Review: DOOM

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Cover art for DOOM.

A significant part of my teenage years were spent playing Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64. It was the cause for many an all-nighter with friends, where we would make up some crazy new rules or stipulations for matches loaded up with AI bots to mow down with strange weapons, like a sniper rifle that could automatically track targets and shoot them through walls. Or briefcases that could be tossed onto a ceiling, which they would cling to as they morphed into a turret, ready to lay waste to unsuspecting victims.

In the years following its release, the first-person shooter (FPS) genre took some big strides, but I was still giddy with excitement when Microsoft announced Perfect Dark Zero as a launch title for the Xbox 360. It made the console a day-one purchase for me, based solely off the nostalgia I felt for the original. But when it finally arrived, I found a shallow, paint-by-numbers FPS that was Perfect Dark in name only. But that disappointment wouldn’t last long, as Microsoft announced an HD version of the original title for Xbox Live. I remember counting down the days to its release, and the second it was downloaded to my Xbox’s hard drive, I set out for a night of crazy sci-fi FPS action, only to find that Perfect Dark was sort of a bad game. It was great when it first released in 2000, but in 2010, it felt clunky, with some embarrassing design choices that developers had, thankfully, left behind since it’s release.

That’s the issue with nostalgia – when you develop such strong, happy memories for something from your past, there is this urge to revisit it, to recapture those feelings of elation and excitement. But it’s nostalgic for a reason – it’s something from your past, and by definition it will most likely feel outdated, clumsy (Super Mario Bros. being the very rare exception). It won’t have the same impact, yet even after being disappointed time and time again, we still hope that the next re-release of a retro title from our youth with bring us joy, and we’ll fall for it all over again.

That said, occasionally, our collective patience will, against all odds, be rewarded. A title will emerge, one that recaptures those youthful feelings, while also bringing improvements, feeling like it has a place in today’s world. DOOM is that rare game, the one that takes you back to the place and time where you gunned down your first demon, while playing like a FPS made in and for 2016. There is no compromise of quality for the sake of nostalgia, just as there is no frivolous use of a popular name and brand in order to make a quick buck. DOOM is a masterpiece at blending the old with the new, a triumph of the FPS genre, and an all-around great game.

What Does It Take To Be DOOM?

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DOOM has always been about killing demons as quickly and violently as possible.

I may have spent hundreds of hours facing off against friends and aliens in Perfect Dark, but it was far from  my first FPS experience. That distinction goes to the original DOOM, the only game I had for my first computer – an old Apple desktop. What drew me to the title (other than it being the only computer game I could play), just happened to be the same elements that make up the identity of DOOM.

The combat was fast paced. It was violent, in a cartoonish sort of way. It was easy to pick up and play. The levels sprawled outward, giant mazes with plenty of secrets to find. Developer id Software refined exploration in video games, forcing players to learn the layout of each level. A sense of progression was built into each level, one that required not just skill to achieve, but strategy. Players would find a locked door, and need to backtrack to find color-coded keys to unlock said doors, all while dodging fireballs from demons. There was plenty of ammo and health lying around to help fend off the hordes of Hell, and to keep the combat moving along, id Software didn’t bother with forcing players to do silly things such as reload their weapons, and those weapons grew bigger and crazier as the game progressed.

The latest DOOM is an amplified version of those tenets. The action is insanely fast, with players moving between enemies at near breakneck speed, shooting down foes both up close and distant, with relative ease. In any other medium, the speed of the combat would be difficult to keep up with, since the action takes place on multiple planes simultaneously, but here it takes no time to get used to. Benefiting this speed-focused gameplay is a frame rate of 60 frames per second. Despite the chaos, DOOM feels smooth, and between this and Halo 5: Guardians, I definitely want to see 60 frames per second become a standard of game design. It makes that big of a difference to the gameplay.

The controls are responsive, and aiming feels natural, enabling the player to keep pace with the enemies. For this review I played the Playstation 4 release, and even with a gamepad I felt like I was in total control, and most of my deaths were the result of a boneheaded mistake I made, and not a limitation of the control scheme. While a title such as this would play even better with a keyboard and mouse, the fact that it plays so well across all platforms is a testament to the design of the FPS elements. DOOM is a shooter first and foremost, and id Software approached the gameplay with this philosophy in mind.

