Sunday, April 17, 2011

Master Levels

Since the Master Levels, the famous set of community-produced maps that id Software released on a retail disc, are perhaps legendary for that reason alone, I'm not going to waste our time here going into elaborate critiques of those particular levels. Like scholars debating over what Shakespeare meant when he wrote a particular line, members of the Doom community have written enough such essays about the Master Levels that there's really no need for me to add another. For any newcomers reading this, such information can be easily found in the Doom wiki and in FAQs like this one by Henrik Larsen.

"But Herculine... if you're not actually going to talk about the Master Levels here, why title the post that way or even mention the Master Levels at all?"

Because, dear readers, the levels that id released on that retail disc were not the only levels created by those authors. It is those other levels created by the "masters" that I'd like to bring to your attention today. It's my hope that if you read this and discover some maps you've never played before you'll give them a try and perhaps even enjoy them.

RAVEN by Tim Willits and Theresa Chasar

Those of you already familiar with the Doom franchise will recognize the name of Tim Willits, the mapper who eventually became a paid member of the id Software team. His levels from the famous Master Levels were titled ATTACK and CANYON and were among the easiest of the lot, largely due to abundant ammo and power-ups and tougher enemies making only solo appearances. Tim and his sister Theresa apparently used the same formula to craft the eleven untitled maps of the Raven series.

"These .wads will challenge all Doom players regardless of skill level."

I disagree with that quote from the description listed for the Raven file in the archives. They'd make good starter maps to lead up to something more difficult and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the maps, but again the imbalance between monsters and ammo/power-ups makes the maps far too easy in my opinion. The first map is an excellent example: there are at least four blue armor power-ups that can be found in the map, which is about three too many, especially when you consider that there are a couple of the green armors laying around as well. By the end of this first map you'll also have found almost all of the weapons available in the entire game, another fine example of imbalance. Playing these maps gave me the strong impression that they were designed for newcomers to the game.

And speaking of design: most of the Raven maps use basically the same metal and brick texture themes while only a few of the later maps begin to use more wood and stone textures, so after a while they all can start to look the same. With the exceptions of the last few levels of the series the maps in my opinion lack any individual uniqueness, so even though I just recently played through the entire set they tend to blend together in my memory. The fact that they didn't bother to give any of the maps individual titles doesn't help matters. I suppose it's just as well, though, since my goal with this post isn't so much to give detailed reviews of individual maps but instead to give overviews of the other map sets that these authors have created.

The Raven map set isn't all bad, though. The layouts of each map have their redeeming moments, and overall they're very reminiscent of the id-produced WADs. It's just that, in my opinion, there was nothing really distinct about them and I really expected more from a map set with the name Tim Willits on it.

PERDITION'S GATE by Tom Mustaine and Bob Mustaine

In the retail release of the Master Levels Tom Mustaine has but a single map titled PARADOX; in the overall Master Levels scheme it's one of the "medium" levels, having a compact, concentric design and a fair balance between enemies and items. However, it's not the only commercial release Tom has been involved with.

Published by WizardWorks (anyone remember D!Zone?), Perdition's Gate is a joint effort between Tom Mustaine and his father Bob Mustaine. It's a full-scale megaWAD, a collection of 32 maps (including two secret levels) that replace the default Doom II lineup. The difficulty of the levels increases progressively just as they should in a megaWAD and are basically divided into three sections: Earth, The World of The Ancients and (of course) Hell.

Perdition's Gate utilizes many custom-made textures that give the levels a very unique look and atmosphere... a definite plus. However, the Mustaines apparently decided to use their own textures almost exclusively, so after playing through a few maps everything begins to look just like it did in the level before it despite the fact that the maps have great original designs.

While on the topic of custom textures, I should probably at least briefly mention the two secret levels in this set of maps. Both "The Planet of Living Rock" and "The Sea of Radioactive Waste" have some large areas where everything is either a flat black or a blinding white. After seeing these textures for the first time I instinctively opened the maps in an editor to make sure something wasn't missing from the WAD file. No, this is apparently exactly the effect they intended. So in the case of the screenshot below, don't bother attempting to adjust your monitor because it simply won't make a difference.

I enjoyed playing through the entire megaWAD and found most of the levels to pose a decent challenge without being ridiculously difficult. The item and monster placements were well-balanced and, as I've said, the level designs were all original and fairly interesting. The only thing I really found disappointing about Perdition's Gate was that once I reached the maps that were supposedly Hell they for the most part looked instead like a combination of the "Earth" and "Ancient" levels and many of them were quite brief while I had expected them to instead be larger and more challenging. It was almost as if once they were nearing the end of the project the Mustaines simply stopped putting as much effort into the maps. Oh, and the final map is a somewhat insane retooling of id's "Icon of Sin" that would be virtually impossible to beat if you choose to try to stand and fight everything... but if instead you take my approach and run like a scared rabbit you can finish it fairly quick and easy.

