DOOM

DOOM

Written by Sean Colleli on 5/20/2016 for PC  
More On: DOOM

DOOM is pretty special to me. I cut my gaming teeth on the likes of Star Raiders and Pac-Man for the Atari 800, but DOOM is where I really got into the hobby. While I sampled Mario and Ninja Turtles on the NES at an early age, my parents (particularly my mom) were determined that I would have a computer instead of just a game console—something I could do homework on. But the comparatively wholesome, professional Windows 95 environment of Math Blaster and Lotus 1-2-3 opened the door to something far more sinister than Super Mario, something that would make my devoutly religious mother seriously question her decision. It was the satanic imagery and graphic violence of DOOM, and it wasn’t long before the game had slithered its way into our household.

In the mid-1990s, DOOM was everywhere. The first episode shareware was inescapable, crouched like a hungry, ubiquitous succubus on 1 gigabyte hard drives across the nation. Office productivity plummeted and 56k dial-up networks ground to a halt as impromptu deathmatches ate up the meager bandwidth the way a plasma rifle eats battery cells. It got so bad that several companies—Microsoft and DOOM creator id Software included—implemented “no DOOM” policies. Some offices and universities went so far as to write benevolent malware scripts to hunt down and purge the DOOM.exe from their business and research machines.

A year later it happened again with DOOM II. I distinctly remember my dad coming home from his IT job at a major bank and chuckling about how badly his managers hated the game. Playing on my uncle’s then-cutting-edge 486 Pentium, I remember catching glimpses of Imps shuffling in the shadowy pits of the Underhalls, their snarls echoing menacingly, and just how utterly terrified I was to jump down there and face them. DOOM’s success wasn’t hard to figure out. Its witches’ brew of adrenaline-pumping action, intuitive gameplay, simple, compelling themes of humans vs. demons, and competitive multiplayer made it the one thing gamers had been dreaming about since Space Invaders.

DOOM didn’t make its proper return until a decade later with DOOM 3, and then everything changed. Id ushered in a graphical revolution with the game—few people remember that DOOM 3’s gorgeous shader-heavy textures and dynamic lighting determined the visual direction and general “look” of video games moving forward—but the fanbase was split on DOOM 3’s gameplay. Id chose to reboot the series and take a methodical, horror-focused approach that didn’t quite line up with the white-knuckle action of the previous games. Competing with the more gameplay-ambitious (but technically finicky and arguably less attractive) Half-Life 2 also did DOOM 3 no favors.

I love DOOM 3. As a poor college freshman I built my first gaming rig to play it. I tore my jaw muscles—stiff from wisdom teeth surgery—by screaming at one of its many scares, and I still reveled in every minute of it. I thoroughly enjoyed the DOOM 3 BFG Edition remaster from a few years back. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little impatient for a true return to form. I liked id’s 2011 new IP, Rage, but it felt like id had lost its way a bit. Their founder, John Carmack, is a certifiable programming genius, but for the past few years he’s seemed more interested in iterating the idTech engine than making actual games with it. When he jumped ship to help Facebook pioneer Oculus VR, I wondered just where id software was headed.

Right back to their roots, it turns out. Id decided that the way forward is to embrace their past and bring the unapologetic glory and decadence of early '90s shooters roaring back to prominence. They aren’t the first developer to do this—Serious Sam took over when Duke Nukem fell asleep at the switch, Rise of the Triad introduced a new generation to ludicrous gibs, and Shadow Warrior put a katana back in gamers' bloody hands. Id seems to have taken particular inspiration from the gameplay flow of the Shadow Warrior reboot and its direct predecessor, Hard Reset. So I have to wonder if id pinched a few developers from studio Flying Wild Hog. Comparisons to Shadow Warrior aside, DOOM is, bar none, the most effective retro revival the FPS genre has seen yet.

