Doom - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
As someone who discovered PC gaming in the early 90s, it was nearly impossible to avoid Doom 2. Following the shareware original, it was very much the poster child for ultraviolent, accessible gaming, though my lingering memories are its blocky pixels, oceans of red and orange, and the insane speed you could travel across huge areas filled with demonic creatures. Ten years later, I found Doom 3 to be a pretty-looking mess, a game which didn’t really know whether to be a slow-paced horror or an all-out action FPS. In my opinion, It failed at both. What was with that torch anyway?
My hopes for the series weren’t particularly high when Doom was rebooted in 2016, but it seems something unexpected had happened during development. Critics were talking about a return to the game’s roots. The word “fun” was bandied around, on multiple occasions. Colour me intrigued — it’s time for a trip back to Hell.
Five Minutes In
I wake up chained to a hospital cart, just before a skeletal thing tries to jump on me. Naturally, despite being naked, I break free and smash its face into a bloody pulp with one unshackled hand. It looks like I’m on some sort of planetary station. It also seems to be one that is well accustomed to this kind of attack given they’ve actually programmed their systems to display “DEMONIC INVASION IN PROGRESS”. I would love to have met the coder tasked with that job. “Sorry, you want me to program what message into the GUI? And that’s a genuine possibility is it? OK, bear with me, I’m just going to pop back to Earth for a few years.”
Movement is buttery smooth, and after grabbing a handy suit to stop me feeling chilly I’m quickly introduced to Glory Kills. These are essentially over-the-top finishers activated when a demon is staggering around after taking a bit of damage. I smash a few spines and boot some shambling corpses in the face to be rewarded with satisfyingly crunchy sounds, and a fair bit of blood. Oh, and health packs, it seems. My gun is an unlimited ammo pistol and it was doing the job just fine, until I found a shotgun. YES! I try out the shotgun on a slow-moving Possessed demon at close-range, and it explodes into multiple body parts. This is shortly after being informed that I need to “rip and tear”, presumably everything I meet. It isn’t specific, but I’m told that the demonic presence is at unsafe levels.
What exactly is a safe level of demonic presence?
I have a feeling that this game isn’t going to take itself seriously.
Thirty Minutes In
Much like its predecessor, the reboot seems to be a joyous, breakneck romp through environments I don’t have time to fully take in, other than their perimeters.
Each area needs to have all enemies cleared before I can progress (that demonic presence is unsafe everywhere), and there is ample ammunition — at least so far — to prevent the monsters from troubling me. I have yet to die. Maybe I can’t. Maybe three decades of gaming has honed my abilities to near godlike level, melding my consciousness with the controller to the point where it becomes an extra limb, fully sensitised to any and all stimuli and ready to unleash pain on any creature that breaches my personal space.
Thirty-Two Minutes In
I stumble into a room containing an overwhelming amount of Hellspawn and immediately get torn to pieces.
Two Hours In
I’ve discovered a few more weapons now: an assault rifle, a plasma gun and a chainsaw. This last tool lets me cut demons in half in exchange for a ridiculous amount of ammo. Everything I remember from the original series is here too. Armour shards, berserk power-ups and superb level design are all present, but better still, an AI named Vega has offered me challenges in exchange for weapon upgrade points. These have started out basic enough: kill two Possessed in one shotgun blast, find three secrets, perform five different Glory Kills. The rewards, combined with field drones which offer additional functions for my guns, mean that the weapons have an added depth which I’m totally on board with. There were eight weapons in Doom 2; the add-ons here mean that my arsenal is basically doubled.
Hidden areas are another matter. The original game, like most of id Software’s output, had secrets buried everywhere. I am pretty bad at finding them, preferring instead to strafe around levels like a madman before moving on to the next. However, you can also upgrade your armour’s sensors to help you find them, but this isn’t a cheat — knowing where they are is not the same as reaching them.
I learn this the hard way while trying to get a shiny green armour booster, making a misstep and plunging into a furnace filled with molten metal. TOASTY!
Three Hours In
Speeding around makes me realise how intuitive the level layout is, thanks to a combination of objective marker distances and a detailed map to fall back on when needed. I’ve not had to do so often, since the illusion of space and multiple pathways is well crafted. I’m often too busy rushing to the next objective to notice that a lot of the (admittedly beautifully) rundown corridors and rooms all feel a little samey after a while. Sparking electrical wires, empty pizza boxes and the knick-knacks of a lived-in station are scattered around, but vary little.
While there are a couple of levels where I need to complete three (or more) tasks in different zones and can attempt them in any order, they aren’t so far apart as to be annoying, but neither are they particularly exciting. Activate a button here, smash a canister there, locate a keycard to progress through a matching coloured door, the usual stuff. The enjoyment comes in the act of reaching them: namely, blasting my way through an increasingly powerful set of weapon-wielding undead. The Revenant has made an appearance, but I’ve got a rocket launcher so we’re on a level playing field. My original pistol has barely been touched since those first few minutes of play, since there’s always just enough ammo to keep me blasting through, and if there isn’t…well, Daddy’s got a chainsaw for just that scenario.
There’s a hat-tip of a story here somewhere, something about a Mars station channelling Hell energy to provide an infinite power source for humanity. A guy called Samuel Hayden ran the Union Aerospace Corporation before getting a terminal disease and transmitting his mind into a computer while an English lady called Olivia Pierce has gone bonkers and wants to combine the two dimensions because reasons. But this isn’t Dead Space and the bare bones of my motivations take a hefty second place to running around and blasting things into a bloody pulp.
