DOOM is fun! DOOM is also very DOOM-y! Perhaps too much so? Transcript after the jump.
DOOM (that is, 2016’s DOOM) faces something of a difficult question: how do you take a 25 year old game made by fifteen or so people in a year and reinvent it as a modern tentpole release in 2016? Being asked to modernize DOOM kind of feels like being asked to modernize Tetris or Pac-Man; at this point it feels like it’s some sort of ur-game that has always been. It’s at once timeless and yet very much of its time – a title imitated over and over again since its release and with influence that’s echoed through the years, but a title that also is basically a cocktail of early 90’s heavy metal, James Cameron’s Aliens, Evil Dead, H.P. Lovecraft stories, and Dungeons and Dragons. How do you capture the essence of DOOM without simply retreading its influences or ending up like any number of run-and-gun first person shooters that have come since?
The answer id seems to have arrived at is to break down DOOM to its constituent parts and see if they could modernize them independently rather than trying to modernize the whole package all at once. That is to say: They didn’t look for the one thing that needed to be in DOOM and then just make a modern game out of that. That’s kind of what DOOM 3 did – it assumed that DOOM was just a game about shooting demons and then tried to come up with its own action/horror riff on that concept. And whether that game succeeded or not (and it didn’t) it was decidedly only vaguely related to the original DOOM. So this time around id looked at modernizing each bit of DOOM individually – its music, its tone, its core play loops, its level design, and more. The outcome of that approach is a game that is at once rough around the edges and maybe not entirely cohesive, but a game that is undeniably following in the spirit of DOOM in ways that DOOM 3 wasn’t.
Take, for example, DOOM 2016’s approach to tone. It would have been easy for DOOM to continue in the steps of DOOM 3 and present itself as a self-serious story about demons from hell and the one space marine who is a bad enough dude to save the president of Mars. And I just think we’ve moved beyond treating something as goofy as DOOM as a modern epic. It also could have easily overcorrected into self-parody; a game eager to point out just how ludicrously over the top the satanic imagery, gory violence, and threadbare plot are. Instead the game does something clever – it tries to match the tone of the original games by doing both.
The original DOOM took its iconography seriously – a game of blood and guts and intimidating goat-skull pentagrams and nightmarish monsters. It aimed to make the player feel like an action movie hero and knew it could only do that if the player was up against real threats. But it also had a sense of humor about itself, it never lost sight of the fact that it was a silly, sophomoric, indulgent power fantasy. I mean, the end of the original DOOM is basically a big, gory, dead rabbit joke. 1993’s DOOM balanced this serious-but-not tone mostly contrasting its visuals with its play. You run at a thousand miles an hour while firing increasingly ridiculous guns at demons that grow equally absurd, but despite that Looney Tunes play sensibility it made sure that the iconography itself remained serious and threatening. Yes, you’re firing a big f&43ing gun at something called a Cyberdemon right outside the gates of Hell and it’s as goofy as that sounds, but there are impaled guys and tortured flesh textures and dark corridors with flashing lights and unknown horrors all around you.
The new DOOM mostly follows this same approach, contrasting play with iconography, but has expanded that contrast to include not just mise en cin but also lore and cutscenes. Hence Olivia Pearce and Samuel Hayden: two characters who take the fate of the game’s Saturday Morning Cartoon world very seriously. They talk about Serious Issues like energy crises and the good of mankind, spout exposition and lore under the assumption you care, and mention hell portals and demon infestations as casually as what they had for dinner. And what makes that work without falling into DOOM 3’s pit of self-seriousness is that the player character – Doomguy – hates both of them. He doesn’t care about their bickering, he doesn’t care about the fate of the world or Argent Energy or the need to appeal to an evil god or the cult UAC has built for itself. He just exists as a player avatar – a player who is just there to kill things. He’s basically playing the guy in the D&D campaign that doesn’t take the story seriously, but instead of going the Gearbox route and having him spout sassy one-liners it’s all done through silent gestures and actions. This subverts the urgency and grand importance the other characters put on everything, and it keeps the game from falling too far into a glowering slog or a goofy farce.
I’ve said in the past that the original Quake hits this disaffected teen angst vibe, and if that’s true then DOOM is the smug, snarky side of being a teenager – old enough to get that adult and forbidden things exist, but young enough to dismiss them with a smirk. DOOM 2016 hits that tonal sweet spot that captures the sense of adolescent irreverence that oozed from the original game.
