I’m writing this review of Doom on a sunny Sunday probably less than 24 hours before the gaming sites get their own reviews up. I don’t know exactly what they’re going to say, but I predict they’re going to be fairly surprised at Doom’s proof that id Software do still know how to make a cracking FPS. I know I certainly was.
Honestly, if anything is to blame for that surprise it’s a combination of Rage being extremely tepid and Bethesda’s marketing department targeting all of the pre-release coverage of Doom at the CoD-devouring masses. It didn’t look great. The multiplayer beta made it look even worse – it moved clunkily, sounded awful, and just generally felt wrong, like they’d tried to turn Doom into an off-brand version of Halo. Fortunately for Doom the multiplayer was handled by a completely separate developer and can probably be consigned to the dustbin of history; the single-player has been developed solely by id Software — and despite their dwindling pedigree, there were a few lonely islands of promise in Rage’s ocean of mediocrity that indicated their talent wasn’t entirely dead. From the way Doom is structured I also think they’ve taken a long hard look at what fellow Bethesda stable-mates Machine Games did with Wolfenstein: The New Order, as the general approach Doom takes is almost identical; it fuses modern metagaming elements and quality-of-life features with core gameplay that feels retro, but which is so responsive and polished that it can only have come out of years of experimenting with how to update that gameplay for the modern era.
As with all Dooms before it, Doom is set on a Martian base that’s currently suffering the predations of a demonic invasion launched from Hell. And as with all Dooms before it, Doom’s plot is largely disposable gumpf, albeit somewhat self-aware gumpf that has a subtle sense of humour about it. For the most part it manages to avoid intruding on the actual gameplay; this does make the 3-4 “cutscenes” where you’re forced to put your gun away and listen to one of the two non-Doomguy characters in the game monologue at you all the more jarring and I’d rather they weren’t in the game at all, but the reason they’re so noticeable is because they’re so at odds with the rest of the game, which is the most arcade-y shooter I’ve played since Bulletstorm. It feels like a good update of classic Doom, mixing up frantic battles where a horde of demons chases you around the room while you try desperately not to die with quieter episodes where you explore in the name of finding secrets and easter eggs. The fights actually put me in mind of the excellent Devil Daggers for how fast and action-packed they are, which is appropriate since Devil Daggers was itself inspired by Doom.
A typical Doom level is laid out thusly: you proceed in a more-or-less linear fashion through the map, disposing of a basic background level of monsters on the way, until you reach a big room that’s laid out like a classic deathmatch area, with lots of raised platforms and nooks and crannies full of ammo and supplies, as well as a powerup or two. Sometimes there’ll be an extremely prominent button for you to push or an item for your to pick up, but just as often you’ll have no warning before the doors slam shut and demonic beasties start warping in. Doom’s enemies are almost entirely comprised of returning favourites from the originals — Imps, Hell Knights, Pinkies, Revenants, Mancubus…es — and while many of them do have projectile attacks that you have to dodge (they don’t get any hitscan weapons, so you always have a chance of dodging) they all love to get up close and personal. You also love to get up close and personal with the new Glory Kills mechanic, but only when you’ve staggered an enemy by reducing them to near-death; otherwise it’s backpedal o’clock while you fire a selection of extremely meaty guns at the encroaching enemy horde.
I was a little bit worried about Doom’s guns after enduring the multiplayer beta, but each of its nine weapons is really fun to use and gets a thorough workout throughout the entire game. There’s no magazines to reload and only two weapons have scopes you can sight down (these are rarely used because staying still in Doom is death), so the R key and right mouse button are instead reserved for switching between and using each weapon’s alternate fire modes. Each gun has two, and they’re unlocked by finding powerup drones hidden in particularly inaccessible places on the map; these alternate fire modes are a mechanic that’s been stolen wholesale from Rage, but that’s fine because it was the one part of Rage that worked, and it worked really well. It is if anything even better in Doom, with each fire mode ensuring a gun retains usability and versatility throughout the game. For example, there are two shotguns in the game: a bog standard combat shotgun you pick up in the tutorial, and the classic double-barrelled Super Shotgun you can get 4-5 levels in. The Super Shotgun would ordinarily make the combat shotgun irrelevant, but it’s saved by one of its alternate fire modes turning it into a grenade launcher. The Plasma Rifle gives you a choice of firing a stun pulse or a wave of superheated plasma in a wide arc. The Rocket Launcher can either lock on to an enemy and fire a volley of three rockets, or else have its rockets detonated mid-flight for a far more powerful explosion; this is particularly good for hitting enemies floating in mid-air such as the Cacodemon. The Gauss Rifle has a Siege Mode, which is heavy on the ammo and takes a little while to charge, but which fires a single hugely powerful blast that’ll penetrate through multiple enemies and which will kill a Baron of Hell in two shots.
