First, a little backstory. Hellcore was apparently begun in 1995. In 2004 the project released a 32-map megawad which was highly variable in quality, not to mention, essentially broken - the first level was large and beautifully detailed, the next looked like it hadn't been updated since the mid nineties. Furthermore there was no single source port that would play all 32 maps correctly and I gave up with it after only a few maps.
The authors carried on with their magnum opus, chopped out a lot of the maps they felt were too poor, and for Halloween this year released Hellcore 2.0. 12 maps are in it, some new, some updated from the previous version, and one credits map that is described as being pasted together from pieces of unused previous levels.
One-line* summary of each level
- On Hell's Horizon Break out of military prison, clear out the base, visit the harbour complete with massive lighthouse, then escape on a cargo vessel. This is the one map I remember from the original release, I remember getting pretty excited about it.
- Baron Streets Enormous city map set at night. Massive amounts of detail. A lot of running. Not many of the doors actually open - look at the automap, it tells you where to go. Largely devoid of monsters and completely empty of ammunition. 100% kills requires at least 80% infighting and is probably not achievable.
- Parasite Dawn Inside one of the town buildings, except it's mostly just corridors. Detailed corridors, but corridors nonetheless. There is a car park outside.
- Defying the Odds Inside some kind of hi-tech research facility. Offices, canteens etc. Huge monster count, broken teleporter traps.
- Vestibule of Plague Another building interior. More corporate reception areas, a locker room, what looks like a nuclear reactor... Too many air-conditioning duct mazes. Has the best map name ever!
- Limbo Little more than a cutscene, you run through the hell portal along with some monsters.
- Tribulation Hell has properly subverted the environment now and completely destroyed this building you're in.
- Tryx 'n Traps More hellish hi-tech buildings, mazes and having to run around with no health through poison. There is a huge 64-wide maze here, shows its age.
- Hobb's End Horror Possibly the creepiest map ever. It's an abandoned town, with horror movie cliches everywhere. Secrets accessed by pushing books into bookcases, that sort of thing. It fills up with a massive crowd of monsters once you get the key out of the hotel. This is a lot less fun than it sounds.
- Nightmare's Requiem Some kind of desecrated cathedral. Underneath is a crypt, with coffins everywhere, but it's really just more hyperdetailed corridors. Ends up passing through some kind of stepping stones floating in space deal.
- Hellcore Final boss map. Lots of red rocks, hell magic, etc. Many large monsters. Difficult and frustrating. Interesting "secret keys" gimmick - there are three secret areas to find but to work them properly you must also have "picked up" three "keys" (they're made out of linedefs and disappear when you press on them)
- Credits Bits of other unused maps stitched together. Theme varies from dark tech to dungeons and cathedrals. Contains new enemy marine monster - obvious comparison with Scythe 2 will be drawn. Thank goodness this one is slower, but can fire rockets as well as plasma, so watch out. Isn't just a recoloured player but looks like a trooper with a helmet on.
* Recall that old mathematician's joke: "It's a one-line proof - if you start sufficiently far to the left"
You have to say this wad is a work of art. Nearly every part of every map is visually stunning, highly realistic (in the case of real-world structures) and finely detailed. The two town maps, 2 and 9, are exquisite, in fact except for areas of 5 and 8 that are a bit dull, it's all beautifully made and textured. Most of the textures are new. Various ambient sounds increase the atmosphere; fire burning, machines humming, water dripping.
However, the gameplay is at best dull and at worst highly frustrating. Monsters seem to come in packs. You can go for ages without seeing anything, then a whole load appear from nowhere. Also you either have no ammunition or far too much. It's pretty clear the maps aren't designed for 100% kills - I recall in map10 a cyberdemon appears and teleports to a platform in empty space, and killing it required me to pelt it with a shotgun from a couple of thousand units away. I should have just left it. On map09, once the key is collected and you leave the hotel, you can largely avoid the creepily dark and ghostly teleporting horde, and just run to the train station.
Map02 deserves special mention. As I said, it is almost entirely devoid of resources; your only weapon is a shotgun. The map's wadspy ratio* is over 3. Also, it might be beautifully realised and detailed, but, topologically, it is only a long corridor, with a few rooms leading off of it. Starting in the middle, you must go to one end of the corridor, picking up a key along the way, press a button that opens up the other end of the corridor, follow that round and go to the exit. Many of the maps suffer from this type of thing - they might look beautiful but if you mentally strip away all the architecture that's irrelevant to gameplay the layouts themselves are flat, linear and dull.
And then, having said all that, we haven't even got to the bugs yet. The text file says "ZDoom/GZDoom required - other Boom ports may work as they become more forgiving" How sick is that? There's no actual ZDoom features used. I mean, come on, this is an old wad, it's not designed for ZDoom. But it relies on all your typical ZDoom changes to work - fake manuals, implicit passthrough - and other, rarer types, like the pillar on map10 that lowers and you have to walk over (requires full 3d thing clipping, my hanging bodies hack isn't enough) and the exploding doors at the start of map07, I'm not even sure how they're meant to operate. And that's not mentioning all the hundreds of middle textures on two-sided lines (railings, animated fire, etc.) that hang several feet above ground level for no good reason. The fact is, it annoys me that people make maps that end up relying on ZDoom changes to existing Doom/Boom code. It must be laziness, if these authors have been mapping since 1995 it can't be ignorance.
Okay, enough of the ranting. I really want to like Hellcore, it's had so much effort put into it. Like Equinox it has a whole self-suggesting plotline; here, a near-future Earth is being dragged into Hell. But I think the problem is that the designers were intent on perfecting the realism, then ended up adding the gameplay almost as an afterthought. This is exactly the wrong way round to do it - do the gameplay first, then realise and beautify it later. To any would-be players I say have a look - it deserves to be seen, like a tourist attraction - but trying to actually play it properly might not be worth the bother.
* Wadspy is a map summariser program that can among other things calculate the ratio of total monster hitpoints on a map to the total amount of damage dealable by the ammunition on the map. It doesn't take a lot of other relevant variables into account, but works as a very rough guide to difficulty. Its value is usually between one half and three quarters for a typical map. Anything too high is likely going to be frustrating, unless there's some other factor to consider. Elixir's ratio was just above one, which just goes to show.