In the Lab: DOOM (2016)

The majority of images in this article are sourced from Google Image Search.

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It is so very refreshing to be pleasantly surprised by a big video game release these days. When you’re as jaded and bored of modern AAA games as I am, it is an incredibly rare occurrence for something to come out and completely smash expectations, and most importantly remind you why you got into the whole video game thing in the first place. I’m all for video games tackling serious themes and exploring the artistic possibilities of the medium or just focusing on providing a cinematic experience, but sometimes I just want to grab a chainsaw and boomstick and kill a whole bunch of demons with dumb and loud heavy metal blaring in the background.

If you've somehow found your way here without ever seeing what the original Doom looks like, here you go.
If you’ve somehow found your way here without ever seeing what the original Doom looks like, here you go.

id Software’s original Doom from 1993 is, of course, a legendary game. While it wasn’t the first FPS ever made, it essentially created the template for the modern first-person shooter that is still followed to this day — much like fighting games still follow the basic formula created by Street Fighter II. The level design and core gameplay of Doom still feel remarkably fresh and entertaining after almost a quarter of a century, and I consider it to be in the same elite category of ageless classics as Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. Obviously, tech has advanced by leaps and bounds since Doom’s heyday, but the design still shines through and the pixelated graphics have their own retro charm, and the fast-paced gameplay has not aged in the slightest. Okay, maybe you can’t aim vertically unless you’re playing one of the later source ports, but that’s what the generous autoaim is for. The weapons and monster designs remain iconic, as does the heavy metal style soundtrack by id’s Bobby Prince (who, admittedly, did rip off a bunch of songs from Metallica and Pantera, but anyone who claims “At Doom’s Gate” doesn’t get the blood pumping the second you start E1M1 is a filthy liar or needs to get their adrenaline glands checked).

Doom has had a number of sequels, spinoffs and a ton of fan-made content over the years and has been officially or unofficially ported to everything including the ZX Spectrum, calculators, and most recently a Canon printer, but in my book nothing has really matched the original. Even Doom II: Hell on Earth, the first official sequel, feels like a weaker game despite adding new monsters and the super-satisfying super shotgun, as the quality of the level design took a severe dip. As a review from 1994 aptly described it, the level design in Doom II feels like those “shotgun, cyberdemon, exit hidden behind ten gimmicks” custom maps that were making the rounds at the time. To be fair to the custom content creators, many of them did get into the game industry after getting their start making mods for Doom. It’s impossible to measure the full effect Doom had on the game industry, and it’s no surprise that dedicated fans still play and mod the game to this day, generating content that shouldn’t even be possible in the Doom engine.

When Bethesda announced the reboot simply titled DOOM, fans were rather skeptical. “Doom 4” had been in development hell for years, and what Bethesda was showing of the game was not particularly impressive. Bizarrely, Bethesda’s marketing geniuses decided to focus all of their attention on the multiplayer mode, which had been outsourced to Certain Affinity (who had previously worked on Call of Duty: Ghosts and Halo: The Master Chief Collection) and could be described as aggressively mediocre if one was feeling courteous. It had the loadout system and two-weapon limit that seem to be mandatory these days, no deathmatch (Doom invented the term), and rather sluggish gameplay. It seemed like an attempt to mix the old id-style multiplayer with the modern Call of Duty style, pleasing absolutely nobody in the process. As such, the multiplayer beta met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

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The utterly generic box art certainly didn’t help. The picture I used at the top of the article was used as alternate cover art for the game, and it fits the style so much better that it’s not even funny.

There was barely any mention of the single player mode aside from trailers showcasing the new “glory kills”, ultraviolent melee kills on stunned enemies. They certainly looked the part and fit the whole RIP AND TEAR aesthetic made (in)famous by the legendarily bad Doom comic and the Brutal Doom mod, but they seemed to break the pacing of the gameplay and the canned animations were likely to get old fast. At this stage, more or less everyone was prepared for disaster, especially when Bethesda decided not to send out any review copies prior to the May 13 release.

Then DOOM came out. And DOOM was good. Very good. Best single-player FPS in years, people were saying. Multiplayer remained bland (although id has since taken over the reins from Certain Affinity and there have been many improvements since launch) but who cares when the campaign is this good?

