Doom is back.
I could beat around the bush, but what would be the point? id Software’s 1993 classic set the stage for decades of subsequent first-person shooters, and while the franchise took a sharp left turn from raw action into more methodical action-horror with 2004’s Doom 3—before languishing in developmental turmoil for 12 years with a questionable-looking Doom 4—Doom’s 2016 return is unequivocally triumphant. The team at id has managed to capture the carnal delight of the first two games while modernizing the overall package, and it’s an impressive feat even compared to the stellar revamp of Wolfenstein from Machine Games.
Doom sets the right tone within 30 seconds of starting a new game. 2 or 3 lines of dialogue and a few seconds of introductory cutscene are all that precedes a gun being thrust into the player’s hand. There is a story, but it’s only on rare occasions that the game forces players to interface with it, usually for no more than a few moments, and the strong introduction sets the tone and pace. Bits of information are scattered throughout the world in the form of Doom 3-esque PDA pickups, and players are welcome to completely ignore all the backstory provided; but they’ll be missing out if they do, as a fair amount of thought and a healthy sense of humor went into the creation of these little diversions. Actual in-game story segments occasionally make the player pay attention briefly while information is conveyed, but these scenes are short and handled well, with great direction, a strong script, and excellent voice acting.
In pursuing new forms of energy to fuel a power-starved Earth, the United Aerospace Corporation has tapped into and exploited something unholy, and that force has overwhelmed them. Players take control of a character known only as the Doom Marine (or to fans, perhaps more fondly, “Doomguy”), and his backstory turns out to be a rather interesting spin on the character we all know and love. He’s quite expressive for someone who never says a word during the course of his adventure, and he seems to be, above all else, extraordinarily grumpy about the UAC’s exploitative practices. Nor is he fond of the demonic invaders, setting out from the first seconds of gameplay to purge evil from the face of Mars in a blood-soaked campaign of earthshaking intensity.
It’s not hyperbole. Doom serves up an old-school campaign for the ages, pulling out all the stops. Players are loaded with a host of weapons, dropped into a sci-fi military industrial facility being overrun by the forces of Hell itself, and treated to combat equally centered on furious gunplay and breakneck movement speed. It’s a rush in the best sense of the word.
But before we go any further, I want to address the elephant in the room. Yes, Doom has a melee component, and it’s one that directly feeds into the core gameplay loop. This melee focus was known about as early as Bethesda’s announcement at E3 last year, and many feared through subsequent demonstrations that it would be too much, would be something that just isn’t Doom. I understand that skepticism and felt it keenly myself, but allow me to allay any fears: it’s handled exceptionally well.
After taking enough damage, enemies enter a staggered state in which they’re vulnerable to a one-shot punch out, and these finishers are satisfying to perform, extremely brief, and tactically useful, which helps ease the impact of repetition. Most of them don’t last longer than a single second, and they come with a health bonus and a handful of invincibility frames that make them appealing during crowded combat scenarios. This is a double-edged sword, however, as they can be so tempting that players will dive into unfavorable positions and get themselves killed. Learning to be selective about glory kills is a must, especially on higher difficulty levels.
Guns are still far and away the major focus of the combat, and when it comes to its arsenal, the game (ahem) pulls no punches. There are weapons that one would naturally expect, such as a shotgun, double-barreled “super” shotgun, rapid-fire plasma rifle, chaingun, rocket launcher, and so forth, but there are also some surprises, including an unexpectedly effective heavy assault rifle, a grenade that siphons enemy health and returns it to the player, and my personal favorite, a railgun-style gauss cannon. Ammo is reasonably scarce, and the demonic menagerie consists of enemies best dealt with using a variety of tactics, which makes switching weapons on demand of high importance.