It’s weird: Doom is the kind of game I’d have expected to cause a fury among the right-wing media upon release. It’s gory, gratuitous and exhorts violence. Yet, perhaps because all of the enemies are alien invaders from Hell, it didn’t stir up as much controversy as games where you can — for instance — choose to walk through an airport, shooting up people. Indeed, this is the first in the series to get through Germany’s censors unscathed. Perhaps underneath the tongue-in-cheek exterior, the game is actually a cunningly hidden metaphor for the world’s current political climate: survive at all costs at the expense of anyone who looks different. Or maybe I’m overthinking it and I should just enjoy making things mindlessly explode in a shower of limbs. Perhaps this says more about me than the game itself.
I ponder this as I rip the arm off an Imp and beat him to death with it.
Eight Hours In
The initial euphoria has worn off somewhat. I’m still enjoying Doom but it’s become a bit repetitive and even the introduction of the Cacodemon didn’t prove that exciting. I’m in Hell now, which looks gorgeous, though I’m basically on autopilot. A couple more weapons have been acquired but the gameplay is otherwise unchanged from when I first started. However, Mick Gordon’s thrash metal soundtrack has been superb throughout, so I’m looking forward to what he brings to Doom Eternal — lots of screaming, by all accounts.
I have a feeling I’m getting close to the end which is probably for the best. If it carried on for much longer, the game would feel a bit flabby. That isn’t to say there aren’t a few additional treats thrown into the mix — Rune challenges offer additional upgrades if you can complete them, usually “kill X with weapon Y in Z seconds” variants, and they offer a more cerebral approach to the non-stop demon slaying. You do have to kill things, yes, but you normally have to do it in a controlled way, such as with a specific weapon that rewards you valuable extra seconds for Glory Kills, or by using explosive barrels. Rune challenges are essentially the thinking person’s splatterfest and break up the standard gameplay nicely.
Nine Hours In
I thought it would be over after I killed the Cyberdemon. But no. There are more things to kill. Weirdly, despite the gore and over-the-top carnage, it doesn’t feel awful. Things move at such a pace that the splattered body parts, blood and severed limbs barely have time to register before disappearing from the screen. It’s an almost clinical approach to gratuity: show the nastiness and immediately wipe it clean. It doesn’t seem as outrageous as it should do, perhaps because of repetition and a subsequent lack of consequence. Nothing remains to mark your actions, so do they really matter?
I muse over this philosophical question briefly, before plunging my fist into the stomach of a Mancubus, ripping out his insides, then forcing them down his throat until he explodes.
Ten Hours In
It’s still going. I’ve since had to fight a few Hell Guards which were pretty tough. The boss fights in Doom have been challenging but fun, and it’s a shame there weren’t more of them earlier on. Looking back at how the game front-loaded the increasingly tough (but ultimately dumb) standard foes, it would have broken up the repetitive action a bit if id had included a few enemies — like this — that needed a bit more thought to take out.
Now I’m headed back to Mars. Presumably this will be the last area.
Eleven Hours In
It was not the last area. Even so, the lab arena of Vega’s central processor made for a slightly more interesting fight. Instead of just shooting lots of demons, I also had to shoot four coolant towers. And lots of demons. I assumed that this would be where I locked down the gate to Hell and finished the game.
I assumed wrongly. I’m going back to Hell.
Twelve Hours In
It’s all over. I’ve saved Mars, Earth, and probably Hell as well. They really shouldn’t have wanted to link up with us anyway. Thanks to global warming, in fifty years time the smoking, barren, intensely hot landscape of Hell filled with emaciated, shambling creatures will be indistinguishable from Earth.
Interestingly, once I left Hell and returned to the red planet the game stepped back up a gear. I’m not saying it was the introduction of the BFG 9000 which swung it (it’s a fun room-clearer, but the super shotgun is definitely my favourite), but the tighter multi-levelled combat arenas of the Lazarus labs were more enjoyable than Hell’s sprawling, samey environments. The final boss was also a fun blast, although why some studios seem to think that spiders are the worst possible form an enemy can take is beyond me, even if that spider is armed to the teeth with laser cannons.
There’s much to take away from Doom. It is unashamedly old school in design, but a lot of the features it incorporates elevate the fun way beyond many of today’s more “realistic” shooters. There’s no run button, since you’re always racing at full pelt to, well, everywhere. There’s no reload button because you’re encouraged to empty the clip of every gun you own into the face of every demon you encounter, before stocking up on ammo again. Both of these omissions made me appreciate how much they slow down other FPS games. I’m not suggesting they should be removed from the genre entirely, just that their absence may help rather than hinder the design of some shooters. Much like Bulletstorm dispensed with jumping and was all the better for it, Doom’s pace and level design lend themselves to a more simplified controller scheme, where the “30 seconds of fun” gameplay loop popularised at Bungie during Halo’s development is at the forefront.
That loop does, unfortunately, become a bit too familiar in the later stages. The story is basically nonsense, and the game feels far more linear than Doom 2. This is both a blessing and a curse, since while it focuses you on combat, there’s little else to do than run from checkpoint to checkpoint fighting the same series of battles in different environments. Even so, I can’t be too hard on a game that places popcorn fun above all else, and I’m mightily looking forward to Doom Eternal this year with (hopefully) a bit more substance to it. As it stands though, this reboot is a bloody good blast, in every respect.
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