Doom Review: Back to Basics
Reboots are a tricky thing in entertainment. I’ve talked about this previously with Tomb Raider’s reboot. You want to do something fresh while retaining the spirit of the original. Something familiar without feeling like a retread of what people have already seen or played and loved. Doom 4’s lengthy start-stop development cycle saw the game lose the number at the end and have work scraped and started from scratch.
The end result is a fantastic reintroduction of the classic FPS franchise to the modern generation. It finds the right balance between new and modern gameplay with the classic mechanics and spirit of the 1993 original.
Doom picks up an unspecified length of time following the previous Doom games. The tomb of Doom Guy (that’s his official designation) was found by a research team exploring Hell and trying to harness its energy for humanity’s use. Naturally, playing around with Hell wasn’t a smart idea and Doom Guy was resurrected in order to save a Mars research facility and all of humanity from the armies of Hell itself.
The story isn’t really important to the game and is really only there to explain your next objective. It can, at times, bog you down with talking scenes when all you really want to do is get back to shooting / chainsawing / punching various hellspawn in the face. There are a couple of scenes where you have to stand and wait for exposition that you aren’t paying the slightest attention to because this is Doom and you’re conditioned to not care or because the story doesn’t really matter. The game tries a religious zealotry storyline to explain it all but those scenes immediately brought me back to Dead Space with the dialogue and visuals. And that’s brought up and basically ignored after the first couple of hours of the game as you get into shooting evil.
But this is Doom so let’s all admit that you aren’t picking this up for the story. You’re doing it for the action.
Doom 2016 is very much built in the spirit of the Doom games of 1993 and 1994 (Doom 2). There are big levels that are populated by hellspawn that you have to shoot through. You have a wide array of weapons that you will use to do so including all of the classic weapons with some new additions. It’s a fast-paced, gore-filled combat style that is reminiscent of the original Doom but with less emphasis on using cover and more on constantly being on the move as you will be constantly swarmed by enemies.
id brought some modernizations to the game with this iteration of their iconic franchise. For example, if you’ve only played the 90s Doom games, you’ll notice that you can do novel things like jumping and aiming up and down. It sounds like ridiculous statement in 2016 but you legitimately couldn’t aim up or down in Doom 1993. There are waypoint markers to point you to your next objective as opposed to the figure it out yourself approach to objectives that was typical of early gaming. There are reasonably forgiving checkpoints so you aren’t reset to the beginning of a level when you die. And you have a weapon wheel that slows time so you aren’t haphazardly spamming number keys looking for the right weapon.
And id has also brought in some outright modern mechanics to the game. Weapon modifications have been added to game to change the standard weapons and give them a little emergency punch. There is an RPG element in which you earn weapon upgrade points or find upgrade points for your armor. There are even more special bonuses that let you upgrade your maximum health, armor or ammo. In keeping with many modern games, there are datalog pickups with lore and character/location information. And the increasingly popular jetpack makes an appearance in Doom as first-person platforming is a part of the game. Fortunately, there is an occasionally (but not consistently) forgiving ledge grabbing mechanic to save your skin.
I don’t necessarily mind all the modern tweaks to the shooting mechanics. I don’t care for the health, armor and ammo increases having to be found in secrets and then being treated in RPG-style upgrades. For a modern game, 1% health and armor boost above 100% probably wouldn’t go over well but I think the backpack pickup to double ammo capacity was a fair mechanic, especially since the game never let you have something like that without a big fight. Overall, though, the new combat and gameplay mechanics do well to tweak and improve the base combat of Doom while keeping it fun and not getting away from the spirit of the classic game.
Unfortunately, the modernization has permeated into the level design. The classic Doom levels were all designed in a way to give you a challenge in terms of the types of enemies you faced and where you faced them. They could be sitting behind a door or in a tight hallway or trying to take you down from a balcony but each combat scenario felt different. Doom 2016 almost exclusively features designated combat areas. Every big battle is in a big square room with two or three levels so you can use your jet back. Enemies will spawn all over the place in large numbers to make a challenge and you can’t move out of the room until everyone is dead.
It’s the antithesis of Doom 1993. You didn’t have to kill all the enemies. You could charge by them or retreat if you have to. They didn’t randomly spawn in endlessly (unless you’re on Nightmare difficulty). There could be a strategic approach to all of your combat because it was designed deliberately. The combat arenas remind me of the most generic of modern games. You walk into a room knowing that you’re in for a fight even if no enemies are in sight and you know you aren’t progressing until everyone is dead. It’s more tedious than fun even if the combat does do quite a bit to make up for it.
It’s a shame that id went for this one particular form for its function in their level design. Some of the earlier levels, especially the outdoor ones on Mars and in Hell, do a great job of combining level design that looks functional for the purposes of the Mars facility with a good combat area. Coincidentally, most of good Mars combat areas come before you get your jumpboots (functionally a jetpack) when combat arena design is focused on placing multiple walkways of differing elevation that you can jump or jet to. Doom’s level design was about making form and function work together for a fun and challenging experience. Doom 2016’s design document might well have said “Look at how much running and jumping you have to do! Look at how fast you have to move! Isn’t it fun?!” Sometimes restraint and working within limitations results in a better experience.
