There are various big, prestige titles in the history of gaming, but few can be bigger than Doom. Gamers of a certain age will remember first hearing all about this new game that was so unbelievably huge it took up all of four floppy disks – even when zipped up – and lugging their Pentium round to a friend’s place to try this curious new gaming experience called “Deathmatch”. So it’s fair to say Doom possesses legendary status. A reboot of the franchise for today’s demanding gaming audience, then, must have felt like a daunting task – like being on 11% health and down to only pistol ammo when a cacodemon floats around the corner.
Almost miraculously, however, Bethesda and id have managed to circle-strafe around that ugly floating bastard blasting away until it was lying in a pile of its own goo on the floor, because 2016’s Doom can reasonably be described as a triumph. Somehow the game evades plenty of potential traps to emerge as one of the most flat-out-fun releases of recent times.
The somewhat divisive Doom 3 was another reboot, and in overhauling its original game, developer Id chose to emphasise its horror elements – successfully, too. But while scares of a sort were certainly present in the original Doom, it wasn’t a game that felt scary. Rather, all the demons and hell imagery served to create the feeling of truly overwhelming, impossible odds – a never-ending wave of the forces of Hell itself that one guy was tasked with somehow overcoming. And it’s this unrelenting aspect of Doom that’s been magnificently tapped into for this latest reboot.
Nothing’s more indicative of the approach than the campaign’s scene-setting opening seconds. Once more, we’re on Mars, and once again, demons have arrived to mess up our sci-fi future. Doom knows most players will basically already know the deal, and the game’s setup more or less amounts to MARS! DEMONS! – a premise still as brilliant as it is gloriously dumb. Our hero awakes in a Martian base chained to a table, all hell has already broken loose (literally), and a demonic zombie is lurching towards him. Snapping free of his restraint, he grabs the back of the zombie’s head with one hand and pounds it into mulch against the edge of the table. Slow build-up of suspense be damned; welcome to hell. We’re off and running.
No, seriously. We’re running. If you’re used to a recent diet of Destiny, The Division, Halo and so on, the speed at which doomguy takes off in his first few steps may make you think there is something wrong with your sensitivity settings. Sprint isn’t stuck on, though; Doom just moves fast in a way that most modern shooters simply don’t. Within a few minutes, you’ll have picked up that fluidity in movement is the key to combat, both in the way enemies behave and in respects to your own survival. Demons enter the environment above, behind and around you, scale up and down levels like hate-filled spider monkeys, charge or leap across long distances, or hover in mid air, blasting away all the while. Staying in one spot is a death sentence – something you quickly learn if you take the conservative approach that pays dividends in most modern shooters.
Doom doubles down on this gameplay philosophy in a couple of ways. The first is its “Glory Kill” system. Damage any demon enough to bring it close to death and it will become stunned, with a blue glowing effect to indicate it’s ready for you to get in there and finish it off with a quick melee kill animation. Not only are these varied, gruesome, demon-mashing fun, but Glory-Killed demons are guaranteed to drop bonus health. This often makes the best way to escape a desperate situation a furious attack – counterintuitive at first, but soon an essential survival strategy. Secondly, level design also encourages you stay mobile. Doomguy can jump (not canon, grumble grumble) across to platforms and up to mantle ledges (and eventually earns a double jump), and most of the sprawling, secret-stuffed maps channel you towards multi-level death arenas where three dimensions are firmly in play.
Put it all together and you get the typical new Doom firefight; an experience of intense and exhilarating chaos. You’ll leap around blazing away, head for the high ground, abandon it, switch automatically to another weapon when you run out of ammo, get close to death, and save yourself by ripping a zombie’s arm off and smashing its head in with it. Don’t take five yet though – more demons are surely coming. The game has a way of throwing enemies at you until you don’t feel like you can possibly survive any longer, and then throwing some more at you after that point for good measure. It’s not until the music winds down and doomguy is somehow still standing – covered in demon viscera and with a lot less ammunition than he used to have, but alive – that you can relax enough to settle back properly into your couch, having inevitably shuffled forward to perch on its front edge without even realising it during the action.
Fortunately, doomguy has a number of tools to aid him in his breathless fights against the forces of Hell. His (classically modelled) suit is upgradeable in different ways, allowing him to gain additional maximum armour or health, as well as bonuses – extra grenades, mapping tool upgrades and so on. Scattered around the levels – which cry out for thorough exploration – he can also find rune challenges, which teleport him to the hell dimension to try timed skill challenges. Succeed in these and he can add other handy abilities via runes (for instance, making armour shards drop from Glory Kills). Classic Id powerups like Berserk and Quad Damage can also be nabbed around the maps, and often spell the difference between victory and death.
