Why DOOM Is So Much More Than a Shooter

I never thought of myself as much of a Doom Guy. When I was younger, the demons and horror settings put me off – I tried and failed to get through the demo of Doom 3 more often than I care to admit. As I got older and started to appreciate horror games, I was less and less interested in shooters. Doom, it seemed, was one of those classic series that I would presume was excellent but just not for me. Since then, the 2016 re-launch was released to universal acclaim and Doom Eternal has stolen more hearts.

It took a significant discount on Doom 2016 to convince me to pick it up.  I figured that I’d at least try it and tick it off of my gaming bucket list, even if I ended up bouncing straight off of it.

Two weeks, 15 hours and some sweaty palms later, I put down comfortably one of the best shooters I’ve played and one of my favourite gaming experiences of recent years. I liked it so much I had to write a review about it. It is unlike any shooter I’ve played before, the purely action-driven focus providing a rush that I had rarely experienced in gaming.

Yet the fact remains that I’m not into shooters, not hugely into horror, so really, I shouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. But then I realised that while Doom is technically a shooter, that’s not really what I loved so much about it.

There is so much more to Doom than being just a shooter.

The reason I enjoyed Doom so much is simple – it wanted me to. Here was a game that fully knew how ridiculous it was, leaned into this heavily, and always put the focus on the player having a smile on their face. If there was a tough fight ahead, it would load you up with weapons, ammo and armour so you could, ahem, ‘rip and tear’. It didn’t want you to feel alone or scared, it wanted you to feel like the most dangerous monster in Hell. Even the story was knowingly ridiculous, an excuse to take you from one fighting arena to the next, to uncover the next demon-splitting weapon, or be ambushed by the next of Beelzebub’s brethren. The main aim of the Doom games is to put a smile on your face.

So, if I had to compare Doom to any one game it wouldn’t be a horror or a shooter. It wouldn’t be it’s step-brother Wolfenstein or another monster infected action romp like Resident Evil 4. No, for me, there is one game that sits a mile ahead of others in its “Doomyness”: Super Mario Odyssey.

Yes, Super Mario Odyssey.  Hear me out.

Sure, there are fewer demons in Nintendo’s masterpiece. Admittedly, there are also significantly less gut-based explosions. But if you want a self-knowing game that is solely focussed on combining first-class game design with putting a smile on your face, you can look no further.

Mario looking out of a window, looking shocked or surprised.

Both games do it in surprisingly similar ways too. Now, my knowledge of Doom is still relatively limited, but after playing it through I read and watched up on the “lore” of the series. Throughout Doom (2016) there are many nostalgia buttons being pressed that I have to admit I missed, showing that the game stands up without them. Familiar demons and bosses, statues and skeletons referencing previous games in the series, the design of the weapons and the soundtrack (what a soundtrack) are all working to enhance that experience for people with a history of Doom, but still provide an amazing experience to those who have never played a Doom title before. In a similar way, Super Mario Odyssey is essentially a game used as an excuse to celebrate Mario – from the flips to 8-bit, 2D sections through to familiar arenas and the mountains of collectables. It should come as no surprise, really, that the two “reboots” of series from decades ago should have so many familiarities but it’s refreshing that fun and joy always feels at the centre of both, even though their content couldn’t be any further apart.

If I had to pick out one specific moment from Super Mario Odyssey that encapsulates this entire feeling, it would be the final moon from your first time in New Donk City. Essentially the majority of the level is a celebration of 2D Mario, with knowing winks and a song specifically written for it. Playing through that few-minute section filled me with more happiness than the majority of full-length games I’ve played since. It was joy encapsulated in platforming – all the game wanted you to do was have fun, experience the game and smile. And in this way, it is identical to Doom.

Still with me?  Good.

Moving swiftly forward, I picked up Doom Eternal wanting more of what Doom (2016) had to offer, and while it obviously provides a very similar experience, it feels different in so many key ways. It is noticeably tougher, which in turn has made it less focused on the joy that the 2016 reboot delivered in spades.  It also takes itself a bit more seriously, with much more time spent on the story and deeper lore. While Doom (2016) almost treated the story with tongue-in-cheek disdain, a necessary evil to explain the hordes of Hell, Doom Eternal wants to ground itself and the “Doom Slayer” in a richer world. This is not what I was looking for from Doom Eternal and I often found myself skipping past the various story points to get back to the hunt.

I wouldn’t say that I haven’t enjoyed Doom Eternal – I have – for the most part, I managed to step up to the toughness, and it is a much quicker and more frenetic game than Doom. It is also still very much focused on giving you as many ludicrous weapons as possible so you can revel in your demon bashing ways, with the range of monsters that need to get their comeuppance increasing in line with your expanding arsenal. Just as importantly, it definitely doesn’t take itself so seriously that the “gamey” factor is removed – 1UP icons litter the levels to give you extra lives, and each pick-up is so brightly multi-coloured that it can’t help but feel like a loving nostalgic nod to games past.

But it does feel very different to the Doom from 2016, mainly rooted in how the combat works. It’s speed and variety make it a new type of challenge. Different guns work better on different demons, and various techniques give you health, ammo or armour. While constantly moving, you have to switch between various guns and grenades to tackle the demon in front of you, make a split-second decision which of the dozens of enemies to focus on, and decide when you need to chainsaw the fodder demon for ammo or light up a horde of them for some armour. Shielded demons need the plasma rifle, but then your rocket lock-on is needed for the Revenant zooming in. Then an ice-grenade to stop the lightening quick Whiplash demon in its tracks. Within 10-15 seconds you can cycle through half a dozen guns and cover an entire arena, and any wrong move or wrong gun-selection can spell pretty imminent failure.

It is fun, sure, but it is also stressful.

This extra stress means that I can’t possibly compare Doom Eternal as brazenly to Super Mario Odyssey, but frankly it did remind me of a much older, equally top-tier, game. It was about a third of the way through, when I was really struggling, that everything just clicked and I realised Doom Eternal isn’t a shooter. It’s a puzzle game, that just happens to involve guns. It is simply Tetris with added chain-sawing faces in half.

Again, hear me out.

Doom Eternal is a game which at the outset is slightly slower, giving you a bit more time to make decisions, but then quickly ramps up to force you into making several decisions a second and one wrong move usually leads to three more and then a game over screen. As soon as I realised this, the game opened up before me and whereas before I was struggling on some pretty basic combat, I then felt the all-powerful Slayer that I did in Doom. Admittedly, this didn’t last long as the game’s later levels truly throw absolutely everything at you, but the rhythm of gun switching and decision making remained the same.

While I certainly had less of a smile on my face during Doom Eternal, arguably beating combat encounters felt more satisfying than in Doom (2016). I haven’t returned to Doom (2016) since and I imagine it will feel terribly slow, but my memory of playing both feels very different. Comparing them to Super Mario Odyssey and Tetris is certainly, in my view, the ultimate compliment. Both of those games are best-in-class at what they do, and both Doom entries are right along-side them.

Considering that Doom and Doom Eternal are so similar on paper, it is interesting that they actually brought out completely different emotions when playing them, and left a different set of memories when completed. With so many sequels being accused of mere extension of the original, or not trying to do anything new, surely this is the ultimate compliment to both games.

As for which one I preferred, well – for me I’ll take nostalgic joy over stressful puzzles any day of the week.