In the Lab: DOOM (2016)

doom-2016

It is so very refreshing to be pleasantly surprised by a big video game release these days. When you’re as jaded and bored of modern AAA games as I am, it is an incredibly rare occurrence for something to come out and completely smash expectations, and most importantly remind you why you got into the whole video game thing in the first place. I’m all for video games tackling serious themes and exploring the artistic possibilities of the medium or just focusing on providing a cinematic experience, but sometimes I just want to grab a chainsaw and boomstick and kill a whole bunch of demons with dumb and loud heavy metal blaring in the background.

If you've somehow found your way here without ever seeing what the original Doom looks like, here you go.
If you’ve somehow found your way here without ever seeing what the original Doom looks like, here you go.

id Software’s original Doom from 1993 is, of course, a legendary game. While it wasn’t the first FPS ever made, it essentially created the template for the modern first-person shooter that is still followed to this day — much like fighting games still follow the basic formula created by Street Fighter II. The level design and core gameplay of Doom still feel remarkably fresh and entertaining after almost a quarter of a century, and I consider it to be in the same elite category of ageless classics as Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. Obviously, tech has advanced by leaps and bounds since Doom’s heyday, but the design still shines through and the pixelated graphics have their own retro charm, and the fast-paced gameplay has not aged in the slightest. Okay, maybe you can’t aim vertically unless you’re playing one of the later source ports, but that’s what the generous autoaim is for. The weapons and monster designs remain iconic, as does the heavy metal style soundtrack by id’s Bobby Prince (who, admittedly, did rip off a bunch of songs from Metallica and Pantera, but anyone who claims “At Doom’s Gate” doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping the second you start E1M1 is a filthy liar or just weird).

Doom has had a number of sequels, spinoffs and a ton of fan-made content over the years and has been officially or unofficially ported to everything including the ZX Spectrum, calculators, and most recently a Canon printer, but in my book nothing has really matched the original. Even Doom II: Hell on Earth, the first official sequel, feels like a weaker game despite adding new monsters and the super-satisfying super shotgun, as the quality of the level design took a severe dip. As a review from 1994 aptly described it, the level design in Doom II feels like those “shotgun, cyberdemon, exit hidden behind ten gimmicks” custom maps that were making the rounds at the time. To be fair to the custom content creators, many of them did get into the game industry after getting their start making mods for Doom. It’s impossible to measure the full effect Doom had on the game industry, and it’s no surprise that dedicated fans still play and mod the game to this day, generating content that shouldn’t even be possible in the Doom engine.

When Bethesda announced the reboot simply titled DOOM, fans were rather skeptical. “Doom 4” had been in development hell for years, and what Bethesda was showing of the game was not particularly impressive. Bizarrely, Bethesda’s marketing geniuses decided to focus all of their attention on the multiplayer mode, which had been outsourced to Certain Affinity (who had previously worked on Call of Duty: Ghosts and Halo: The Master Chief Collection) and could be described as aggressively mediocre if one was feeling courteous. It had the loadout system and two-weapon limit that seem to be mandatory these days, no deathmatch (Doom coined the term), and rather sluggish gameplay. It seemed like an attempt to mix the old id-style multiplayer with the modern Call of Duty style, pleasing absolutely nobody in the process. As such, the multiplayer beta met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

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The utterly generic box art certainly didn’t help. The picture I used at the top of the article was used as alternate cover art for the game, and it fits the style so much better that it’s not even funny.

There was barely any mention of the single player mode aside from trailers showcasing the new “glory kills”, ultraviolent melee kills on stunned enemies. They certainly looked the part and fit the whole RIP AND TEAR aesthetic made (in)famous by the legendarily bad Doom comic and the Brutal Doom mod, but they seemed to break the pacing of the gameplay and the canned animations were likely to get old fast. At this stage, more or less everyone was prepared for disaster, especially when Bethesda decided not to give out any review copies prior to the May 13 release.

Then DOOM came out. And DOOM was good. Very good. Really fucking good. Best single-player FPS in years, people were saying. Multiplayer remained bland (although id has since taken over the reins from Certain Affinity and there have been many improvements since launch) but who cares when the campaign is this good?