Overall, Perdition's Gate was entertaining and fun to play through. I highly recommend it.

INFERNO by John W. Anderson aka "Dr. Sleep"

One of the major contributors to the Master Levels compilation, "Dr. Sleep" weighs in with a total of five maps. They are GERYON, NESSUS, MINOS' JUDGEMENT, VIRGIL'S LEAD and VESPERAS. Each of these maps is part of a set of eight which he titled INFERNO in homage to Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy. The two maps intended as the first and second "canto" of the series, Dante's Gate and Crossing Acheron, were also released with this retail compilation though they were not considered a part of the actual Master Levels, instead being included in the collection of nearly 2000 downloaded community-made WADs which was labeled "MAXIMUM DOOM". The eighth canto, AND HELL FOLLOWED, was a map that was later released as part of the fourth episode of Ultimate Doom.

The maps by Anderson are in my opinion all very well-made and well-balanced. I would describe them as being above-average in difficulty; many are non-linear in design and contain portions that are easy if you do them right, but if you do them wrong you're likely to get toasted by the monsters, particularly on the maps where a Cyberdemon or Arch-vile was used quite creatively.

When playing through these maps it's easy to see why the id guys liked Anderson's work; the maps have a classic Doom feel to them, yet each has a very unique and memorable design. In my opinion it's a shame he didn't create more maps because each is representative of the spirit of the original Doom. If you ask me, id Software should have hired Anderson instead of Willits.

Chris Klie

Now this is where things start to get more difficult.

Though he didn't group his maps under a particular title with a pithy back-story, the levels created by Chris Klie are among the most interesting, entertaining and challenging of the lot. Included in the Master Levels are THE COMBINE, THE CATWALK, SUBSPACE, SUBTERRA, THE FISTULA and THE GARRISON. I would rate these maps as average and above-average in terms of challenge, while the maps not included in the retail compilation are a bit more difficult.

Each being listed in the archives with the description: "This was an outtake from the Master Levels." (which leads me to believe that the maps were submitted but rejected), the levels that were not included by the id guys are Device One, The C.P.U., The D.M.Z., The Fury, The Enemy Inside and The Hive. The last three maps in that list are in my opinion Klie's best and most challenging, so it really puzzles me as to why they did not get included. Thus the purpose of this post, to hopefully keep these great maps from being overlooked by both newcomers and experienced Doomers alike.

Visually, Chris Klie's maps are an even mixture of metal and tech textures set against stone and wood textures with an abundance of long or steep and often winding stairways and mechanical lifts. A lot of the action tends to take place indoors or in underground corridors, but there are still enough chances for you to see the sky that you shouldn't get too claustrophobic. The gameplay aspects are likewise well-balanced; there's enough ammo and health to get the job done, but if you screw it up you're gonna get toasted.

As I've said of other works mentioned in this post, Klie's designs have a very traditional Doom feel while still being original and interesting. The only exceptions to this would be Device One and The C.P.U., which have a much more "square-ish" symmetrical feel, but I can't help but think that such an effect was intentional since the titles of the maps suggest that they are meant to represent the inside of some huge computer.

Overall, the maps of Chris Klie are highly recommended by this Doomer.

Jim Flynn

Did I mention that this is where things start to get more difficult?

Jim Flynn has only two maps included in the Master Levels: TITAN MANOR and TRAPPED ON TITAN. There are a couple of reasons why I believe the id guys chose to only include two of his works; first, his maps tend to be very large and surely would have pushed the hardware of computers of the day to their limits and second, his designs are so different from traditional Doom maps that perhaps id was concerned that players might not receive them well. There are four other maps in Flynn's Titan series: The Titan AnomalyMines of Titan, Trouble on Titan and The Farside of Titan.

When I say his maps are different I mean it only in a positive way. They are most often large, non-linear and complex with intricate designs that make them truly stand apart from other Doom maps. They are also challenging, not just in terms of hordes of monsters rushing at you but also in the fact that the keys and the exit are rarely right in front of your face; you might often find yourself scratching your head as you try to find the path to the end. Some of the maps can be a bit confusing at times but nothing that will require a degree in rocket science to complete, just a little extra thinking than the average Doom level. These are some of the primary qualities that I look for in a good Doom map and thus I rate the maps of Jim Flynn among the best that have ever been produced, particularly the nine maps of his Enigma Episode.

Visually Flynn's maps are large and sometimes convoluted, occasionally dark and quite often decorated with murals of Mandelbrot fractals or screenshots of himself playing through his own level. In most cases the screenshots are intended to serve as clues or signposts of a sort while the Mandelbrot fractals seem to just be something he really liked a lot and perhaps thought would give the maps a more unorthodox look, especially when combined with his penchant for using the sky texture on floors and teleporter pads.

