Review: Doom

As I finished ripping a Cacodemon’s eyeball out of its skull, barely registering the two reapers congregating around me for a turn at the edge of my fists, I couldn’t help but marvel at my capacity to enjoy this level of brutality. Lost in a sea of demonic viscera, I spared a thought towards all the people who criticize violence in games on general principle. Doom is a monument gaming’s kinetic glories, and without the sheer amount of violence inherent to the franchise, something vital would be lost. There is a numbing quality to it all, something that those misguided folks may have picked up on in a tragicomic fashion, nothing that would inspire real world rage and its consequences, but enough to give me critical pause nonetheless. Is id Software’s long awaited reboot a vindication of our violent fascinations? I guess we’ll have to literally go to hell to find out.

Title: DOOM
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: id Software
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: May 13th, 2016
Players: 1
MSRP: USD $59.99

Doom is refreshing. In an era where the First Person Shooter’s premier franchises are running out of gas, desperately shifting time periods in vain attempts to show “innovation” and bring some life to their slowly fading fortunes, Doom is waltzing back in to steal the spotlight. It doesn’t have to worry about accidentally offending anyone with its pick of villains and it certainly has no qualms over spilling guts like it’s cheap paint. Demons from hell have invaded mars, BOOM. There’s your plot, now run with it. And run I did, at speeds that would make the Sole Survivor beg for mercy. Not a thought given towards pesky morals or even its own plot, just kill everything in your way.

I wasn’t kidding about no thoughts being given towards the plot. This is the most basic possible story that I’ve ever played through. With each passing level an ever mounting sense of inevitability dawned over me, perhaps there’s a reason why the most basic elements of fairy tales still captivate us, divorced from the plots that surround them. Doom is the equivalent of those tales, a heroic arc that also pays homage to the mythic achievements of the first games. It drowns itself in its own glories, and since most gamers (and indeed the general public) are familiar with what has already gone down, it succeeds in dredging up whiffs of its own legends. All it would take to bring this thing toppling down would be one horrible performance from its voice actors, one huge miss step in its pacing, but Doom never stoops to that level and thus retains its mythic presence. Sure, some plot developments can be seen from miles away, the ending in particular, but who cares? The adrenaline rush of the gameplay is what you are here for.

This is an absolute blast to play. In the past decade I’ve played maybe a half dozen shooters that I could call exhilarating, maybe even great, Doom tops them all. Not since Halo: Combat Evolved have I played a game this visceral, this thrillingly kinetic. Every arena fight felt like a rush of the finest drugs as I leapt from platform to platform, firing tons of explosives at my foes. The controls are fine-tuned, giving me a level of precision that PC gamers have trumpeted for years. The mere act of pressing a button in-game is pleasing. Think about that for god’s sake. Running circles around massive demons, pumping powerful shots into them while keeping yourself airborne through meticulously timed jumps is the kind of experience that makes people who play games gamers.

The weapon variety and enemy designs play into your movements too. There is a limited amount of ammo for your guns and you certainly don’t want explosives going off in your face. Combine this with beefy enemies who will chase you relentlessly and you have the precise motivations you need to storm through the combat areas. Picking up extra ammo and timing your power up usage for maximum effect is just part of the on-the-fly strategizing you will find yourself indulging in. The game encourages liberal usage of risky manoeuvres with its inclusion of the glory kills system. With this, if you cause enough damage to an enemy to stagger them, you can rip their guts out for health and ammo pickups. It’s insane just how much this encouraged me to throw down with monsters three times my size. Your sheer velocity and nimbleness means that you have the power to kite enemies that would have stomped you into the ground if you stuck to antiquated notions of “cover” and “aiming down sights”.

On top of everything, there are weapon and suit upgrades. The genius of implementing them in the game, is that to in order upgrade you first need to find or earn the upgrades. Scattered around the vast levels are a few openly visible upgrades, but the rest are hidden in secret locations or the guts of your enemies. Completing challenges and killing gobs of foes will earn these in spades, though some of the challenges are a bit tricky to pull off. You can also partake in Rune Challenges, which are short yet incredibly skill intensive trials, the runes you earn augment various abilities. Each upgrade and rune you find also come with built-in challenges for even more upgrade potential. In addition to encouraging exploration, this also encourages swapping out runes and upgrades to test them out, in effect, increasing replay value. Nice.

There are flaws, but you knew that didn’t you, they are minor though. Part of traversing the levels involves grabbing ledges. Usually, if you aim towards a platform at eye level, Doom guy will grab onto it easily. A lot of times he’ll just glance off of it, not aiming for a platform at a perfect ninety-degree angle seems to be the cause. In a game where you will be focused on dealing damage to some of the tougher enemies, failing to grab a ledge to avoid getting hit in return can be frustrating. This uncertainty had me hitting the jump button like a maniac on every ledge, sometimes leading me to overshoot my target. This glancing can also cause you to fall to your death in some of the levels with bottomless pits, it’s a good thing checkpoints are plentiful or this could have been a bigger problem than it was. Doom Guy also can get caught up on random junk lying around, often a small piece of litter will slow you down majorly, which can make things a bit tense in a tight pinch.