It’s Doom’s treatment of series classic weapons the BFG and the Chainsaw that’s probably the most interesting change here, though. These aren’t accessed via the number keys like normal weapons, but instead have their own dedicated keys for activation. This is because they function more like one-shot powers in a shoot ‘em up; the BFG is basically a smart bomb that’ll clear out all baddies standing in front of you, while the chainsaw will instantly kill any single enemy and cause them to drop a ton of ammo. Both of them function as get-out-of-jail-free cards for using in a jam; the chainsaw is designed to be used when you’re running low on ammo so that you can refill and get back in the fight, and the BFG is a panic button to be used when you’re facing overwhelming odds. Each of them has a very limited number of uses and a very limited number of refills during a level, so you have to choose the moment to use them with care.
A typical battle in Doom has you switching between 3-5 weapons very very quickly according to the situation. Aside from the rocket launcher there’s no weapon that really functions as a one-size-fits-all; they’re all useful in different situations and so you find yourself switching from the Heavy Assault Rifle for sniping Imps to the Gauss Rifle for eliminating a tough target like a Mancubus to the Super Shotgun for the point-blank disposal of a Pinky. You use every aspect of the room to its fullest; Doom’s protagonist now has added mobility thanks to a double jump and the ability to mantle platforms, and you have to use all of it as you keep moving, moving, moving around the room, sprinting down corridors and leaping off ledges while taking out any monsters that cross your path. More stuff will spawn in as you finish off the first wave, and most of these arena encounters slowly scale up their monsters as the fight progresses, starting off with Imps and Possessed Soldiers mixed in with the odd tough enemy like a Mancubus, moving on to multiple Revenant and Hell Knight spawns and then finishing with something appropriately huge like a Baron of Hell. The big monsters function as an appropriate crescendo for a fight that’s been going on for a good 3-4 mayhem-packed minutes, and once they’re down it’s time to take stock of what’s left of the room, pick up any ammo/health that you missed and move on to the next arena.
Or you could hunt for secrets. This was a big element of classic Doom, and it’s one that’s been fully embraced for this update. I said earlier that the levels were more-or-less linear, and there are; there’s usually only one way forward and the trick is in figuring out what it is. If they’re linear, though, they are at least interestingly linear, making good use of the third dimension and sometimes backtracking over themselves several times. This three-dimensionality is supported by an updated automap system that is honestly the absolute best implementation they could have come up with, as it both shows you where to go and shows off how intricate the geometry of the level is. Often there’ll be an area shown on the automap that you didn’t visit in the course of travelling through the level; you’ve got fairly decent odds on there being a secret of some sort located here. At other times Doom pulls the classic Doom trick of showing you the secret through a window or a gap in the wall or up on a high ledge somewhere, and leaving you to figure out how to get to it. They’re usually cunningly well-hidden despite these hints, and so secret hunting both carries the inherent satisfaction of solving a puzzle and the more tangible reward of whatever the secret contained. A lot of the time this is armour, or a powerup – useful, to be sure, but nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary — but sometimes it’s a gun that wouldn’t normally unlock until a level or two down the road — once again, hiding powerful weapons in the early levels was something that original Doom loved to do, and new Doom is no different. There’s also a selection of classic levels to be unlocked, and these are by far the hardest secrets to locate as they’re activated by levers that blend into the background geometry of the level and which don’t have the normal helper glow that other interactive objects have, but my favourite secrets by far were the little Doom action figures that play a chiptune-y snippet of E1M1’s music when you pick one up. The figures don’t unlock anything good themselves, but each of them is themed after a piece of id or Bethesda history — Quakeguy, Keenguy, Vaultguy etc. — and are honestly so adorable that I would unhesitatingly buy one if they existed in real life.