It wasn’t always this way. DOOM began life as far back as 2007, where it was a direct follow-up to DOOM 3, a sort of spiritual successor to DOOM II that would have grafted DOOM 3’s more scripted, story-based approach to a new Hell on Earth. This version of the game, with its drab human resistance fighting demons on terra firma, looked like a cross between Call of Duty and Rage. It ultimately lacked a distinct personality and, even worse, the gameplay felt like it was only going through the motions. This Frankensteinian “DOOM 4” was thankfully scrapped in 2013 and restarted simply as “DOOM.”

A second reboot to the series—DOOM 3 was a reboot in and of itself—might seem risky, but it pays off literally to Hell and back. The story is as simple as ever: you awake from your tomb on Mars as the incarnation of Hell’s bane, retrieve your powered armor (which is now an ancient demon-slaying relic!) and proceed to slaughter Hell’s minions with reckless abandon. The Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC) is back, much more of a cult this time in the vein of Dead Space’s Unitology. The corporate side of the UAC is mining Hell’s power to solve Earth’s energy crisis, while of course the cultish elements are more preoccupied with trying to unleash Hell’s full wrath upon our dimension.

The DOOM Marine—that’s literally his name in this reboot—will have none of this. He makes short work of the meager enemies surrounding his tomb as the game teaches you the basics of combat. No pretense, no buildup here; the remainder of the campaign’s plot is generally unimportant and can be largely ignored in the finest DOOM tradition. Just grab a gun, start shooting demons and, for the love of God, don’t slow down. If you stop to take a breath during a fight, the enemy AI is specifically tailored to punish you, converging on you with frightening speed.

The Imps in particular—while I’m not a huge fan of their new visual design—are far more dynamic than the plodding menaces in DOOM 3. When they are alone or in a small group, the Imps will distance themselves, scamper up walls and potshot you with fireballs at range. If they have a bigger monster like a Hell Knight or a few Revenants backing them up, however, the Imps will pursue you mercilessly while your attention is focused on running from the big bruisers. I often ducked behind a structure or wall to collect my wits, only to have a straggling Imp skitter below my line of fire and claw at my guts.

Cowardice is unforgivable. Retreat is death. Appropriate then, that DOOM implements a new mechanic to make brash up-close violence all the more rewarding. When you injure a demon enough to stagger it, the enemy will flash blue for a short period. When you’re in range, they’ll turn orange, and by hitting the F key you can perform a messy, melee “glory kill.” Tearing a weakened enemy limb from limb isn’t just viscerally satisfying, but the hapless demon also drops small health and ammo pickups—just enough to keep you going to mutilate the next unlucky staggered foe. Glory kills also make you invulnerable for a brief second, encouraging you to wade headfirst into battle when you’re low on health instead of backpedaling to hunt for medpacks. 

These takedowns are ripped straight from the excellent Brutal DOOM mod’s fatalities, and they work almost exactly the same, but if an idea works, it just works. And damn does it just work. Glory kills feel like punctuation during a fight, exclamation points to usher in the next “sentence” of slaughter. But don’t worry that DOOM has shifted focus to melee combat. DOOM is still very much about blasting demons with a colorful arsenal of traditional and sci-fi weapons.

The iconic armory of the DOOM Marine returns in its full glory, with a couple new additions. For the most part, I’m pretty satisfied with the guns. The shotgun and especially the double-barreled variety are just as crisp, powerful and satisfying as ever, but the plasma rifle feels underpowered. The rocket launcher seems a bit weak as well, but then again, each weapon is more than meets the eye, thanks to a highly adaptable upgrade system.

The standard shotgun can be modified with a three-round-burst or a grenade launcher, while the machine gun gets a godlike mini-missile launcher. The plasma rifle can stun enemies—very similar to certain weapons in Hard Reset—and the rocket launcher can add the ability to detonate rockets mid-flight, which is particularly useful for front-shielded or armored enemies with vulnerable backs. The initially slow-but-punchy Gatling gun can transform into a blisteringly fast tri-barreled turret that positively minces most demons. Each weapon has two attachments and various upgrades for each, and they substantially change the nature of the combat on the fly. Best of all, choosing one attachment at the various upgrade stations doesn’t lock out the other: you can hot-swap attachments at a moment’s notice.

