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Impressions: Knee Deep In DOOM's Open Beta

Slough of Despair?

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Doom [official site]! It’s the bloodsoaked new game with the demons and the rocket skeletons and the telefrags and the shotguns and the multiplayer levelling and the character customisation and the class-like loadouts and the double-jump. Yeah, you know Doom.

Hmmm. Some of those things are more familiar than others to a seasoned Doom player like myself and I fear change more than I fear a sextet of Cyberdemons. The multiplayer beta for id’s latest opened today and, determined to face my fears, I’ve been playing for most of the day.

It doesn’t feel like Doom. It’s a little like Quake 3 and a little like Unreal Tournament and maybe even a little like Call of Duty, though that’s more a structural comparison than a game-feel comparison. But whatever else it does feel like, it doesn’t feel like Doom.

It’s important to say that while also acknowledging that Doom doesn’t have a single agreed-upon ‘feel’. It’s a many-textured thing, id’s FPS classic, and it’d be bold to the point of idiocy if I were to pretend your Doom was the same as my Doom. What I can say with a fair amount of confidence, however, is that this Doom, this new thing, doesn’t feel like any of the things we remember.

How to explain that? Well, I’ve been playing mostly as a sniper. That’s odd, isn’t it? Not a very Doom-y thing to be doing. I find a good vantage point one of the two maps included in the beta, and I twitch my sights back and forth looking for targets. Most of the time I’m not looking for a member of the enemy team – and the beta is all teamplay, in two different modes – I’m looking for combat between the two teams. As soon as I see rockets, sparks, gore and shrapnel, I zoom in, power up the gun and take my shot.

Standing still for more than a second can be fatal, so it’s not as if camping and sniping are a very sensible approach. This is a very hectic game, at least in its current form. The two mods both pit two teams of six against one another, and the two maps included are tight enough to make combat an almost constant companion. There have been quiet moments, usually toward the end of a round when both teams are near the kill target and the timer has a minute left to run.

Nobody wants to make a mistake in those circumstances because every death brings the enemy one step closer to victory. Those moments are rare and have been the best parts of my experience. They rely on teams that are evenly balanced, which is vanishingly unlikely given that almost every player is a new player learning at their own rate, and people are mostly playing with whatever strangers are available.

The levelling doesn’t seem like a problem, in terms of giving any kind of advantage to those who rise through the ranks quickly. At the end of each round, the game dishes out experience based on how well you played, whether your team won and how various other modifiers. Gaining a level gives you new customisation options and unlocks customisable loadout slots in the early stages. Those are handy, given that you can change your loadout everytime you die and respawn, as they allow flexibility, but you’ll have all three slots open after a few rounds.

There are also modifiers called hack modules. I was worried these would feel like mini sanctioned cheats but they only last for a brief period and are dished out regularly after each round, so you’ll never have to play without them. You might get shite ones though. They give you information rather than boosts to damage or anything along those lines and my favourites give info about enemies, tagging the person who killed you last, for example, so you can easily track them down. Others mark respawn timers for power-ups, which is handy for newcomers but isn’t a game-changing trick as it’s externalising skills and memory that most long-term players will develop for themselves over time.

Those customised loadouts are going to frustrate a lot of people though, and I was one of the frustrated. It’s the very concept of loadouts that bothers me, planting, as it does, a class-based approach onto the combat. You can choose two weapons and one piece of equipment. The beta has a decent array of weaponry and just two gadgets, a grenade and a hand-held teleporter, which allows you to jump anywhere within line of sight, usually behind an enemy to open a brief window of confusion in which to disintegrate them.

The weapons can be summed up fairly neatly with reference to the rocket launcher. It’s a puny thing, dropped into the bog standard loadout where you might expect to find a pistol. There are no pistols because everything is turned up to eleven but, when everything is at full volume, nothing seems very loud, or very dangerous.

Rockets are used to inflict splash damage, forcing opponents to tread air using the double jump in an attempt to avoid the blast. The explosions look devastating but they don’t inflict all that much damage. Someone with a super shotgun can surf across the waves of fire to punch you in the face. And the shotgun is essentially a melee weapon, best used at point blank range to turn marines into a bloody mess.

I haven’t found any real use for the lightning gun, which fires a continuous stream of energy that slowly saps health. Whenever I get close enough to use it, my opponent returns fire with either the shotgun, killing me instantly, or fires off blasts of plasma that do much more damage and have greater range. Maybe I’ll find a use for it over time – and the secondary fire is a promising high damage alternative – but I haven’t found a good reason to switch away from the snipey vortex rifle with super shotgun for close quarters backup.

