Doom has no time for your nonsense. It doesn’t care that you want a story. Your morality isn’t something Doomguy will lose sleep over. You’d like a little more antagonizing over whether or not you should be ripping that hellspawn demon’s head open, before driving the barrel of your Super Shotgun into the chest of another? Tough shit. It’s going to happen, and you’re going to love every adrenaline-pumping minute of it.
This is not a game where characters dance around the legalities and ludicrousness of a major corporation using their Martian base to open a portal to Hell and mine its resources. You won’t be given lengthy exposition about what a truly awful idea that was, about the thousands of people who were killed or transformed into zombie-like monstrosities, or about just how action-packed your day is going to be. Heck, Doomguy, the faceless hunk of metal, muscle and machismo who you’ll do battle as, doesn’t even speak. Forget Call of Duty’s turgid, tasteless attempts to make us care about whatever nationality we’re currently cleansing, Doom hands us literal incarnations of Hell, a massive arsenal with which to dispatch them, and then tells us to get a goddamn move on.
Much like Wolfenstein: The New Order, this is retro gaming updated for a modern generation. But whereas that title nodded towards its roots while polishing them to a modern standard, Doom has no such pretensions. This is a twitchy, fast-paced, streamlined shooter that demands attention and an uptick in your heart rate. It’s old-school via a filter of current-gen sheen, with the series’ run-and-gun gameplay and joyous level design in full effect. For better or worse, this is the glory days of ’90s shooting for a market oversaturated with increasingly bloated efforts from other major studios.
Not that Doom is afraid to teach you the basics again. Your first few hours will be spent getting back to grips with the purity of mass murder. Weapons are drip-fed at a steady pace: you’ll start with just your pistol and fists, but quickly amass a shotgun, a rifle, a plasma gun, grenades, a chainsaw and more within a couple of hours. Enemies, too, are gradually introduced. Many return from previous games, such as the Revenant, Mancubus and Cyberdemon, but your first encounters will be with slow, shambling possessed humans. They present little threat, easily dispatched with a shotgun shell or a couple of pounds with your fists, but their purpose is one of Doom’s greatest strengths: they’re here to make up some rather impressive numbers. As you work through levels, the quantity of enemy types will start to climb. Whereas before all you had was a few slow-moving demons, now they’re jumping around levels, hurling fire at you, shooting you, charging at you. Where did that massive brute come from? How on earth do I dispatch it? Will I have enough ammo or health to take out everything else? Doom challenges players to constantly change how they approach its battles. You can’t just rely on bullets alone — you need brain and brawn in equal measure. Save your ammo for the bigger guys and dispatch smaller foes with fists, or recharging grenades, or by shooting explosive barrels to take out more than one at a time. In a couple of hours, those brutes will suddenly have become the cannon fodder, as Doom wheels out yet another big bad to test just how well you’ve adapted to its demands on your skills.
Thankfully, those skills can be improved through Doom’s upgrade system — a concession to modern game design and a not to the original’s power-ups. Weapons can unlock alternate fire modes, granting explosive ammo, wider shot patterns, or the ability to focus on distant enemies, for instance, while your armor can gain better explosive resistance, or better mapping capabilities to sniff out the numerous secrets and hidden items littered around each of Doom’s levels. These secrets, from tiny Doomguy dolls to extra upgrade points to hidden weapons, are surprisingly addictive to find. Doomguy has access to a double jump and the ability to grab and drag himself up onto ledges. Not only does this aid in combat — when enemies leap away from you, chasing them down and forcing your chainsaw through their skull is entirely possible — it lends itself to some genuinely enjoyable platforming and exploring.
There is an odd dichotomy in the game’s level design, however. Doom remains, at its core, an arena shooter. As you progress, the arenas you’re tasked to fight in get grander, deeper, and increase in complexity, but the same mechanic remains: clear out every enemy in a given area, progress to the next, repeat. Modern shooters try to hide this mechanic in various ways, from utilizing cover and wave spawning, to alternate characters or strategy elements, but Doom presents it in its most uncluttered form. The levels themselves are often masterfully designed, with multiple levels and areas to dispatch demons in, but they can’t disguise a certain level of fatigue that sets in after a while. Yes, Doom makes the act of murder so gleefully pure and enjoyable, but knowing that the next corridor will lead to yet another arena of enemies that have to be dispatched, which in turn leads to another, and another, and another can quickly become… banal?