The chainsaw and BFG are also present, but they’re used in creative mechanical ways. The chainsaw will kill almost any enemy in a single attack, and that enemy will then rupture into a cloud of ammunition for the player’s other weapons, but it uses gas comparable to the size of the creature. A difficult fight can be made substantially easier by chainsawing one or two of the bigger demons, but that leaves the weapon unavailable until more gas is found, and means players won’t have any guaranteed ammo drops. Similarly, the relative scarcity of BFG ammo will make players cautious about when they choose to employ it, as certain fights just beg for a few BFG rounds to go screaming through the air.
Weapons can be selected from a time-slowing radial menu, and this is especially useful when playing with a controller, since weapon hotkeys can of course be defined as needed on a mouse/keyboard setup. While the latter method is preferable, keeping the pace from faltering, the game plays surprisingly well with a gamepad. I personally tackled Doom’s campaign with a mouse and keyboard on Nightmare difficulty, but still managed to do well with an Xbox One controller hooked up to my PC on the difficulty one step down. It did make the game feel considerably slower, largely because it’s much more difficult to move as efficiently while shooting, but it’s still a perfectly valid way to enjoy the game.
That movement, however, is incredibly important, as a great deal of what sets Doom apart is not only the speed of the player character, but the flow of its level design. Each map is built to be run—to be flown through, to be jumped on and climbed over. While the game’s visual aesthetic borrows liberally from the Doom 3 design handbook, it does so more playfully, and always with an eye for movement. The dim, tight corridors of slow-paced horror are nearly gone, and in their place is a plethora of colorful, arena-like spaces. The Doom Marine is given the ability to double-jump early in the campaign on top of being able to grab and hoist himself up most ledges (another thankfully brief animation). This leads to a level of mobility that feels more like Quake 3: Arena than traditional Doom, but it works; and not only that, it’s constantly exhilarating. Making a long leap over a chasm, spinning quickly to to fire off several rockets as your momentum carries you, then sticking the landing and immediately setting off running to an armor pickup is a total rush, and these are the kinds of actions that Doom will ask you to perform almost constantly.
But that’s not all that makes these levels great. In inspired homage to the classic games, each map is riddled with interesting secrets to discover, which encourages players to thoroughly explore every crevice and shadowy corner. An incredibly readable and useful automap makes this a joy rather than a chore, even when backtracking. Players are given a summary screen at level’s end that details how many of the demons they managed to kill, how many secrets they found, and how many of the game’s various pickups they managed to gather, and all of these things are great bonuses piled atop the baseline gameplay. Secrets in particular are highly motivating since they all have attached rewards and are often fun to track down. While a few are hard to miss, the majority of them are well hidden, with a number that are hair-pullingly devious.
Either way, exploration always has a payoff. A few secrets hide surprises that I won’t spoil here, but most yield upgrades to core health, armor, and ammo maximums, or points for upgrading your suit with a host of general bonuses (like damage reduction, area scanning, or even increasing the speed of certain actions). Runes unlocked by completing combat challenges allow for further customization, and these do a lot to let players vary their tactics in small but meaningful ways.
Combat proficiency also grants weapon upgrades, and alternate fire schemes can be unlocked by scavenging them from delivery robots scattered around the maps. These alt-fire mechanisms add further tactical options to your arsenal, and almost every weapon can even hot-swap between two of them. It may seem contradictory to Doom’s legacy to include upgrades, but they almost immediately slip into the background, calling very little attention to themselves, leaving the core gameplay at center stage. And players will be grateful for the extra tools as they move toward the end of the game, as combat scenarios get longer and more furious, ramping up in intensity until the final credits roll.
Thankfully, the maps also get more interesting in this progression, with stunning setpieces appearing at regular intervals. Doom’s visual tapestry is impeccable. Players are treated to a stunning Mars landscape within minutes of the game’s opening sequence, and such sights just keep coming, again and again. A capable PC will make this game a marvel to behold, but consoles also hold up their end of the bargain, with solid 60 FPS gameplay that looks incredible despite a few bells and whistles being dialed down.