 

Just like in the original, each level is massive, non-linear and rewards exploration. The FPS genre has largely moved away from this form of level design, in favor of a more cinematic, linear approach (Borderlands being an exception, but even then that franchise focuses more on being a hybrid FPS-RPG in an open world setting). Halo: Combat Evolved featured levels that felt open at times, but were mostly linear (thanks in large part to the always-present waypoint, which pointed players to their destination). F.E.A.R. continued this trend – the maze-like levels of DOOM were replaced with atmospheric corridors, where every enemy confrontation occurred up close and felt much more intimate. But the biggest game changer since the release of the original DOOM may have been Valve’s highly influential title Half-Life, which proved that video games could be just as cinematic as any film, and still be fun to play. Large, sprawling levels were replaced with linear corridors, not because sprawling levels don’t work or are an outdated mechanic, but because linear levels make it easier to implement those cinematic moments.

But DOOM was never concerned with cinematic qualities, and thankfully the latest entry sticks to its roots. It helps that each level is designed in such a way that it takes just a few moments for players to figure out which direction they should head first, even if that direction requires them to eventually backtrack to another section of the level. The obsessive scanning for clues and directions that made Metroid Prime an instant classic is abandoned here, and although that worked for Metroid, it would have been a disaster for DOOM. Again, speed is the name of the game – if the player is standing still in a DOOM game, it’s failing to provide its iconic action, which is the main attraction. Fortunately, the level design in DOOM never confuses players, while still providing plenty of hallways to explore.

It’s down these many paths where fans of the original will be delighted to find secret after secret, from items such as collectible figurines (which unlock 3-D renderings of enemies), to hidden rooms that unlock a classic level that’s playable in its entirety. These hidden levels keep the same art and sound assets from the originals, enabling players to compare side-by-side the original DOOM to the new one so we can fully appreciate just how far the industry has come. Searching high and low for these secrets would be worth it in and of itself, simply because the gameplay is so much fun, but they also serve a purpose – the more secrets the player finds, the more tokens they’ll earn to modify their weapons (more on that aspect later). It’s promising to see high profile games move away from mindless collectibles, and instead give players an incentive other than achievements to find them all.

DOOM further retains its identity by providing the player with many weapons, plenty of ammo and enough health to survive the onslaught that greets them around every corner. The two weapon loadout made popular in Halo doesn’t make an appearance here – DOOM allows players to carry all ten weapons, plus two special ones, at all times. This means that, when combined with the plentiful ammo and health packs littering the world, the resource management aspect of modern FPS design simply doesn’t exist (and outside of a couple guns, neither does reloading). Of course players  always have to keep an eye on both their health and ammo, but there’s no taking cover here when the screen flashes red, nor is there any need to pick and choose weapons carefully. While the more modern mechanics work great for other franchises, for DOOM, they would only serve to slow the game down.

id Software passed the first test when bringing back a beloved franchise – keep the identity of the original intact. But that’s only half of the puzzle – it’s just as important to update the game, making it  accessible today to an audience who didn’t grow up with the original. For DOOM to succeed, it needed to  stand on its own, alongside Halo and Call of Duty. Thankfully, the changes to the gameplay make it feel like a modern FPS, without losing its identity.

Death From Above

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The level design remains open, but this time adds vertical elements, intensifying the gameplay.

As a franchise, DOOM is held in such high regard that gamers might not quite remember just how limited the technology was at the time of its release, and things that are taken for granted in today’s shooters simply weren’t available in 1993. For starters, players couldn’t aim weapons along the vertical axis, which meant that most of the action took place on one plane, resulting in a tendency to create horizontal levels. If an enemy was located above the player, all they had to do was point in that enemy’s direction, and the bullets would magically hit their target, even though the player could only aim left or right.

Of course, that’s not the case with the latest entry, which enables players to aim wherever they want. But the addition of vertical level design may be the most overlooked aspect, and its impact on the gameplay cannot be overstated. Much of the combat in DOOM feels so intense because it takes place all around the player, not just in front and behind them, but above and below them as well. It’s common to enter a room and find demons above you and at your side, and they all take advantage of the vertical nature of the levels, sometimes jumping down toward the player, other times flying up and away, still firing as they ascend to a higher platform. Thankfully, the player can move between these levels just as seamlessly, via a nifty double jump and very responsive controls. Not only does the verticality add a new twist to the classic DOOM formula, but it provides some surprisingly graceful violence that can be downright poetic at times. Leaping off a platform and landing on an enemy, instantly caving their head in and running toward the next target, slicing through them with the chainsaw as if they weren’t there, immediately followed by jumping over the projectile of another enemy onto a ledge, blasting away another demon with a shotgun in the process, is a sequence that would stun audiences if it were in a movie, but is commonplace within DOOM. The action would still be solid if kept to one plane, but opening it up vertically intensifies it even further.

