Wot I Think: DOOM (Singleplayer)
The best shooter of 2016, or I'll eat a Cacodemon's hat
I feel sorry for the guys down the metaphorical hall, working on Fallout 4. There they are, stuck making Team Post-America with an ancient engine and the puppety, stilted shooting that seems to entail, and then, from the same stable, there's DOOM. A new epitome of speed, motion and combat. The fastest gun-game in the West. Press V for VATS? No, press F to rip a demon's head in half.
I never would have believed it, but DOOM is back.
Back as in really back: not just a name. Back as in fights which go on and on until you think you just can't handle any more, but you do. Then you breathe and charge into another one. Back as in never stop moving. Not for a second. Back as in Hell.
I never would have believed it because screenshots looked so colourless, and chest-thumping about secrets and kill moves had me fearing triteness. That wasn't DOOM, pure, clean, colourful, and precise. But this is DOOM. Or, at least, as close as I think anything I've played since to that chest-tightening feeling of mingled tension and exhilaration I had when first knee-deep in the dead in all those years ago. It's a different game for modern control sensibilities, not a retro affair by any means - it recaptures the spirit rather than the actuality. And then takes it to newer places.
I'll come back to good things later, but let's get a few gripes out the way now. Quite a few of the enemies are dull brown things, and even the more interesting later ones (the vast majority pulled from the classic DOOM bestiary) are disappointingly desaturated and lumpy. This plays into DOOM's generally pedestrian view of Hell, which I hope you're not ridiculous enough to believe is a spoiler when discussing a DOOM game, which eschews free reign to be as weird as it likes in favour of rocky canyons, lava and bleached skull imagery.
The classic 80s metal aesthetic yes, and I appreciate there's an appetite for that, but speaking purely visually DOOM never quite goes crazy - almost to the point where it feels as though the artists were making an entirely different, far less interesting game to what the frenzied, cackling bloodlords in the combat department were. I probably sound like a broken record from 1993 here, but man, a little more colour would have gone a long way.
Fortunately, it doesn't really matter, because it feels so damn good, and in any case you'll find your eyes scanning the scene at faster-than-light for specific sights and opportunities during the breathless dance of combat rather than ever worrying that the Cacodemons aren't sufficiently Fisher Price red.
The other major gripe is that the focus on secrets and collectibles threatens to overwhelm the meat of the game. There were many occasions when I was impatient to get through some huge, impeccably-paced fight because I knew there was a pick-up hiding in a side-room, and if I didn't find them all I wouldn't be granted that extra upgrade point for a weapon alt-fire mode that I never used. The trouble is not that the secrets and collectibles are there, but that they're slathered all over the UI and this creates an anxiety that they must be found, otherwise the experience is somehow incomplete.
Repeatedly hopping around the same four platforms to try and find wherever the hatch hiding another bobblehead is, which unlocks a piece of artwork I'll never even look at, also kills the keen sense of urgency, that rocketfuel-for-blood which makes DOOM such a damn good time. But maybe that's just me and my Skinner box: others may have stronger wills. Certainly, even the collectibles which upgrade your guns or other abilities can be found in sufficient quantities to succeed simply by playing normally. Speaking from hindsight, I kind of wish I'd just blasted through once then gone back again on Nightmare difficulty with the aim of finding everything.
Final, smaller gripe because pretending that I'm playing a Doom game for the storyline is completely absurd: the plot and characterisation is total bobbins. Often, it feels as though the narrative has been very wisely chopped right down to barebone so as to not interrupt the action or fake that this about anything more than killing lots and lots of monsters, which I am entirely on board with, but sometimes there are these odd longer sequences where it feels as though someone involved wasn't quite prepared to kill their dull darlings.
Woven into the jerkily-paced 'oh there's this company mining energy from Hell and you'll never guess what but..." plot are assorted suggestions of wider Doom mythos that links old and new games. It's sweet to embrace the past like that, but I'm not sure the attempts to transform Doomguy into something more potent than Arnie In A Green Suit achieve much. Whatever the mythological intentions though, and whatever the sporadic interruptions from a quartet of other, more garrulous characters, the blessed reality is that our wordless hero has no time for anyone's shit, and is only interested in constant, unrelenting shooting, with a side-order of rending. Yep, that'll do.
I had been concerned, based on the first few hours, that the desaturated rabbit warren design of the initial levels bode poorly - I wanted to spend my time fighting, not traipsing back and forth looking for that one door or switch I hadn't been through yet.
Fortunately, it turns out this was just a casualty of the earlier stages having comparatively few enemies (though still more than most of its contemporaries) and so preferring smaller rooms and corridors in which to house them. By around a third of the way in, DOOM's cranked things up so much that the level design becomes more about vast, multi-tier arenas that you sprint, double-jump and plunge around as part of a beautiful, widescreen cat'n'mouse chase.