That’s not to say the tone is perfect, though. The hologram PA system, for example, does tend to tip over into straight-up camp and pushes the world a little too close into self-parody at times. It kind of feels a bit like an overreaction to the absurdly unironic TV screens in DOOM 3 that felt like the sort of exposition dumps you might get in line at a theme park. Why… we’re on Mars. How many visitors do we get? Who is this for?
The other problem is that, well, the original DOOM wasn’t an adolescent smirk; it was an adolescent middle finger. It was transgressive and it knew it, taking violence in an era where Night Trap and Mortal Kombat were about to result in congressional hearings and merging it with satanic imagery in an era where America was in the midst of Satanic Panic and angels were really big for some reason. Robert Rath wrote a really good piece on this over at Zam if you want to read more, but it’s true: DOOM wasn’t just “edgy,” there was a time when it was seen as absolutely dangerous by a lot of people. This new game – a big budget release by a major studio across three platforms – can’t be dangerous. 1993’s DOOM was a scrappy indie game made by 20 year olds out to upset parents, 2016’s DOOM is part of an established global brand with books and comics and a terrible movie to its name. I’m of two minds on how to feel about – on one hand, getting older sucks and this kind of feels like seeing a once-controversial band play a really safe show at the Super Bowl now that their songs are seen as harmless classics rather than youth-ruining threats. On the other hand, modern attempts by major studios to be transgressive usually end up like Call of Duty’s No Russian at worst and EA’s Dead Space 2 Offends Your Mom ads at best so… it’s absolutely for the best they didn’t even try to go there, I just think it’s important to note that aspect of the game’s tone, that danger, has, in fact, changed.
Speaking of changes: let’s talk about how the combat mechanics have been adapted! The original DOOM is basically a first-person Robotron – it’s a game of projectile avoidance as much as it is a game about shooting things. To facilitate this projectile avoidance while keeping the action up-tempo they gave you the ability to run crazy fast. For those who haven’t played it: you run about as fast as your own rockets in this game. By modern game standards it is just ludicrously fast movement. By modern game standards it’s also kind of hard to replicate – increased graphical fidelity means needing to model and animate a human running at fifty miles an hour, which looks… weird. And the wide open spaces that DOOM used to let you avoid all those projectiles would look kind of sparse – modern shooter level design aesthetics are much more aimed around densely populated, densely decorated levels. Besides, even if you slowed the movement down a bit those sorts of straight-up circle-strafing games still exist – whether it’s Serious Sam or Hard Reset or Painkiller, we’re not hurting for games aimed at crowd-controlling large numbers of monsters while avoiding projectiles. So falling back on those old tropes would not only look weird but also put the game into a sort of boring, well-tread place play-wise.
Id’s response is to keep the gameplay movement focused but shift the way movement is used a little bit. It’s still a defensive tool, but instead of dodging with intent it’s a lot more about an impetus to just keep moving in general. Part of this is due to a change in player speed – you don’t run nearly as quickly as you did in the original DOOM and the projectiles move much faster than they used to, so the act of dodging is less methodical, planned action and more “OH GOD, LOOKOUT!” In fact, when you get the Haste powerup the game almost feels like the movement speeds are the same relative to the first DOOM, just drastically sped up. The other reason you want to keep moving? The majority of the fighting takes place in big arenas where enemies are on all sides of you, which makes keeping track of projectiles way more difficult than in the original DOOM. So in place of well telegraphed projectiles that are easy to dodge because you run a million miles an hour, you have fast moving projectiles from all angles that you can only dodge if you just keep running. It feels less like first person Robotron, and more like you’re Jason Statham in Crank.
The other big change is that this DOOM wants to move the combat to a much more close quarters affair. The closed arena layouts mean you can’t retreat to other parts of the level for health or ammo, and the fact that the game spawns enemies in around you means you might not have a clear shot to health or ammo that are placed around the arena. To solve that problem – and to encourage the up-close-and-personal combat the game seems to be aiming for – DOOM rewards health and ammo for melee kills. Ammo can be gained with a chainsaw and health can be gained with a fancy finishing move. These moves can also act as Dark Souls style invulnerability frames in a pinch, though they don’t feel as good timing a dodge just right in that game.