 

A new mechanic that will catch most veteran player’s eyes is the Glory Kill system, which may serve as the biggest change to the DOOM formula. When the player weakens an enemy and stops just short of killing them, the enemy will stagger for a moment, and become highlighted in an alternating blue-orange glow. If the player can melee the enemy before they recover, they will perform a Glory Kill – a violent execution that lives up to its name. But this is for more than just show – finishing off an enemy this way causes them to drop health packs, and the amount is significant enough to bring a player from the brink of death to a comfortable, safe level. This adds a risk/reward element to the gameplay that fit so well within the DOOM philosophy that it’s more shocking that it wasn’t introduced earlier. Like its predecessors, DOOM wants to keep players in the action at all times, and the Glory Kill system ensures this. If a player’s health gets low, instead of taking cover or running away to search for a health pack, they are encouraged to charge head-first into the fray, against their instincts, and if they succeed they will be rewarded with a big boost in health and less enemies to deal with.

What impressed me most with the Glory Kill system is it operates how I think FromSoftware envisioned the health mechanics working in Bloodborne. Instead of shying away from battle when hurt, the player is encouraged to stand and fight, but unlike Bloodborne, DOOM does not require the player to be perfect during every encounter, and doesn’t punish them too severely if they fail. DOOM is a game that’s OK with the player making a mistake or two, and provides a chance at redemption. Following one ill-conceived move with a few more will result in death, as it should, but Bloodborne would punish the player for making just one mistake. The Glory Kill system is the perfect balance of risk and reward, and suits a game about killing as many enemies as fast and as violently as possible.

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The Glory Kill system represents the biggest change to the DOOM formula.

The ways that players kill enemies is always a major focus of any DOOM game, and the latest brings some updates to weapons that players didn’t even know they wanted. There are 10 regular guns and two special weapons players acquire in DOOM, and they all feel and play great. If id Software did nothing further with the guns it would be perfectly acceptable, but they added an upgrade system to the weapons that really enhances the experience. There are a couple stages to upgrading guns – in the first, players have to seek out field drones, which contain the ability to unlock one of two weapon mods. Of the regular guns, eight of them have two mods to unlock, and each mod alters the gun in some significant ways (to help keep balance to the game, only one mod can be active at a time). The heavy assault rifle features a mod that allows the gun to shoot out a short burst of “tiny” missiles, and the other mod allows players to aim with a scope. Once the player unlocks a mod, they can then upgrade that mod even further, and this is where those secret collectibles come into play. Each level contains plenty of secrets, as well as three challenges (an example may be to kill X amount of a certain enemy with a specific weapon). Finding these secrets and completing challenges unlocks weapon upgrade points, which can be spent to further upgrade a mod. Going back to the heavy assault rifle, players who use the tactical scope can upgrade it so bullets penetrate enemy armor when using the scope, do more headshot damage, and can move faster when zoomed in on a target. Once all upgrades have been purchased, a mastery-level upgrade is acquired – with the heavy assault rifle, the mod grants players bullets that do massive damage when zooming in on a target. In addition, every mastery upgrade has its own challenge tied to it, and when that challenge is completed the mastery upgrade becomes even more powerful. For the high-powered rounds of the assault rifle, the final upgrade unlocks when the player gets 50 headshots when zoomed in on enemies.

What this all means is that players can, to a limited extent, customize their arsenals and kill demons however they want. While some of the weapons are a bit overpowered (the Super Shotgun is ridiculously effective), no weapon is ineffective, meaning that the player can switch to whatever playstyle suits them in that moment. Not in the mood for up close action? Keep things at a distance with the tactical scope, or maybe sit back and pick enemies off with the rocket launcher and its remote detonation mod. Want to be an unstoppable machine of destruction? March straight ahead with the chaingun equipped with the mobile turret mod. id Software gave players a toy chest filled with lethal goodies, and encouraged them to go wild.

