Review: Doom

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In my review-in-progress for Doom, I mentioned that “if what I’ve played so far is indicative of the rest of the campaign, the late embargo is absolutely nothing to be worried about.” That was based on four hours of ripping the heads off of demons, finding secrets, grabbing keycards, and smashing monitors.

I’ve now finished the (thirteen or so hour) campaign, played multiplayer long enough to reach level 10, and fooled around with SnapMap long enough to realize that the tools are robust enough that I have no idea how to make good, fun things.

id Software has reached deep into the bowels of hell, pulled up the roots of Doom, torn them into pieces, and rebuilt them with cybernetic parts. Let’s talk a bit about what that means first.

Doom (PS4, Xbox One [played the first hours before saying screw this, it’s Doom, and bought a review code for…], PC [reviewed])
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda
Released: May 13, 2016
MSRP: $59.99

To me, Doom has always been about fast arcade shooting, where an onslaught of enemies meant that car-crash fast reflexes were all that could keep you alive. Between rooms full of shrieking monstrosities, keeping a keen eye out for secrets could reveal a weapon that normally wouldn’t be found until hours later. Some levels were labyrinthine, requiring keycards that gated progress, and others were just small arenas — meat grinders that tested skill above all else (remember Dead Simple from Doom II?).

Doom 3 (stupid stylistic changing of numerical conventions) tried something different to varying degrees of success. A slow “day in the life on mars” intro attempted to insert a narrative that wasn’t altogether necessary. This entry in the series tried to be more survival horror than action horror, and though I did enjoy it, it was too much of a diversion from previous games from most of the people who wanted to make satanic meatbags explode.

Which brings us to the present: Doom (2016) tries to find a middle ground, and it works. After starting off chained to a slab in a Mars UAC facility, Doomguy the Doom Marine picks up a pistol and starts killing within seconds. He grabs his Praetor Suit, goes through a short tutorial and kills his first wave of enemies, and cracks his knuckles before punching away the plot. No, seriously, look:

This time, the Doom Marine is basically a prophesied/biblical embodiment of rage whodoes not give a fuck. For the most part, id Software realized that players aren’t buyingDoom for the plot, and the main character punches, destroys, and crushes anything that could be seen as a quest or objective. He’s here to rip and tear, and nothing will stop him. Almost every time that someone is talking to him, you can still move around instead of getting locked in place. Unfortunately, this makes the few moments when agency is stripped away from the player even more jarring.

But that’s okay, because the other 98 percent of the game is some of the most entertaining, bone-breaking, flesh-ripping combat I’ve ever played. This is a return to fast first-person shooting, where demons fill the room and must be slain before progressing. Every weapon (aside from the pistol, which I rarely used) has the cathartic feel of using a nail gun in real life, where it’s entertaining just to pull the trigger. There are also two weapon mods for each gun that give you different alternate fire modes, which makes the amount of weapons seem to double.

I was initially worried that Glory Kills –which is still a creepy name for violent executions — would slow down the pace of the shootouts, but that’s not the case. If you do enough damage to stagger an enemy, you can do a finishing move that grants a health boost. Instead of regenerating health, maps are littered with med packs, but Glory Kills are still the best way to make sure you’re still on your feet during a tough fight. They’re also fast, granting a kinetic propulsion that keeps you in the thick of combat without slowing you down. There’s an inherent risk in getting close to an amalgam of flesh and teeth, butDoom doesn’t want you to be afraid of that, it wants you to get in close and kiss death on it’s rotten mouth.

There have been some complaints that health and ammo pickups pouring out of enemies is decidedly not-Doom. Other things that may initially seem not to jive with the old game: runes, powers you gain through small trials and assign to one of three slots, weapon upgrade points earned by finding secrets and killing all monsters in a level, and a Ratchet and Clank-esque upgrade system that enables you to upgrade your mods by doing certain feats (like killing Imps with a direct explosive shot). Here’s the thing: these additions are arcadey as all hell, and lead to more skillful play. When I started up a level and saw that I needed to kill two Barons of Hell with one shot, I rubbed my hands together with a mischievous grin. Those weapon upgrades have the same effect: I was constantly looking for the perfect moment to unleash a rocket that would obliterate a group.

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The levels themselves are surprisingly open. A Metroid Prime-style 3D map helps with navigation when there are multiple directions to go. Though objectives (I recommend turning off the markers, by the way) generally lead to a keycard or something new to smash, they’re spread out in a way that encourages thorough exploration. Secrets are hidden in ventilation shafts and high, out-of-reach places, and they’re worth finding since they can lead to suit upgrades like more health/armor/ammo, new weapon mods, are more runes. A couple times I found new weapons hours before I should have, which warmed my black little heart with memories of old.