So the game tries to keep you near enemies, which in a game about dodging projectiles means you’re going to get hit more often, which means you’re going to need to do your melee moves often, which means you’ll get hit more. The outcome of that feedback loop is that matches are a fracas, a scrappy mad-dash brawl that moves a mile a minute. Where in older DOOM games you would move from healthy and ammo stocked to not over the course of several rooms, here it happens several times a fight. They’ve replaced a sense of speed defined by player movement with a sense of speed in defined by the fighting tempo. Compare how these two battles feel: (Footage). There’s an oddly rhythmic beat to the combat – brief breaks in the shooting for melee kills in between running and gunning. This core gameplay loop of fighting monsters and losing health and gaining it back is really strong, and it celebrates a lot of what made the original DOOM work so well: powerful feeling guns, an emphasis on mobility (they also added a double jump and ledge grabs for some verticality in the arenas) and a sense of speed, even if it’s a different sort of speed than before.
If there’s a problem with the core gameplay loop, it’s that it’s very much designed for arena play only, and the results are… samey. And to explain what I mean by that, I think I have to step back and talk about the level design a bit. The original DOOM’s levels were, by today’s standards, sprawling and arcane. If they did have a focus, it was typically to explore various play styles by choosing which monsters and weapon ammunition you had available. Some levels, like E2M2: Containment Area, were ammunition deprived and asked players to navigate a maze of boxes. Others, like DOOM II’s Dead Simple, had very little in the way of exploration or ammo conservation – it was an all-out battle against Mancubi and Arachnotrons. Some levels focused on bullet weapons, others on high explosives. Some levels focused on imps and fallen soldiers, others pushed high damage enemies like Cyberdemons or barons of hell, and still others focused on flying enemies or melee monsters. The point is, the original DOOM levels each had a sense of mechanical identity, a sense that they were exploring some subset of the DOOM mechanics by limiting what ammo was available to you or selecting specific monster combinations. The arenas fights in DOOM 2016 do not really have this. First, the progression of monsters is pretty linear – starting with fallen soldiers and imps, introducing Hell Knights and revenants, then Cacodemons, and so on. There’s never a sense of “Oh, this is the level with like a hundred cacodemons, I love this one!” Once a monster is introduced they pretty much just show up onesie twosie in every arena fight from there on out. There really isn’t a sense of playing with monster placement or variety or number, and each fight feels like a random hodgepodge of a few of all monsters you’ve unlocked so far. This culminates in making certain monsters scripted boss fights. On one hand, they’re super well designed boss fights that really sell the first-person-Robotron nature of DOOM by focusing on projectile avoidance and simple pattern recognition. But on the other hand the game no longer treats its most impressive monstrosities as pieces to be used to give flavor to a level – they’re one-offs at the contrivance of a story the game doesn’t take all that seriously rather than a recurring show-stoppers they were before. The game can’t do cool things like this. Or this epic battle.
This same-i-ness is exacerbated by the fact that every weapon is viewed as equally valid. DOOM stuck pretty firmly to a linear progression of weapon damage – shotguns had higher damage output than pistols, the chaingun had higher damage output than shotguns, etc. This is part of what made levels mixing up the ammo types available in old DOOM games interesting – “Can you take out this room full of Cackies with just a shotgun?” But DOOM 2016 treats weapon selection as a personal preference thing – pistol aside, they’re all equally valid tools for the job, so pick your poison. And then upgrade it to be even poison-ier. In the context of arena fights it means there’s ammo for all weapons scattered about, and chainsaw kills drop ammunition of all types. Weapon selection is no longer nudged by the level designer giving you ammo, weapon selection is now just whatever gun you like the best. And because almost every combat scenario is an arena there’s rarely a moment where you really need a long distance gun, or you really need an explosive to do splash damage on tons of enemies bunched together, or you really need the chaingun to trigger the pain animation in just this one particular guy till he’s dead. It’s just… well, rip and tear and rip and tear. And it’s tremendously fun ripping and some of the best tearing I’ve had in ages, but after a 10 hour campaign it all just sort of blurs together. It’s like this game has one really badass fight sequence in it and it just wants to repeat it over and over until you’ve had enough.
And there are other little things that I think were lost in the translation. The original DOOM had me feeling like a hunter – you would see these monsters off in the distance, or hear them from two rooms away, and know that your job wasn’t done. Now aside from some light corridor shooting monsters teleport in around you, making the whole affair feel more like a series scripted arcade encounters (which, I mean, they are) rather than a world infested with monsters. In the original DOOM you could walk over cleared areas littered with corpses of demons, and while that’s definitely a gruesome image, they made the area feel cleansed, like you had claimed this area for your own. Now to save memory killed demons evaporate soon after death, and for a game really into gore and carnage it doesn’t seem interested in letting you bask in – or contemplate – the results of your battles.