Of course, there are two weapons that can’t be upgraded: the chainsaw and the legendary BFG 9000. These weapons are so incredibly powerful that they have dedicated keys and aren’t part of the regular weapon wheel. They have also been rebalanced so that they don’t break combat completely. The BFG, as always, can reduce an entire room of enemies to soppy viscera but can only be reloaded with rare BFG power cells, and you can only carry three shots at a time. The chainsaw plays a more dynamic role. It runs on fuel tanks which, like the BFG cells, are fairly rare. The chainsaw can one-hit kill any enemy but the size of the demon determines how many fuel tanks you expend.

An Imp or zombie soldier might use up one fuel cell, but a Mancubus will eat up three and a Baron of Hell will completely empty your chainsaw. The trade off is that any enemy slain with the chainsaw will erupt with regular ammo pickups like some demonic munitions geyser. I often found myself running out my rockets, shotguns shells and bullets on bigger enemies during the gigantic fights, and then saving a lone Imp at the end to chainsaw in half and replenish my ammo stores. The fully fueled chainsaw is also a great saving throw against a huge, lone remaining enemy when you are low on health and other ammo. It’s just perfectly balanced for DOOM’s combat style—powerful but limited-use—and its multitude of shockingly graphic kill animations are perversely satisfying.

DOOM’s level design reinforces its combat style while evoking the classic, highly engineered map design of the original game. While there are some corridor battles with smaller enemies, the majority of fighting happens in gigantic, sprawling arenas—elaborate killboxes that lock down and trap you with the demons until you’ve murdered everything remotely hellish inside. In this regard it’s very similar to Shadow Warrior and the gruesome combat ballet is even more satisfying. The corridor crawls of DOOM 3 are nowhere to be found. Here it’s all about constant movement, smart weapon-juggling against a wide variety of enemies and, above all, situational awareness.

But good map design would be wasted if it was just a sequence of killboxes and, like Shadow Warrior, DOOM includes complex map architecture packed with secrets. Between the insane arena fights, you can actually catch your breath and do some exploring. DOOMGuy bobbleheads, upgrade tokens to buff out your armor, weapon attachments and even the ability to scrounge more powerful guns in early levels—all of this is on the table. You can even find little slices of retro DOOM levels—complete with 16-bit textures—that unlock those classic levels for play in the main menu. It calls back to the classic DOOM without necessarily replicating its labyrinthine level design, which honestly wouldn’t work in a modern shooter. To be honest, the secret hunting, intuitive 3D automap and general traversal feel very similar to Metroid Prime, especially the challenging yet elegant first-person platforming required for finding many of the best secrets.

And none of this is superfluous. Hunting down secrets will reward you with upgrade chips and points for improving your guns and armor. Killing demons fills a per-level quota that gives you more points. Even each level’s persistent achievement system grants you upgrades. Everything in this game is geared toward making you a more effective hellspawn-murdering machine. Nothing is wasted. By the time you reach the end, you truly feel like you’ve been on a journey; enemies that intimidated you when you first encountered them, like the gnarled Pinkies or gangly Revenants, now fall before your mocking laughter and the might of your fully upgraded rocket launcher.

While it emulates and cops from several recent retro-reboots, and particularly Brutal DOOM, the new DOOM’s campaign has effectively re-written the book on this type of shooter. It tweaks and smartly updates the formulas of old into something legitimately modern, accessible and fiendishly addictive. Its roughly 15-hour campaign is a meaty, challenging affair that somehow feels like it’s over all too quickly. Id has done something I thought was impossible: recreate that classic DOOM feel, that almost ritualistic violence and flow, without outright carbon-copying the original, to the point that once DOOM’s credits rolled I just wanted more, more, more.

Id has wrapped this black magic gameplay in overall stellar production values that I wish the artists had pushed just a little bit farther. IdTech 5 was technically impressive and its megatexture feature looked good on paper but, in practice, it was a dog. Rage was difficult to get running under the best of circumstances and on modern hardware it still takes some tweaking. The end result is graphically underwhelming. Machinegames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order made significant improvements on the engine but megatexture still slams it with diminishing returns in both texture resolution and level geometry. Not DOOM. The new idTech 6 engine is firing on all cylinders and delivers some truly breathtaking visuals.

