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There's more to Brutal Doom than gore

The less sexy brutale

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There are few constants in videogames quite like the original Doom (or Doom 2, if we’re being picky) – a grand leap forward in FPS design that has somehow remained timeless and enduring even in the face of countless successors. Quake, Call of Duty, sequels and even full reboots have come and gone, but the original 90s Doom still stands strong, scaleable, adaptable and eternally self-reinventing.

Between countless engine upgrades thanks to Id generously releasing the source code and a seemingly endless stream of mod and level releases thanks in part to continually updated tools, the original Doom (and its engine-sharing derivatives) still boast one of the most active mod scenes out there, and one mod in particular has risen to such ubiquity that it has spawned a whole parallel mod scene of its own; the splatteriffic Brutal Doom.

Chances are you’ve at least heard of Brutal Doom, but you might have written it off as being just a tacky gore mod as its early trailers put the focus heavily on Mortal Kombat-esque fatality animations. For some, the gratuitous grimdark splatter action was an immediate hook. For others, it’s off-putting. Either way, it’s not really representative of the mod as it stands now.

Over the years, Brutal Doom has evolved into a total rework of Doom’s gameplay, leveraging most of the features of the GZDoom engine variant. Almost everything is overhauled, from weapon handling and balance (faster, more deadly guns, and with reloading and alternate fire-modes) to enemy behaviour and movesets. In more recent versions, the much-touted fatality moves are rarely seen performed by players now, although are a more common sight amongst infighting monsters, and any demon lucky enough to finish you off.

Due to the increase in aggression and power on both player and monster sides, Brutal Doom flattens the power curve somewhat; a common criticism of the mod, although equally defining. Lone Imps are now capable of tearing chunks out of you, but Hell Knights are much faster to bring down with just a couple headshots (locational damage is a thing now), making it better suited for play on level-packs with above-average enemy counts with a good number of ‘popcorn’ enemies such as zombies and imps to chew through.

Unfortunately the systems BD uses to handle locational damage and gore makes it unfeasible for most mortal PCs to combine it with the dense throngs of monsters you see in dedicated ‘slaughter’ levels where most of the players time is spent with finger welded to the rocket or BFG trigger, so it’s a bit of a balancing act finding the ideal BD experience. An issue that’s mitigated by the mod now including its own full-length campaign, with future updates promising remixes and revisions of classic maps as well.

Brutal Doom is very much a game in its own right at this point – an evolutionary offshoot of the genre. The full length campaign has no shortage of flashy setpieces including a Normandy-style beachhead assault on Hell itself, accompanied by swarms of NPC marines and quite a bit of free-roaming urban combat. It feels like a hybrid of classic Doom, the 2016 reboot (which may in part have been inspired by BD), and modern tactical shooters, with a dash of Duke Nukem for the campaign level design.

Brutal Doom’s creator, Marcos ‘Sgt Mark IV’ Abenante of Brazil, certainly isn’t resting on his laurels either. He’s established his brand through this mod, despite some public comments seeing him banned or at least rendered Persona Non Grata on several major Doom community hubs. Such is the bad blood that mention of Brutal Doom and its derivatives is often met with chilly dismissals, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the mods overwhelming, headline-hogging popularity.

As such, Brutal Doom has made its home on ModDB, outside of the usual community circles, and has spawned its own little scene of spinoffs and derivatives, several by ‘Sarge’ himself. Some are as small as plugins and unofficial patches (you’ll probably want this if you want to use a newer build of GZDoom), custom HUD elements or music packs that replace Doom’s MIDI soundtrack with full instrumental arrangements and remixes, but some might as well be whole new games in their own right.

Most notable of the official releases is Brutal Doom 64, which is a complete remake of the wildly underrated N64 game in the series. It replicates the entire N64 package, as well as adding new enemies, weapons and secrets to the mix. This even earned Id Software’s official endorsement and promotion after it was nominated for Best Fan Creation at the Video Game Awards last year, although again, perhaps crowding out other such attempts to port or adapt Doom 64, such as Doom64 EX, a direct port of the original so accurate that it requires you to feed it the original N64 ROM file.

