Everyone who has played the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare remembers the AC-130 gunship level. This level plucks you from the thick of the action and temporarily sticks you in front of a TV screen inside a very large aeroplane that’s orbiting a kilometre above the same engagement; said aeroplane also happens to have a gigantic howitzer mounted on the side of it, and so for the duration of this level it’s your job to fire phone box-sized shells at groups of baddies who look like ants from your lofty perch, who don’t even know you’re there and who wouldn’t even have the option of fighting back if they did. When I first played this level I thought it was making a point about the impersonal, dehumanising nature of modern warfare, and that there was something deeply unsettling about the power of life and death being in the hands of people who can (and do) treat it just like a videogame. The AC-130 level is one of the reasons I came away with a pretty high opinion of Modern Warfare and its apparent anti-war message. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the real reason the AC-130 level was in the game: the developers just thought being able to commit indiscriminate slaughter from 1,000 metres altitude was really cool1.
The reason I’m going with this somewhat tortured introduction to a review of Doom Eternal is because I think Modern Warfare proves something very important: that art is always going to be subjective to a greater or lesser degree, and so it is very possible to make an excellent videogame entirely by accident. Somewhat to my dismay it turns out that this is a very relevant lesson to apply to Doom Eternal; id’s 2016 reboot of Doom was and is excellent, but based on the experience I just had with Doom Eternal I’m starting to think that might have been entirely down to dumb luck.
Doom was a very story-light game. Famously so, in fact; four years later I still see people talking about the game’s first (and best) joke, where somebody calls Doomguy up on a computer terminal and offers to tell him all about the game’s plot, and his response is to punch it into oblivion mid-sentence. The almost total excision of the story allowed Doom to focus on what it did best: extremely tight combat arenas where you laid into a series of constantly-spawning demons with an increasingly preposterous array of weapons, with the occasional brief quiet moment where you could chase after the many secrets id had scattered throughout its levels. In hindsight, though, it looks like the barebones plot might have been a serendipitous product of Doom’s troubled development process rather than deliberate intent on the part of id, especially given that there are a few moments in Doom where it actively goes against this ethos. I’m thinking in particular of the bit where you wander into the robot CEO man’s office and he physically locks the doors behind you, forcing you to listen to him spouting exposition for the next five minutes. I bought Doom to shoot demons, it had proven to be remarkably good at letting me shoot demons, and yet here was this weird five minute segment where I wasn’t allowed to shoot demons.
In the context of Doom this moment is nothing more than an isolated oddity, of course, but it was something my mind kept going back to again and again while I was playing Doom Eternal. I suspect much more of Doom would have been like this if id had had their way, because it turns out that all of Doom Eternal is like this. Where Doom ruthlessly cut away at its story until all that was left was what was necessary to tie together the combat encounters, Doom Eternal would very much like you to read its 90,000 word Doom fanfic. Did you want to know about the internal politics of Hell? The detailed backstory of how Doomguy got his demon-killing powers? The exact reason the demons need human souls? All this and much more will be revealed as you play Doom Eternal, and all of it is the most unbearably adolescent tripe you’ll ever have the misfortune to suffer through. In Doom, that five minutes of exposition stood out for how unusual it was, but in Doom Eternal you’re not allowed to go more than five minutes without somebody calling you up on your radio to vomit up yet more cliched, hackneyed backstory full of Capitalised Proper Nouns and which plumbs all the worst depths of videogame writing.
The worst part is that where Doom seemed to take what little story it had left and twist it into gentle self-mockery — with the absurd premise of the Scientology But With Demons UAC causing the demonic invasion by mining Hell for energy, and Doomguy’s sole character trait being “too angry to die” — Doom Eternal plays it almost totally straight. It’s utterly, absurdly overinvested in its own fiction, and while it is aware that people liked Doom 2016 because it was funny, its own approach to humour is to mindlessly repeat catchphrases and memes in the mistaken belief that this, on its own, is enough to qualify as side-splittingly hilarious. The Huge Guts line from the Doom comic is uttered aloud by characters in the game not once, but twice. The Scientology joke is back and Doom Eternal is determined not to let you forget it, with almost every single level featuring a pleasant PR hologram spouting corporate mantras about letting the demons eat you. It wasn’t funny the first time I saw one of these holograms because Doom had already done the exact same thing, and it definitely wasn’t funny the fiftieth time. During the early parts of the game you keep running across audio logs left by a woman who says she’s a scientist but who in actual fact is the president of Doomguy’s fan club, as they quickly descend into pathetically fawning hero worship that uses the phrase “rip and tear” multiple times. The quickest way to sour me on a joke is to beat me around the head with it; it’s why the last decade of people screaming “THE CAKE IS A LIE” on internet messageboards means I can no longer go back to Portal without vomiting. Unfortunately those same people appear to have graduated to actually writing their own videogames, which is the only reason I can think of as to why Doom Eternal’s plot and humour are both about as subtle as a brick to the face.
