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Wot I Think: DOOM Multiplayer

It sure ain't Quake 3.5

DOOM [official site]'s singleplayer campaign was so surprisingly strong that I no longer object to writing the name in capital letters. Of course, it has a multiplayer mode too - as important a part of the Doom heritage as is speed and shotguns - and, were you to believe the marketing, this was the most important element of the new id shooter. With the legions of Hell all defeated, I now turn my attention to real hell: other people.

Note: I'll be writing separately about the SnapMap level design/sharing tool, once I've had a chance to burrow into it properly.

DOOM multiplayer was, I think, inevitably going to differ from the singleplayer in profound ways. For a start, single is all about a powertrip of movement and resilience, whereas no multiplayer game can realistically support every player being on an incessant kill rampage. So the formula instantly changes from Schwarzenegger In Hell to Space Marines Chasing Each Other. This instantly, inescapably renders DOOM's multi more familiar than its singleplayer. Halo wouldn't be an unfair touchstone, although the maps are smaller and more maze-like. Actually, as sacrilegious as this sounds, it feels more like Unreal than Quake.

Even the arsenal departs from the id norm to some degree, with some new specialist shooters that don't fit easy archetypes and don't feel as satisfying for it. The mainstays of rocket launcher, railgun (though sadly renamed) and shotgun abide, however, and the BFG even puts in sporadic appearances.

Unfortunately sniper weapons have already seized control of the game, so don't expect an easy ride if you're a novice, but balancing that out somewhat is that the speed and mobility (yay doublejump) afforded to every player thanks to DOOM's wonderful movement means you can close the gap on a camper within moments. You really will need to familiarise yourself with the lightspeed headshot if you want to go far in this, though.

This speaks to another major change from singleplayer, which is that the multiple and delightfully overpowered alt-fire modes for the weapons have been all but stripped away in favour of the most vanilla options - there's not much more going on than scopes and premature rocket detonations. Whether this is because, for instance, locking three rockets onto three people simultaneously was deemed to be brutally unfair or because the netcode could not realistically support it I don't know, but it does mean that multiplayer lacks the bug-eyed insanity of singleplayer, and instead forces players into more tried and tested behaviours.

However, it also lacks the purity of traditional Doom or Quake multiplayer, partly because the array of weapons is muddier, partly because timed pick-ups temporarily turn the first player to grab them into a demon (more on that shortly) but mostly because it's hung around the now-traditional experience and unlock system.

This ringfences a few weapons until you level up a dozen or so times (just a couple of hours' play, really) but in the longer-term randomly doles about new character customisation options and one-shot power-ups, such as bonus XP for assist kills or temporary tracking of your most recent killer's location. Everything does something very similar now, and I'm an old man if I begrudge it, but it does rankle to see something with so much competitive heritage hitched up to a Skinner box. Can't it be enough to just want to win? Young people today, etc.

Doesn't help that the armour options (purely aesthetic) are so ugly. A lumpy grab-bag of styles, criss-crossing Master Chiefly powersuits, sub-Geiger demon fare and early Quake crusader helmets, most commonly seen in gruesome boy racer cod-metallic hues - it's visual noise. The occasional player pulls off something more sedate and subdued, usually involving trying to look a bit like a Dark Souls character, and I quite like the 80s robot-y Fractal set, but sadly the net effect is that everyone looks like a nebulous shiny splodge. It quickly becomes hard to care about a new armour piece unlock, because no-one you encounter will think, even for a second, 'woah, that guy looks cool.' Like so much about DOOM multiplayer, there's a sense that this stuff was made by a completely different team to that on singleplayer.

All that said, I was delighted when I unlocked tiny Quake logos for my armour:

Then there's these demon transformations I mentioned. It's not a novel concept to have one monstrous player on the map, who the entire opposing team then makes a beeline for, but it does fold in some of DOOM's great bestiary, as well as affording a rare opportunity to actually be a Revenant, Baron of Hell or Mancubus. Each has their own powers and movement, and all are giant hitpoint sponges, far more so than their singleplayer incarnations.

It's a hoot to be one, and it's frightening to face one, but it can disrupt the flow of a match, as suddenly the entire fight is about taking Big Bad down. What DOOM multiplayer sorely lacks is server options: not just the increasingly common forced matchmaking structure, but also deciding that a match should be without demons, or railguns, or power-ups, or people above a certain level.

All its modes bar one (essentially deathmatch except you have to pick up enemies' 'souls' post-kill) are team-based, and standard fare. The standouts for me was the one which involved controlling a moving zone of the map, as it forces snipers out of comfort zones, and the team-based last man standing variant, in which every player has but one life and thus everyone exercises far more caution. The playing field feels more levelled when everyone's mind is on staying alive rather than racking up the highest score, and the unpredictable nature of a multi-tier map which folk can double-jump around injects a great deal of tension into proceedings.

In short, don't come to DOOM multiplayer looking for some kind of id heritage - it doesn't pull off a smart rethink of early shooter values in the way the singleplayer does. Come to it for a solid but straightforward online mode in the modern paradigm, lifted higher by the wonderful bounciness of DOOM's movement system: double-jump slips seamlessly into proceedings, so it's never a matter of just running around the same paths, but instead hopping wildly across shortcuts or over people's heads.

You will feel busy and active for every second you play, and there is a much to be said for that: far more thrilling, moment-to-moment, than the ground-rooted traipse of the military shooter. Though aesthetically rather dull, the structure of the maps is smartly designed in order to enable this constant momvement: learning them and picking up on the shortcuts and hiding places happens very naturally.

It feels as though an opportunity for something clean and Quake-y has been missed, and certainly the walled garden of its lobby system is a frustration. It's true to say that I feel no great compulsion to return, but it isn't true to say that DOOM is a case of singleplayer good/multiplayer bad. It's singleplayer good/multiplayer adequate, which in fairness is probably not what people wanted from a game with 'DOOM' in the title.

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