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The game starts off at a United Aerospace Corporation facility on Mars, where something has gone ever so slightly wrong and a demonic invasion is in progress as a result (as a computer screen in the starting room helpfully indicates — you also hear announcements on the PA saying “Demonic presence at unsafe levels”). You, as the space marine who may or may not be the original Doomguy from the old games, wake up from what appears to be a block of carbonite you’ve been encased in, kill a couple of zombiemen (known as Possessed in this iteration) with a nearby pistol and grab your armor from what is clearly a shrine of some sort. Some jerk in a robot suit who sounds like Optimus Prime contacts you and starts blathering on about a mutually beneficial arrangement, but Doomguy isn’t having any of that and literally throws the plot (or at least the computer console the plot guy is speaking through) into the corner.

The writing in DOOM is certainly not bad and there’s a perfectly serviceable sci-fi/horror shooter storyline going on in the background, you just don’t need to care about any of it because you’re here to kill demons. I’m not going to bore you with plot details, but I will mention that at one point you find audio logs made by the demons, and they make it clear that the demons (who, I might remind you, come from hell) are absolutely terrified by Doomguy and basically consider him the boogeyman.

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There are some mandatory plot scenes later that you’re not allowed to ignore, but those are mercifully short and rarely get in the way of your demon-slaying. If you play on Nightmare difficulty (or the perma-death Ultra-Nightmare, which also adds online markers that act something like Dark Souls bloodstains), you don’t even get the aforementioned intro and just start off from the first proper level. It’s really a shame that the game backpedals on the whole “nobody gives a toss about the plot” thing later on and has those mandatory plot scenes, because the way DOOM does things early in the game is really quite refreshing. (UPDATE: Apparently, the opening we see in the game was implemented very late in development, and there was no time or budget to overhaul the entire story so we ended up with the plot exposition scenes late in the game)

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If there was doubt over DOOM’s combat when the glory kills were first shown off and things seemed slower than they should’ve, it becomes obvious from the very start that all those worries can be thrown right out. This is proper old-school Doom, with hints of Quake and Brutal Doom mixed in for good measure, and it runs at a brisk pace at 60 frames per second on both the PC and the consoles (if, of course, your PC is up to it — DOOM is not a massively demanding game despite its technical accomplishments, but you can’t exactly run it on a potato). The PS4 Pro and Xbox One X also received a patch in early 2018 to bump up DOOM’s resolution to a dynamic setup maxing out at 1440p and full 4K respectively, and let me tell you – this game is absolutely gorgeous to behold at 4K and 60 fps.

The gameplay is polished to a mirror sheen, and no other modern shooter even comes close to the intensity of the action in DOOM. You are constantly on the move, jumping and strafing around to avoid the numerous enemy projectiles, and when you do get hit you don’t sit in cover to refill your health and reload your weapon because there is no health regen or reloading. Instead, you scramble for the nearest health item, running and gunning through whatever is in your path.

The glory kills on staggered enemies also give you a bit of health and are short enough not to break the pacing, and the worse you’re hurting the more health you get from kills. If you’re low enough on health, any kill (not just glory kills) will earn you a handsome amount of it back, so it’s always a good idea to be aggressive while still keeping an eye on your surroundings so you don’t get overrun. Especially on the higher difficulties, you can be killed very quickly if you get into a bad spot.

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When low on ammo, you don’t necessarily need to run around scrounging for bullets while the armies of hell are out for your blood, although that is an option. Instead, you can whip out the chainsaw (which has a dedicated button or key), cut up the nearest monster (which is an uninterruptible animation like the glory kills) and watch a gigantic amount of ammunition fly out of what’s left. The chainsaw can’t be used recklessly, though; chopping up monsters consumes fuel now, with the biggest and fattest bastards with the hugest guts requiring five units.

Since the absolute maximum amount of fuel you can carry with all the upgrades is seven units, you may want to look around to check if there is a fuel can somewhere nearby before you act out your demon lumberjack fantasies. Turning DOOM’s version of Doom’s iconic chainsaw into what is basically a powerup might rub a few purists the wrong way, but it adds a nice element of strategy to the game and is an excellent way to deal with the most dangerous enemies or those annoying shield guys.

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I still prefer the old cacodemon design over these guys, although they are rather dangerous nonetheless.

