"There's just enough detail to convey the point, most of the work is done with the texturing and lighting."
The City of the Damned: Apocalypse, the sequel to the first City of the Damned, and possibly an inspiration to future survival horror themed mapsets like Unloved. As previously mentioned, Apocalypse is a single, large map created with the survival horror theme in mind, and using a great deal of Blood resources to achieve this effect. In the end, as with most horror themed games, the question to ask is “did it hit the mark?” By this I mean whether or not the mapset achieves its intended goal of being creepy, or even scary.
Atmospherically, Apocalypse establishes this sense of dread and horror that is present in the horror genre quite well. You start off on a foggy shore, alone in the dark in the middle of the night, a stranger to the danger that awaits you, armed with only a pitchfork and a warning of what lies ahead. The outlying forest is dark, and seemingly empty, but you soon find that you are not alone, and after battling some run of the mill monsters, and trekking past some abandoned structures (that you do visit later on), you find yourself at the entrance of a large city. Upon entering the city, all is calm. It seems that you really are alone, and that no one else is left (maybe everyone evacuated or was killed off somehow, you find out as you play), but it isn't long before you engage in battle with the cultists who inhabit the city and who appear from out of almost every corner, and so it begins...
Architecturally there's nothing really grand to look at, in fact it's rather simplistic. There's just enough detail to convey the point, most of the work is done with the texturing and lighting. The lighting, more specifically, resembles that of Doom 3's use of lighting, in that you find yourself in very dark surroundings and dynamic lights strewn around the place are your only source of light. When there isn't anything trying to kill you on screen, the ambient noise of the empty city is there to fill the silence. The darkness combined with the random monster placement give a feeling of being on edge, that something could pop out at the very next corner, and this feeling stays until you clear out the area because for the most part once an area is cleared out in this map, nothing reappears to fill the empty space and take you by surprise upon revisit (and boy you'll be revisiting areas a lot). Only a couple areas in the whole map are an exception to this, and thus Apocalypse brings itself even closer to Doom 3's jump out scare tactics that really only work the first time you play the game.
That brings me to the gameplay itself, which has its good and bad parts respectively. On a good note, monster placement and usage works pretty well the first time around. Since only new monsters are used, one is not really sure what to expect, and when something new and unusual jumps out, you're on your toes and have to deal with it head on.
Apocalypse leaves a lot to be desired in its gameplay though. First off, as stated before, the replayability is questionable with regards to the horror factor, but take that away and does Apocalypse stand on its own as a fun shooter? Sadly, this is not so. For starters the gameplay is pretty slow. The player isn't any slower but since ammo is pretty scarce, you're forced to use your pitchfork often in combat (against weaker foes) and only rely on your weapon to take down the tougher enemies. In theory this is how it should be, the player should always have a sense of being weak and helpless...except that in this case the player isn't. The pitchfork is far too weak to even bother using against stronger foes unless you want to really make it tough on yourself, but is perfectly capable of handling the average enemy that you face. If you couldn't throw the pitchfork this would be a totally different case in which you would have to engage in melee combat with hitscan enemies on a regular basis which of course is a very bad thing. Nonetheless the player is perfectly equipped to dispatch any enemy that shows up, but not very quickly. The lack of ammo means you won't want to waste it on weaker enemies (which aren't very threat inducing anyway, but show up most often) which means slow and drawn out melee/projectile battles, at least until the late game where ammo is not plentiful but accessible at least.
The biggest issue with the gameplay, the most glaring issue, is the backtracking and key hunting. What really accents the problem with this is that most areas in the map will not be repopulated with something new and unexpected when cleared out, so you end up aimlessly wandering around the city and beyond until you find what you're looking for, alone, with not even the feeling of something watching you because there isn't anything watching you. Personally, I'm not a fan of backtracking, even though it is common in most nonlinear maps, usually there's something done to make the experience a little less dull and patience thinning.