Demons are just as stunning as the maps, detailed with care and painstakingly animated. While they’re harder to appreciate in the middle of a firefight, in-game secrets unlock the ability to view their models up close at one’s leisure, further driving home just how much effort was taken with the little details. For a game that moves at a thousand miles per hour, there’s a surprising amount to appreciate if you slow down to catch your breath.
Sound and music also impress. Weapons fire with real weight (a wonderful change from the rather anemic arsenal of Doom 3), demons roar and splatter with aplomb, and the soundtrack by Mick Gordon provides a thunderous, head-bangable cacophony upon which to layer it all. While I wasn’t sold on the music at first, finding myself wondering whether it wasn’t trying too hard, it only took a couple of hours to win me over. It’s a mix of djenty heavy metal guitar and electronic noise that strikes one as Noisia, NIN, and the Quake 3: Arena soundtrack stitched together. It never fails to push players toward greater feats of speed and glory, and is worth listening to even on its own, with more subtle tracks, heavy on atmosphere, punctuating the ongoing intensity.
In addition to the main campaign are two extra modes: the requisite multiplayer offering and a special tool called SnapMap. These are both potentially worthwhile ways for players to spend their time with the game, but each have their share of faults.
To start with, multiplayer suffers from being overly derivative. Where Doom’s campaign is a masterful achievement of modernized old-school design, the multiplayer fails to offer anything that’s the right kind of old. It’s entirely team-based, and most modes feel like standard fare from other recent shooters. Movement doesn’t feel as free as the campaign, weapons feel underpowered, and players are limited to 2 weapons at a time via “loadouts” rather than fighting for them during matches. Yet while it won’t appeal to most fans of old-school shooters, and certainly not to anyone looking for a fast, brutal game like Quake or Unreal Tournament, there’s still a lot there to like. The gameplay is competent, there are tons of customization options that reward repeated play, and the maps are generally solid. Pickups that let players turn into powerful demons for a short time are a fun twist.
Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about Doom’s multiplayer is that it doesn’t offer a straight free-for-all deathmatch mode. How someone signed off on a Doom that doesn’t offer proper deathmatch is entirely beyond my powers of imagination.
Which brings us to SnapMap. This tool lets players craft levels of their own using prefabricated architectural pieces, and is deceptively simple, with a surprising amount of depth lurking beneath the surface. Players can build single-player maps filled with demons, cooperative romps designed to be tackled with friends, capture-the-flag multiplayer maps, and even deathmatch arenas. Yes, deathmatch; but don’t get your hopes up.
SnapMap itself is a separate mode of the game with its own progression system, and while there is a ton of interesting stuff that can be done with the array of logic tools (triggers, traps, spawns, and timers can be networked together for a lot of complexity), it suffers from only supporting up to four players. It’s just too few. Even if you build the best CTF map the world has ever seen, who wants to play 2v2 CTF? You absolutely can make compelling deathmatch maps with their own unique features, but this too suffers from the low player limit. The community seems to agree, as I couldn’t find even a single player to deathmatch against the three times I tried.
On the whole, SnapMap is still a worthwhile and fun tool to play around with. Cooperative and single-player maps are where all the action is, and a lot can be done to make these feel distinctive and different from anything in the campaign mode. SnapMap won’t replace proper mod tools, but for something that’s more accessible to your average user and works on consoles as well, SnapMap is a robust and well-designed feature whose biggest problem lies in the crippling player limit. If there’s any one thing id Software would do well to change in a future update, SnapMap’s player limit would be it.
Yet Doom’s campaign easily carries the weight of the whole, leaving these secondary modes as awkwardly-applied icing on an otherwise exquisite cake. It’s nothing short of miraculous that the team at id was able to take one of the most iconic franchises in gaming history and revamp it in a compelling way without losing what made it so incredible when it first debuted. Make no mistake: this may be a simple shooter in concept, but its masterful execution elevates it to something almost poetic. Doom is the very essence of fast-paced, frenzied shooters, and it’s unlikely this generation will produce anything else that comes close.