Nearly all of the monsters from the original games make a comeback here with the exception of Doom II’s Arachnotron, Pain Elemental and of course the Archvile, which was notorious for resurrecting dead enemies, doing ludicrous amounts of damage with its attacks and generally making a nuisance of itself. In its place, DOOM introduces a new enemy known as the Summoner. This floating and teleporting demon serves a similar function to the Archvile and is clearly supposed to be its modern counterpart, the main difference is that the Summoner… well, summons new monsters into the field instead of reviving dead ones (which would be technically unfeasible anyway in DOOM, since bodies now disappear after a short while) and uses a similar energy beam attack. Yeah, he’s just the Archvile again, isn’t he?

(UPDATE: The missing monsters from Doom II are returning in the upcoming Hell on Earth remake, DOOM Eternal. Yes, including the Archvile, although if I had to guess it’s just the Summoner reverting back to the original design)

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STAY AWAY FROM THE SUMMONER

As for powerups, there’s usually at least one to be found in any bigger combat area. The berserk pack returns from the original games and still sends Doomguy into, well, a berserker rage. It does not top up his health anymore unless you get a specific upgrade, but you do take considerably less damage and can glory kill anything instantly without the need to weaken the enemies (some of them actually try to run away from you when you’re in berserk mode), with special extra-gory animations to boot. You also have an invulnerability powerup which probably doesn’t need an explanation, as well as a haste one that makes you (and your shots!) even faster, and even Quake’s quad damage makes an appearance here. Why yes, I would like to gib a baron of hell with three shotgun blasts.

Of course, then there is the BFG 9000, because what would Doom be without its signature weapon? Like the chainsaw, it also has its own dedicated button and is separate from the regular weapons. The BFG holds three special ammo charges instead of just using the plasma rifle cells like it did back in the day, and as it has enough power to clear an entire room in one shot it can be used as a panic button in case you get overwhelmed. Obviously, it’s a good idea to save some ammo for special occasions, because the Cyberdemon and the Spiderdemon are back along with a couple of new bosses. I can’t say I’m a massive fan of the implementation of these boss enemies, though, as they feel a bit too much like contemporary video game boss fights and take place in dedicated boss rooms, requiring you to do a whole lot of precision jumping to avoid attacks. The Spiderdemon also has a billion hitpoints and an insta-kill attack.

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Just like with the cacodemons, I kinda prefer the original Cyberdemon. The new one looks… I don’t know, kinda generic?

The original Doom games used a 2.5D engine that didn’t allow for a huge amount of verticality (although it did allow for a lot more than the old Wolfenstein 3D engine), so neither Doomguy or the enemies were particularly agile despite moving quickly. Obviously, things are very different now, so you get monsters coming at you from all directions and jumping around like Doomguy’s pet rabbit on PCP. Doomguy himself is even more agile than the enemies, even getting a double jump ability about halfway through the game. Unfortunately, the presence of a jump button (let alone a double jump) means platforming sections, the bane of many a shooter over the years (*cough* Jedi Outcast). DOOM makes its platforming as smooth and painless as it can possibly be in an FPS, as Doomguy will grab onto ledges he barely misses and the game is good at showing you where to go next.

Furthermore, most of the platforming bits in DOOM are quite short, with the exception of the Argent Tower level which is pretty much entirely platforming broken up by a couple of arena fights (and is also my least favorite level in the entire game — I don’t want to be reminded of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter when playing DOOM) Most of the time, you’re using Doomguy’s jumping abilities to locate secrets and avoid getting killed when every hellspawn in the room is converging in your location.

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The level design is generally excellent, with every level having a plethora of secrets, upgrades for Doomguy’s suit and weapons so he can kill things even harder, combat trials that unlock more upgrades, and collectibles (in the form of cute little Doomguy figurines) to find. These levels are very expansive, often with multiple routes to wherever you’re heading, and usually let you backtrack for secrets after you’ve killed every monster. Usually. There are a few infuriating exceptions, especially in the latter half of the game where the level design in general seems to take a slight dip in quality and occasionally devolves into combat arena after combat arena like you’re playing Serious Sam or Painkiller. I love those games and they were obviously inspired by the bigger fights in the original Doom, but the obvious combat arenas start to get rather predictable at some point and it’s no different in DOOM.

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A post-release patch added in the option to reposition the gun in the center of the screen, just like in old-school Doom and Quake.