The loadouts make movement less important. In Doom and Quake of old, players would run around the map to time their motion with the appearance of weapons. Certain areas would become sacred because they housed powerful weapons. That’s no longer the case and, instead, there are only health, ammo and armour pickups to hoover up as you run around in search of a fight.

Oh, and there’s the demonic power-ups of course. These have a spawn countdown and the announcer lets everyone know when one is due to arrive. That kicks off a scramble to protect the spawn location, which is marked on each players’ HUD, because whoever grabs the pick-up transforms into one of DOOM’s iconic beasties.

Only the Revenant is available in the beta. Right mouse button fires off a jetpack, allowing the thing to careen around rooms in a distracting fashion, while left mouse fires a barrage of rockets. I thought being a Revenant would be quite exciting – they used to scare me QUITE A LOT – but I just felt like I had a better double-jump, a better rocket launcher and a massive health bar. It’s nice to have those things and stomping through an entire enemy team is satisfying, but I didn’t feel like a monster. I felt like a stronger shooty-man.

That runs through the game. It doesn’t feel like anything in particular. The best of the maps is set in Hell, or at least somewhere that is in the proximity of Hell, and it’s a heavy metal album cover. Big skulls, pools of blood, symbols scratched into walls – all of that plus a load of lava. It’s a bland Hell. There’s nothing witty, imaginative or particularly atmospheric about it.

Not that I really had time for sightseeing or to soak up the ambience. I got quite heavily invested in my favourite of the two modes, which is a sort of King of the Hill thing without a Hill. It’s called Warpath and is far more engaging than the 6 versus 6 team deathmatch.

In Warpath, each team (of six again) earns points by capturing an area on the map. Simple. Except that area moves. It’s sort of like a train, sliding around corridors slowly and sedately, and taking on the colour of whichever team are in control. It’s a holographic train, mind, without any walls or other defensive features – an ephemeral zone with the power of motion. The demonic power-up is always at the opposite end of the map to the capture zone.

I love that mode. It brings out the best in the maps by forcing you to learn the best routes through them and creates split second choices that elevate the game above twitch shooting. Should you respawn and head straight to the contested zone to help your buddies or should you concentrate on carving out a space away from the fray, waiting for the power-up to spawn so that you can arrive later in the day, as the cadaverous cavalry.

There’s something about the sight of a team hunkered down within that slowly moving capture zone that reminds me of people defending a stagecoach in a Western. It’s weirdly evocative in a way that all of the gore and grimdark imagery fail to be, and Warpath has delivered more consistently tense games, as the score ticks toward victory and slip-ups or brutal assaults tip the scales back and forth.

There’s little to say about the customisation stuff here because it’s all cosmetic and while I’m happy to unlock new stuff as I go, it’s not the reason I’m playing. Even though it isn’t an incentive, I’ve enjoyed seeing a ridiculous helmet or suit of armour unlock from time to time. Importantly, there are randomisation options for every individual aspect of your gear’s apperance, which I’m extremely pleased to see. That’s why my guns are so wonderfully haphazardly decorated in all of these screengrabs. Randomised after every round.

The maps, to give them their due, are serviceable, with some neat placement of large rooms suited to long distance kills mixed in with the corridors. There are usually at least a couple of entrances and exits, and a couple of teleporters and jump-pads of a sort thrown into the mix to confuse matters slightly. They’re decent maps and you can kill people in them with decent weapons. It’s all been running beautifully for me as well, with a steady framerate, no lag and no waiting time between games. It even threw me straight into a new game when I was customising my character a couple of times – you can interact with other menus while waiting in the lobby, which is handy.

DOOM is in a strange situation. If it wasn’t called DOOM, it wouldn’t be receiving anywhere near the scrutiny and attention that it is. The cleverness of Warpath mode aside, the open beta doesn’t suggest it’ll have a great deal to offer in the way of either novelty or nostalgia. There are far worse multiplayer shooters to devote a few hours to but the demon gimmick, the weapons and the map design haven’t thrilled me.

But this is DOOM, and that means it’ll be the focus of both attention and ire, even if it doesn’t deserve an enormous amount of either, in this multiplayer form at least. For my part, I’m keen to see if this hectic arena-based multiplayer mode is somehow a sibling to an atmospheric singleplayer campaign. There’s barely a hint of how such a thing might work here – this feels like a standalone experience, with weapons, flow and level design that wouldn’t translate into a solo experience neatly. The multiplayer is solid, swift and skill-based but it feels more like a grab-bag of modern FPS design rather than an attempt do something new with something old.

The DOOM open beta is running all weekend, free to try.

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Adam Smith

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