So if you’re like me and haven’t played a Doom game other than 1993’s Doom or 1994’s Doom II, you’re definitely in for some changes. A lot of the characters have undergone mechanical or visual redesigns. A lot of the Doom 2 original monsters remain the same while Doom monsters like the Imp, Demon and two zombie soldiers look and play significantly differently than in 1993. It’s a function of 23 years of evolution of both programming and increasing computer (and console) power that allows for new looks and mechanics for enemies as more powerful computers are being put to use.
On PC, Doom can be a little taxing at times but generally runs at a steady framerate. Multiplayer is much smoother than the campaign because the maps are smaller and there is less on the maps to be rendered so it’s less of a challenge to run it well. I was able to get the game to run between medium and high on my AMD 7970 at a reasonable steady framerate. It was a mid-to-upper range AMD card three years ago but I believe the current AMD equivalent is their R7 range so it’s closer to the low-end of modern GPUs. So with that in mind, the game would often be running steady in the high 40s or low 50s but seldom at a consistent 60 FPS. A snowy area later in the game tanked my framerate into the 20s but it immediately increased by 30 FPS when I got inside. It was just one area that had nearly no enemies and poorly optimized snow particle effects.
As mentioned earlier, the level design takes a hard decline once the focus is on creating multi-tiered combat arenas to exploit the jetboots. Ignoring that, the ambiance of the levels are great. Sure, the area design variety isn’t nearly as much as the original Doom but the levels still look very good. The early levels might remind me a bit too much of the sterile environments of the Doom movie but it looked believable for a standard sci-fi base. The areas that are outdoors on Mars or in Hell look fantastic though. They’re harder on the hardware than being indoors but still gorgeous and dripping with atmosphere. Mars looks like a deserted planet retrofitted for occupation (right out of that Matt Damon movie) while Hell looks like grim death. Basically, Hell looks like what your memory tells you Hell looked like in the original Doom.
The audio is okay. The voicework isn’t anything special. The music is unfortunately hidden behind all the game’s other sound effects which is the opposite of how classic Doom’s soundtrack was a prominent part of the presentation. I miss how each monster has a telltale sound so you would know what you’re about to face before you ever see it. Still, progressing technology means that the guns now have a very satisfying sound when firing and disintegrating hellspawn.
For the first time, Doom has a multiplayer component. Some things are carried over from the campaign like weapons, jetboots and equipment. Other than that, it felt like every other multiplayer shooter I’ve ever played. It felt slower than the campaign, probably because the maps are 5v5 so you’re often not in the action. Account levelling up means that newer players are at a disadvantage because more experiences players have more powerful weapons and perks in their pre-selected loadout (only one pickup is in multiplayer). And the game modes are generic. I don’t mind having some classic game modes like deathmatch and capture the flag but the point captures modes (plural) are a let down. Couldn’t we have had an asymmetric multiplayer (UAC vs. Demons) mode or a horde mode so multiplayer feels more like the Doom campaign?
Making things worse is the Demon Rune perk. If you pickup the Demon Rune, you can transform into one of four hellspawn (Revenant, Baron, Mancubus and the MP-only Prowler) which gives you massive boosts to health and damage. You turn into a walking killing machine for the 60 seconds that the rune lasts. While it’s an improvement over the hero units in Star Wars: Battlefront where they have to be killed to leave the battlefield and are maybe more powerful than Doom’s demons, it’s still terribly balanced because you have a massive, near-unbeatable demon boost that will turn the tide of a match if you know where the Rune will spawn.
I think that my biggest issue with Doom is that I’ve played 1993’s Doom and Dead Space. You can clearly see the influences from both but it doesn’t really surpass either. If I never played Dead Space, the satanic cult trying to open a portal to Hell would feel fresh and be a great addition to established Doom lore rather than feeling like a retread of DS. If I never played the original Doom, I would like the fast paced action of 2016’s Doom as a contrast to the more methodical pace of Dead Space. Playing both, I like the combat of the original Doom more than Doom 2016 and I like Dead Space’s story more than Doom’s. It’s a good game but what it does has been done better in other games that many people have already played.
For players new to Doom (or Dead Space), this game will be completely unlike anything they’ve played before. It feels like classic Doom with some modern improvements and quality of life additions compared to 1993’s FPS icon. This is certainly going to get a lot of consideration for Game of the Year but I’m not certain that it should be the actual GOTY. I just don’t feel like it really improves so much as modernizes the concepts of the original Doom. It may be a great sequel and spiritual successor to the original but it’s not perfect. It’s not a bad game but I still prefer classic Doom.
Doom (2016) was reviewed on PC but is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs, and if you ever played the classic Doom games which are really good and you should play them.