The most frustrating thing about all of this, of course, is that Doom Eternal absolutely did not need any of this stuff. One of the advantages of working with Doom as an IP is that you don’t need to waste your time on an elaborate story and world-building; the original plot of Doom 2 was “Demons have invaded Mars, and now they’re invading Earth.”, and so the plot of Doom Eternal should have been “Demons have invaded Mars, and now they’re invading Earth.” That’s it, job done, and you can then spend the resources that otherwise would have been wasted on writing and voice acting and cutscenes on refining some of the more ill-advised additions that have been made to Doom’s gameplay2 Unfortunately the actual plot of Doom Eternal, in so far as I could make it out, runs something like this:
“Demons have invaded Mars, and now they’re invading Earth, but actually it’s all a political ploy by the Khan Maykr (some kind of angel thing?) to harvest human souls to turn into Hell energy to power her homeworld, and she’s corrupted the ancient order of warriors that the Doomguy is part of, and also it turns out that Doomguy got his powers by being put into a Captain America machine (part of an irredeemably shitty backstory that diminishes him from “elemental force of nature” to “budget off-brand superhero”), and anyway you should use your Celestial Locator to find the three Hell Priests and kill them and then find the robot CEO from the first game so that he can dribble plot-vomit into your ear while sending you back to Doomguy’s home world to pick up another version of the red sword he stole from you at the end of Doom (why can’t I just use that one?) because you need it to get into heaven to kill the Khan Maykr. Then you shoot a really big demon and the game ends.”
Now, on the face of it this is no worse than any number of videogame plots that have been inflicted on me over the past three decades, and if it were being treated as the paper-thin excuse for shooting demons that it should be then I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with it. Mere excuses don’t have this much time wasted on them, though; my half-remembered summary really doesn’t do enough to convey how frequently the plot intrudes on the business of shooting demons, to the point where it is impossible to ignore it. Before we even get to talking about the gameplay, Doom Eternal feels bloated and flabby, with too much time spent riding lifts and cable cars while somebody jabbers on and on about the socio-political power structures of Hell and their underlying economic basis, or in cutscenes where (sigh) the game’s bad guy makes a video call to tell you how their plans are continuing uninterrupted and they’re totally going to win even though you just got done beheading all of Hell’s executive-level leadership. Think of any obnoxiously terrible videogame storytelling trope and the chances are it’s in Doom Eternal, a game which should have barely featured any story at all, let alone one so sprawlingly, incomprehensibly overwritten that it rivals the worst of Blizzard’s output.
And this bodes extremely poorly for the part of Doom Eternal where you do actually get to shoot the demons. After all, if the story didn’t get cut despite it massively weighing the game down, then id definitely weren’t going to be anywhere near as introspective as they needed to be when it comes to the additions they’ve made to Doom’s core combat loop. I almost suffered whiplash when starting Doom Eternal for the first time because of how quickly the following were introduced:
- A grenade launcher, used by pushing Left Ctrl.
- A second type of grenade that you fire out of the grenade launcher, switched to with G.
- A flamethrower, activated by R.
- A charged melee attack called a Blood Punch that periodically replaces the otherwise useless regular melee on the E button.
- A platformer-like mid-air dash move, Left Shift.
- The chainsaw, on C.
This is a lot of additional buttons to get my head around during a combat encounter, for all that they take advantage of Doom not needing to use those buttons for other things like crouching or sprinting — and where a more sensible game would perhaps stagger the acquisition of these abilities out over the first half of the game so that you have time to get used to them, Doom Eternal splats the lot of them at you within the first hour of gameplay. As a consequence Doom Eternal’s early combat stutters and stumbles as you try to remember just what abilities are at your disposal, fumbling over keys that your brain is screaming at you should be a reload button or a crouch button because there’s been no time to build up the muscle memory for their new function.
