting into a relatively narrow corridor filled with a layered army of monsters… with three pain elementals behind you and a caged Arch-vile in a nearby alcove (to prevent dawdling in the middle of the corridor). Then there’s a brilliant Hell Knight-filled area in level eight. Plus, there’s a timed Arch-vile area (one is released every ten seconds or so) in level four. There’s a monster-filled staircase in level six. And so much more….

Oh, the corridor segment I mentioned earlier is also really cool since it has a really “old school” kind of atmosphere to it.

Seriously, I cannot fault the set pieces in this WAD. As you would expect, they’re the sort of thing that looks egregiously unfair at first glance but which can be dealt with if you use the right tactics, if you persevere and if you are willing to work out how to escape each area (since you can’t usually fight literally every monster). Like in all good slaughtermaps, the monster encounters are more of a fast-paced action-based puzzle than a simple fight.

Pictured: The fun type of in-game puzzles! Seriously, this is what FPS game puzzles should look like.

Pictured: The “not so fun” type of FPS game puzzles.

The stand-out levels in this WAD are probably level six – which has this cool Ancient Egypt theme (complete with music) – and level eight.

Level eight is a proper old-school style slaughtermap, taking place in an eerily futuristic floating purple ballroom that is crammed with hundreds of monsters. This is the level where my reaction went from “Oh god, am I getting worse at this game? Am I too old for this?” to “Ha! Let’s dance!“.

The Danse Macabre, to be precise….

In terms of new monsters, I’ve only seen one so far. It’s a purple version of the “Afrit” monster I’ve seen in other WADs and it appears precisely once during level four. Of course, this happens after your health and ammo has been sapped by a frantic battle and you’re standing on a claustrophobic platform. And, did I mention that this monster’s attack combines that of the Revenant and Mancubus? Or that it has a lot of health too?

Seriously, I’m glad there’s only one of these monsters!

In terms of background music, there are some really great tunes here. The best ones probably have to be the Ancient Egypt-style music in level six or the vaguely Japanese-style music in level one. Seriously, I love how well the music fits in with the general theme of these levels.

All in all, this is a visually-beautiful WAD for experienced and/or masochistic players. Yes, you might get totally and utterly stuck during levels two and nine (because of keys, puzzles and/or “where do I go?”). But, if you enjoyed “Stardate 20×6” and you want even more of a challenge, then “Stardate 20×7” is definitely worth checking out. It’s atmospheric, fiendishly difficult and wonderfully purple. What’s not to like?

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

What Can Games Teach Writers About Challenging Their Audience? – A Ramble

Even though this is an article about writing “challenging” fiction that your audience will actually read, I’m going to have to start by talking about playing computer games for a while.

As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later. Still, if you want to jump to the writing advice, then skip the next four or five paragraphs.

At the time of writing, I’ve found myself in the strange situation of having two games on the go at one time (both of which I hope to review at some point). One is a fantasy/action game from 2002 called “Enclave” and the other is a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×7” (which is the sequel to “Stardate 20×6). Anyway, the reason why I haven’t reviewed either game yet is because of how challenging they are.

This is a screenshot from “Enclave” (2002), level twelve is proving to be quite the challenge…

This is a screenshot from a set of “Doom II” levels called “Stardate 20×7” (2017). Ironically, this is one of the easier parts of this particular level…

In short, there’s one level on “Enclave” which I seem to be making very gradual progress with, due to some especially powerful in-game adversaries. Likewise, I got totally stuck on the second level of “Stardate 20×7” because – after about two hours of searching- I couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go next. This eventually got to the point where I actually ended up skipping the level (via cheat codes) so that I could carry on with the later levels, which feature more enjoyable combat-based challenge and more solvable puzzles.

Both games are challenging – yet, I’ve progressed a decent way through them (I’m about halfway through “Stardate 20×7” and about two-thirds of the way through the light campaign in “Enclave”). I still enjoy them and haven’t abandoned either one out of frustration yet – unlike, say, “Clive Barker’s Undying“.

So, why have I started this article by talking about computer games?

Simply put, they offer a very literal example of how challenge affects the audience’s experience of a creative work. Both of these games are enjoyable enough to keep playing because I’ve had a lot of practice playing computer games over the years, because they have a good difficulty curve, because of everything surrounding the games, because they have a reasonable length (eg: “Enclave” is split into two medium-length campaigns, and “Stardate 20×7” has a total of eleven levels), because they are in a genre I enjoy, because they have an interesting setting and because one of them gave me the option (via in-game codes) to skip a part I didn’t enjoy.

Yet, I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve abandoned reading fairly early on because of the author’s writing style, the length, the pacing or just the story itself.

So, what can games teach us about keeping the audience reading? Well, most of the stuff on the list of things I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago can also apply to stories too. I don’t have time to go into literally everything I’ve mentioned, so I’ll just talk about the most important points.

The first is the subject of a difficulty curve. In novels, this translates to a compelling, readable beginning. A great example of this can be found in G.R.R. Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones”.

Although “A Game Of Thrones” is a slow-paced and complex novel about the politics of a medieval-style world, it begins with a gripping first chapter about a team of soldiers in a frozen wasteland who are attacked by ice zombies. It is dramatic, it is suspenseful and it reads like something from the middle of a good horror novel. And it makes you want to read more! If G.R.R Martin had started his novel with a complex political discussion, the reader would probably be less intrigued.

The second is the subject of an interesting setting. This one is pretty self-explanatory. But, a great example would probably be William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. This cyberpunk novel is written in an ultra fast-paced way that fires futuristic jargon at the reader constantly (with the audience having to work out what most of it means from the context). Yes, it took me two attempts to read this book. But, I loved it! Why? Simply put, the futuristic world of the story is absolutely fascinating.

The third is the subject of context. In short, if a novel taps into or relates to something the audience finds intriguing, then they’ll persevere. For example, when I was a teenager, I was – as teenagers are – obsessed with “edgy” and “controversial” things.

This is why, when I was a teenager, I read Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”. I’d heard that the book actually had an “18+” age restriction in a couple of other countries and that it had actually been banned in some places. I had to read it. Even though this meant slogging through numerous dreary descriptions of posh restaurants and grimacing my way through scenes that made even the horror novels I read regularly at the time seem like light comedies by comparison, I persevered because someone, somewhere didn’t want me to read it. And reading it made me feel like I was rebelling.

Finally, there’s the subject of length. In short – the shorter your book is, the more challenging you can be. Another example of this from the list of “controversial” books I read when I was a teenager was Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”.

The entire novel is narrated in bizarre futuristic slang and the audience has to decipher what it means from the context. It is, as you would expect, a very slow read because of this. Yet, it is something I persevered with because it’s a fairly slender novel (I can’t remember the exact length, but the edition I read was probably 200-250 pages at most).

On the other hand, when I tried to read Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” during my teenage years, I abandoned it about halfway through. This novel also uses a slightly experimental narrative style, but it is at least 300-400 pages long. If it had been half the length, I’d have probably finished reading it. So, yes, length matters when you’re challenging your readers.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