Within the first five minutes of booting up Doom, Doomguy (okay, ‘Doom Slayer’) has exploded a demon’s head with his bare hands, thrown away a communicator giving him story, smashed another trying to explain the background plot, and cocked a shotgun to a towering heavy metal intro sequence.
This, it is fair to say, is a game that knows itself.
This is far and away Doom’s biggest strength; it is unashamedly Doom in all its violent, arcade and absolutely ludicrous glory. I often find when a game has this singular, self-aware focus, it pays off hugely as then the concentration can be on the player going all-in and having fun. Doom delivers incredible, violent, ridiculous fun in spades and, despite being a reboot of the 1993 classic, feels fresh.
Doom Slayer, as the main character, is the main conduit to the overall fun experience and tone of the game. He is wordless throughout, but his clear disdain for demons is a key component of the gameplay and what sets Doom apart from so many other shooters. The Doom Slayer’s aggression lies behind everything that Doom does so well. He doesn’t cower, take cover or regroup – he goes in all guns blazing, quite literally, and woe-betide any unfortunate monster that crosses his path.This is the antithesis to games such as Resident Evil or even older games in the franchise, like Doom 3. Rather than being stuck in a room with monsters, those monsters are stuck in a room with you.
There are numerous simple yet very clever design decisions based around the aggressive protagonist’s character. In most modern shooters, your health regenerates, cover provides respite from enemy fire, and you can stay still and regroup in firefights. In Doom, there is no automatic health regeneration. Instead, when an enemy is close to death, they flash meaning you can perform a close-encounter “glory kill” accompanied with a fittingly disgusting animation usually involving the re-distribution of the demon’s skull. As well as finishing off an enemy, these are guaranteed to drop health. Equally, use your chainsaw to split apart a spawn of Satan and it is guaranteed to drop ammo. What this means is that, if you’re low on health or ammo, the only solution is to be aggressive. There is no regrouping, no regenerating, only attacking. If you’re not moving forward and firing, then you’re probably doing something wrong and you won’t last long.
Arenas are also set up with power-ups scattered around them, encouraging you to keep moving. When fights kick off, you need to immediately begin running and firing to the backing of some very on-the-nose heavy metal music. Fights can be tricky, but the extra pick ups (including some hilarious power-ups) can really give you the edge. It gives an extra incentive to play aggressively, rather than cowering behind cover.
Often fights will play out in a similar way; you collect a lot of ammo, enter a fighting room full of demons and power-ups, slay hordes of the damned, and then go into the following room which replenishes your gear. This design also cleverly pushes forward another great strength – weaponry.
In many recent shooters, there have been a wide variety of guns, but usually it is possible to settle on your two or three favourites and play the majority of the game with them. In Doom, while not impossible, this is much more difficult. Sure, there are your favourites (big shout-out to the Super Shotgun) but the length and intensity of firefights means that often you’ll cycle through your entire arsenal in one battle room. This is no bad thing, as the guns are varied and incredibly satisfying to use, offering different tools for different demons. The aforementioned Super Shotgun offers gratifying close-range kills, the assault rifle and chain guns provide rapid fire, while gauze canons and rocket launchers offer a slower but flesh-rippingly effective solution to bigger foes. All weapons also have unlockable secondary modes, such as lock-on missiles for your rocket launcher or grenades for your shotgun, further increasing the potential methods of demon disposal. Most fittingly, on the very final boss fight, I was down to the last 3 shells of my Super Shotgun and all my other guns were empty – meaning in this culminating battle I had used every bullet from pretty much every gun to achieve victory (Note: I am bad at Doom).
Unfortunately (or fortunately, based on his love of blasting hell-spawn) for our Demon Slayer, his range of guns is matched excellently by the range of Beelzebub’s buddies you’ll do battle with. These range from the almost pitiful cannon fodder of possessed workers to hellacious bosses including a CyberDemon that looks like it could tear a building in two. Different enemies require different tactics; bruisers such as Hell Knights will fire and run right at you, Cyber-Mancubus focus more on shooting while imps – damned imps – are weak but quick so require you to be nimble and reactive. The range of demons and weapons compliment each other perfectly, and keep fights entertaining and your weapons on a constant cycle. Astonishingly, I didn’t feel there was a single dud demon or gun in Doom, and for a game based around killing demons with guns, that’s got to be good news.