Meanwhile, the level design tries to strike a balance between modern linearity and the more traditional criss-crossing, back-tracking mazes of the original game. When it works, it’s actually pretty great – there’s a pacing to the whole thing that tries to balance the less intense corridor combat, the big showpiece arenas, platforming segments, and exploration driven bits. But at times it falls too far in either direction – linear levels like the Lazarus Lab underscore the artifice of each arena by turning progress into a series of rooms with monsters that lock the doors behind you. The linear levels also tend to kill a sense of exploration – as do the occasional doors that bar backtracking, by the way. For a game so into encouraging you to look for secrets it’s super annoying to have to restart an entire map because of those. Other times the game goes off into areas that are too open – levels like the forge encourage players to tackle objectives in the order they want, but the vertical nature of the game’s world means you often head towards an indicator on your HUD without realizing you needed to go backwards to actually get to it. This has the advantage of making you rely on your map – which, hey, cool, it feels like old school DOOM – but the disadvantage of having you walk in areas that are already had their demons exorcised. There’s a reason that games focused on shooting moved away from this sort of design, and it’s evident here.
Finally, before we go, let’s talk about SnapMap. It embodies this idea of breaking down what made DOOM so special and modernizing each piece, since DOOM laid a lot of the groundwork for what we now think of as mods. It wasn’t the first game to modifiable, of course – house rules for games have existed since time immemorial, and plenty of preceding games were modifiable to one degree or another – but DOOM’s tools became so available and so user friendly that there we expansion packs containing hundreds and hundreds of DOOM levels. The DOOM modding community is vibrant to this day – there’s a non-trivial amount of influence of Brutal DOOM in the 2016 game. So one of the things id set out to do was recapture that accessible sense of modability, to really make this feel like DOOM with its thousands of user generated levels. And I totally respect that high level idea, and I really want it to succeed, but… look, I’m still kind of bummed about the fate of Disney Infinity, but SnapMap does a good job of reminding me why the sandbox there never quite worked. Snapping together prefabricated rooms with minimal decorative options means every single level is a generic space corridor. The scripting system is powerful – I’ve played levels that quizzed me on DOOM knowledge, I’ve played Stanley Parable style walking sims with a text-based narrator, I’ve seen the farming sims, I’ve seen a Five Nights at Freddy’s clone… but the environments and interactions are so similar – and the imitations of other mechanics so roughly hewn – that like the main game’s combat it all blurs together after a while. What was meant to be an endless collection of user created shooter levels like D!Zone has become a series of unremarkable scifi themed shooter prototype games that don’t feel finished. It’s a shame that SnapMap couldn’t figure out how to make level design tools that encouraged players to create their own riffs on the game’s core mechanics, but then id’s own level designers weren’t allowed to make levels that made riffs on the game’s core mechanics. It’s a beautiful idea, facilitating level creation like the old days, but the modern approach to high-fidelity content creation turns it into a prefrab scripting toy rather than a proper level creator.
And I guess that’s the big problem with remaking games this way. Almost every bit of the original has been resurrected and reconstructed here – its music, its multiplayer, its action, its modability. And all of it carries the seeds of what made the original version of that thing great while building on it and pulling it into the present in some way. And individually each element does, totally, work – the combat, the soundtrack, the art design, it all sings of being DOOM-but-in-2016. But combined it’s not a cohesive package, or a game with its own vision. In a way, DOOM 3 and DOOM 2016 are mirror opposites of one another – one straying far from the original to take bold risks that more or less don’t pan out at all, and the other staying so close to the original it struggles to know what it wants to be other than “DOOM… but, like, these days!” I’ve mentioned how the golden age of id games seemed to be profoundly influenced by music – DOOM’s heavy metal, Quake’s industrial tunes, and so on. And if that’s true, I suppose that makes DOOM 2016 a modern cover of a classic song. And it’s a *damned good* cover, it’s a cover I’ve had stuck in my head for weeks since it came out. But a cover doesn’t make a band, or even an album. As a one-off blast of nostalgia this is powerful, awesome stuff. But as the foundations for a reborn franchise as the cliffhanger ending of this game implies? I’m struggling to see what this version of the series has to offer besides nostalgia. The gameplay is too samey and the game spends so much time dismissing its own story there’s no stakes to care about. And once the nostalgia buzz runs out – what’s left?