My biggest gripe with the gameplay is such a subjective nitpick that I’m not even sure it qualifies as a legitimate flaw: The levels themselves just aren’t very memorable. Sure the individual monster encounters and the arenas they come with are thrilling as hell, and there are a few moments of striking visual design in each level, but I just cannot differentiate one demon plateau from another in my mind. You’ve seen one bone filled pit, you’ve seen them all. Even the mars based missions are just clusters of pipes and burning wreckage, with human corpses galore in all their pathetically boring glory. Every level just kind of blurs into each other in my mind, offering none of the excitement of saying “let’s play this level because it’s cool”, rather “let’s play this level because I forgot some secrets”. Again, it’s a majorly subjective nitpick, but I couldn’t get that nagging thought out of my mind as it slowly grew fatigued from the visual sameness. (Note: I am aware that, if you directly compare each level directly, there may be some major differences between them. My gripe is that the visual themes and color palettes available can be tiring to try to differentiate in my mind afterwards) It probably doesn’t help that one level is a direct copy of another.

Part of the legacy of the franchise has been its heavy metal atmospherics, to which the first two game soundtracks made a huge contribution. This game attempts to forge a new legacy based off of glitch hits and dubstep, it does not fare well. Beyond the expected homages to the Doom theme of old, this is some pretty unmemorable stuff. It does the job of being rhythmic and loud during combat situations, drowning out vital enemy sound effects that could save you from getting hit…so ok, that’s a fail on a whole other level. The dubstep obsession extends to basic sound effects too, getting some powerups and performing a glory kill brings the telltale SKREEEEE! (or wet farts as I call them) that makes you wish some other style was brought to the soundscape. Most of the other sound effects are weighty and awesome to hear, making the world feel as brutal as it plays, but damn if those glitch hits make me wish for actual glitches.

The visuals are vibrant. Beyond the level blur mentioned earlier, there are a lot of genuinely impressive moments scattered throughout. The individual combat arenas do manage to get a lot of mileage out of bright colours. It helps that ammo, health and power ups are neon coloured to help you identify them in a pinch. The monsters, drawing from the classic designs from the other games, are richly detailed, with eye-catching silhouettes to help you prioritize targets at a glance. On my Xbox One some textures looked blurry, with finer details taking a second or two to load, but everything ran buttery smooth even in some of the more high-pressure moments. I have to commend this game for being as lush as it is, even if, again, the levels are doomed to blur together. Contradiction? You decide.

The game comes bundled with a multiplayer suite and a feature called snapmap. A level designer you can populate with enemies, think of snapmap as a more flexible version of Forge mode from the Halo series. You can adjust so many AI, pathing and scripting variables that this mode is guaranteed to add years of replay value by itself. It even includes an entire mode dedicated to what are essentially CODING PUZZLES on a console. Yeah, i’m sold. The multiplayer is a joke. I couldn’t even enter a match, I spent over three hours waiting in a multiplayer lobby just waiting for players to join. I bided my time by making sure every gun was clad in the most garish colours possible. Still, nada, I confess to giving up hope of even being able to join ONE match. It’s not like I was optimistic about the multiplayer mode, in an admission of defeat before the god of connectivity, I searched up reviews of the multiplayer and the general consensus has been “meh”. Even if I could have joined just one, ONE, match, I doubt that I’d have been absolutely thrilled at its inclusion.

That numb quality I mentioned at the beginning, I confess to eventually growing slightly impatient at the increasingly tough waves of enemies near the end of the game. It’s not that the enemies were huge challenges, moving at the speeds that you do makes you virtually invincible with judicious use of platforms and jumps. I think I died more from falls into bottomless pits than all of the enemy encounters and boss fights combined. Sheer fatigue eventually just kicked in with all the carnage. Doom is one of the most exhilarating games of the past decade, but I had to take quite a few breaks to unwind after each adrenaline hit. I have no problem with the copious amounts of violence, my mind simply strained at its limits to keep itself sharp.

All in all, Doom is an absolute masterclass in kinetic gameplay. Every chaotic brawl with hells legions inspired a sense of awe as I juked and jived like Muhammad Ali. Its gameplay failings are trifling affairs, it’s soundscapes needed an exorcism. In an age where contemporary shooters struggle to introduce complex themes and moral quandaries, Doom could care less about being mature. A spectacular single player campaign, augmented by Snapmap and multiplayer (if it deigns to work for you) could be game of the year material. I’ll be damned if it isn’t.