Developed by id Software, DOOM’s mad dash through a technological occult apocalypse on Mars is another competent franchise revival from Bethesda.
My screen is awash in the gore of my foes, when red arcs of unholy power flicker in a dozen places at once. Before I’ve so much as caught my breath, the halls have filled with demonic threats once again. It’s a relentless barrage of claws and teeth and gravelly shrieking that only a shotgun will properly silence. Imps and possessed former staff of the Martian colony splatter the walls in moments, giving me just enough room to maneuver around the “Barons” and “Hell Knights” taking turns making my life, well, Hell.
I’m clambering over the environment trying not to get reduced to a bubbling pool of acid, and the Knights are pummeling me from every side. A stream of white-hot plasma rounds reduce the bloated Baron to a heaving angry mound, and in that moment I pounce. I tear his pustule-ridden heart from his chest and shove it down his throat. It’s… effective. But I’ve given the charging Knights enough time to close the gap, and they’re one leap away from crushing me.
I quickly drop a holographic projection of a soldier in my place, providing just enough distraction to put some much-needed distance between myself and the enraged Satanic linebackers. A barrage of rockets from the underside of my assault rifle sets off a chain of explosions that finally ends the onslaught. In a few moments, in another corpse-strewn passage, I’ll do it all again.
This is DOOM, the reemergence of perhaps the most storied shooter franchise of all time. With this fourth entry into the series, id Software and Bethesda have captured the carnage and brutality of the franchise and layered on the polish of modern AAA game design. The result is a frenetic lesson in twitch-shooter 101, and a satisfying chunk of demon-slaying fun for anyone who wants to see old-school gameplay done right with current technology.
More than once, I realized I’d had my teeth clenched in the midst of a battle. For the first time since I was a kid, my legs were unconsciously tightening when I was trying to make a precarious leap with nightmare creatures breathing down my neck. The pace of the game is utterly brutal, and it’s not uncommon to exhaust multiple weapons of all their ammunition in a single encounter. Rarely will you be permitted to rely on just one or two tools in combat. Without good decision making and great reflexes, you’ll end up joining the crimson smears that paint almost every wall of DOOM’s beleaguered Martian complex.
As the eponymous “Doomguy,” you’ll stockpile an impressive and upgradeable arsenal with which to beat back the forces of Hell. Almost every weapon has multiple functions, and each one has something important to offer your attempt at surviving the constant influx of enemies. You’ll also have the opportunity to upgrade your suit of armor, granting you immunity from explosions — including the ones you cause — or making it easier to locate the game’s innumerable secrets.
The canvas upon which you Jackson Pollock demon viscera is gorgeous in a very morbid way, plastered with the entrails of less-successful heroes and colonists. As you’re splashing through your forebears, it’s hard to keep from stopping to take in the scenery. It may be unpleasant, but that unpleasantness has rarely been so vivid. Be cautious, though — if there’s one thing that DOOM loves to punish, it’s even a moment’s inactivity.
The sound design stands out in a way that few games manage. The demons are distinct enough that at times you’ll be able to identify your impending, err, doom, before it rounds the corner. Every gun belches and roars with cinematic flair, and your foes die with unearthly screams and meaty splatters all around you. The game’s soundtrack lays into heavy speedmetal riffs whenever you’re being assaulted, then dies away into eerie thuds as soon as you’ve cleared any immediate threats.
The campaign has your traipsing through the dusty Martian wasteland, into the bowels of its 64,000-person colony, and — of course — through the depths of Hell itself. Its length is a respectable 15 or so hours, and that’s having missed nearly half of the available secrets and collectibles. While they were easy to nab in the early stages, in time my hands were full just surviving.
DOOM‘s level design starts linear and organic, but becomes much more a series of arenas full of baddies in the second half or so. While the beginning is a guided tour through bloody set piece moments, the game eventually doubles down on an almost Quake-like design sensibility, in which you’re thrown into large arenas with waves upon waves of combatants. In other words, don’t go into DOOM’s campaign for the narrative. It’s not that the story is bad, just that it is very clearly a vehicle to guide you through successive first person “bullet-hell” style encounters.
Those later stages can, at times, feel as if they were constructs in the included “snap map” editor. The editor is a fun diversion, capable of remarkable complexity within a relatively intuitive set of tools. You can mash together multiplayer modes, creating single player or cooperative experiences, and I’m interested to see what the community will come up with. It’s a whole new set of legs for the game to stand upon, should it receive enough support to be embraced by creative players.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about multiplayer. It has the standard slew of modes, from capture-and-hold to team deathmatch. The single player weapons make more limited cameos, with the added distinction of visual customization. Both weapons and armors can be covered in a layer of grit, scratched up, or dyed metallic fuschia and covered in lime green hearts. There are a staggering number of options, but most will be unlocked through random per-match rewards. As you level, you’ll get access to custom loadouts, more weapons, and more ways to personalize it all.
You’ll also get temporary perks, which you can activate after each death. Each has a limit, so you’ll constantly cycle through the process of buying your favorites. Each perk has classes of functionality and duration, and the better ones will cost more of your hard-earned match points. Aside from that, playing will also net you a constant stream of randomly awarded bonuses, so you’ll always have a full quiver of game-altering tricks up your sleeve for when things get hairy.
Overall, the game manages to meld the sensibilities of modern game design with a decidedly old-school flavor. In a distinct turnabout from modern gaming, demons regenerate health — but you don’t. Ducking behind cover might save you from a hail of fireballs and acid, but don’t wait for your screen to clear up — unless you can manage a “glory kill” or find a last minute health pack, you’re dead meat. You won’t reload, but that’s fine because you will never have time to do so.
It’s a wild ride, but it’s definitely not what most modern gamers are used to. It’s faster, less forgiving, and has none of the maudlin melodrama that has become a hallmark of today’s tortured game narratives. It’s a game about killing monsters in ways that would make Mortal Kombat blush, and it does what it does very well indeed.
DOOM is every bit the furiously visceral blast through nostalgic action gaming that was promised and deserves a spot in the library of any action gaming enthusiast with a strong stomach. It’s a breath of putrid air in the genre, and another triumph equal to Bethesda’s resurrection of Wolfenstein.
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