I particularly enjoyed how the dynamic soundtrack intertwines with both the on-screen action and the environments I was unleashed upon. When in the Mars base, the music takes on a more industrial, Trent Reznor sound (and I don’t mean “There’s heavy guitar and pulse-pounding beats therefore Nine Inch Nails” like games writers tend to say, I swear some of the guitar patches are straight-up the same as NIN), and the guitars chug violently when you launch into Glory Kills. By the time you get to hell, the double bass pedal kicks in and a choir sings hallowed tunes while you chaingun Mancubi. If you’re playing Doom quietly, stop doing that and turn it the hell up.

This game also made me do something I’ve never done: Bethesda provided an Xbox One code, and I got a few hours in. While it looked great and ran at a solid 60 FPS, I felt more like I was wrestling with the controller than anything else. When I reached the point where I had double-jump boots, I knew it was time to switch. I bought my own copy on PC, turned up the difficulty, and never looked back. In an instant, the destruction became an even faster, more aerial affair, a Hotline Miami-ish bloody ballet where I became a grinning shark. If I stopped, I died. I looked forward to every wave of reinforcements Hell wanted to throw at me.

Doom starts with relentless pace that it can’t quite maintain. Early on, you’ll encounter a new enemy, find a new weapon, or get a new rune every thirty minutes or so. Eventually this peters out, which I can see being disappointing for some. For me, once I had all the weapons and had seen most of these hellbeasts, I felt like I had all of the tools I needed and became a sort of Handyman of Hell. I would run into a room, launch with a jump pad, line up a shot with the gauss cannon and destroy to Cacodemons, tear up some Imps, and then switch to the Super Shotgun to clean up the room. The later, more Satanic levels have some incredibly fun arenas that really tested me on the Ultraviolence difficulty. I don’t think I would have been able to handle it without the extra speed and accuracy provided by a mouse and keyboard, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s not to say the console versions are inferior, but they definitely play at different speeds.

I do wish the bosses weren’t all jammed into the last quarter of the game. Going toe-to-toe with the Cyberdemon is a spectacle, if a little too easy. Those insane arenas end up being more challenging than the bosses, which is unfortunate. Either way, there’s an impressive rogues gallery here, even if most of them are reimaginings of past monsters. Combined with the new id Tech engine, it’s one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played. On a GTX 770, I was usually at a solid 90 FPS on mostly High settings. One major frame dip happened when I was looking through a tram window at a large level, but aside from that it remained consistent.

So, id Software nailed the campaign, but what about multiplayer? I was dreading trying it out because I had played the beta on PlayStation 4 and it seemed to be a slow, demonicCall of Duty affair, which flies in the face of what the single-player mode achieves. When I started playing it yesterday, I found it to be surprisingly decent. I’m not sure if id made it faster based on beta feedback or if it’s just because I’m on the PC, but the pace seems better now. I still think movement could be a little faster, though. While there are loadouts, leveling, and modules (temporary boosts that you can earn), there’s still a satisfying core loop to be found.

There are the regular, expected game-types like Team Deathmatch and Domination, but there are new additions like Freeze Tag and Soul Harvest. The first one tasks you with thawing out teammates who have been tagged by the opponents, and the second involves taking the souls of those you kill to raise the team’s score. I’ve had the most fun with Warpath, where teams vie for control of moving zones. It feels the quickest out of the gametypes and has led to tense, last second reversals. The multiplayer won’t set the world on fire by any means, but I’ll probably return to it a few times.

But SnapMap…SnapMap has enormous potential. It’s a map editor that’s slicker than James Bond’s hair (I’m thinking Brosnan here, not Dalton’s silly poof). A few short tutorials teach you how to use the overhead map to snap together a level, and then you can dive into a first-person view and start building logic chains. You can set win conditions, assign enemies to certain rooms, change the mood of the level through color filters, and a billion other things that I’ll never have the time to accomplish. When I was toying with it and found out that you can add buffs to enemies and set their behaviors, I was reminded of creating a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It’s actually relatively simple and similarly snazzy, and there’s a good chance there’ll be a huge amount of crazy stuff to do in the coming months.

id Software has already provided a few examples: I’ve played a memory-based game level that was more about observation, a tower defense mode where you can place traps and buy weapons between waves, and a parkour level that scores you based on how fast you can complete an obstacle courses. There are already fan creations of classic Doom levels, but the sky’s the limit here. Another interesting addition is Snap Puzzles, which place you in pre-built levels that need to be “fixed” so that you can complete them. It’s a cool way to help you untangle the processes and better understand logic chains. I hope to have more time to mess with it later on, but it’s an exciting prospect just to see what the world will come up with using these powerful tools.

I approached Doom with no small amount of dread. Would it be watered down? Would it be slow, or try to force a cheesy story down our throats (I mean, it still did, but in a perfectly dumb and fun way)? I had hoped this would be surprisingly good, but deep down I had no idea it would be this much fun. Now all I’m hoping for is the sequel that this is a little too set up for. I’m hoping it goes the Diablo route and lets me go to a heaven dimension to blast some weird, fucked-up angels. Uh, sorry. I’ve been playing too much Doom. I’m going to go rip up a steak or something.

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