Not helping matters is a rather simplistic AI system. Doom’s enemies don’t offer a particularly great challenge. Your health and ammo don’t respawn, instead they’re scattered around the level or dropped by enemies. This forces you to move through an area looking for the last few rounds for your rocket launcher, or the last drips of armor for your suit, but it also presents the paradoxical notion that if you want to survive, you have to run headlong into battle: that swarm of demons you’re avoiding contains a bunch of health and ammo, so you’d better break out your fists and get to work. It’s an element of risk versus reward that makes Doom’s gunplay so exhilarating, but the enemies themselves are as dumb as soup. They don’t display some of the clever abilities of other shooters — rarely will you be flanked, or outsmarted, or cornered. Instead, Doom uses sheer numbers, brute force and scarce resources to overwhelm you, but after a certain point and a certain number of upgrades, Doomguy will be so overpowered that most of the enemies you’re blasting through are little more than bugs on a windshield. It also highlights another flaw in the arena style of gameplay. Because enemies aren’t using smarts to kill you, often they’ll stay in a certain area, which can lead to a lot of tedious hunting as you try to find that one lowly demon that’s left to kill before the door you need to go through will open.
That in turn highlights a grievance with Doom’s audio. I have no qualms with the sonorous way it depicts enemies turning into mulch as I blast my way through them, I do take issue with its heavy rock soundtrack. Yes, it’s wonderfully nostalgic, but it’s also incredibly grating. It heightens the atmosphere perfectly at the start of a firefight, pumping thrashing guitar into your ears, but as the number of enemies thin and the action slows, the soundtrack remains at full bore. Until the last enemy is ripped asunder, the music remains at the tempo the game expects you to play at, even if all you’re doing is backtracking and trying to spot that last Imp.
I could also take issue with Doom’s visuals, but they’re here to serve the gameplay, not to offer Uncharted levels of spectacle or Splatoon-esque color palettes. There’s been some mention of the violence and gore present, but in reality, it’s entirely in keeping with the game’s overall ethos. These monsters are the product of capitalism gone wrong and a heavy dose of Hell. They should be blasted into gooey chunks, never to harm another human. Ripping a demon’s arm off and bashing it around the head, splitting another in half with the chainsaw, then exploding a bunch more with the BFG9000 — it’s all part of the blood-soaked, body-part strewn action, while tying neatly into the mild sense of horror that inhabits Doom’s world. Sure, the actual game isn’t that pretty, relying on oranges and browns for the most part, and yes, someone cranked the “shiny” setting up to eleven, so every surface and weapon gleams, but Doom doesn’t care what you think about its looks. You should be getting on with the action, soldier.
While the ten-hour campaign (it’s longer if you choose to explore every collectible) is an adrenaline-soaked retro-inspired joy, Doom’s other elements fall flat. Bethesda should have taken inspiration from its Wolfenstein reboot and made the game single-player only. Whereas the main campaign has its roots in old-school excitement, the multiplayer is a bizarre melding of battle arenas of old and Call of Duty. Players are restricted to just a two-weapon loadout, only certain weapons are made available on the map (as are health and armor) and overall there’s a sense that something isn’t quite gelling. There’s the usual modes found in other multiplayer games, such as Team Deathmatch and Soul Harvest (instead of collecting dog tags, like in other games, you’ll collect souls), as well as more Doom-specific options, such as a mode where players fight for control of a giant demon. The demon is a one-shot kill, making it a powerful force to control, but killing it as a human character unlocks more points, making for an intense tug-of-war as each side racks up the kills. Unfortunately, it’s battling against an overall imbalance: much like Destiny and Evolve when they launched, Doom often doesn’t care about levels, instead pitting more experienced players against those new to online play. Factor in some bizarrely long loading times, another night where the game refused to load any multiplayer matches on Xbox One (id Software and Bethesda recommend port forwarding on routers, which is going to put many off even bothering), and a relatively low number of players, and Doom’s multiplayer looks set to become a ghost town in the not-too-distant future.
SnapMap, however, is a much more curious thing. Essentially a level editor, it’s a deep tool, allowing users to create their own levels, from dungeon shooters to mini-games to even recreating classic Doom levels of yore. With a couple of friends and some of the featured maps, it could turn out to be a more compelling addition than the actual multiplayer.
Taken as a whole, Doom is a bit of a mixed bag. Its soundtrack grates, its unstable multiplayer is passable at best, and its devotion to retro game design can lead to fatigue in later stages of the main game. But none of that should dissuade fans of the series, or those burned out by the numerous generic sequels of the mainstream first-person shooter games, from giving it a try. At its purest form, Doom is about action. Just you, a gun, a horde of enemies and adrenaline coursing through your veins. Sure, there’s enjoyable exploration, a welcome upgrade system and some beautiful blood spatters, but when Doom is using tools learned over twenty years ago — level design, gun type, enemy count — and steps out of the way of the player, it’s easily one of the best shooters of the year.
Doom retails for $59.99 and is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
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