Calling Total Chaos (opens in new tab) a mod is doing it a disservice. This remarkable thing, created by Wadaholic, transforms Doom 2 into a survival horror. But if you’re expecting old doom assets flipped into some kind of clunky horror game that sounds cool on paper but doesn’t quite work, well... just look at the screenshots.
This is such a departure from the game it’s based on that I’d believe you if you told me it was a standalone project built from the ground up. I should clarify, however, Total Chaos runs on GZDoom, a 3D-accelerated Doom port that adds support for dynamic lighting, sloped floors, Quake 2-style skyboxes, and other stuff the vanilla game could only dream of rendering. Even so, the fact that the guts of the ancient (but still great) Doom 2 are powering this thing is impressive.
Wadaholic has been playing Doom pretty much his whole life, and started making his own maps at just eight years old. His first major mod release was Doom Tournament, a 32-level map pack that added CTF and king of the hill multiplayer modes to the game. But it wasn’t until 2004, after releasing an early demo of what would eventually become Total Chaos, that the project began in earnest. Someone who played the demo commented saying that it was impossible to make a Doom mod scary, which inspired Wadaholic to prove them wrong.
He created several prototypes using the GZDoom engine, including an ambitious monsters versus marines multiplayer shooter with a Counter-Strike-style buy menu. But, eventually, he settled on the idea of a survival horror game, borrowing elements from Amnesia, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and even Dark Souls. And so, after a decade of experiments, false starts, and dead ends, Total Chaos as we know it was finally born.
Total Chaos is set on Fort Oasis, a remote island in a wind-battered sea that was once home to a thriving coal mining community. But, suddenly, the miners disappeared, leaving the facility abandoned and something lurking in their place. The game begins with you waking up on the island after a shipwreck, with a voice on the other end of a crackly radio compelling you to find them. But it’s clear from the offset that something has gone seriously wrong here.
The first thing you’ll notice when you fire up Total Chaos is how good it looks—and I don’t just mean for a Doom mod. Wadaholic has done some incredible stuff with GZDoom here, taking advantage of the popular port’s support for high-res textures, detailed 3D character models, and ambient lighting. Fort Oasis is a beautifully filthy place with grimy textures, a tastefully muted colour palette and a subtly unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of the first few Silent Hill games. It also reminds me a lot of the similarly grubby Condemned games—those weird CSI-meets-Manhunt first-person shooters the world seems to have forgotten about.
There’s also a surprising amount of sophistication in how the game builds tension, with flickering lights, an eerie ambient soundscape, and objects clattering to the floor as you turn blind corners. These are tricks that plenty of horror games pull, of course, but they’re done well here—and, again, it’s worth remembering that this is a Doom mod. Total Chaos also shows impressive restraint, taking time to set the scene and pull you into its bleak world before the action starts. And throughout the mod there are quieter moments to let you catch your breath.
As you explore the mining facility you’ll often see brief flickers of the lives of the people who lived there before things went bad—shadowy silhouettes of miners going about their business, which is another example of Wadaholic using the foundations of Doom to do things the game was never meant to. It’s a little derivative of BioShock and other horror games, which applies to almost every aspect of the mod, actually. But Total Chaos has enough personality to feel like more than just a pastiche of other games.
My first encounter with one of the creatures haunting Fort Oasis happens about 25 minutes into the game, in the form of a screeching, skull-faced zombie with glowing white eyes. I’m trapped in a series of narrow corridors with it, with only a pickaxe to defend myself and five breaker switches I have to pull to access the next area. Rather than attack the monster, I decide to just avoid it, running around it in circles, luring it away from the switches so I can safely yank them.
After outsmarting my zombie pursuer I slip into a newly opened room that’s been plunged into darkness except for a flashing red light. I hear more screeching and look behind me, only to see an entire group of the bastards shambling towards me. This is one of several tense set-pieces the game throws at you, and they’re nicely scripted considering the limitations of the engine. After a mad dash through a network of maze-like corridors, chased by hordes of fiery-eyed demons, I emerge outside and I’m relieved to find myself on a desolate, foggy coastline.
There are crates scattered around the island containing health items and food, which factor into the game’s survival elements. You have several stats to keep track of including stamina, hunger, bleeding, and radiation, all of which have to be managed with items scavenged from the world. But after breaking a few open my pickaxe shatters, which is the moment I discover the game has breakable weapons too. With a name like Total Chaos I was expecting this mod to be something like Brutal Doom, but it’s actually a pretty hardcore survival game.
There’s a story too, told through radio transmissions from that mysterious voice, as well as scattered notes and documents. And, naturally, being a horror game, there’s a fair amount of environmental storytelling too in the form of sinister messages scrawled on the walls. The mod does a good job of building a sense of mystery, and it’s obvious there’s more to your arrival on the island than a random shipwreck. The ending (well, the regular ending—there’s a secret one) is also incredibly depressing, which fits the generally downbeat atmosphere of the game.
Other monsters I encounter include a floating demon that can phase in and out of existence and shoot bolts of lightning, and a creature with a split, teeth-filled head like a mutated piranha plant, which looks like something out of The Thing. They aren’t as scary as something like, say, the monsters from Amnesia or SOMA. But when you’re trapped in the tight confines of some underground mining facility with them, hearing their shrieking through the walls, is unnerving.
Luckily, later on, you can fight back. Total Chaos’ Doom roots are the most apparent when you get a hand on a weapon, although ammo is limited by design to force you to think carefully about each enemy encounter. There’s a punchy pistol, a chunky shotgun, and an obscene super shotgun. But, for the most part, you’ll be using melee weapons found scattered around the environment.
If you like the sound of Total Chaos and want to try it for yourself, the good news is that you don’t need doom2.wad or even GZDoom to play it anymore. The game is now totally standalone and can be played immediately after downloading and unzipping it. I had no problems running it straight out of the box at 4K, and there’s a vast selection of options to tweak the experience as needed, including a developer console that supports all your favourite Doom commands.
Wadaholic has also announced an official director’s cut, which is currently scheduled for a June release—although it has been delayed once already, so don’t hold me to that. This will expand on the storyline and add eleven new weapons, seven new enemies, and three new chapters. ‘Madness’ will see you battling through a submerged prison and a coastal town. ‘Forgotten’ takes place in a suburban district and promises to be the mod’s largest map and ‘Crossroads’ is set in a forest. I can’t wait to get this expansion.
Total Chaos is the most impressive mod I’ve played in some time, taking the essence of Doom and mutating it into something completely different. You can still feel the evil presence of Id’s legendary FPS there, bubbling under the surface, but in an exciting and grimly beautiful new form. Wadaholic has hinted at a couple of new projects on his website, including a standalone horror game he hopes to release. But whatever he decides to do next, you can bet I’ll be playing it.