The first portal back to Mars is guarded by an army of hellspawn trying to rip you limb from limb. Agile fireball throwing imps and dual wielding Mancubus, burly Hell Knights and rocket-launching Revenants all converge on your location, employing a wide assortment of tactics while you unleash the concussive blast of your shotgun and unload mag after mag from the assault rifle and unleash its micro missile alternate fire. You weave between shots and sidestep claws barely missing your face, jump to the stunned body of a Cacodemon and tear out its eye only to be knocked down and witness the centaur-like Baron of Hell’s fatal finishing blow. The fight is an exhilarating and tense struggle for your survival.
Doom may not have been the first fps to market but it set the bar for fun and engaging gameplay. id Software’s game was so influential that it wasn’t until eight years later that Halo: CE would redraw the blueprint with regenerating shields and controller friendly mechanics. While Call of Duty 4 further slimmed down Halo’s gameplay and the genre largely continued to branch away, games like Painkiller, Bulletstorm, and Hard Reset carried Doom’s torch, offering frenzied shooting and big bosses. With their reboot, id returned to the burning orange hellscape and cyber Satanism of the original, etching its spirit with buckets of over the top gore and twenty one grams of self-awareness.
Doom’s opening is appropriately violent for a game that resurrects such an important classic. Waking in the middle of the USC’s Mars complex, the eponymous Marine brutally smashes a zombified scientist’s skulls on the pedestal he finds himself on and tosses its inert corpse away. Getting your bearings in the high-tech facility, you soon stumble on your first Gore nest connecting the red deserts of Mars and the burning inferno of Hell and have to fight through the swarm. The demonic threat neutralized, the base’s lockdown ends and the security measures disengage.
All of Doom’s gameplay builds from a single point in its design – its projectile-based enemies. Bullet-based guns usually rely on hitscan, a technique where the program will register a hit if the weapon is pointing at a model when the trigger is pulled. Since there’s no need to even render a model for the bullet let alone calculate its physics, the game is able to dedicate processing power to other elements.
Since projectile attacks have travel times and trajectories, they can be actively evaded if the player correctly anticipates their timing and angles. The difficulty is then predicated on the size of the group, the variety of its individual member’s attacks, and the terrain you’re fighting them in. This ultimately requires you to stay on the move while being aware of your surroundings, forcing you to remember where your attackers were and predict where they’ve moved.
Let’s talk about speed. OG is known for its blazing fast gunplay and the fleet-footed Marine, but a large part of that success is tied to the fact it controls on two planes. All you needed to do is line your gun’s Y Axis on an enemy and the shot automatically adjusted its elevation. The moment mouse input let you move three hundred and sixty degrees, things were inevitably going to be slowed down so you could aim. Doom 2016 emulated its freneticism by making the lengths of beats in the combat small, an organic byproduct of having many enemies triangulating their attacks and shooting within seconds of each other.
Doom’s frenetic pacing benefits from a tactile feel that extends from the controller configuration directly into the game world. Halo’s trinity of guns, grenades and melee put all your options within reach so you can make quick adjustments to the flow of battle. Doom puts more emphasis on the small scale level design than Halo ever has, giving you options to clamber up ledges to create or close space between you and your enemies. And it may not seem like much, but that mantling animation helps bridge the mental gap between player and environment, giving the gameplay a meaty, textured feel.
So far the game has laid out a simple but effective set of rules with its gameplay, but that relies on how well the enemies can push the player to their limits. Not only do the enemies create a broad set of combat scenarios, their attacks come with casting times or behavioral tells and consistent attack profiles, going out of their way to communicate their actions so the player can effectively counter them. If you know how long it takes an imp to charge a fireball or the area of effect on a Hell Knight’s amazingly tight ground pound, you can tackle whatever packs of baddies the game throws at you. Doom’s fairness drives player improvement, easily the original’s greatest virtue.
Though the original Doom had two hitscan gun Zombies, they covered the strategy with a layer of tactical prioritization. Because their shots were instant and unpredictable, they could whittle down your health while you were dealing with the tougher foes. 2016 recasts those units, one a projectile shooting heavy and the other a shambling zombie that flocks into and out of areas, often grouping up on lower levels. Rather than create psychological tension, the latter incentivizes and punishes brashness, as they can be easily glory killed for health, which is most necessary when you already have a pack of enemies on your tail.
They may not be as useful or unique as the original’s classic catalogue of weapons, but most of 2016’s interpretations have a solid feel. The shotgun is powerful and debilitating and the machine gun has a satisfying report, making unloading round after round into your enemy’s face unrelentingly joyous. Added for these guns are the alt-fire modes, giving each weapon two additional attachments with their own attributes. Unfortunately these are more diverse in theory than in practice and can feel redundant to some of the other weapons. By removing reloads, it can further capture the original’s simplicity by narrowing its tactical game to crowd management and spacing.
With the primary design built, the next step was to properly layout the environment. In scales large and small, Doom’s map designs are filled with verticality and complexity that constantly keeps you racing around enemies. If you study them, you’ll see that every arena has a flow that makes courses that feed back into themselves, often communicated by trails of ammo or health that further promote mobility. This can be as simple as box placement that temporarily breaks line of sight or as explicit as tunnels and railings leading to other areas.
Whatever your opinion on the course-like layout of the levels, their function fits a game with a hard cap on the number of enemies it could keep loaded in memory at one time. Because every enemy existed on the map from the outset, the original game tailored its encounters within known space, using monster closets to act as traps for the unsuspecting. NuDoom’s solution is to spawn enemies at random points around the playfield depending on player location and thus needed to provide them with an exit for wherever they may find themselves to reduce arbitrary unfairness.
The circular motions of the levels are reflected on the micro scale of combat, largely thanks to a resource and scarcity loop designed to get the player alternating between shooting, executing glory kills on stunned enemies for health, and brutal chainsaw attacks for ammo. For weapons themselves, the cooldown on mods means advanced play forces you to efficiently juggle time itself, using standard attacks to fill in the gaps between the alt-fire refreshes. These mechanisms create a contained action-based gameplay that keeps the pressure on every second.
Extrapolated out, the complex level design means a game that returns to the exploration-minded nature of the original. For the larger progression, many areas offer diverging routes that direct the player around as they complete their objectives and usually funnel them back onto the main path. In this regard, the game has a go out, come back flow that makes substantial use of its vertical and horizontal space. With a return to health and ammo pickups, the player is incentivized to hunt for dozens of secrets within every level including upgrades, and rewards diligent exploration with weapons hours before they would naturally stumble upon them on their own.
For all that it does right, Doom falters in one considerable regard but for differing reasons: the pacing of the campaign. Three fifths of it are rock solid. While the opening areas do a commendable job introducing its concepts, you’re sadistically forced to rely on the pistol for far too long, a poorly designed weapon with a spongy kick and impotent sound design. Nothing about it feels good. Until you’ve collected enough weapons to completely forget it’s even in your arsenal, the pistol denies the euphoric flow of combat. The end suffers in its own way, forcing you into too many arena battles in Hell’s largely uninspired environments. But God damn does Doom’s second act shine.
Shortcomings not withstanding, Doom’s healthy gameplay and rich, textured environments are a rightful course correction from the up/down, beat/rest rhythm of the shooting-gallery style games with regenerating health and two-sided hitscan guns, whose solution to most problems is to hide behind cover and wait. Doom is a tightly built game that runs an aggressive offense in inches rather than yards. It summons the spirit of the dead and stuffs it into new flesh.
DEVELOPER: id Software
PLATFORMS: PlayStation 4, XBoxOne, PC
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.