There a two things, however, that set this map apart and make it really unique. The first thing is the narrative. As you play through the map you find various notes and signs posted and left around the city that you can read (highlighted with an exclamation point to indicate that it's an area of notability). Through these notes you discover what happened to the city to put it in such a state, and how you can solve the problem. Also included is a backstory for the main antagonists, the cultists. Another interesting bit is the moon shelter premise. Once you hit a certain point in the game, the map periodically becomes a “danger zone” of sorts, as unseen horrors will fill the streets and destroy all living things (although conveniently not the cultists or monstrosities that inhabit the city, in fact you and any other survivors are the only ones in any real danger). The only way to avoid death by unseen horror is to hide out in conveniently placed moon shelters around the map. These can only be activated when you obtain a certain item, and to signify that it's the place to go you're both told and shown firsthand that the moon shelters are the only safe places in the map. At first the concept of having to run from battle and hide in a moon shelter when the sirens go off is a thrilling experience, and is really the only truly thrilling thing in the whole map. This novelty wears off eventually though, as the sirens will undoubtedly go off many more times before the map is completed (especially if it's your first playthrough).
Overall, Apocalypse is fun for a first playthrough, but after going through the whole thing there's not much reason to do it again.
The main issue with Apocalypse that makes it miss the mark on the whole horror concept is that there's not much done to mess with the player. Aside from the moon shelter concept, which only works for so long, there's no mind games, or any sense of imminent danger. Periodically there are “surprise” boss battles, but those also only work the first time around. What compounds onto this is that for the most part the player is well equipped to handle the dangers faced. Let's take a look at some of the more successful horror games out there for a moment. Silent Hill is well known for not only the subtleties behind the monsters you face, but also the helplessness that the player feels being pitted against things that are greater than him. What if the player is well equipped though, how would one make it so things can actually be a threat?
Well one thing I remember well regarding this issue comes from the Dead Space games. More specifically the chase scenarios regarding the Hunter in Dead Space 1, and the Immortal in Dead Space 2. Despite having different names and appearances, both these “bosses” in the games serve one purpose, and that is to keep the player on edge all the time. The player should be well equipped, stocked with ammo and armor, and yet, this one monster makes all of that seem pointless, because no matter what you do, you can't kill it. You can slice off the limbs, but they grow back, meaning that more unconventional methods of killing are required, and that for the majority of their appearance in the games you can only keep running and not look back, and if possible slow it down when you get the chance. It's a real predator/prey situation, as despite the fact that the player should have been on top of things before, now all that can be done is run, and to make matters worse the Hunter/Immortal is not bound to any room, and can follow you almost anywhere. It's not a fast monster, it's slower than you, but it's out there waiting to get you, and unless you keep moving it will get you.
I bring this up because it's a prime example of creating a thrilling situation in an environment where the player has total control over what's going on. Whereas the having to hide in the safe vicinity of the moon shelters works for a temporary fix, not being able to escape the danger at all when well armed keeps that thrilling feeling going and going, until it is somehow ended.
In the long run, the best way to achieve the horror effect is not not make the player capable of directly tackling the danger head-on. Instead focus should be placed on the use of wit and cunning, or even simply running until the time is right to strike, if the time ever appears. Apocalypse doesn't really do this, maybe being a Doom map has something to do with it, but it's an odd cross between action and horror. It's not fast paced enough to be really good at the action part, but aside from atmosphere there's nothing really thrilling about it either. You're perfectly well equipped to handle everything that's thrown at you head on.
“You see, there are three kinds of horror games. First there's the kind where you're in a dark room and a guy in a spooky mask jumps out of a cup board going 'abloogy woogy woo.' That would be your Doom 3. Then there's the kind where a guy in a spooky mask isn't in a cup board but standing right behind you and you just know he's going to go 'abloogy woogy woo' at some point but he doesn't and it's getting more and more tense and you don't want to turn around because he might [kill you]. That would be your Silent Hill 2. And there are the kind of horror games where the guy in a spooky mask goes 'abloogy woogy woo' while standing on the far side of a brightly lit room before walking slowly over to you, plucking a violin, and then slapping you in the face with a T-Bone steak. That would be your Dead Space.” Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw, Zero Punctuation
If I were to place Apocalypse within these categories I'd have to put in in between Doom 3 and Dead Space. To note, the second one is best because your imagination is doing all the work, and even if there's nothing there to thrill or scare the player, tension is created nonetheless.
It seems that Apocalypse tries to fall in the middle of an action packed FPS and a survival horror map. The problem is that the action is rather slow, and the horror aspect is just not convincing. Conclusion should focus on becoming more action oriented in a horror environment like "Unloved," or focus on developing a much stronger foundation in survival horror/thriller gameplay.