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The game starts off in an United Aerospace Corporation facility on Mars, where something has gone slightly wrong and a demonic invasion is in progress (as a computer screen in the starting room helpfully indicates — you also hear announcements on the PA saying “Demonic presence at unsafe levels”). You, as the space marine who may or may not be the original Doomguy from the old games, wake up from what appears to be a block of carbonite you’ve been encased in, kill a couple of zombiemen (excuse me, “Possessed”) with a nearby pistol and grab your armor from what is clearly a shrine of some sort. Some jerk who sounds like Optimus Prime contacts you and starts blathering on about a mutually beneficial arrangement, but Doomguy isn’t having any of that and literally throws the plot (or at least the computer console the plot guy is speaking through) into the corner.

The writing in DOOM is certainly not bad and there’s a perfectly serviceable sci-fi/horror shooter storyline going on in the background, you just don’t need to care about any of it because you’re here to kill demons. I’m not going to bore you with plot details, but I will mention that at one point you find audio logs made by the demons, and they make it clear that the demons (who, I might remind you, come from HELL) are absolutely terrified by Doomguy and consider him the fucking boogeyman.

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There are some mandatory plot scenes later that you’re not allowed to ignore, but those are mercifully short and rarely get in the way of your demon-slaying. If you play on Nightmare difficulty (or the perma-death Ultra-Nightmare, which also adds online markers that act like Dark Souls bloodstains), you don’t even get the aforementioned intro and just start off from the first proper level. It’s really a shame that the game backpedals on the whole “nobody gives a shit about the plot” thing later on and has those mandatory plot scenes, because the way DOOM does things early on is really quite refreshing.

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If there was doubt over DOOM’s combat when the glory kills were first shown off and things seemed slower than they should’ve, it becomes obvious from the very start that all those worries can be thrown right out. This is proper old-school Doom, with hints of Quake and Brutal Doom mixed in for good measure, and it runs at a brisk pace at 60 frames per second on both the PC and the consoles (if, of course, your PC is up to it — DOOM is not a massively demanding game despite its technical accomplishments, but you can’t exactly run it on a potato). You are constantly on the move, jumping and strafing around to avoid the numerous enemy projectiles, and when you do get hit you don’t sit in cover to refill your health and reload your weapon because there is no health regen or reloading. Instead, you scramble for the nearest health item, running and gunning through whatever is in your path. The glory kills on staggered enemies also give you a bit of health and are short enough not to break the pacing, and the worse you’re hurting the more health you get from kills. If you’re low enough on health, any kill (not just glory kills) will earn you a handsome¬†amount of it back, so it’s always a good idea to be aggressive while still keeping an eye on your surroundings so you don’t get overrun. Especially on the higher difficulties, you can get killed very quickly if you get into a bad spot.

When low on ammo, you don’t necessarily need to run around scrounging for bullets while the armies of hell are out for your blood, although that is an option. Instead, you can whip out the chainsaw (which has a dedicated button or key), cut up the nearest monster (which is an uninterruptible animation like the glory kills) and watch a ludicrous amount of ammunition fly out of what’s left. The chainsaw can’t be used recklessly, though; chopping up monsters consumes fuel now, with the biggest and fattest bastards with the hugest guts requiring five units. Since the absolute maximum amount of fuel you can carry with all the upgrades is seven units, you may want to look around to check if there is a fuel can somewhere nearby before you act out your demon lumberjack fantasies. Turning DOOM’s version of Doom’s iconic chainsaw into what is basically a powerup might rub a few purists the wrong way, but it adds a nice element of strategy to the game and is an excellent way to deal with the most dangerous enemies.

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I still prefer the old cacodemon design over these guys, although they are rather dangerous nonetheless.

Speaking of powerups, there’s usually at least one to be found in any bigger fight area. The berserk pack returns from the original games and still sends Doomguy into, well, a berserker rage. It does not top up his health anymore unless you get a specific upgrade, but you do take considerably less damage and can glory kill anything instantly without the need to weaken the enemies (some of them actually try to run away from you when you’re in berserk mode), with special extra-gory animations to boot. You also have an invulnerability powerup which probably doesn’t need an explanation, as well as a haste one that makes you even faster, and even Quake’s quad damage makes an appearance here. Why yes, I would like to gib a baron of hell with a few shots.

