Hey there! Welcome back to the program. In case you missed it, on the last episode, we talked about a little gem called High/Low 1. And I did intend to take a break from that series this month, but… well, I couldn’t stay away.
Chris Hansen’s bite-sized maps make them really easy to tackle, and his light, airy style honestly is difficult to resist. So this month I’m back with the remaining three entries in his High/Low series instead of the megaWAD I was intending to show off. I’ll get to that next month. (It starts with an R!)
Anyhow, while I do love Chris Hansen maps, there’s one frustrating thread that runs through a lot of them: despite generally not having any advanced features that preclude them from running in vanilla Doom or more basic sourceports, they’re only ever tested in GZDoom. The effect here is that sinister little bugs or sloppy mapping habits often get through the playtesting filter because GZDoom is smart enough to fix them on the fly while other ports will choke on them.
High/Low 2, for instance, is totally playable in vanilla Doom except for one staircase that’s supposed to raise out of the floor but just… doesn’t… unless the WAD is being played in a ZDoom-based port. Other things like lifts and specific doors in 3 and 4 won’t feel like budging if you’re running anything non-ZDoom. So as much as I’d love to play the maps vanilla or in Eternity, High/Low 1 is the only WAD in the series where you can actually do that and make it all the way to the exit without cheats.
Long story short — I had to install ZDoom for you, Chris Hansen! I’m shaking my fist at you if you can’t tell!
High/Low 2 continues the vague-ish gameplay element that is the series’ namesake. There’s still a fair bit of height-variation to go around, as well as a few precarious fights that occur on walkways over pits of nukage. The map also makes something out of jumping gaps or hopscotching across broken platforms, which recurs again in the sequels.
The most interesting one of these jumps involves leaping over a wide gap which separates you from the red key. Making the jump requires you build up speed in the hallway leading to this area, then make a quick L-turn around a corner and straferun right over a pit. It’s interesting in itself, but what I really appreciated about this sequence is that it’s not required. Skillful players who think of this strategy and are able to pull it off will get the red key early, but there are more conventional ways to arrive at the same place, so it’s basically just a fun bit of Metroid-esque sequence-breaking. Of course, I’m not sure Mr. Hansen intended for the strafe-grabbing of the red key to even to be an option, but the fact that it exists and doesn’t break the rest of the level makes me happy.
It’s little “touches” like that that make the WAD for me. Like an encounter later where two barons pop out, ready for a fight, but then one immediately teleports away. Your first instinct is to spin around and check if it’s rematerialized behind you — but it hasn’t. So you spend the rest of the level on edge, wondering. “Okay, so where did that thing go?” (Don’t worry. You’ll definitely see him again.)
It’s not perfect, though. Some of the caco-fighting can get a little tedious, and about two-thirds of the way in, there’s what you might call a switch hunt trying to get to the yellow key. An elaborate lock mechanism keeps it well-protected in the center of a large arena-type room, but the sequence of switches required to open the way involves more travel and more wondering what-exactly-did-that-switch-I-just-flipped-actually-do? than is probably ideal.
That’s as far as my criticism can go. Overall, like the original WAD, High/Low 2 doesn’t put forward anything earth-shattering, but it’s just so solid as a one-off WAD. It’s all about polish, simplicity, and some creative use of the standard set of Episode 2 resources. Again, the perfect lunch break WAD, if you’re in the market for one.
High/Low 3 starts off strong — stronger, probably — with a great mix of cramped areas and wide-open ones, and some wonderfully varied encounters. The screenshot right up there is of a walkway at the beginning of the map where you fend off cacodemons while something like a dozen imps toss a barrage of fireballs your way from the relative safety of their isolated platforms. The scale of the room makes it feel like it should be something really climactic you’d expect for the end of the level, or some big lock-you-in-and-spring-a-trap ambush, but it’s neither of those, and in that sense it’s a delightful subversion of expectations. And it’s not the only area to do that.
Unfortunately, the WAD as a whole, especially as it progresses, gave me this strong sense of disorientation — and I don’t mean in a good way. I mean just generally not knowing where I’m going or what I’m doing. You’ll just suddenly teleport somewhere with no warning, often just as you were getting familiar with where you were. You bounce around so much this way that it’s hard to get a hang of the level, so I just ended up running around like my head got blasted off and hoping I was going the right way.
I got pretty far that way too, despite some parts where I was sure I was doing it wrong. There’s a sequence where I flipped a switch to lower a lift, then ran through a really cramped, awkward passage, past the lift to another switch, flipped that one, then backed up onto the lift before it went back up — and ducked through a door the second switch had opened before it closes. It might sound okay on paper, but playing through this part felt less like a fair challenge and more like I was breaking the WAD — doing something the designer hadn’t intended. It just felt wrong, but there was no other way to navigate the section as far as I could tell.
And as ashamed as I am to say it: I couldn’t get to the end of this map. Oddly, I feel like I made it all the way through the thing all those years ago when I first played it, but this time I genuinely couldn’t figure out how to get the blue key, and after all the confusion and frustration of the map up to that point… yeah, I sort of gave up.
So it might not be fair — not having experienced the whole WAD — but I’m pretty comfortable calling this my least favorite of the bunch.
That must mean High/Low 4 is better, right? Yes — definitely. Though for me it still didn’t capture the simple magic of 1 or 2. High/Low 4 is the best-looking of the series without a doubt, and if you’re looking for a challenge, you’ll find that here as well. But in terms of navigation I think it falls apart in a similar way to 3.
Teleporters toss you around an already confusingly laid-out map, and worse, there are passages that are almost impossible to locate when you need to. One is in a nukage pit — so you’re already zooming around crazily, trying to find a way out — and it’s very easy to completely miss this dark staircase that you need to climb to progress deeper into the level. Then, again, in the final arena, there’s a timed switch that brings a lift down… except the lift is in almost complete darkness and too far away to hear, so I spent so long just flipping the switch and then wandering around, trying to figure out what it had done.
I’ll give Mr. Hansen the props he’s due for that arena, though. It is suitably awesome and suitably hard for the final set-piece of the series, and the player’s first sight of the bizarre monolith at the far end upon entering is really one of the most memorable moments in the series for me, actually. If the two most important qualities of a climactic entry are challenge and aesthetics, High/Low 4 nails it. If we start to factor in flow and connectivity — well, it misses the mark just a bit, but I’ll take what I can get.
I think the series sort of loses its steam toward the end, but Mr. Hansen’s talent for designing simple levels and fun firefights sticks it out until the very last moments. The levels stay just as satisfyingly interconnected as well — it’s just that the player starts to lose himself in them with all the teleporting and craziness that goes on, and I think sticking to the simpler approach would have worked out a lot better.
Still, I enjoyed them all. High/Low 2 is probably my favorite, but give them all a try. You’d be surprised how often I’m wrong.
High/Low 2, 3, and 4 require DOOM.WAD and run in ZDoom or GZDoom. If you’re not sure how to get them running, this may help. (Just remember to start in the right episode for each WAD: Episode 2 for High/Low 2 and 3 for 3, etc.)