DOOM Eternal

DOOM Eternal

Written by Sean Colleli on 4/7/2020 for PC  
More On: Doom Eternal

Id Software’s 2016 reboot of DOOM is about as close to a perfect game as you can get. Id cut through the noise and confusion of their early-to-mid 2000s experimentation and delivered an experience that felt like the fruition of everything they'd worked on before. The beating, cybernetic heart of the original Doom shone through, along with the essence of Quake, Rage, and even the narrative flourishes from Machinegames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order. The result was an almost perfectly balanced, single-player-focused first-person shooter, the culmination of everything id had ever made in one relentlessly refined work of art. DOOM 2016 remains one of my favorite games of all time; I try to replay it on Ultra Violence difficulty at least once annually.

Four years (and one lengthy delay) later and DOOM’s sequel, DOOM Eternal, is finally upon us. I can’t think of a game I’ve anticipated more feverishly, aside from maybe Metroid Prime 4. But as Mr. Spock wisely once said:

 “…You may find that ‘having’ is not so pleasing a thing after all as ‘wanting.’ It is not logical, but it is often true.”

This is not to say that DOOM Eternal is a bad game. Quite the opposite, in fact, and I don’t want to bury the lede by spilling my guts out here. In fact, my editor had this to say after my eight-page exegesis on Doom 2016, paraphrased: “Great job, excellent thoughts. Don’t do it again.” In short, DOOM Eternal is a complicated game, and as a result I have complicated feelings about it. But let’s start with the good here.

I typically end my reviews talking about production values because, pound for pound, I find them the least important aspect of a game. But for graphics, sound and engine design alone, id deserves Game of the Year accolades. I thought DOOM 2016 and its id Tech 6 engine were well optimized—id renderers have a reputation for being extremely stable and scalable—but id Tech 7 blows it away at every level. Id has stripped away the last vestiges of old engine tech, like the diminishing returns, neck-bound albatross that was Megatexture, and as a result Doom Eternal displays a peerless level of geometric and texture detail in both tight quarters and stunning open vistas.

The first time I stalked up onto a ridge and got an eyeful of the shattered, demon-ravaged horizon of downtown Dallas in the full throes of Hell on Earth, I had to pause the game and pick my jaw and eyeballs up off the floor. What’s really impressive is that DOOM Eternal runs at a near rock-solid 60 frames per second no matter what you’re doing; you could be gazing out into a mile-long draw distance or embroiled in a white knuckle skirmish with upwards of 30 demons all popping off effects-heavy projectiles and explosions. Id Tech 7 handles it all without breaking a sweat, and that’s on my increasingly long-in-the-tooth five-year-old rig playing at high detail settings. I’m sorely tempted to dump my COVID-19 stimulus check into a Ryzen 9 CPU and an RTX 2060, crank the settings up to Ultra Nightmare and really let DOOM Eternal off the chain. But I digress.

DOOM Eternal’s art direction matches its technical prowess. One of the few criticisms I can level at DOOM 2016 is that it had a pretty homogeneous color palette: red, silver, gray and brown, with occasional flashes of green and yellow. It was pretty and insanely detailed, but lacked variety. DOOM Eternal pushes art variety considerably and, without going into spoilers, you visit a pretty wild selection of locales, from the aforementioned destroyed Earth to the homeworld of the Night Sentinels, hinted at in DOOM 2016 and glimpsed in DOOM Eternal’s trailers. Enemy art has been improved as well, with many of the demons hewing closer to their classic 256-color designs but with a level of detail and animation that is almost hard to believe, even when you’re looking right at it. Like DOOM 3 before it, at the very least DOOM Eternal is a masterpiece of the video game art form.