Oh, and then there is the BFG 9000, because what would Doom be without the Big Fucking Gun? Like the chainsaw, it also has its own dedicated button and is separate from the regular weapons. The BFG holds three special ammo charges instead of just using the plasma rifle cells like it did back in the day, and as it has enough power to clear an entire room in one shot it can be used as a panic button in case you get overwhelmed. Obviously, it’s a good idea to save some ammo for special occasions, because the Cyberdemon and the Spiderdemon are back and don’t seem too happy to see Doomguy for some reason. I can’t say I’m a massive fan of the implementation of these boss enemies, though, as they feel a bit too much like contemporary video game boss fights and take place in dedicated boss rooms.

jnk8zim
Just like with the cacodemons, I kinda prefer the original Cyberdemon. The new one looks… I don’t know, kinda generic?

The original Doom games used a 2.5D engine that didn’t allow for a huge amount of verticality (although it did allow for a lot more than the old Wolfenstein 3D engine), so neither Doomguy or the enemies were particularly agile despite moving quickly. Obviously, things are very different now, so you get monsters coming at you from all directions and jumping around like Doomguy’s pet rabbit on PCP (goddamn imps I swear). Doomguy himself is even more agile than the enemies, even getting a double jump ability about halfway through the game. Unfortunately, the presence of a jump button (let alone a double jump) means platforming sections, the bane of many a shooter over the years (seriously, fuck you, Jedi Outcast). DOOM makes its platforming as smooth and painless as it can possibly be in an FPS, as Doomguy will grab onto ledges he barely misses and the game is good at showing you where to go next. Furthermore, most of the platforming bits in DOOM are quite short, with the exception of the Argent Tower level which is pretty much entirely platforming broken up by a couple of arena fights (and is also my least favorite level in the entire game — I don’t want to be reminded of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter when playing DOOM) Most of the time, you’re using Doomguy’s jumping abilities to locate secrets and avoid getting killed when every hellspawn in the room is converging in your location.

bfg-in-doom

The level design is generally excellent, with every level having a bunch of secrets, upgrades for Doomguy’s suit and weapons, and collectibles to find. These levels are very expansive, often with multiple routes to wherever you’re heading, and usually let you backtrack for secrets after you’ve killed every monster. Usually. There are a few (frankly infuriating) exceptions, especially in the latter half of the game where the level design in general seems to take a slight dip in quality and occasionally devolves into combat arena after combat arena like you’re playing Serious Sam or Painkiller. I love those games and they were obviously inspired by the bigger fights in the original Doom, but the obvious combat arenas start to get rather predictable at some point and it’s no different in DOOM. I wouldn’t have minded some more of the creepier horror-style stuff that was in the original games (and Doom 3, which consisted entirely of that with varying results), here it’s pretty much RIP AND TEAR HUGE GUTS all the time. It’s still great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t quite feel like the original games.

Speaking of the originals, finding certain secrets in the levels unlocks classic Doom levels you can play via the main menu. They retain the gameplay and enemy selection from the new game, which gives these old levels a very different feel and makes many of them a lot harder than they used to be. The Possessed are far, far more aggressive and lethal than basic zombiemen from the classic games. The classic maps don’t have any kind of save feature either, making them a bit frustrating at times. They’re still a fun bonus, though.

You can also create and share your own levels using DOOM’s built-in editor, known as SnapMap. Most of the user-generated levels I have seen aren’t particularly exciting, but some users have used the editor for things it most certainly wasn’t designed for in the slightest. How about a farming simulator with a bit of dungeon crawling, complete with a Hell Knight shopkeeper? Or a music game of sorts? SnapMap relies heavily on prefab assets, but people have managed to wring some utterly crazy stuff from it.

All in all, DOOM is a worthy addition to the classic series. It doesn’t quite recapture the gameplay of the old games, but it modernizes it in a way that still feels very satisfying. This is not what anyone expected, but I’ll reiterate what I said in the opening sentence of this article; it’s great to see that sometimes we may still be pleasantly surprised by a major video game release.

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Oh, by the way, that soundtrack by Mick Gordon is also really goddamn good.

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