Friday, June 23, 2023

Catacomb 3D (1991)

Name:Catacomb 3D
Developer:iD Software
Time:1 hour 50 minutes
Won:Yes (72W/60L)

Catacomb 3D is kind of the weird kid out of Id's FPS series. It's not the "first" FPS like Hovertank, and it lacks the cult status of Wolfenstein or Quake, and Doom apparently Citizen Kane-like longevity. It's also the only series without any sequels made by Id themselves. It's also something of a convoluted series, as every game seems to be unrelated to the others outside of the name and general gameplay concept. This includes the original Gauntlet-like and the bizarre number of semi-sequels that had.

The story is that your evil enemy Nemesis has kidnapped a friend of yours, and you must traverse his dungeons to recover him, facing many deadly foes. This is not the version of the story that happened originally or indeed what the story was actually supposed to be. Instead, you were supposed to recover your friend, named Nemesis, from the evil Grelminar, the lich. Somewhere along the line in this series the names got changed around and now they retroactively changed it. John Romero has said that yes, that's the right way, Grelminar is the bad guy. Because the boys at Id had a habit of nailing together their games awkwardly, another series of Id's, Dark Designs, had Grelminar as a long dead wizard whose staff you have to find.

This time around I'm not playing it in DOS, instead I'm using the sourceport CatacombGL. This adds all the usual conveniences like mouse aim and, my real concern, a map. It's utterly bizarre playing a game like this with mouse aim, modern control-style or not, it's basically cheating as far as the original game's design is concerned. Even if the game really exploited it's slow turning speed for the worse.

That said, Catacomb controls more or less like a typical FPS of this era. Arrows move, with strafing being some strange thing off somewhere in the alphabet keys. Ctrl shoots, and esc is the menu. Of special note are the various magical abilities, a rapid fire attack activated with the z key, an exterminator, which shoots around you. both requiring use of a special items, a cure spell, activated with C, and a charge attack, which you hold down the ctrl key for. Inserted later, but now usable in the source port, V to quick turn, and O to open the map. The space bar does not activate anything, it's merely an alternative for C. Instead you walk into objects or shoot them. Curiously, and this might just be the source port, but the charged attack seems to be next to useless as an attack.

Unfortunately it took me a level to realize that I could turn the modern effects off.

Scrolls are also a thing, which you read whenever you first run over then, and then you can read them anytime later by pressing the number indicated on that particular scroll. The game uses this system, because you don't change weapons with the number keys. In retrospect this is the game that least needed to use this system, as there's not a lot for the game to talk about

The game is fairly simple, but with a slightly cruel bent. Enemies lie in wait for you, and when they see you, they come after you, with no alert sound. Which feels curle, especially since Hovertank 3D had a radar and indeed the later Catacomb games would also have a radar. I do dig the HUD though, especially the compass, more than you got in Wolf. There's not much enemy variety, basically just an orc, a troll and a few others. Also a big part of the game, locked doors, with multi-color keys. They're still disposable keys, but it's not longer a generic key to door thing, but color key to color door.

This time around I decided to try to search for secrets more than I did last time. There are three on this first level, with which I found somewhat easily thanks to the map now showing me the general area, which is defeating the spirit of the original about as much as using mouse look. Interestingly, there's an alternative portal to the one you're supposed to take, which skips about half the game. Which, if you play those levels right, means you're out a lot of items.

Oh, yeah, there's music in this game, one track. If you've played Commander Keen 4, you know it, that short and mysterious track, which played in a lot of that game's levels. After having played this, I assumed that this version was just shorter for whatever reason, but even that version lasts a whopping 16 seconds. No wonder I thought the music was repetitive originally. I just turned it off. The sound is some very soft adlib sounds which seem to be getting on my nerves. They should work...they just don't. This is also the introduction of that cursed "walking along the wall" sound that really makes you hate searching for secrets in Wolfenstein. Here it sounds like some kind of manic woodpecker.

As to general level design, this tries to be cleverer, but it doesn't really have much capacity to be clever. It's an early texture-based wall design, but there isn't a lot of variety here. Those little text bars on the bottom are the game's attempts at creating rooms, something that later entries in the series would take good advantage of, but this is basically just telling you what would be here if the game could depict it. Like a Scott Adams text adventure, but without the charm. Oh, yeah, it violates the cardinal rule of level design by spawning enemies in a position where they're alert right away.