This is Doom’s biggest strength, I think; it’s not even trying to hide its origins. The gameplay is a fusion of the best of both retro and modern FPS styles, yes, and this provides a very strong frame on which to hang the game, but it’s helped along the way immeasurably by being stuffed chock-full of callbacks to the original games. It’s easy to jam in easter eggs, of course — this being a Bethesda game, there is of course the now-tiresome skeletal corpse with an arrow in the knee hidden in a cave in Hell somewhere — but the nice thing about Doom’s is that they are for the most part entirely natural. They feel like they’re done out of love for the original material rather than because they’re cynically trying to trigger players’ nostalgia glands. Importantly, Doom doesn’t really waste too much time trying to justify them, either; there’s a soupçon of effort made to tie the classic blue/yellow keycards into the world a little more naturally, but the transition to skulls in Hell is just presented to you as a fait accompli, and while there is some cursory blurb in the game’s Codex to try and explain the powerups they’re just plonked into levels rather unapologetically, because this is a Doom game and a Doom game should have the Berserk powerup. It’s Doom because it has Doom-ness infused into its very DNA, from the frequent musical references to classic tracks to the game providing something cool if you shoot the Icon of Sin in the head, again.
Flaws? Well, I’m not 100% sold on the Glory Kill system. Glory Kills were much-hyped prior to launch, and mechanically they do make sense and fit into the game flow; if you reduce an enemy to low health they glow orange and start staggering around, and this is your cue to Press F To Perform Glory Kill. A Glory Kill is a melee finisher that will cause an enemy to drop a small amount of health – unless you’re on low health, in which case they’ll drop enough health to refill your health bar to about halfway. Glory Kills therefore function as a good way to keep up the frenetic pace of Doom’s battles; if you get reduced to low health you don’t have to piss about playing cautiously or search around for a convenient medikit, you just punch out the nearest demon and watch health orbs fountain out of their corpse. The problem is that despite there being a large variety of Glory Kills in the game — you’ll trigger different ones depending on which body part you’re targeting — firing one that isn’t “Punch the demon in the face” is really, really difficult, even when you’re specifically trying to set one up for one of Doom’s many mission challenges. Because you’re only ever seeing one or two Glory Kills, and because you do them so much, they get boring really, really quickly. They don’t feel powerful in the same way that the Berserk melee kills do, where Doomguy literally rips Imps in half with his bare hands. And in a game like Doom anything that doesn’t feel powerful ends up being not all that much fun, really.
The other problem Doom has is that despite its admirable focus on frenetic, relentless action, it does unfortunately feel the need to shoehorn in some plot and some scripted events to placate the modern gamer. At first it seems like it’s parodying the need for every game to have an over-elaborate story, since as soon as Doomguy puts his armour on fifteen seconds into the game somebody calls him up on a terminal to spout Plot at him — and his response is to punch the terminal into oblivion before they’ve even got through a full sentence. Sadly this story-lite approach does soon give way to cutscenes where you’re staring at a screen while somebody monologues at you, and not only do these slow the game down unnecessarily, but they also actively interfere with the good parts of the game by occasionally locking the door behind you so that you can’t go back to earlier parts of the level. This is completely at odds with the secret-hunting half of Doom; you can replay any completed level with all your weapons and upgrades so it’s not an unforgivable sin, but it does strike me as an unnecessary one. The story itself does have some amusing beats like the evil UAC being portrayed as Scientology But With Demons, but it’s absolutely not worth the drag effect it has on you actually getting shit done. The visuals are technically very accomplished – very crisp and detailed, and the engine is about a thousand times better optimised than whatever piece of crap is powering the CoD series these days1 — however thanks to the game being set in just two locations it’s also rather bland. There’s a couple of moderately interesting environments towards the end, but mostly the palette is that of the reddish-browns of Mars or the brownish-browns of Hell; Wolfenstein very much has the edge here as it had some outstanding visual design to back up its gunplay. Doom does better gunplay, but its visuals are never really anything more than “okay”.
Still, these low points don’t come anywhere close to dragging Doom down. It’s far too fast and far too fun to be held back by the occasional missed beat. It’s a fantastic return to form for id Software that’s driven by a love of the series’ roots and a deft understanding of how to make those roots blossom into a sturdy, demonic Hell-oak of a game — a modern update of a retro concept that, by and large, manages to combine the best of both. Up until now I was happy to call Wolfenstein: TNO the best FPS of the last half-decade, but now that Doom exists and is good I’m not sure which is better. I might even be inclined to say that Doom edges it on the strength of its purity of design, flabby cutscenes aside; it’s too close to really call it, though, and making a game that is as good as Wolfenstein is still one hell of an achievement. Pun very definitely intended.
- Is it still the Quake 3 engine? It seems like it, sometimes. ↩