In two maps in particular from the Enigma Episode, entitled TWISTED and GULCH, some of the main areas were so dark that were it not for GZDoom's openGL 3D lighting I'd likely have had considerable difficulty navigating and fighting (see above screenshots). To be fair, however, I must note that there were several instances of the night-vision goggles power-up laying around the levels as well, thus the darkness served to make the levels more challenging but by no means impossible to play. Another challenging, unconventional trick Flynn likes to use in his maps is stairways that are so steep with such narrow steps that they are more like ladders and are virtually invisible. In the next screenshot below can you see the steps?

The levels of the Titan series are not as dark but are still huge and non-linear as is indicative of Flynn's style. And just to clarify, when I refer to a Doom map being huge I'm not talking about just some big square arena with monsters in it. I've downloaded a few of those from the archives with great expectations because the author described the map as being "huge" (or any other synonym for "large" that you can think of), only to play the map and find that it was just a big open boring area with very little or no real detail. Such is not the case with the works of Jim Flynn. While his maps do indeed cover a large area, that area is packed full of places to go, secrets to find, puzzles to solve and monsters to kill (or flee from). There's generally enough stuff to do or try to figure out that a single map of his can take at least an hour to complete on one's first time through. Furthermore, when playing the average Doom level I almost never look at the automap, but in most of Flynn's levels I've had to refer to the automap not just in search of secrets but simply to try to find my way to the exit. Also to clarify, when I describe a map as being non-linear it means something more than that the map isn't designed in a single straight line. Quite often in Flynn's maps there are large areas that are not necessary to clear in order to complete the level even though they are not tagged as secret areas. Passing up these areas could result in overlooking some good power-ups or ammo caches, though usually these bonuses are only won by spending some resources and wading through some monster corpses. If you tend to play maps as singles this may be less important to you, but I tend to re-number the maps with an editor and then play them consecutively like a megaWAD, so having some power-ups and ammo left at the end of one map to give me a good start on the next is something I always look for.

Another solo map authored by Jim Flynn is The Interdiction Zone. There's not too much praise that I can give this one that I haven't already mentioned, except to say that this one is in a way different in that Flynn made much more creative use of vertical space in this map than in some of his other works. Like the others I recommend it, especially to more experienced Doomers looking for something new, different and challenging.

Also well worth your time is the two-map set ORACLE co-authored by Jim Flynn and Scott Harper. Flynn's influence is readily apparent in the first map of the pair, which had me searching for keys and such for a while longer than the average Doom level. Overall the map is not quite as difficult as Flynn's solo offerings; ammo and power-ups are plentiful enough that I was able to finish the map with a full load of ammo and maxed health and armor thanks to the megasphere near the very end.

The second untitled Oracle map is an arena-style level which the authors call a bonus. The beginning will likely remind you of id's classic Doom II MAP07, Dead Simple -- basically lots of stuff to kill, but you'd better keep it movin' -- while the latter portion of the level is more of a puzzling departure worthy of bearing Flynn's name.

I want to make it clear that, while these maps can be very challenging both in terms of puzzles and simply surviving, none of them are impossible to complete. In his Master Levels FAQ which I linked to at the beginning of this post, Henrik Larsen says of Flynn's TITAN maps: "Besides, the puzzles are extremely cunning, and I still have to cheat to exit." Well, Henrik Larsen just didn't try hard enough. As I've been working on this post I've also been playing through all the maps that I've described and I can assure you that they all can be completed without any cheats whatsoever. While I'm an experienced Doomer I don't have any super-human abilities and would rate my general gaming skills as average, so I think it would be safe to say that other players who are familiar with the game should be able to complete these levels without cheating as well.

In summary, the maps of Jim Flynn are all top-of-the-line in my book and I recommend that any serious Doomers make them a permanent part of their WAD collection.

CABAL by Sverre Andre Kvernmo aka "Cranium"

Most Doomers will agree that Kvernmo's maps are among the most difficult of the Master Levels. The maps from his Cabal series that were included in id's famous retail release are The Black Tower, Bloodsea Keep, Mephisto's Maosoleum, The Express Elevator To Hell and the only secret level in the Master Levels, Bad Dream. But there are in fact seven more Cabal maps that Kvernmo originally intended to be part of a full 32-level episode: Bloodflood, Derelict Station, The Watchtower, Temple Of Death, We Who Are About To Die, Eye Of The Storm and The Image Of Evil.