To be somewhat fair, it is tries to be somewhat consistent with the kind of design first implemented in Catacomb, just that when it's in first person you absolutely feel every time you have to go back and forth on a key hunt. It's just that now, when the game puts a key in a secret area, it's no longer considered polite, it's a dick move. There's just not that much to talk about otherwise. Occasionally the game will pull out some things that later games would refine. One level has Blake Stone's more secrets than actual level approach, but Catacomb lacks the splendor that game had when it did it right. There's also a hub area, less in the sense we think of a hub area today and more, pick a destination and one will actually allow you to advance. 
Because of this, the hub areas don't really offer any stuff, instead they seem intended to wear you down for the final section, there are no secrets here, and some small number of potions. Of particular note is the hall of doors. Dozens of doors, which may contain treasure, but really contain three trolls and another key. Of course one of these identical doors is hiding the exit...of the hub. Drat, missed two of the areas, how will I ever recover?

Basically an EGA version of those wizards from Heretic.

In this final section, now there are wizard enemies, some fancier name probably exists. They're ranged, but a bit disappointing, because they take forever to decide to shoot. Difficulty in general is weird like, because while this game can be hard as originally intended, this sort of isn't in the source port. You can easily stunlock enemies and besides that you're rarely ever in a position to need an exterminator, so if you find a lot of the secrets, you can quickly get more magic than you'll ever need. The only level with some number of monsters was that hall of doors, which you can't fight all at once anyway.

The primary source of difficulty is in the level design itself, it's very hard to find your bearings in an area where the walls are mostly all the same. I think having a small number of wallsprites might actually be worse than no wallsprites at all. This comes to an annoying head on level 18, a secret wall maze, except it obviously isn't very secret considering you start in a room with no exit. Even with the map this is tedious and an endurance test. Which I should clarify, of your patience, you can save and load at any time you wish.

Then we get the hell level, in which demons appear. Now you can choose whether or not to hammer the fire button for a minute waiting for these demons to die, or you can use a zapper. I'm sorry 2 zappers. That's some great enemy progression, from simple to take out, to burning through your items. On top of that, there's some teleportors here which, if you pick the wrong one, will send you back to the hub area.

Nemesis's Lair is an absolute joke in comparison to those two levels. You'd think with Nemesis alongside 2 demons that he'd make them look like jokes, but no, he doesn't really take as much damage as they do, and his piddly ranged attack makes him the least important member of this final fight. I'm not entirely ungrateful though.

After killing him, you walk towards a man in a glass case, freeing him. The game is over and this is the ending screen. Better than nothing I guess. Starting to feel like the story of this game.

You are given a decent arsenal, yet, none of them really help you that much beyond the basic blast and a rapid-fire attack. The exterminator is something you never actually need and the charge attack is inefficent compared to just hammering the ctrl key. 2/10

Enemies mostly result in a flat increase in health, with two ranged enemies and a weird bat creature. It's not that bad outside of the demon, the harshest damage sponge I've seen chronologically. 3/10


Ranges from forgettable to downright player unfriendly. Every single thing I consider a sin of level design is here in great gusto. 1/10

Player Agency:
Curious, playing this kind of game with mouse look still feels wrong, and that comes across in how the game works. Obviously the game didn't intend for mouse aiming and the map, the latter of which despite it's cheat factor is practically essential. That said, somehow the mouse aiming didn't quite feel like cheating, instead removing un unfair advantage the AI has. Mostly functional though, despite the awkward walking speed. 7/10

You can walk into things and shoot some walls. 1/10

This game just gives me a headache with how it feels to make any kind of progression. 0/10

While everything is nice in isolation, there's not a whole heck of a lot of animation here, enemies only ever look towards you, even when they run away. Walls look ugly as you're trying to figure out where you are. The big fancy backgrounds are nice, and make me wish that Id tried their hands at an adventure game, like the other shareware titans did. 3/10

Not really a consideration, even ignoring the continuity issues. 0/10

16 seconds of music and some sound effects that really got on my nerves. 1/10

That's 18. Five points less than I originally gave it and 3 points more than Hovertank. I kind of begrudgingly respected Hovertank in my recent playthrough, but this one just felt like noise. Honestly, a bit of a shame, considering that the non-Id Catacomb games are mostly better.

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