I wouldn’t have minded some more of the creepier horror-style stuff that was in the original games (and Doom 3, which consisted entirely of that with varying results). While there’s still a smattering of these elements, the overwhelming majority of the game is all RIP AND TEAR HUGE GUTS all the time. It’s still great, but it doesn’t quite feel like the original games.

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Speaking of the original games, finding certain secrets in the levels unlocks classic Doom levels you can play via the main menu. They retain the gameplay and enemy selection from the new game, which gives these old levels a very different feel and makes many of them a lot harder than they used to be. The Possessed are far, far more aggressive and lethal than basic zombiemen from the classic games, and don’t even get me started on the pinky demons (which are a powerful late-game enemy in DOOM’s campaign, but appear in the classic E1M3 map) The classic maps don’t have any kind of save feature either, making them a bit frustrating at times, but they are still a fun nostalgia bonus.

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You can also create and share your own levels using DOOM’s built-in editor, known as SnapMap. Most of the user-generated levels I have seen aren’t particularly exciting, but some users have utilized the editor to do things it most certainly wasn’t designed for in the slightest. How about a farming simulator with a bit of dungeon crawling, complete with a Hell Knight shopkeeper? Or a music game of sorts? SnapMap relies heavily on prefab assets, but people have managed to wring some utterly crazy stuff from it.

All in all, DOOM is a worthy addition to the classic series. It doesn’t quite recapture the gameplay of the old games, but it modernizes it in a way that still feels very satisfying. This is not what anyone expected, but I’ll reiterate what I said in the opening sentence of this article; it’s great to see that sometimes we may still be pleasantly surprised by a major video game release.

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Oh, by the way, that soundtrack by Mick Gordon is also absolutely fantastic. It has a heavier and more industrial feel than the old Bobby Prince tracks, which may or may not be to your taste. While I personally enjoy the more melodic tunes from the originals and I wish there was something reminiscent of the somber “Sign of Evil” from the finale of Knee-Deep in the Dead, the new soundtrack suits the fast-paced, ultraviolent action of the game extremely well and tracks such as “BFG Division” are instant classics.

And while we’re on the topic of DOOM music, I’d be remiss not to mention the amazing “Hell to Pay” by Gavin Dunne a.k.a. Miracle of Sound. This track, which sounds like an unholy union between Mick Gordon’s DOOM OST and White Zombie, is not officially associated with the game but completely nails the tone. Its accompanying video is also the single best piece of marketing material I have seen for DOOM, doing a far better job selling the experience than anything Bethesda’s marketing drones have bothered to whip up. Hell, I could’ve simply posted that instead of writing a lengthy review, and you would’ve gotten the idea.

UPDATE: In late 2017, DOOM received a port to the Nintendo Switch, developed by Panic Button. This port was not exactly something Nintendo fans or anyone else expected, because the hardware contained inside Nintendo’s wonderful little hybrid console is more akin to an NVIDIA Shield tablet than a gaming PC or the competing systems and therefore should be wholly unsuitable for running the latest idTech engine with all its bells and whistles (pardon my highly technical terminology). As you might expect, there were some reservations as to how a port such as this was going to work and how much of the original game would make it across.

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The end results are impressive to behold, although compromises were of course inevitable. The Switch version of DOOM has been noticeably pared back in terms of visuals, especially in texture quality and resolution. The game now targets 30 frames per second rather than 60, often dropping below that target in larger fights. However, the entire single-player experience is completely intact and looks remarkably close to the previous console versions despite running at graphics settings below the PC version’s “low” preset at a sub-720p resolution (usually in the ballpark of 600p). This is by far the most impressive first person shooter on a handheld system to date.

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To be perfectly honest, when I was looking for screenshots of the Switch version on GIS, it was not always immediately obvious which ones were from the Switch. The texture quality and resolution do give it away when you look at the full-sized images, but regardless, the visuals have made the transition remarkably well. This is one hell of a porting job.

Due to cartridge size limitations, multiplayer is offered as a free update while SnapMap has been axed entirely. Still, everything you would care about is on the tiny cart (physically, that is — it actually holds 21 GB which is nothing to sneeze at), and the fact DOOM runs as well and looks as good as it does on the Switch is nothing short of miraculous. It’s not the best way to play DOOM by any means, but if you’ve ever wanted to saw some demons on the toilet, DOOM on the Switch has got you covered. I’ll absolutely be picking up this version at some point, because as great as Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey are, they do have a distinct lack of chainsaws and miniguns.

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