The ironic thing is that there is actually a good game design reason why Doom Eternal gives you basically your entire moveset for the game inside of the first sixty minutes of gameplay. You might recall Doom’s Glory Kills, where you could perform finishing moves on wounded demons to earn a little health top-up, and its revamp of the Chainsaw, which was a limited-use weapon that instakilled a single enemy and caused ammo pickups to fountain out of their dismembered corpse. Both of these were, in Doom, useful methods of supplementing the regular ammo and health pickups you found in the environment, but Doom Eternal flips things around so that the regular ammo and health pickups now supplement the health and ammo you get from Glory Kills and the Chainsaw. If you’re getting short on health the game wants your first course of action to be punching a demon so that you can extract their precious health-juice; if you’re low on ammo it wants you to chop one up instead. If the Chainsaw is now the primary method by which you get your bullets, then they have to give it to you in the first half hour of the game. The Flamethrower does a similar thing for armour, where you can set a bunch of enemies on fire and then shoot them to make armour plop out of their scorched carcasses. Doom Eternal’s combat is all tuned around your having health, ammo and armour on tap like this, as well as the magically recharging grenade launcher, and this is why the opening hour of the game is such a breakneck learning experience as it throws you all of the tools you’ll be using during the next eleven.
On the face of it this isn’t such a bad idea, and if the weapons and enemy damage had been balanced similarly to Doom I’d be broadly positive about it even in spite of the initial bumpy ride. Unfortunately Doom Eternal doesn’t want you to just be occasionally pushing that Chainsaw button and that Glory Kill button; it wants you to be pushing all of its buttons all of the time. To encourage this it both shrinks your maximum health and ammo pools — Doomguy starts the game being able to carry just 12 shotgun shells at once, which is laughable — and makes both health and ammo alarmingly ephemeral. A single punch from a basic Imp will deal around 30 damage, which is kind of a big deal when you start the game with a maximum of 100 health. An Arachnotron will take all 12 of your shotgun shells to kill unless you get really close, which is a bad idea because every single enemy in Doom Eternal has devastating melee attacks. You are constantly running out of bullets in this game, and even once you’ve fully upgraded your maximum ammo via one of Doom Eternal’s many, many progression systems you’ll still run completely dry on at least two ammo types approximately 30% of the way into a given combat encounter because the big enemies soak up a truly ridiculous amount of damage relative to the amount that you can dish out in one go; even your bog-standard Mancubus can eat three blasts of the Super Shotgun before pitching over, which is one-quarter of your total shotgun ammo. You need to be constantly Chainsawing and Glory Killing and Flamethrowering things just to keep going.
The health situation is, I suppose, not too bad. Doom Eternal’s combat struck me as significantly clumsier than Doom’s despite the enhanced movement options provided by the double-jump, dash, and the new grappling hook attachment on the Super Shotgun that can be used to pull yourself to distant enemies. There were a few too many occasions towards the end of the game where I found myself pinned against a wall by large enemies (or by the shields created by the new shield-spawning enemy) and couldn’t escape to find a weak demon to Glory Kill to refill my health. I suspect that this is half the reason the incredibly game-y extra life system exists, where you can pick up big green 1UPs that are consumed whenever your health is reduced to zero and which give you a brief few moments of invincibility before filling your health bar back up to maximum, and which felt like nothing more than a crutch to try and support the combat through these unexpectedly clumsy moments and ensure that the player never actually ends up suffering a bullshit death. Mostly, though, the Glory Kill system works, along with the fact that most of the bigger demons drop a smidgen of health whether you Glory Kill them or not; this put me in mind of how Rage 2 did it, but it worked in Rage 2 (it was pretty much the only thing that did) and it arguably works for Doom Eternal.
By contrast the way Doom Eternal handles ammo is an unmitigated disaster. The chainsaw has been revamped so that bigger enemies require all three of your fuel pips to kill, while smaller enemies require only one. The first fuel pip recharges while the second and third must be filled up by picking up fuel cans scattered around the environment, since we’ve apparently learned nothing from the decade-old Human Revolution energy bar debacle; only rarely will you be able to chainsaw a Cacodemon or an Arachnotron, and otherwise you’re reduced to hunting for the smaller zombies and imps in order to refill your ammo counter. The game is at least aware of this, and constantly spawns in low-level enemies during both regular combat encounters and bossfights so that you’ll always be able to chainsaw something.