I hate to speak ill of John Carmack, he’s a personal hero to me, but he seems to have taken his “tech for tech’s sake” approach with him to Facebook and Oculus. Id once again is firmly dedicated to leveraging its engine tech for a great games above all else. DOOM might still be using megatextures in some form or another for its big environments—I can’t be sure—but it’s a far cry from the clunky Rage. Texture pop-in is dramatically reduced and environments are crafted with loving attention to detail. Unlike Rage, DOOM’s levels still look good when you get up close to them. The whole affair just feels far more solid and fluid than anything id has done in the past few years, or even Machinegames’ impressive work on Wolfenstein.

That said, I wish the art was just a bit more out there. There are truly jaw-dropping moments to be sure—that first trek out onto the desolate Martian plains, or your initial descent into Hell—but none of it really pops the way DOOM 3 did. While DOOM 3’s gameplay might have split the fanbase, it was unmistakably a masterpiece of the gaming art form first and foremost, engineered to showcase its engine’s raw graphical prowess. The new DOOM conversely is more about flexing is engine through gameplay. It looks great, but not transcendent.

For example, its enemy design is hit or miss, for me at least. Half of the demons look awesome; I’m really happy that they kept the disturbingly alien Hell Knight from DOOM 3, and they’ve somehow managed to update the frankly ludicrous Pinky design from the original game into something legitimately scary here. The rest, however, I’m lukewarm on. The Imps, while devious, don’t have the menacing quality of the original design or even the multi-eyed DOOM 3 variety. The Mancubus is a bit too generic sci-fi for my tastes, lacking that gluttonous, hedonistic touch. The Cacodemon, while much better than DOOM 3’s rather generic approach, still doesn’t have that unflinching sadistic grin that made the classic design so unsettling. They’re a little too blank and expressionless for my taste, almost like animals rather than something actually demonic. All told, though, the bosses are fantastic, and I really like how they updated the almost mythological Baron of Hell design into something panic inducing; a shockingly fast, towering behemoth that really makes you go, “Oh crap!” when he shows up.

My other complaint with the visuals is the Hell design in the game. It is unfortunately a sharp departure from the unsettlingly abstract and twisted vision of hell from DOOM 3. That game’s focus on horror and jump scares might have irritated longtime fans, but it paid big dividends in Hell where the level designers just went wild. The forbidding color palette, transforming level geometry and a couple of tasteful scripted events, really made you feel like you were descending into the stinking, sweltering, brimstone-encrusted depths of some long-forgotten, Godforsaken dimension at the end of space.

In the new DOOM, Hell is a commodity not-so-secretly mined by the UAC for energy, and the cult surrounding it make it feel less threatening somehow. This is disappointing, because even in the original DOOM, hell was a diabolical funhouse replete with squirming tentacle floors, devious traps and walls lined with fleshy, mocking faces. I remember it made me distinctly uncomfortable as a kid, as if the game was quietly laughing at me. 1993’s hell was impressively evocative and menacing considering the technical limitations. It’s a shame that id went with such a generic, “'90s metal band album art” vision of hell piled with skulls, sandy mountains and a dreary brown sky, when the idTech 6 engine is capable of so much more. The UAC and Mars environments certainly show what an unhinged artist can do with the engine. While some parts of the new DOOM’s Hell get a little more creative, like a graveyard of fallen demon titans, they could have pushed it farther.

The sound design is also a collection of good and bad. Acoustically the UAC base feels less like a real place than DOOM 3’s environments. But with the focus more on gameplay and less on mood, that’s to be expected. Most of the guns have potent, satisfying reports, but for some reason the plasma rifle—and most criminally the BFG—sound a bit wimpy. It’s the BFG 9000. I expect a big ol’ boom when that crackling mass of green plasma connects!