But a marine’s best friend, of course, is his backpack-stretching arsenal (none of your “only two weapons at once” here). All the classic Doom boomsticks turn up – yes, including the one that’s less boomstick and more forestry equipment – but each has new twists care of a new weapon upgrade system, with options unlockable through finding secrets and completing mission challenges. The shotgun is the Ol’ Faithful that it was in the original game, for example, but can also be upgraded with explosive shell and triple-shot modules, each of which have their own various upgrades, and each of which is just as satisfying to unload into demon faces as the vanilla variety.
Those demon faces are familiar, too. The classic Doom demon roster all shows up for duty, each instantly recognisable despite a 2016-era-graphics extreme makeover. Like the weapons, each has been flashed up in its own way; imps are constantly repositioning themselves around the battlefield (more spritely; less sprite-y) pinky demons are heavily armoured from the front, and revenants have added a jetpack to their bag of tricks, no doubt to the envy of Leonardo Di Caprio.
The game has a neat way of introducing each new enemy type as an intimidating mini-boss encounter – yet if you look up an hour later, you’ll find yourself fighting three such enemies at once on the regular. It’s a testament to the way the game paces the marine’s upgrades and also to its perfectly pitched difficulty curve, which teaches you how to exploit each demon’s weakness before unleashing them on you en masse. Each foul creature is amazingly realised, with little animation touches like the spectacularly fleshy explosion of a Glory-Killed mancubus featuring levels of detail that impress even as they repel. Drop this grotesque bestiary into the sleek, blood-splattered future-corporate-industrial look of the Mars base, looking out over the sand-blasted vistas of the red planet, and it’s all pretty grimly visually effective (if a bit samey), with that triple-A sheen.
In something of surprise move, it’s also pretty grimly funny. Doom manages to both have its cake and eat it too by reframing the story of the demon invasion of Mars slightly from the traditional variations – “teleportation experiment goes wrong” – to a more Aliens-style tale of “hubristic mega-corp messes with uncontrollable forces”. The Union Aerospace Corporation (back too, like everything else) has actually been more or less mining Hell as a source of cheap energy, and this conceit allows the game to present a fairly straightly-played “greed/science gone wrong” story on one hand while also steering deliberately into the skid of the whole scenario’s obvious ridiculousness on the other.
PA announcements from the base security system inform the player “demonic presence at unsafe levels”, amusingly suggesting a tolerable limit for murderous demon rampages has been set, while motivational holograms and text files for UAC employees satirise the sort of corporation-as-cult mentality that seems worryingly plausible even in the less-futuristic year of 2016. (“God rested on the seventh day – but just imagine how much further along we’d be if he hadn’t? That’s why UAC initiated the seven-day work week.”) Doomguy gets into the enjoyable hamminess of it all, too; he’s as silent as ever, but demonstrates a fondness for punching inanimate objects in a way that hilariously telegraphs what he thinks about the whole business. It’s dumb, yes – but it also soooo knows it. Smartdumb.
Make no mistake; the barnstorming, ridicu-glorious (another word I had to invent just to capture the feel properly) campaign is the main attraction here, but I should probably mention the rest of it for form’s sake. Snapmap is a level-making tool that uses modular construction to hit a good balance between ease of use and depth – anyone can slap together a few corridors and rooms for larking about in, while more serious would-be designers can get down to altering the colours of their lights, selecting their preferred air vent sounds, and setting up AI behaviour chains. Large numbers of player-created maps are already available online and offering further solo, co-op or vs. play. While some popular ones are pretty decent, it may yet be too early for the proper masterpieces to have emerged.
Multiplayer has its certain charms, too, sooooorta – it just doesn’t feel like a breath of fresh air in the same way the single player does. As in single player, the pace of the game is the main point of difference to most other modern shooter offerings, although in multiplayer the skating around feels oddly weightless in a way it somehow doesn’t in the campaign.
Several MP-only weapons (this could have been a multiplayer shooter blessedly free of snipers, but no) are introduced, but so are set weapon loadouts, and there’s really only a handful of fairly standard game modes (although freeze tag, a heavily armed version of the playground game, is fun for a round or two). Points for the idea of switching classic team deathmatch up a bit by giving players the chance to turn into different demons (fun times; pulling the opposition in half), but overall the multiplayer feels afterthought-ish enough that it seems unlikely to inspire a hardcore player base long-term.
But basically, who cares? You should already be back playing the campaign on a harder difficulty, finding all those missing secrets, and ripping horns out of demon heads to stick them into demon eyes. Warm up those thumbs, crank up the speakers, and get stuck into a bit of the old ultraviolence. Doom is back, and how!