DooM: Never Back Down, Always Double Down

The following article comes from the pen of TheOneYeti, an avid gamer and one of my choicest friends.  I have told him that he’s welcome to write a post for my blog anytime, and readers among my audience will appreciate certainly his views and sense of humor.  You might catch him on his twitch channel or on Steam, where his handle is simply Yeti.

*Disclaimer* I played Doom on a Playstation 4. I purchased this game with my own money for full retail price and did not receive a review code. I played through the campaign twice, once on the third and once on the second hardest.  Just to be clear, this is only a review of the single player mode.*

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The first minute of Doom pulls no punches and hedges no bets. The player is given a 10 second cutscene where it’s established that there are demons on Mars, and you need to kill them – here’s a gun. It lays all its cards on the deck and establishes the tone, setting, and gameplay immediately. The first 10 minutes are some of the best first 10 minutes of any game I’ve ever played.

Doom eschews practically everything that have made successful shooters in the last decade – some sort of story with characters, slow combat, often based around use of cover, and regenerating health. None of these maidenly luxuries will accompany you to hell and back. In Doom, the only real strategy is to Never Back Down and Always Double Down.

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That’s not to say Doom doesn’t have any modern elements, or that it can truly be called novel. There is a plot, although it is about 3 minutes (and two minutes too long, I might add!). What it lacks for plot, however, or characters or all these other staples of “mature story telling” that has become so popular, it makes up for in charm.

It does take some modern elements, namely an upgrade system. However, Doom’s upgrades differ from many other recent shooters (Shadow Warrior II, Wolfenstein the New Order, Bioshock, etc.) in that it’s upgrades are almost never flat percentage based upgrades. There are a few, including standard health / armor / ammo capacity upgrades. However there are never any flat damage reduction or damage output upgrades. Instead there are alternative modes for weapons, with their own drawbacks (increased consumption of ammo, severally reduced mobility, etc.) that don’t directly make  the player more powerful, but empower players with more gameplay options.

Finally, Doom feels novel by shunning regenerating health, having fast player speed, and offering little cover (and having a relentless AI and fights with many enemies). Doom, however, is anything but novel. It’s a formula the original Doom established in the 90s, and Id Software, creators of both Doom and Doom 2016, developed and improved upon with Quake. These shooters, and other similar shooters of the 90s, became known as “arena shooters” – even though many took place in cramped corridors.

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Fast forward to 2004 for the last major influencing game on Doom 2016. It’s not Doom 3, which was released that year. Nor was it Half Life 2, which was, along with Half Life 1, at least partially responsible for many elements present in FPS (First Person Shooters). No, the game of interest to the developers was clearly Painkiller, a superb shooter in its own right, and one of the last major arena shooters released for many years. In Painkiller the player was often locked into large areas with many monsters to fight, with lots of room to maneuver and nowhere to retreat to. Doom in 2016 uses arenas in many of its combat sequences. There are, of course, encounters with demons in tight corridors and demon ambushes, but Doom’s largest fights take place in large areas with obstacles to climb and vault over, or to jump to or across, and large spaces to maneuver and dodge projectiles.

Perhaps the most significant thing about 90s FPS, in particular Quake, was the types of projectiles that both you and your enemies fires. There are two common ways FPS does the “shooting” part. The first is called hitscan. In hitscan, the system simply calculates if the cursor or recital in on the target, and automatically registers a hit. In other words, with hitscan weapons there is no dodging. Movement is important – to throw off aim, but not nearly as important as it was in Quake. A mix of cover and slower movement helps lower the damage you will take per second, so that whichever player takes  In Quake, almost all weapons were projectile based. Press the trigger on your gun shoots a projectile with a velocity that can potentially be dodged. Fast movement speed meant that projectiles could be dodged, even after being fired, allowing skilled players to avoid most, if not all, and damage.

For the single player campaign, all but one of the enemies uses projectile weapons, and the player uses a mix of hitscan and projectile weapons, allowing for gameplay that has a high potential skill ceiling, while still being very easy to grasp and enjoy. And, while not novel, one has to admire the attention of detail this development team put into these mechanics. Indeed, for combat this fluid and fun, novelty is a fine sacrifice.

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The thing that impressed me most was the movement. While maybe not as fast as Quake, the player still moves significantly faster than in any other recent shooter in memory. In fact, I’d say the player moves at least twice as fight as “sprinting” in call of duty. Move over, short animations ensure that jumps and vaults feel fast and don’t interrupt the quick gameplay.

You’ll need all the speed you can get too, because Doom is happy to throw tons of enemies at your way. It’s hard to comment on enemy AI, but from my experience, the AI both relentlessly pursues players and always seems to feel like it is surrounding the player. This alone is impressive, but factor in the fact that many enemies can climb and jump across all the same surfaces as the player, and that some types of enemies can fly, float, and even teleport, and you have a combination that makes every fight a frantic one, where death always seems possible.