On the audio front, Mick Gordon has outdone himself. He took the minor criticisms for his DOOM 2016 soundtrack to heart, and DOOM Eternal’s music ditches most of the dubstep and leans heavy on the power metal. Eternal’s soundtrack is intense but operatic, at times moving into power ballad territory; it even has well-known metal vocalists contributing to an unholy choir that swells and shrieks at the culmination of particularly brutal engagements. DOOM Eternal’s whole conceit is that you ain’t on Mars anymore, you’re in the middle of a war between gods and dimensions, heaven and hell, with Earth caught in the middle. If DOOM 2016’s aesthetic was “chrome-plated '80s metal album cover,” DOOM Eternal is a chrome-plated '80s metal album cover, made cybernetic flesh and metal incarnate, and holy hell does Mick Gordon’s soundtrack just sell it. I also really appreciated the subtle hints and motifs he included from the '90s DOOM games, which establish a melodic continuity that made me a very happy id fanboy.

So I love DOOM Eternal’s looks and sound, but my feelings start to get complicated when I move on to the gameplay. Remember, DOOM 2016 is in my humble opinion about as close to perfect as it gets. I was assuming that DOOM Eternal would be a natural evolution of that gameplay, and to a degree it is, but in a few ways is both truncates and over-complicates matters, rubbing me the wrong way. For starters, DOOM Eternal is difficult—savagely so. I don’t want to fall into the dreaded game journalist stereotype and opine that, “DOOM Eternal is the Dark Souls of first-person shooters,” but I will go so far to presume that many at id are into their FromSoftware. This is fine, and I assumed that I would pick up where I left off with DOOM 2016, maybe improve my speed and accuracy a bit.

Wrong. DOOM Eternal takes the difficulty curve where it ended in DOOM 2016—that is to say, briskly challenging, and roughly ramps up from there. I started DOOM Eternal on Ultra Violence difficulty but, three levels in, for the sake of my blood pressure and getting this review finished in a timely manner, I had to back it down to Hurt Me Plenty (medium difficulty) and for the remainder I flat refused to crank it any lower, as a matter of professional pride. Again I stress that this is fine, but the way in which this difficulty is balanced and implemented is not-so-fine, at least in respect to DOOM 2016 and its difficulty tuning.

DOOM Eternal takes many of the tactics and gameplay strategies I developed in DOOM 2016, throws them out the window, and then forces me to adapt to it. I didn’t just have to get faster and more accurate, I had to change the way I think and play. To be fair DOOM Eternal gives you a lot of new guns and toys to play with. You get the flame belch, which makes enemies bleed armor shards when they are alight. You get a grenade cannon that can launch standard frag or ice grenades. You get the blood punch, which charges up from glory kills and can devastate crowds of small to medium demons. This is all fun to use, but DOOM Eternal and its more challenging enemies limit how you can use some of these tools, and funnels you down some frustratingly narrow gameplay avenues.

Let me start with the ammo economy, which was the most jarring change for me. DOOM Eternal’s combat still takes place largely in huge killbox arenas that lock down until you’ve murdered all the demons inside. Ammo is very scarce inside these arenas, but frustratingly plentiful in the interconnecting paths and corridors in between. However, demons still erupt into a geyser of munitions when killed with the chainsaw, so in heated combat this makes you rely heavily on that chainsaw. Thankfully it recharges one fuel cell after a relatively brief cooldown, but your overreliance on this vital tool means you hardly ever have enough fuel charges to deal with big demons. This in all practical terms eliminates the chainsaw as a last-ditch “enemy deleter” for tough, extremely dangerous miniboss enemies.

Exacerbating this problem is your minuscule ammo carrying capacity, which brings me to my gripes with your character and weapon upgrades and how they’re balanced. You start off being able to carry a measly 16 shotgun shells, and even after you apply the game’s four capacity upgrades, your grand total carry for shells is 24. Max ammo for the other weapons is more generous, but this still forces you to go for ammo capacity upgrades before health or armor and, regardless, you’re always leaning on that chainsaw to stay in the fight. You’re also basically required to execute as many glory kills as possible, because as relentless as the demons are, you’re constantly losing health and armor to attrition. To a degree at least, this dilutes the purity of the game’s shooting action, and it’s sure to piss off fans who were already annoyed at the prevalence of glory kills in DOOM 2016.