Outside of BD64, there’s even been an official attempt to adapt Brutal Doom’s gore system and some gameplay alterations to Doom engine-cousin Strife (sadly abandoned after one beta release), and a small side-project called Ketchup which detaches the gore system from Brutal Doom so that it can be used in conjunction with other projects as you see fit. I’ve even seen patches released to further allow Ketchup compatibility with other visual mods – it seems one of the few points the community can agree on is that Brutal Doom has some very satisfying splatter effects.

Of the BD Community’s own output Project Brutality is probably the best known. Using BD as its foundation, it layers on new systems, weapons, gadgets, enemies and even some features trying to simulate the use of a high-tech suit of combat armor. At the core of Project Brutality is the progression system – as you play through any given campaign, it gradually ups the ante by spawning in more efficient weapons, as well as replacing regular enemies with deadlier variants or even completely new alternatives. Few Doom players know the fear of fighting a dozen railgun-sniping, jetpack-equipped Revenants, inspired by Doom 2016’s especially agitating skeletons.

Brutality’s overall feel is that you’re gradually levelling up over the course of the game, and are fighting higher tier enemies to match. Of course, all of these new monsters are compliant with Brutal Doom’s locational damage and gore systems, making for an especially cathartic experience when you break out the really big guns late in the game. It also offers a vast amount of customization, allowing you to toggle most of its features and additions as you see fit. It’s a flexible and fun package, and due for a major new release alongside the upcoming Brutal Doom V21.

There are plenty more variants and spinoff mods easily found in the Brutal Doom page on ModDB, but few (if any) seem to be quite as full featured as Brutality. That’s why the mod of a mod was chosen as the foundation for yet another mod – The 555 Project – a power-trip fantasy which mashes up the enemies and progression system of Brutality with another, non-Brutal mod – Guncaster – to great effect.

Guncaster replaces the vanilla space marine with the modder’s fursona a fire-breathing dragon-man, capable of levelling up, casting spells, hoarding gold from slain enemies and using it to buy some absurdly beefy firearms, including possibly the most satisfying revolver I’ve ever used in an FPS. The only real issue with Guncaster is that it’s too much of a power fantasy; by starting powerful and levelling up from there, you end up outmatching the vanilla enemies, so it’s a mod match made in heaven. Project Brutality’s progressive enemy spawns keep you pressured even as you learn the more apocalyptic spells.

With at least three Brutal gameplay variants to play around with, you’re probably going to exhaust the included campaign’s value before too long. If you’re after more levels to play, there’s plenty to pick from although very few designed explicitly for play with Brutal Doom. Among those few are the Maps Of Chaos series, which are remixed versions of the classic Doom 1 & 2 maps with additional areas and much larger enemy groupings. This pack was formerly known as Brutalized Doom, although it changed branding after they realised it works pretty well with just about any gameplay mod.

Also worth a play is Redemption of The Slain. A single large level (effectively 3-4 smaller maps chained into one) designed explicitly for play with Brutal Doom. It’s high on spectacle, but has a bit of an arcade bent to it, often shutting you in an arena with several successive waves of enemies to clear out before nudging you towards the next battle. It’s designed around the full GZDoom feature-set too, so expect areas where you’re asked to jump and duck to navigate the environment. Some performance issues in the later sections aside, it’s well worth a stab.

Beyond that, you’re spoilt for choice with the old Idgames archive offering tens of thousands of maps, although I’d personally recommend Hellbound above others. It’s an enormous campaign that really runs with the ‘Hell On Earth’ concept. On the higher difficulties playing ‘vanilla’, there were a few too many Hell Knights to be comfortable, but Brutal Doom’s balance makes it flow better, with the beefier enemies feeling more like speed-bumps than solid walls of angry meat. Matching gameplay mods to map packs is like matching wine to a meal – what are your favourite pairings? Share your thoughts, recommendations and more in the comments below.

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Dominic Tarason

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