Again it’s the monster design that feels the most mixed. The original DOOM, DOOM II and DOOM 3 all had very distinct sound design for its demons, so an experienced player knew exactly what was on the battlefield and from what direction it was attacking, all from sound cues. You can eventually learn the same auditory cues in the new DOOM but monsters sound less distinct, from one another and just in general. There’s a generic quality to how they sound—ironic and fitting, considering classic DOOM used a generic commercial sound library for its monsters—but as a result, the new DOOM’s monsters have less individual personality.

DOOM’s music also doesn't grab me the way I'd hoped. It’s certainly effective when you’re knee deep in combat and the industrial rock is pounding in your ears, but on its own it’s a tad grating. This isn’t exactly a fair comparison because much of the original game’s soundtrack was lifted wholesale from the now-legendary grunge metal of the '80s and '90s, but I don’t think I would listen to the new DOOM’s music on a soundtrack. Of course, I did enjoy the musical callbacks to the original game.

These minor complaints aside, DOOM is a triumph of old meets new, very much like Wolfenstein: the New Order, but successful in its own way. In my opinion, the single-player campaign is worth the price of admission alone, but then again it’s only half of the DOOM package. We also have multiplayer and the curious Snapmap level editor to consider, but this is where the real problems start to rear their demonic heads.

I played a lot of the multiplayer beta and, I’m sorry to report, many of its problems remain in the final game. DOOM’s multiplayer wasn't developed by id, but contracted out to Certain Affinity. Now, I have nothing against Certain Affinity, they are a talented studio and they’re good at what they do. But when you ask developers who worked primarily on Halo and Call of Duty to make DOOM deathmatch…well, you can guess how it plays. The end result is something that feels confused, at war with itself and distinctly designed for a console audience, which is jarring when the campaign is so lovingly optimized for the PC platform.

DOOM’s multiplayer doesn’t feel like DOOM at all. It’s fast but not fast enough, like a dialed-back Quake III Arena but with modern concessions awkwardly bolted on from…well, Halo and Call of Duty. Maps are big, sprawling obstacle courses that would feel right at home in a classic deathmatch. But the mechanics of minute-to-minute play feel out of place in such retro levels. Like CoD, you are limited to two-gun loadouts that you can swap between spawns, and many of the weapons have been rebalanced and nerfed to the point that they feel weak, anemic. This is the first mortal sin of DOOM’s new multiplayer: in a classic arena shooter, every player must spawn on even footing, with the ability to collect and carry all weapons at once.

This is how an arena shooter works. An even playing field is crucial, so that the best players are the ones who put in the time to learn the maps and get skilled with every weapon. DOOM makes weak concessions to that old ideal but further muddies it with a second mortal sin: DOOM includes upgrade-based player progression, overpowered demon runes that completely break team balance, “hack modules” that are basically perks and several other very CoD-like mechanics that further skew the playing field. This puts new players at an even worse disadvantage because they start with basically nothing while experienced players have all the toys and upgrades in addition to knowing the layout of the maps. There’s little chance anymore for a pinball-wizard-style player, who’s a natural god with the lightning gun, to just drop in out of nowhere and shake up a tournament.

There are some features and modes that I enjoy. Freeze tag, where depleting an enemy’s health encases them in ice until a teammate thaws them out, is pretty fun. But as it stands, there is no way to host a dedicated server and, overall, the multiplayer lacks the simple, spontaneous fun of the venerable arena shooter. There are too many new ideas clogging up a design they were never meant to be a part of; too many rules and extraneous mechanics sucking the fun out of what used to be simple, gleeful fragging. At this point, I’d rather just play Quake Live.

After the beta I was hoping that Snapmap would save DOOM’s multiplayer from its own confusion and mediocrity, but that isn’t the case. For starters, Snapmap is an entirely different section of the game—you have to reboot the program to start Snapmap—so it is divorced from regular multiplayer. Second, for all of the cool stuff that Snapmap can do, there are just as many things, if not more, that it can’t do. And its limitations are what ultimately prove to be its undoing, at least at launch.