Only one where there are, like, 50 lions and tigers and jetpack-wearing panthers and one mouse with a selection of experimental weaponry. And that mouse can double-jump, mantling and perform infinitely long drops without injury, which it very much needs to be able to do because the maze it's being chased around is now enormous.
One trick DOOM most overtly borrows from its noble forebear is to introduce you, earlyish on, to a huge foe that is far more monstrous and challenging than anything you've yet faced. The battle is tense and difficult, and you're relieved when it's over - a boss fight, basically.
Fast forward forty minutes and you're routinely fighting three of whatever it was at once, with half a dozen Imps and a couple of Hellknights charging around too. Fast forward eight hours and OH MY GOD EVERYTHING. The idea that I felt threatened by a single Mancubus or Revenant simply seems laughable now. OK, maybe not quite Doom II at its most sadistic 'everything', but given that many of the enemies have a particular set of skills which makes them far more dangerous than their earliest incarnations, the challenge level is right up there.
As to what changed, it's a combination of my own skill improving (you really do learn movement, weapon capabilities and enemy vulnerabilities on the job, through the natural course of play) and my weapons and hitpoints amping up hugely through assorted upgrades. I opted to bat away a suspicion that enemies are made slightly weaker later on in order to deal with the ever-growing hordes, but my character really was a death-machine by that point, plus ancient circle-strafing experience had awoken fully.
Coming out of DOOM, the world feels as though it's in slow motion. It's not as simple as the character's rollerblading-at-an-ice-rink movement speed, but about how that enables double-jumps, clambering onto far ledges and dropping to the ground like a stone to get out of dodge for a heartbeat. The mantling, oddly, is one of the keys to it all: traversal from the high to the low and back again, but with a sense of physicality attached, rather than Mario-floatiness. Then there's the melee system, aka Glory Kills, which enable you to insta-murder a temporarily stunned monster after you've unloaded enough lead or plasma into it. This yields health (and other stuff depending on upgrades), which means it becomes the game's key survival technique rather than just a show-off effect.
Recharging health would kill the pace, scavenging for health packs would make you too vulnerable, so the solution is to make the act of killing also the act of recovery. It works beautifully, but even when a health top-up is not required, charging towards a blue-glowing demon then slamming F when you're close enough that the glow turns golden is compulsive and thrilling. It's the act of victory, and the gruesome animations make that very clear. It's also a part of movement, as Glory Kills activated from a slight distance away drag you right over the beast, and if you find the upgrade which expands this range, it becomes an oddball but effective way of hopping around the arenas.
I had a whole host of notes stored in a draft version of this post, made after my first five or so hours with the game. I deleted them all, because they were essentially talking about a different game than the one I discuss above. There's an argument to be made that DOOM has too slow a start - depending on how much you explore and secret-hunt, you might be looking at as much as eight hours of what is, essentially, a shooter a bit like the recent Wolfenstein sequels, but played at speed. The second half, which lasted me another good eight hours, is so different, but in a way I didn't realise until I sat back and thought about my journey through Mars and hell. I'd learned so much. I thought differently. I moved differently. I played DOOM, not just a first-person shooter.
My drafted gripes were deleted because I realised only then that DOOM had been gradually training me - training for a frantic, kinetic way of play that simply is not the norm in today's focus-tested, handheld shooters. It's a great shame that its training wheels involve making cramped and dour maps for that first half, because even revisiting it on Nightmare or Ultra Nightmare, as I will, can't solve that problem, but at least there's freedom to choose levels once you've finished them.
I should also note that the game runs remarkably well given how high-tech (if dour) it looks - there were a few dips, but most of the time I was seeing the hallowed 60 at 2560x1440 and medium-high settings on a GTX 970. I didn't feel I was missing out on any high-end effects and, most of all, it felt lightning fast throughout, although I wouldn't argue that the new generation of id Tech powering it feels like a big leap forwards from what we saw in the last couple of Wolfenstein games.
Multiplayer and map-making I'll be covering in a seperate feature, by the way: this was a surprisingly long campaign mode and I simply haven't had time to look at the other options on the menu yet. So, for now, I'll leave you with this: DOOM is the most satisfying singleplayer shooter I've played since Wolfenstein: The New Order, and easily eclipses it when it comes to movement and gunplay. The noisenik soundtrack and demon theme entirely disqualify it from any thinking person's shooter accolades, but it does not want to be a thinking person's shooter and nor do I want it to be one. It is a shooter. It is the shooter, returned.
Not a replacement for Doom the first, no, but, at last, a true companion to it, and if I am going to accuse it of intelligence, it is to say that it has clearly thought long and hard about what extrapolating Doom's values to 2016 really means.
Propulsive, thrilling and breathless, DOOM is the triumph I never expected. I just can't see there being a better shooter this year, I really can't.