The status of Id Software’s Doom (1993) as a legend in the history of video games is undisputed. But what would it look like if it was created today? How would the mechanics translate to modern game design? And would it be as fun?
The series’ most recent instalment, Doom (2016), may provide the answer.
The premise is exactly as you’d expect from a game called Doom by id Software strongly inspired by a game called Doom by id Software: The Earth is powered by energy from the Hell dimension, harvested on Mars. When the demons of Hell hit the fan, so to speak, the only one who can
stop defeat kill annihilate them is You™, a space marine-shaped meat bag of few words and considerable amounts of pure aggression. Being unreasonably well-off in the over-the-top weapons department, you punch, rip, tear, chainsaw, shoot, blast, liquefy and downright obliterate roomful after roomful of demons. The little exposition there is consists of voice chats and codex-like lore, with generous helpings of aggressively self-referential jokes for fans of the original game.
Sounds boring? Don’t worry – the game has a few tricks up its sleeve that makes all the difference.
When Hell breaks loose
There’s two distinct parts to Doom, and they synergize beautifully. The first, as you’d expect, is the run-and-gun gameplay. Far from having you carefully line up perfect shots, combat in Doom is an ever-changing, dynamic mess, and I mean that in a good way.
There is a wealth of unique enemies that influence a fight in distinct ways. The agile Imps run, climb, and parkour all over the place, pestering you with fireballs that can whittle down your health if you’re not constantly on the move or taking them out. The teleporting Summoner constantly brings new demons into the fray, and might be wise to eliminate early. The slow, hulking Mancubus has powerful weapons, but is easier to keep at a distance than the charging Pinkies or the floating Cacodemons.
Thankfully, your weapons follow suit. The pew-pew pistol you start with is quickly obsoleted by rifles, shotguns, rocket launchers and several powerful weapons of more esoteric capabilities, all blissfully absent any kind of reloading. Each weapon has its strengths and weaknesses, particularly when you take upgrades into account.
Unlock the Stun Bomb upgrade for the Plasma Rifle, and suddenly it’s an excellent means of crowd control, giving you a few precious seconds of breathing room in the heat of battle. Upgrade it fully, and enemies killed while stunned will set off new stun bombs. Upgrade the slow-to-spin-up Chaingun and it becomes one of the most powerful suppressing weapons in the game, spraying bullets (and consuming ammo) at a positively alarming rate.
Give ’em Hell
Combat isn’t just guns, though. Doom introduces an ingenious mechanic called the Glory Kill. When an enemy is close to death, it will stagger and flash blue. If you get close enough to it, you can do a Glory Kill, which aside from being a rewarding and ultra-violent melee execution causes the enemy to drop health.
This means that if you get low on health during battle, you’re driven not to take cover and search for health packs (though there are those too), but further into the heat of the battle. Glory kills also make you invincible during the animation, giving you a second of pause during which you can plan your next move.
And lest you worry about running out of ammo for all your glorious weapons, the game gives you the Chainsaw, a melee one-hit kill for almost any enemy (provided you have sufficient fuel) that sprays you with ammo for your other weapons.
Doom has you constantly on the move and rewards active and aggressive play. The result is combat that is fun to play even if you, like me, normally prefer a more cautious sniping approach in other games. While some may find the game a tad bit repetitive toward the end, I for one enjoyed it throughout, and I’m not surprised that the game has won several awards, including Best Action Game (The Game Awards 2016) and Excellence in Gameplay (SXSW Gaming Awards 2017).1
The road to Hell is paved with good extensions
I said earlier that there are two distinct parts to Doom. When you’re not engaging demons, you’re traversing the levels. Some are fairly linear, while others are significantly more open, requiring you to find coloured keys in order to access new areas. The exploration segments provide much needed breaks from the intense combat, though I’d appreciate a bit more variety in the adrenaline levels than “all-out guns blazing” and “quietly exploring the countryside”.
A significant feature of the exploration is discovering secrets. There are several collectibles to find on each level, and all of it ties directly into the combat. Some collectibles are themselves power-ups, giving you points to upgrade your suit or weapons. Other secrets are new weapons you otherwise wouldn’t get until later. Yet other secrets are more like Easter eggs or hidden caches of ammo and health, but which still provide upgrade points if you find enough of them in each level.
You can also find Rune Trials, which are time-based, single-weapon challenges with a spin on the usual mechanics. You mostly have to kill a certain amount of enemies, perhaps only being able to move for a few seconds after each kill, or only killing with explosive barrels. When you complete these, you unlock Runes, passive gameplay bonuses you can activate and deactivate (with a limit to how many can be active at the same time).
These runes can significantly influence how you play the game. For example, I played the last levels with a rune that gave me infinite ammo as long as I was above 100 armour, a rune that caused enemies to drop armour when glory-killed, and a rune that allowed me to initiate glory kills from much further away. Did I have fun? You bet I did.
In order to help keep up the pace, many collectibles aren’t that hard to find. They permanently show up on the map when you’re close enough, and you can upgrade your suit to increase this range and even to have them show up all over the map. Still, even when displayed on the map, some secrets have hidden entrance a bit further away, so if you want to have them all, you’ll likely spend quite some time looking (or reading walkthroughs).
In addition to the in-world collectibles, each level has three challenges you can complete. These are often awarded for killing a certain amount of enemies in a certain way, requiring you to use weapons you otherwise might have neglected and adding variety to your playing style. Completing challenges rewards you with weapon upgrade points, making combat even more fun.
Oh Hell no
For all its thoughtfully crafted game design, Doom isn’t perfect, though. Some of the aforementioned challenges can be more of a nuisance to pull off. The game might have you kill some enemies with a certain type of Glory Kill, done by aiming at a certain body part. In Doom’s fast-paced combat, correctly aiming when performing the Glory Kill can be a bit hit and miss.
Furthermore, the levels can have unannounced and seemingly unmotivated points of no return, meaning that all those secrets you thought you’d get back to at the end of the level suddenly are out of reach. You might get a feeling for those points as you play, but with the game teleporting you around in some levels, you can never be entirely sure whether you’ll be able to come back.
Finally, the later parts of the game sport a few mano a mano boss fights on boring circular arenas with powerful, one-off enemies. Unfortunately the combat loses much of its lustre when it’s just you and the boss. You basically just evade the enemy fire and shoot away, working your way from the most powerful weapons downward as your ammo runs out.
Still, even in these cases the artistic quality shines through. There’s not much to say about the visuals – they’re good enough not to draw attention in either direction – but I certainly noticed the music. Composer Mick Gordon (who among other games made the music for the new Wolfenstein series) has created an energizing, dark, and bass-heavy soundtrack that has won several awards.23 The sound effects are great, whether it’s the satisfying thump of the shotgun or the splattering as you rip demons apart. The voice acting is… well, who cares? It’s good enough that you don’t notice it, which is exactly as good as it should be in a game like this.
Doom is a worthy successor to its 1993 namesake. It strips the original’s elements of survival horror and resource management to focus on delivering a streamlined, over-the-top, modern-yet-classically-inspired action experience, and succeeds at that.
The Gory Kill mechanic synergizes well with the rest of the experience, as does the abundance of equipment upgrades the game generously doles out between combat segments. While not perfect, Doom succeeds at what it tries to do and is a refreshing take on what a pure-blooded, fast-paced shooter can be.
Doom breaks old ground anew and shows how focused design decisions can make for an enjoying experience.