Like the levels by "Dr. Sleep", the levels by "Cranium" are tied together by a storyline. In this scenario you are supposedly a former Cyberdemon touted as the "biggest and baddest to rule Hell"... and yet somehow you were overthrown and kicked out, for which you now want revenge against the Cabal. That aside, the levels by Kvernmo are difficult to survive, but by no means impossible to complete. Yet where the maps by Jim Flynn are made challenging by a combination of monster hordes and brain-teasing puzzles, "Cranium's" maps are ironically a bit less cerebral and more physical with onslaughts of demons and the occasional well-placed Arch-vile or Cyberdemon.

Kvernmo's map designs are somewhat more conventional than Flynn's and for the most part are not as large in terms of area, but that doesn't mean that they're predictable nor do they lack recreational activities for our favorite UAC Space Marine. Many are non-linear with optional areas and puzzles, the paths to which are sometimes color-coded doors that are easily found if you can just figure out where the keys are hidden. Kvernmo often uses normally static decoration items as switches as well, so you will find that unlocking secrets often hinges upon shooting a hanging corpse or pressing the "use" button while facing an Evil Eye.

Perhaps his most interesting map design is THE IMAGE OF EVIL, though it might not be readily apparent why I say this unless you look at the automap once you've completed most of the level; at that point it can then be seen that the map is in the shape of a horned demonic head, perhaps the face of Satan himself. This impresses me because I know how difficult it can be to get the various elements of a map organized in a way that's playable and entertaining when not trying to make it look like something from the aerial view; I can only imagine the planning that must have gone into getting that result with this map.

Overall, Kvernmo's levels are great for players who enjoy blasting away at a wall of demons, but they also have their fair share of puzzles and secrets that are not necessarily what you would expect. I highly recommend these maps, especially to experienced players.


In short, if you're a fan of the famous Master Levels and haven't done so already, you'll want to check out these other maps by those authors. Together they make an impressive collection of 96 quality maps that you'll both love and hate to play through. I rank them as being some of the best levels I've ever played and I think you will also. If that doesn't make you want to dust off the old game or give it a try if you've never played Doom, perhaps you should just stick to playing Bejeweled.

Until next time, thanks for reading and for playing DOOM.


  1. Interesting and insightful, Herculine. Thank you for bringing this information to my attention. I think I have heard of the "Master Levels" release, but have been completely unaware of the non-retail releases. With just the ones you reviewed here, I could find myself playing the equivalent of three run-throughs of Doom 2. Probably more, if I take into account the size of some of the maps.

    I could be mistaken, but I think that Theresa Chasar is also the name of the plasma weapon researcher in Doom 3.

  2. @Druuler:

    You've touched upon exactly why I still play the game and decided to start this blog; there's enough quality custom (and totally free) content available that I can continue to play indefinitely without having to play the same maps twice (though sometimes I do replay the ones I really like).

    And you are absolutely correct: Theresa Chasar got her name used in Doom 3, surely not by coincidence. If you've ever watched the movie with "The Rock" you likely also noted the names of some of the id guys being thrown around a lot: Dr. Willits, Dr. Carmack, et cetera. If I had my own game or movie, I'd probably do the same.

  3. How to tell you're not a real DOOM-o-phile:

    "Tom and Bob Mustaine? I wonder if they're related to Dave..."

  4. Excuse me, but I think I feel uncontrollable laughter coming on...

    ...oh, wait... it was just a sneeze.

  5. So... my joke was bad?

    Oi, you people of the female persuasion are hard to figure out, sometimes.

  6. Actually, for all I know they may very well be related. It's not uncommon for celebrities to have relatives who are also in the public eye, but because they work in different industries or are perhaps not as famous we may never make the connection unless they bring it to our attention in an interview or something.

    I'd cite specific examples, but I'm just too sleepy...

  7. Nice reviews Herculine. Some of those levels seemed to tweak an old memory or two (The C.P.U. and The Hive in particular), probably from some long forgotten download or shared disk. I liked your description of what you found good and not so good, much more useful information than some of your reviewers managed. A new Doomer or an old one returning will benefit from the read.

  8. @Striker:

    Thanks; that's exactly my goal here.

    As I've mentioned to others recently, my maps are by far not the only ones that receive such reviews in the Archives; the fact that they do not require some manner of identification (e-mail address, etc.) in order for one to post a review leaves it open to a world of stupidity. Some entries actually get intelligent comments but, when it comes to the negative, reviews can be anything from: "This map is stupid. It totally sucks." with the poster citing not a single reason why they think thusly, to: "Whoever drew this map must be a retarded faggot." Such flaming and trolling on other sites we frequent would get one banned from the site, but for Doomworld apparently this is not only acceptable behavior but also expected.

    I intend to continue to offer such reviews as I have done here, not only of maps that perhaps got a raw deal in the archives but also of other modifications and enhancements that I've found make my Doom experience more enjoyable.

    Again, thanks for reading and leaving feedback!

  9. @Nos: I was wondering about that Mustaine connection myself.