What initially irked me is that Snapmap was clearly made with console players in mind; it’s basically “baby’s first level editor” which is constricting for PC gamers and frankly insulting to the console crowd. Its interface is clunky when used on a keyboard and mouse, so it was clearly tailored to a gamepad, up to the point that you have to cycle through options such as assigning weapons or items rather than just clicking on them in a menu. Once you get past the counterintuitive controls, however, it is clear that Snapmap has tremendous potential.

It has surprisingly deep and user-friendly logic and visual-scripting capabilities, for one. Id has a number of sample maps on offer and they really do show off some of the creative mischief you can get up to in Snapmap, from brief single-player levels to a map that functions like a big, cumbersome music synthesizer. Still, all of this feels in service to novelty. Many of the maps I’ve played are broken, banal, or centered on clever (and not-so-clever) gimmicks. It’s a lot like Super Mario Maker: good for making “OMG so crazy!” one-off levels that the YouTube crowd will eat up but not so good for serious modding. If you’re just goofing around, Snapmap can be fun for a time. But once you try to do some serious creativity with it, you run up against some pretty hard walls.

Snapmap is shackled to the limitations of the multiplayer mode. This means you can only ever carry two weapons at a time and any level is a single-map affair. You can’t string levels together to build your own campaigns, and the stuffy self-imposed memory limitations means that if you are making a campaign map, you can only spawn about a dozen demons at a time. This flies right in the face of the hectic battles with hordes of monsters in the single-player mode. What’s more, Snapmap has a single, fairly boring industrial tileset, and your options for connecting the prefab rooms together are annoyingly limited. This is a shame because with such a muscular, dynamic engine and gameplay structure fueling the campaign, you would want that rock-solid framework leveraged to make Snapmap the best that it can be. I love the single-player campaign and I want exactly more of that, but right now I won’t be getting it from Snapmap.

It’s ludicrous to me now, but during the DOOM press tour, id touted Snapmap as a legitimate replacement for open mod support. This is particularly galling coming from publisher Bethesda, the company that profited so richly from Skyrim’s utterly bonkers mod community. And yet, I can see how Snapmap could be so much more; it’s a genie struggling mightily against the walls of its bottle. To be blunt, id needs to let Snapmap off its chain with some vast content updates, and very soon. A dozen new tilesets would be a good start, something that lets you tear off the ceiling and add a skybox or, better yet, a Hell tileset. My personal dream come true would be the ability to make classic DOOM levels. The assets are already there in the single player, so, port all of the old textures, monsters and weapons into Snapmap and I guarantee retro fanatics will come out of the woodwork. The ability to make '90s DOOM levels would be plenty of incentive alone to run out and buy this game.

But more importantly the ability to make big, ambitious map packs and whole campaigns is what Snapmap needs in order to succeed long term. The original DOOM has endured to this day in large part due to the creativity and dedication of its modding community; it was one of the first games to have an enthusiast modding scene. People like Justin Fisher and Team TNT had to fight with painfully limited hardware and know how to code, create art assets and build levels to pull off what they did in the '90s. Imagine if you provided a much more accessible canvas to the entire fan community, but with the ability to really push boundaries? Snapmap could be amazing. But as it stands, it is far less capable than the Timesplitters 3 mapmaker of a decade ago or even Halo’s Forge, which, to be honest, is pretty disappointing.

And yet, as mediocre as the multiplayer is, and as restrictive as Snapmap is (for now), I still wholeheartedly recommend DOOM. The main event is far and away the campaign. It’s bloody brilliant. It outpaces already great '90s reduxes like Shadow Warrior by leaps and bounds and is officially leading the charge of the retro shooter renaissance. If id can rework the deathmatch and unlock Snapmap’s potential, I’d easily give DOOM a perfect score. But for now it’s an incredible, if flawed, package. And on the strength of the campaign alone it gets a very well-deserved 9 out of 10. Get DOOM. You’ll thank me later.

There can be no dispute that DOOM is back. The campaign brings the glory of the '90s screaming back with heavy metal, blood and guts. But the multiplayer mode feels confused and the Snapmap level editor needs to add some serious content for modders to play with. Regardless, DOOM's campaign is reason enough to dive back into Hell.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.

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