Shaky Grounds pt1: Apocollapse

by Merlijn v. Oostrum

(557) views since Dec 2018

Released: 2016-09-09
Mode: SP, COOP
Difficulty Settings: Yes
Featuring: 1.4+, EDuke32
Sound/music: Music
New Art: No
New Cons: No
Score: 96

Review by Aymeric Nocus (ck3D) on April 2023

After all these years since its original release as a user map, Apocollapse remains a phenomenal level, also due to its now legendary homemade soundtrack by the author but first and foremost for its intrinsic qualities: it's a very strongly atmospheric piece, with its copious chunks of torn urban terrain that punctuate every corner of each frame Duke's sight will get to catch, and yet one that doesn't forget how to function as a Duke Nukem 3D level, with a strong emphasis on fast gunplay (especially on the Come Get Some difficulty setting) and cinematic action, as though to match the intensity with rhythm.
In itself a game changer of its own at the time, in the context of its release Apocollapse was especially remarkable for pairing up Merlijn Van Oostrum's creative sensibilities with not just a greater understanding of Duke 3D space and movement than his previous works: the classic Red series of user maps had showcased to the world, but also newfound maturity in inspiration and optimization of most every map sector drawn with the most fitting possible Build engine effects, resulting in the marriage of two trends: visually ambitious and resourceful user mapping, and constant interactive in-game evolution of the playable settings which at the time was a rare sight, and quite possibly never as well encapsulated.

The opening sequence blew many minds many years ago and most likely timelessly will continue doing so and pushing Duke into his new world of hurt as soon as the get-go, already announcing the shape of all things left to come in the span of half a minute by calling the cards of quick feet and constant alternation of reactive, then creative thinking. And then at the same time, Duke's progression through Apocollapse will for the most part be linear at the core, sometimes leading the player by the hand through a succession of sensorial stimulii under the disguise of colorful, handicrafted scenery flashes and LSD-inspired air ducts, and also knowing when to let go and leave room for the player to get familiar with the space (and its ever-changing topography) as they explore around in search of progress that would feel more like their own.

Describing each, every and really any particular peril, challenge and cinematic sequence that await Duke in Apocollapse would be nothing but a spoiler and so instead those should remain mysterious as an invitation (which is something Apocollapse actually functions very nicely as, in the grander scope of Shaky Grounds as an episode).
More interesting focus would be on a breakdown of the general feel of the experience, gameplay-wise as a Duke Nukem 3D level but also in itself. The cityscapes in Apocollapse probably are some of the grandest urban settings the game had seen at this point in time and to this day remain highest tier, not just in terms of scope but also of inspiration as detail was spent everywhere to make every prop look unique, if not organic (at times in all senses of the term) by incorporating as many of them into the progression as possible, and successfully dodging the tempting trap of boxy design so many city maps typically fall into with the average Build user mapping aligned to a fixed 2D grid.
As the author's Red series had foreshadowed, the use of (usually high contrast) lighting and shading is top notch, supporting atmosphere as much as graphical composition and meeting Merlijn's other trademark of highly intelligently placed and timed sounds in the middle of one strong, coherent vibrant picture. As alluded to just earlier, that is one the player is sometimes led to follow and some other times led to more actively scan, if not search.

Gunplay is excellent with a challenging number of well-picked and -placed enemies on Come Get Some, smart use of respawns, an always welcome emphasis on the Freezethrower and terrain that is fantastic to use as an arena just as much as it is on the retina.
However, maybe that aspect isn't exactly as flawless yet as it would later be polished with the later maps; in a twist of irony, maybe Apocollapse is where it can be seen the author was trying to Build on still slightly Shaky Grounds. The first half of the city seems to openly invite platforming onto and around the rooftops; and the player most likely will find themselves doing so in order to fend off the opposition, running about and having to improvise their next reach every other second while trying to evade enemy fire, or strategizing around the streets.
Once the action dies down however, those higher ledges and roofs remain just as, if not even more tempting to parkour atop of in hopes for more reward they really offer, limiting the interest of the level's otherwise very well-thought out verticality in that sense. It gets even worse around the canyon where while the path the player is meant to take couldn't be more on-the-nose if Sandy Petersen had drawn an arrow, and despite some obvious attention already there, many jumps and leaps of faith be it across or around various cliffs and walls persist at seeming possible, perhaps even concealing potential secrets, except more often than not trusting the appearances will precipate Duke to his premature death upon his collision into an invisible wall, all the way down the increasingly taunting lava pit.

Crossing the collapsed canyon (both ways) is downright epic and memorable and so are the fights that surround it; the idea in itself is solid and the visual execution is fantastic, but it's a bit of a shame (albeit only logical) the practical aspect still feels a bit underdeveloped in comparison to what the later Shaky Grounds map will present. Going across just to flip a universal order defyingly-placed switch feels a bit artificial, maybe just due to how straightforward the set-up is (but the consequent enemy spawn, pairing and battle make for a legendary moment).
Once Duke has unlocked the mall, things start kicking again but between the moment he crosses the canyon again and then, maybe some convolution can be sensed and convey the feeling that the map might have one too many keycards (a feeling that isn't helped by how the yellow key pad can be easy to miss). Because of the progression, while the later Shaky Grounds levels stand firmer as their own thing, this part of Apocollapse makes it seem more like a Roch map Merlijn would have punched some of his own vibe in (and he's got a strong hook), maybe after taking some notes from the grittiness and scaling of other, classic user levels such as Extermination by Juha 'Turpuli' Laaksonen or Demolition by Devastator.
More experimentation can be felt in the number of loose ends, sometimes relying on Doom-like teleporter tricks to get the player around or back on track, but the execution never falters, instead blending into the other etheral qualities of Apocollapse really well and so refusing to feel as cheap as it could.

The supermarket and mall in general are the map's peak in terms of macro level design, with some of the best sense of, and practical use for space, verticality also involving on-the-spot terrain-shifting Build effect applications, enemy placement and layout cleverness; and yet it also won't clash against any of the other, more claustrophobic moments, or the wide open outdoor sceneries.
In general, the design is littered with more-or-less-popular culture references, Duke 3D user community jokes, and typical Merlijn creative quirks, such as a detailed in-level city map or one basement which looked right out of Red 4 (its starting room, to be accurate).
The final battle also is highly climactic, taking place around some visually pleasing architecture in addition to being just plain simple, but intensely-paced, fun; and then finally getting to infilitrate the longtime conveited, but for now still mysterious Cool Center feels just as rewarding as it captivates Duke by shrouding him into the obscurity of whatever comes next.

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Gameplay Video

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