But all of this – the arenas, the demons, the weapons – are all very much part of an incredibly arcade and self-aware game. While it has all the trappings of a “tough” game, Doom is anything but harsh. The focus is on you – the player – enjoying yourself. Checkpoints are liberally sprinkled so you rarely lose much progress upon death, and health and ammo are given freely so you are pretty much always geared up for the big fights. It doesn’t want you to suffer, it just wants you to cause some suffering.
The self-aware aspect is also present in a variety of RPG-lite elements, all delivered in a tongue-in-cheek way. You encounter bots that provide weapon power-ups (which you disdainfully punch as you get your reward), rune-trials that act as mini-games for further bonuses, health, shield and ammo stats that can be improved through collectibles, and further bonuses to your suit. There are even mini-Doomguy collectibles to find with no real explanation for them other than to encourage exploration.
These RPG-lite mechanics are also rolled into the combat. At the beginning of each level, you are given various challenges (such as kill two enemies with one shotgun blast, or kill three Hell Knights with a rocket launcher) whose sole aim seems to be to get you to play around with the systems, and give you an excuse to jump back into previously completed levels. All of these are very light-touch, and Doom almost feels disdainful of them (represented by the bot punching), but they tow the right line by giving you some control over your character without over-complicating the action.
That’s not to say that I loved absolutely everything that Doom had to offer. The campaign itself is 12-15 hours and by the end the kill-room structure was getting quite samey. While a steady streams of new enemies and weapons are introduced throughout, by the final levels everything is feeling a little rinse-and-repeat. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun anymore, but it didn’t necessarily replicate that same thrill from the earlier areas. This is also reflected in the environments which become dull quite quickly. Whether it’s the corridors or square arenas of the Mars complex or the caverns and red hues of Hell, the environments are never really mixed up and you’ve seen everything the game has to offer from a palette perspective very early on. Because of all this I found I couldn’t necessarily play for long periods of time – I rarely played for longer than an hour at a time. This is simply because the whole of Doom is essentially the same 15 minutes done about 40 times. Yes, it is a great 15 minutes but you don’t want to repeat that too many times in a row. As I was playing on my Switch, and getting some very strange looks on the commute, this wasn’t necessarily a problem but it’s important to note that this isn’t a game for bingeing.
Dotted around there are also some inexplicable difficulty spikes that provided rare moments of frustration in an otherwise fun-focused game. These would often happen in boss fights, where I would bound through a level with relative ease leaving demons in my wake only to get repeatedly and decisively annihilated by the final boss. This isn’t a problem in of itself, and ultimately defeating that boss was the more satisfying for it, but the spikes did feel a little jarring and took some of the arcade-fun away from the experience. Thankfully these are small specks on an otherwise exceptional example of what the genre is can be.
Performance-wise, I played Doom 2016 on Nintendo Switch and, while it was graphically inferior to the PS4/Xbox One versions, it still looked great. The framerate was also steady and, aside from textures occasionally taking an additional second or two to load, everything ran smoothly.
Doom 2016 proves a couple of central gaming tenants very effectively – that simple is usually better, and the smallest design decisions can have a significant impact on the experience. It does quite a small range of things, but focuses on making those things best-in-class. The guns are weighty, the demons varied, the fights fast paced and the kills satisfying. Levels and systems are designed with one focus – on your aggression, and when everything is pulling in the same direction it usually pays off. Doom may seem like a simple game, and to play and watch sometimes it is, but just under the surface are so many clever ideas building that simplicity.
Doom truly has achieved something that should be impossible. It uses the central pillars and ideas of a 25-year-old game to create something that feels like a breath of fresh air.