Except when the ammo pools are so small, and when I have to chainsaw a zombie soldier five or six times in a given fight to replenish them, all you’ve actually accomplished here is to add a traditional reload button to a Doom game — except now you have to push it while standing next to a demon. That’s it. That’s Doom Eternal’s big brainwave, and in order to implement it and encourage the player to use it they had to make it so that you get a mighty 12 shots with the Super Shotgun before having to reload. I really liked Doom’s combat and weapon design because you were constantly switching weapons to deal with specific enemies and situations; by contrast you’re constantly switching weapons in Doom Eternal because you don’t have any bloody ammo. You have no idea how frustrating it is to switch from your Plasma Rifle to your shotgun only to see the No Ammo popup, and then to the Rocket Launcher which shows the same popup, and then to the Chaingun which — sigh — shows the same popup, and so you switch back to your Plasma Rifle while looking for a zombie to chainsaw, except while you’ve been distracted with this little weapon dance you’ve lost an absolute shitload of health. It twists the intense, joyfully exuberant gameplay of Doom into something parsimonious and miserable, like what it was really missing was for the player to have to count out the precise number of shots needed to down an imp so that you can conserve ammo.
While I did eventually get used to all of the different combat abilities Doom Eternal offers, and there were occasional moments when these abilities all meshed together quite nicely and I could see what id were going for, I never got used to the way it handled ammo. This ensured that the combat remained extremely stop-start until the very end of the game, with little chance to establish any kind of rhythm; there were maybe half a dozen fights in total where I didn’t have to drop what I was doing to find a small demon so that I could perform a violent bullet top-up. It’s a deliberately different design philosophy from the first Doom, and a worse one; where the Chainsaw was presented as an additional option that you could tie into your combat flow in a way that suited you, and where weapon switching was something that the player decided to do in response to different threats, Doom Eternal instead forces you to do these things via artificial ammo shortages. It’s a much more prescriptive approach that strips away the cerebral part of Doom’s combat, and this is why I went through the last three levels of the game absolutely bored out of my mind; it had long ago run out of new things to show me, and since it insisted I push all of the buttons it had given me in every combat encounter with no real room to mix things up on my part I had in effect been playing through the exact same fight over and over and again for the last three hours
That is, unless a Marauder decided to show up.
In spite of the above terrible design decisions, Doom Eternal can still occasionally be fun. The dash move is a genuinely good addition to the combat and there’s a new damage model in place that lets you progressively blow chunks out of the bigger demons until they’re nothing but bones, and it’s quite satisfying to visibly wear down a Baron of Hell until he starts flashing and you can rip his head off via a Glory Kill. Unfortunately it appears id’s designers were also aware it was still possible to have fun despite all of their hard work to the contrary, which is why they’ll periodically send in the Fun Police in the form of a Marauder enemy. This is a demon with a permanent shield that makes him completely invulnerable to being shot. Let me repeat that: there is an enemy in Doom Eternal, a game that is ostensibly about shooting demons, that you are physically not allowed to shoot. He’s allowed to shoot you with both energy blasts and a shotgun, as well as periodically summoning a flaming hellhound to cause you grief, but you’re not allowed to return the favour unless it’s during a vanishingly small quarter-second window where his eyes flash green and he runs forward to hit you with his axe. This is your cue to shoot him with your Super Shotgun — you can forget using any other weapon (except maybe the Arbalest) as his vulnerability window is very very small and you need to pack in as much damage as possible, so I really hope your Super Shotgun isn’t showing the dreaded No Ammo popup at this point in time. Of course it would be too much to hope that they’d compensate for his tiny vulnerability window by only expecting you to do this once; no, instead you have to repeat this process eight or ten times before he’ll go down.
The Marauder first shows up as a boss, and as a boss he’s not too bad; his stupid overpowered gimmick and bloated healthpool fits in that context and there’s nothing else around so you’re free to devote your full attention to him, and if he were actually a boss he’d only show up once ever. Unfortunately he continues to show up afterwards as a miniboss, and this makes him so much worse because you know exactly what you have to do to beat him and it involves precisely zero thought on your part beyond dodging his attacks. What it does involve is a lot of waiting around, and so every time the Marauder shows up you know that you’re going to be spending the next three minutes staring at this idiot as he jumps about instead of shooting him in his stupid face. I hated the Marauder not because he was a particularly effective enemy but because he was boring as fuck, and it got to the point where I was physically screaming at my monitor the last couple of times he appeared because the campaign was already dragging on for hours past the point where it should have wrapped up and when the Marauder shows up everything just… stops. More than anything else in Doom Eternal the Marauder embodies the game’s emphatic insistence that I spend large portions of my time not shooting the demons, which rather goes against everything Doom is about.
