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First Impressions: DOOM

Two hours into hell

Doom 4 DOOM [official site] is out in most places as of this morning, but I managed to squeeze in a few hours of Bethesda's demon-botherer last night by catching a private jet to New Zealand, where it had launched a little earlier. Naturally, I flew straight home afterwards to write the following thoughts.

It's early doors of course, so anything I say below may well become incorrect depending on how things shake out later on. I also haven't dabbled in multiplayer yet, but will go hang my hide out for an online beating a little later today.

The overriding thought I'd had while playing DOOM is "this is a very pointed "screw you" to Doom 3." Its straight to business attitude and snarling aggression - Doomguy even punches away upgrade terminals after using them - speak to an absolute determination to waste no time. The gloomy industrial environments and colourlessly fleshy enemies almost trick me into thinking I am playing Doom 3, but every time I start cautiously creeping along I pay for it: this is absolutely a game about movement.

Though every modern shooter owes a debt to the original Doom, so few took its speed: that slip-slidey momentum that makes a game which seemed pacey and menacing at the time now feel like riding a banana skin along a rollercoaster track. DOOM does feel like that, which brought an immediate grin to my suspicious face, but it doesn't stop short at retro-evocation.

DOOM's smartest trick (that I've seen so far) is to think about what that speed can mean, beyond navigation and strafing, then run with it. What I've played has been about near-constant forward momentum: mantling rapidly to higher places with one tap on the spacebar at the end of a jump, and this satisfying one-two beat of shoot then punch an enemy; by the time the shot lands, my run has taken me right up to the thing's face, so the punch can land too. It feels damn good, even though I've done it hundreds of times now.

A 'Glory Kill' system which doles out bonus health when a sufficiently wounded enemy is meleed creates a punding sense of flow: dodge, shoot, dodge, shoot, thump, repeat. This is a game with a beat. It feels good. Speed is everything, but it doesn't feel frenzied so much as it does rhythmic.

The weapons feel tight: you get the shotgun almost right away, and it's a good one, with both punch and reasonable range. The pistol's there as an infinite ammo backup capable of headshot insta-kills against weaker foes, while the chainsaw is carefully fuel-limited because it is gloriously lethal. The only other gun I've found so far is the Heavy Assault Rifle, and that feels a bit off: somehow too lightweight, not quite as much sense of destruction. I haven't found a good reason to use it over the shotgun. But it can be upgraded, so perhaps it'll come into its own later. There's always the shotgun, anyway: I have no problem whatsoever with a DOOM played with a shotgun throughout, I assure you.

But if the merry dance of combat is pushing my buttons, I'm feeling less keen on the aesthetics. While there's been a clear attempt to include both the dark mechanical look that characterised post-Quake id games and the red airlessness of a Mars setting, it winds up looking pretty bland.

Dim green lights throughout hint at the route to take (though there's a compass arrow at the top of the screen too), and I wonder if they're there not simply to make navigation easier for the inattentive, but rather because otherwise the look of levels is so homogeneous that we can't subconsciously absorb where all the exits are and what's somewhere we've already been, as we do in most other shooters.

I felt a sort of low level confusion about where to go, because everything I've seen looks so samey. I even got hit by a cargo train a few times, purely because it was so hard to notice: just another gloomy piece of metal. I'm at a loss for why DOOM would so lovingly revisit Doom's speed, but not its vibrancy.

Enemies have a similar issue: I've met five kinds of monster so far, and the only one which looks meaningfully different is the one that carries a brightly-coloured energy shield. Without that, he'd look the same as the rest: i.e. brownish and hunched. It really doesn't take long to learn the silhouettes and the movement, so I have no issue whatsoever distinguishing between my foes, but again I'm perplexed as to why Doom's memorably distinctive bestiary has been devolved into a few variants of Mr Hanky. It's a colour problem not a model problem though - I'm looking forwards to the inevitable graphics mods which amp up the colour palette, put it that way.

Unfortunately the presentation of the environment has presented a few slow-downs to progress, especially now the levels are growing a little larger, but even if I'm occasionally not sure where the next exit is, a quickly-learned rule of thumb is that if you're not fighting, you're in the wrong place. It's all go all the time, bar a smattering of brief, glowering cutscenes starring completely forgettable characters with silly voices.

I had a sense that the game almost regretted including even those, but felt it had to: I could feel its impatience to get on with things, and its silent, punchy protagonist is very much the avatar of that. He wants to get back to the blasting. Finally, a shooter hero I can truly empathise with.

If this had been a conventionally-paced game that looked this homogeneous, I'd be thinking it was a total damp squib, but the forward momentum and the rhythm means that, so far, it's getting away with it. Hell, even the weapon upgrade system plays into the urgency: tech points are gained by completing challenges as you play, such as kill two guys with one shot, and then the pay-off isn't just a bit more ammo but a significant extra ability such as explosive shotgun shells. I imagine that later branches on their tech trees will be less dramatic, but so far it plays into that Everything Big All The Time Ethos.

By God it needs more colour, though. Getting to any new place has not been interesting. Let's hope that later levels change up the look some more.

DOOM is out now. We didn't receive pre-release code, but a full review will follow as soon as possible.

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