To Hell and Back, Again: Doom Review

Doom reinvents itself as itself.

This review was originally published on June 2, 2016.

It’s hard to imagine what the modern day videogame landscape would look like without the original Doom. The game codified so many now-ubiquitous things that it’s almost hard to trace their evolution. The elements range from technical (the FPS perspective and raycasting) to stylistic (the flippancy, ultra violence, and disregard for story.) But amazingly, even with so much borrowed, there was one element from the original Doom that got lost over the last 20-plus years.

The original Doom has a unique rhythm to its gameplay. To stay alive, you need to be moving constantly. Enemies don’t inflict damage instantly, they charge at you or fling attacks in your direction, allowing you enough time to dodge them. When you dash to a new location, the enemies have retargeted you, forcing you to move yet again. You’re always on your toes in Doom. It’s more dodgeball than paintball.

First person shooters quickly abandoned that rhythm. Most of the games created in Doom’s wake gave enemies the same type of weapons the player has, creating a system where damage was gun-shot instant, making cover and distance more important survival factors than agility. Quake had a similar rhythm to Doom, but after that it seems to have disappeared. Eventually, Doom’s frenetic run-and-gun action wasn’t even present in the franchise’s own sequels.

2016’s Doom (New Doom, as I like to think of it — though I’ve also seen NuDoom) recaptures that frenetic action. It bucks the current trends of realistic, slow, contemplative, cover-based first person shooting for a fantastical, fast, reflexive, dodge-and-weave game. Its take on FPS’s feels as fresh as the original Doom did in 1993. But it’s not just the gameplay either, New Doom exhibits a internalization of the original Doom that reaches beyond the heavy-metal soundtrack and the flippant storyline into the philosophy of Id Software at the time, creating a seductive nostalgia for old-school shooter purists.

As I mentioned earlier, New Doom has you constantly running and gunning. Back are demons hurling energy orbs and kamikaze beasts. They’re faster and more agile than in the original Doom, so you need to take advantage of your already speedy movement to avoid their attacks. But you’re not just running around for defense’s sake. New elements incentivize melee attacks by promising health or ammo to those willing to get up-close and personal. For instance, executing a “glory kill,” a melee attack with a gruesome animation that can only be triggered when an enemy is one hit away from death, guarantees a health power-up drop from the slain hellspawn. If you see your health bar turning red, you must calculate the risk and reward of diving deeper into the fray to stabilize your vitals.

Also back from the old Doom are large, labyrinthe-like maps with pockets of demon infestation. Single player arena shooters have been out of vogue since the original Bioshock, but they’re powerfully present here. Each room contains one or more layers of enemies to defeat, but after killing everything, you’re free to explore. And thank goodness you can explore because you’ll spend plenty of time completing the retro-inspired task of finding colored keys to open corresponding doors, as well as looking for levers to open secret doors containing hidden areas.

New Doom continues to resemble ‘93’s Doom when it comes to the sights and sounds. The heavy-metal soundtrack has been upgraded from tinny 8-bit tracks to full-on humbucker symphonies. Satanic imagery still pervades the hallways you wander in the form of glowing pentagrams and shrieks of agony even Dante might find surprising. Doom Guy still bears the same space-marine armor, and the hallways still feel inspired by Alien.

But despite how intense these elements may seem, a sense of humor pervades the game that toes the line between imitating Old Doom and mocking it. Doom Guy does not do anything gently; he’s an animal with one instinct: knock the crap out of stuff. When receiving a briefing on how the portal to Hell opened up, Doom Guy rips the monitor he was watching off its base and throws it against the wall. It’s easy to imagine him saying “screw the story, let me shoot something!”

That idea may seem like a flippant take on the average Doom player, but it’s really a reflection of Id’s philosophy from the 90’s. John Carmack is quoted as saying, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” New Doom Guy, and New Doom as a game, embody that idea completely. New Doom is fast, constant, brutal action with only a modicum of justification. As videogames in general wrestle with how much and what type of story is best to include in a game, New Doom bursts onto the scene and shouts, “doesn’t matter, here’s some really fun shooting action.”

But is that a good thing or a bad thing? I would vote neither. Perhaps nothing better indicates how far games have come than the fact that Uncharted 4 and Doom were released in such close proximity to each other. Both games are large, expensive, triple-a affairs that focus primarily on their single-player campaigns. One wants you to experience an emotional rollercoaster, one just wants you to have a fun shoot-em-up experience. The strategies are on opposite ends of the what-do-you-want-in-a-game spectrum and I recommend them both.

Perhaps what New Doom indicates the most is that we (the critics and designers and players) have finally accepted that there’s more than one way to make a game. New Doom is perhaps the perfect way to close the circle on the Doom franchise. In the beginning, everything was borrowed from it. In every way, Doom represented the new way to make videogames. And that way of thinking led to arguments over how to make a game and what constitutes a real game and every debate that’s evolved games over the last 20 years. And now we’ve essentially received a project with the same soul and, instead of arguing, we just enjoy it for what it is and we say, “yeah, that’s definitely one way to do it.”

All that’s old is new again. Except now there’s room for everyone.

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