Much like weapons, the player’s combat suit can also be upgraded with tokens, which are found on the remains of elite soldiers hidden throughout most levels. These upgrades are far more linear and simple, increasing health, ammo capacity and armor, but they provide a sense of progression; the player gets stronger as the story unfolds. These upgrades are welcomed, and provide another secret to search for in each level.

id Software was able to squeeze in one more upgrade system, but this one is just as significant as weapon mods. Players can locate runes, which unlock a challenge that can be undertaken in the middle of the game, or can be accessed from the main menu. Rune challenges can be as simple as killing a certain number of enemies before a running clock hits zero; the challenge starts with 10 seconds on the clock, but killing an enemy adds five seconds. Once the challenge is completed, it unlocks a rune that, when equipped, modifies the gameplay, similar to perks in Fallout. There are 12 runes throughout the game, and the player can equip a maximum of three, but it’s simple to activate and deactivate runes, meaning that players are advised to unlock and learn what all 12 runes are capable of. Once a rune is unlocked and equipped, an additional challenge, much like the mastery upgrade challenge for weapon mods, can be completed, which enhances the capabilities of the rune. For example, the Armored Offensive rune means that players receive both health and armor when performing a Glory Kill, and when upgraded they receive even more armor. Just like the weapons, these runes, when combined properly, enabler varying, unique playstyles. My favorite combination was the Armored Offensive and The Rich Get Richer runes. With this combination, I was granted unlimited ammo with all regular weapons, so long as my armor stayed above 75. There are few gaming moments as satisfying as jumping into a room full of demons, and mindlessly mowing them all down, like some sort of genetically-modified Rambo on all of the steroids. With 12 runes to unlock, upgrade and experiment with, there is plenty incentive for the player to spend the time unlocking them all.

These changes to the gameplay ensure that DOOM can stand alongside any other FPS in 2016, and not rely heavily on nostalgia to be enjoyable. More importantly, all of these additions complement the core DOOM formula, meaning that the identity remains intact.

Don’t Tell Me A Story

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Thanks to some crazy weapons and an insane drive, the Doom Slayer is not someone you want to cross.

In the context of the latest DOOM, a title that focuses first and foremost on gameplay and little else, it’s important to acknowledge and praise the story and character development. Not because either one is amazing, but because id Software employed an efficiency with each that other developers need to take note of.

The story setup for DOOM is about as thin as they come – some scientists on Mars were trying to solve an energy crisis back on Earth. They discovered that they could open a portal into Hell and tap it for something they called Argent Energy, which provided a near unlimited supply of energy. During one of their expeditions into Hell, they found a tomb containing a man known to the demons of Hell as the Doom Slayer, a warrior whose sole purpose was to kill every demon that crossed his path. The Doom Slayer was imprisoned and sealed away, but the Mars scientists brought his tomb back with them. The lead scientist kept the Doom Slayer around, just in case an accident occurred, such as another scientist becoming possessed by a cult and initiating something called a Hell wave, which unleashed demons who were kept in holding cells on Mars to study. This is where the game kicks off, and the player, as the Doom Slayer, awakes from their slumber, and gets to killing demons immediately.

That’s pretty much the entire story, and honestly a game like DOOM doesn’t need any more than that – it sets up a premise so the player isn’t mindlessly killing random enemies, but once that premise is set up, the story stays out of the way of the action. There are documents in each level that shed some light onto these events, but even those documents are kept brief, the exact opposite of the tomes players read through in games like Quantum Break. The story is minimal by design, and efficiently communicated.

The character development was just as much a pleasant surprise as the story, which is shocking since traditional stop-at-nothing bad-asses aren’t developed much further than their description. While the Doom Slayer isn’t given much of a personal motivation to kill the demons of Hell, his drive and perseverance come through loud and clear, and in entertaining fashion.

 

id Software uses the few plot points to also establish just how determined the Doom Slayer is – in one level, the protagonist is tasked by a friendly scientist to power down whatever it is that is keeping the portal to Hell open. The scientist encourages the Doom Slayer to locate three Argent Energy cells and carefully remove them, disabling the portal. However, the Doom Slayer cares little of the importance of Argent Energy or some random crisis back on Earth, and he removes the power cells by stomping on them, ripping them from the machine and destroying them in the process. In a later level, the Doom Slayer encounters a door that will only open with an authorized retinal scan. He later finds the remains of a dead employee of the facility, and picks them up as if it were just another item (the game helpfully lets players know that they have acquired the upper torso). He carries this around with him back to the scanner, smashing the dead man’s face into it, unlocking the door and tossing the corpse aside as if it were a piece of scrap paper. Again, this isn’t Shakespeare, but it establishes a persona that fits with the overall theme of the game, and it does it without long cutscenes or exposition.

Knee Deep

DOOM could have easily ended up falling down the same path as Perfect Dark – never recapturing that sense of excitement, and completely missing out on what made it great in the first place. Thankfully, DOOM is both a great installment in a legendary franchise, and a competent, modern FPS. It’s an instant classic, a testament to both old and new school design, elements from each working together to create a title that every FPS fan must play. There are no compromises here for the sake of nostalgia, no quick cash-grabs or misuse of a brand. Just pure, hectic, entertaining mayhem.