This precarious health-armor-ammo tap dance gets worse when it comes to the special challenges and Slayer gates—hidden gore nests that offer tough optional fights and upgrades—because if you die during a special challenge, you’re robbed of whatever ammo you expended during the failed attempt. You hit a diminishing returns wall that penalizes you for trying to get better, making ammo this weird pseudo-scarce currency that should be fairly common in a DOOM game. The whole rock-paper-scissors conceit of constantly depleting resources definitely keeps you on your toes in any large scale skirmish, but at the cost of the balance and elegance that made DOOM 2016’s combat so effortlessly addictive.

Weapon and suit upgrades have their own bugbears. I quickly learned that ice grenades were a vital tool for snatching some breathing room during a difficult fight, or weakening some of the game’s crueler demons, like Barons and Arch Viles. This necessitated that I sink suit upgrades into ice grenades before frag grenades or secret hunting buffs or even basic stat boosts like quicker movement and weapon switching. This also applied to weapon mods. For example, the assault rifle’s micro missile attachment was one of my favorite mods in DOOM 2016. It ate ammo like wasabi peas, but was excellent for broad suppression of medium to large demons like Hell Knights and could gib irritating long-range imps with a single shot.

Naturally it was the first mod I chose for the heavy cannon in DOOM Eternal, only to realize it’s more or less useless. It’s much less likely to stagger bigger demons and it does considerably less damage than before. What’s more, demons now have weak points on their weapons; blasting the flamethrowers off a Mancubus, or the rocket launchers off a Revenant, or even the plasma cannon off an Arachnotron is basically a requirement for surviving the mid to late game. You can do this with the shotgun’s sticky bombs, but they’re slow and, as mentioned, you’re likely to be fresh out of shotgun ammo. The heavy cannon’s sniper scope is fast, accurate and tailor-made for blasting heavy demon guns, making it indispensable. Id’s combat rebalance elevated the heavy cannon sniper mod into a vital tool, but in the process they nerfed my beloved micro missiles into near uselessness.

The worst example of this is id’s clearly conflicted feelings about the super shotgun. On the one hand it’s this legendary icon of the DOOM brand and one of the most satisfying guns in FPS history, but on the other hand, the developers admitted they were annoyed by how players over-relied upon it in DOOM 2016. So in DOOM Eternal, the super shotgun is even more super, with a grappling hook that can let you sail across an arena while setting your hapless target on fire…but the gun itself is stymied by that infuriating 24-shell max capacity. What’s more, most enemies have a brutal melee counter that eats half your health if you try to get close enough to effectively blast them with the super shotgun. This turns the super shotgun from DOOM’s iconic workhorse into “a sometimes treat” as Cookie Monster might say, and overall the gun’s place and purpose in DOOM Eternal feels vague and confused.

This is exemplified when DOOM Eternal introduces the Marauder, a brutally challenging demon that’s basically one of your former Night Sentinel comrades turned to the Dark Side of the Force. The game goes out of its way to indicate that the super shotgun is the best weapon for dealing with these fast, wily Slayer-hunters, but the use range and speed of the super shotgun feels all wrong for putting down a Marauder quickly and cleanly. Marauders are lightning fast, spawn ghost hellhounds to harass you, bust your chops with a shotgun if you get any closer than medium range, and will block all your shots with an impenetrable shield unless you strike right as they drop their guard for a brief instant to attack. They’re a brilliantly designed enemy and a fun miniboss to fight, but they were a rage-quit-inducing pain in my butt until I realized the ballista (Eternal’s replacement for the gauss cannon) was the best gun to counter them with. The super shotgun is too slow, too close-range and too short on ammo, and not just for Marauders but for a lot of combat encounters. My poor girl feels less like a reliable hunting partner and more like a tired old dog, ready for retirement, and that’s pretty disheartening.

To sum up, DOOM Eternal does away with one of my favorite aspects of DOOM 2016: the ability to build your own DOOM Slayer, to tailor your weapon, character and stat upgrades to your own personal play style. Instead DOOM Eternal lays down some very firm gameplay rules—some stated outright, others more obtuse, but all mandatory—and expects you to conform to them. This makes some character and gun upgrades less than useful; rely on those micro missiles, or forego glory kills and chainsaw for straight-up shooting, and you’re gonna have a bad time. It also makes hunting out secrets and upgrades almost necessary, because going into the late game without those hidden Slayer crystals or Sentinel seals is like…well, walking into Hell naked. To be fair, DOOM Eternal’s level design is brilliantly vertical and labyrinthine, even more Metroid Prime-esque than the last game, with twisting hidden passages and majestic open spaces replete with tricky platforming strung across breathtaking architecture. Hunting for secrets is a joy, I just wish it wasn’t necessary to long-term survival.