(Now that I think about it most of Doom Eternal’s new enemies are shielded in some way. There’s the spider thing that spawns static shields for itself and other enemies, and the Archvile which teleports in enemies while projecting a shield around its front arc, and the Doom Hunter which has a body shield that’s only vulnerable to Energy weapons. However, while they are annoying all of these enemies have exploitable weaknesses that mean you don’t have to stop shooting them entirely, you just have to shoot them in a different way. It’s only the Marauder that so thoroughly and enthusiastically breaks Doom’s core gameplay concept.)
The last not-shooting-demons thing Doom Eternal makes you do is suffer through its platforming sequences. I’m less angry about these existing because FPSes have included platforming segments since the dawn of time despite the fact that they have, almost without exception, utterly sucked. However, they’re still worth mentioning because of two things. One is that since Doomguy now has his dash move, Doom Eternal’s platforming segments are a little more baroque than you might expect from an FPS, with horizontal bars dotted around that Doomguy can swing off of to gain height and recharge his double jump, and some incredibly inconsistent climbable surfaces that he’ll automatically attach himself to if he dashes into them (great!) but which require an additional button press if he’s just jumping into them (why!). Often these have you navigating a lot of empty space over bottomless pits, or dodging ridiculous obstacles like slowly-revolving flaming chains that have been lifted straight out of a Mario game, which brings me to the second thing that makes the platforming worth mentioning: there are several points in the game where it requires you to be Doom Eternal’s equivalent of pixel-perfect with your jump and dash timing, which is slightly ridiculous given that even modern platformers have fundamentally rejected this as a concept. Given all of the other obstacles Doom Eternal flings in the way of my enjoyment my repeatedly plummeting into a bottomless pit ranks fairly low on the annoyance scale, but it is there and it is annoying.
After suffering through twelve hours of the story, the abilities, the ammo balance and the enemy design — and only making it to the end after taking a two-week break in the middle to recover my wits — I have to say that Doom Eternal is a game thoroughly at war with itself. Almost every new addition actively works against the core gameplay provided by Doom 2016 instead of enhancing it. You could cut half of the new mechanics out completely and it would be a far superior experience, while cutting the entire story would both dramatically improve the game and make me far more forgiving of its numerous other missteps; given that Doom Eternal had a smoother development timeline and a solid base to build on I was expecting a much more well-rounded product than the bloated, overindulgent and self-important mess that we eventually got. It’s not quite the worst example of game developer hubris that I’ve seen as there’s enough left over from Doom to make the final product aggressively mediocre and forgettable instead of outright bad, but it is one of the most disappointing. Doom 2016 was a promising sign that id had shaken off their decade-long malaise and were about to embark on a new era of making some of the most exciting FPSes around. Sadly Doom Eternal demonstrates that this was a false dawn, and that they’ve reverted to their previous form of making technically accomplished yet uninspired games that are stuffed to the gills with questionable design decisions. I’m not going to expect great things from them in the future.
- I have gone looking for the interview where this was revealed, but it seems to have been lost to the vagaries of time — I can find comments that are pretty close but they’re from the president of Infinity Ward rather than any of the actual dev team. As I lack hard evidence I’ll at least caveat: development studios are not hive minds and what gets said in publicity junkets to hype up the game does not necessarily represent what was going on in the studio at the time it was being made. However, stacked up against that generous interpretation is the jingoistic onanism that comprises the entirety of Modern Warfare 2, which really doesn’t make me inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. ↩
- Another caveat: I know game development doesn’t quite work like this as resources are specialised and can’t be transferred on a 1:1 basis. If you hire someone for a writing role for your game then they’re going to have to write something. This is why you safely sequester them away in the in-game codex that nobody ever reads so that they can’t get their grubby little fingers on anything resembling a script for a cutscene. It’s clarity of vision that’s more important than anything else here. ↩