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Another thing that’s commendable is the level design – at least for the first three quarters of the game. While never truly open, these levels often let players tackle objectives in several different orders – or at least many of them do. The early levels, especially the third level, ties in the open arena fighting areas with corridors, walkways, environmental hazards, and different encounters neatly. Many levels do a superb job of hiding secrets, so that even with upgrades that make it easier to detect, it often is still a challenge to discover them. Doom’s levels also have a fair bit of platforming. The player takes no fall damage, so with the exception a few sections, platforming is not particularly challenging, but it is also short and adds some variety to the gameplay. Unfortunately, the level design was not especially strong in the last quarter of the game. While earlier levels do a good job of integrating their combat arenas into the environment, the last several levels are just arenas connected by straight corridors or paths.  It’s unfortunate, especially considering that several levels could have easily changed this linearity to allow for a more open structure. Linearity is not bad if it serves a purpose, but because Doom has very few scripted moments and no real story (besides the player’s own) nothing is gained from the linear structure. It feels like these levels were rushed near the end.

Thankfully, the last quarter introduces boss fights – climatic fights against a single powerful enemy. With a few exceptions (notably games made by Fromsoftware and Platinum) boss fights in video games feel like a relic from the past, retained only to serve the game’s story or to inject a little variety. Thankfully, the boss fights got the attention they deserved and are both very challenging and very fun.

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Most of the weapons on offer were present in previous Doom games. Fan favorites such as the super shotgun or BFG 9,000 return, but the upgrades system allowing alternative fire modes (with the exception of the super shotgun) give these weapons many different uses, so that nothing feels old. They all feel unique and, with the exception of the pistol, all are useful and feel good to use.

The BFG and Chainsaw are mapped to their own keys, which at first seemed odd. However, one quickly realizes how smart this decision was. The chainsaw has very limited (3-9) ammo (it runs on fuel). However, the chainsaw is an instant kill – an easy way to eliminate one potentially dangerous enemies. Harder enemies require more chainsaw fuel to be used. However, when one kills an enemy with the chainsaw, that enemy drops a ton of ammunition for all your weapons. It gives the player an additional tactical option during combat. The BFG likewise has very limited, and even rarer ammo. However, the BFG will instant kill multiple enemies with one well aimed shot, and was a lifesaver many times on my play through. The tactical options these weapons add completely justify their taking up one button on the control pad.

Speaking of controls, Doom has a great layout. Controls in video games are usually not worth mentioning unless they are so bad they hinder gameplay, but it is worth saying that the developers set up a superb control scheme. Every button on the ps4 controller has a use, and while there is a weapon wheel (if you hold r1), you can simply tap r1 to alternate between your last two equipped weapons. The controls never got in my way, and mapping the BFG and chainsaw to their own dedicated buttons was a great decision, since players will often need them in a pinch.

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Earlier, I mentioned that Doom has very little way in plot, but makes up for it in charm. There are a handful of times where the player does hear or read dialogue. Occasionally, an intercom or hologram will give some flavor messages (i.e. “At the UAC, we’re devoted to building better worlds) while the player is playing the game. These don’t hamper the gameplay or movement, and, in their own way, are rather funny – given the hellish (sorry) situation the UAC has created. There’s only a few minutes of dedicated exposition. The first few times this happens, I enjoyed it. It was brief, and due to doomguy’s, uh, attitude towards the NPCs, I found myself laughing. Unfortunately, after a couple of levels, exposition in Doom is not handled nearly as well. Players are often locked in a room while they get boring dialogue about the story. I don’t necessarily have a problem with exposition. The Witcher 3 had tons of it, and I loved that game. However Doom barely has a plot, and it’s objectives always boil down to “kill more demons”. The delivery suffers too. Players are often locked in a few, sometimes unable to even move, while an omniscient NPC uses technobabble to explain the plot. It feels like playing a Mariokart race, but being forced to stop and wait at a stop light. It simply does not mesh well with a game this fast paced or action packed.

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There is a backstory to the game which is thankfully handled slightly better. Players can pick up data logs to read about the different levels, demons, guns, etc… at their own leisure. Given the ridiculous situation of space-demons invading Mars through a portal from hell, and the over the top action, I found the activities and research being done in the backstory to be pretty funny. That being said, while data-logs are better than unskippable exposition dumps, Doom still could have found better ways to inject this stuff into the gameplay so that the player does not have to stop playing to figure out what is going on. Using environmental props and level design to explain what happened, or audio to play while the player explores, would have been superior.

While Doom’s later levels feel weaker and the plot occasionally intrudes on the gameplay, Doom’s single player campaign is outstanding. Recently, many shooters have wanted to integrate a gripping story or elements from other games, such as RPG choices, into their design. While many shooters do a good job of this, Doom’s focus on its core gameplay is very refreshing, and it’s single player is a game well worth experiencing.

 

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