To be even fairer, DOOM Eternal is still quite enjoyable once you learn to play by its rules. I rage-quit a few times and had to reevaluate my tactics and weapon use, then returned with my bloodlust refreshed and some novel ways to use my ice grenades or shotgun meat hook. Finally conquering a battle that had handed me my rear end a half-dozen times was immensely satisfying. That said, unless you play by those rules and get exceedingly good at playing by those rules, DOOM Eternal does not feel like a freeform combat dance like DOOM 2016, but more like a back alley knife fight with a half-dozen opponents. It’s a beatdown, not a rush, and in the context of the greater narrative it makes sense; the demons are terrified of the DOOM Slayer and fight brutally—desperately—when they encounter you. But it does make DOOM Eternal less of a gleeful rip-and-tear joy than its predecessor.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that narrative, while avoiding spoilers of course. DOOM 2016 ingeniously shuffled most of the plot off to the side in optional audio logs and text dumps, for you to peruse at your leisure. It kept things like cutscenes and monologues out of the way of the carnage, which was the main draw after all. DOOM Eternal is, once again, more complicated. It starts in medias res with the DOOM Slayer in a wicked awesome Sentinel castle, in orbit above the demon-besieged Earth...and with no explanation as to how he escaped Samuel Hayden’s imprisonment and acquired said space castle. The Slayer’s mission is to kill the Hell priests orchestrating the invasion of Earth, but the game drops you into battle without much context and you really have to piece things together from there.

In all fairness the plot eventually gets really quite good, with some twists that are very satisfying for longtime fans. There’s a lot of depth here but the story is told out of order, and unless you take the time to read those text logs you’re going to be a little lost. That said, I really enjoyed the lore they’re expanding here; the cosmic horror, gothic undertones and gods vs. monsters grandeur makes me think this is what a very frustrated John Romero was attempting with the original Quake, before throwing up his hands and leaving id in the late '90s. In fact, I would love to see modern id do a soft reboot of Quake, and maybe even Quake II (under its much cooler original working title Wor), and tie all of that into the expansive narrative they’ve built for DOOM. Yes I’m an enormous nerd, but an id Cinematic Universe where the DOOM Slayer and the Quake Ranger have a crossover sounds pretty cool to me. As it stands, however, DOOM Eternal is a love letter to id history and its fans, with plenty of Easter eggs and tongue-in-cheek references to the id pantheon of IP for those looking closely enough.

DOOM Eternal is one of the year’s best games, and a watershed moment for first person shooters, but I have to say that grudgingly. It tinkers with the perfection of its predecessor too much, in some ways that make sense, but in a lot of others that stymie its creative combat chess and thus force the player to adopt some fairly restrictive gameplay styles…unless of course they are insanely good or downright obstinate. George Lucas once famously (and ironically) said that a work of art is never finished, just torn kicking and screaming from its creator’s hands. I think that applies here; the team at id stared at this thing for four years, tweaking and fiddling, probably getting bored looking at the same maps and encounters over and over again, and probably making the game more difficult and more restrictive to alleviate their boredom.

I don’t want to presume too much, but I think the id team polished DOOM Eternal—just a little too much—into an experience that satisfied their exacting ideas of fun demon slaying, rather than letting players build their own murder style. The result is immensely challenging, peerlessly optimized, mechanically robust and a feast for the eyes and ears…but not quite as satisfying as the DOOMs and Quakes that came before.

DOOM Eternal is gorgeous to behold, a technological tour-de-force and an exciting new chapter in the Doom narrative, but it's not quite as fun to play as DOOM 2016. The problem is not that DOOM Eternal is too hard, rather it is too hard unless you play by its specific rules, which, for all its mechanical complexity, makes its combat chess less freeform and satisfying than its predecessors.

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 Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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