With a lineage dating back to the early 90s and a primogenitor that defined the FPS genre, the Doom franchise worthily stands among videogame aristocracy. Rebooted in 2016, the (new) Doom was released to wide acclaim, and this past spring id Software released its direct sequel, Doom Eternal. So once again it is time for Doomguy, the Slayer, to blast through the multitudinous minions of Hell on his quest to save humanity. This is old school, distilled, FPS gaming that taps into a player’s pure…id. I played the game for this very reason. But does it succeed? Somewhat. Ultimately, however, Doom Eternal is a contradiction.
I am not a huge follower of the Doom franchise. I do recall playing one of the ubiquitous Doom clones back in the day, but I’ve only occasionally played id Software FPS games and have gravitated towards Wolfenstein when I did. So this review is coming with a bit of an outsider’s perspective and complete ignorance regarding the lore. With those caveat’s out of the way…I have no idea what the story is talking about. Doom Eternal doesn’t really bring you up to speed regarding the events of the previous game, but fortunately, the basics are pretty straightforward. Earth is being overtaken (consumed?) by the minions of Hell (which seem to actually be some sort of alien race) and you, the Slayer, must stop them. Since the story beats are basically, “hey, you need to kill this important Hell-spawn dude” it is not too difficult to jump in. The narrative is an excuse to ruthlessly and graphically dispatch a multitude of demons, but herein lies the first (small) contradiction—I cannot decide if the lore is meant to be deep. There are some codex entries and whatnot, and cutscenes between levels. So while there is a narrative backdrop that is significant enough to imply some measure of importance, it is also too shallow to be considered effective storytelling.
Still, I cannot imagine that most gamers are playing Doom for the dramatic arc. Doom is about shooting demons. Lots of them. And when the Slayer is slaying, Doom Eternal has the potential to be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, and here is the big contradiction, the developers implemented mechanics that subvert the joy of carnage.
First, the gunplay. Yes, you have guns, and yes, they splatter demons. Check and check. However, ammunition is limited; while some extra ammo can be found in the levels, it is still very easy to run out. Instead of picking it up, the Slayer must harvest it from fodder demons. The weakest enemies, when sliced through with a chainsaw, spew all manner of ammo. Demons also produce health in a similar way. When their health is low, they enter a stunned state and begin flashing. Punching them in this state not only kills them (via a quick and ludicrously savage animation), but also grants health points. What about armor? Dousing enemies with the flame belch attack (the flamethrower) will cause enemies to drop armor as they burn. So I understand the theory. Limit supplies, forcing the player to dynamically harvest them by dispatching members of the demon horde. However, three things prevent this mechanic from being effective: the pace, enemy weak points, and the chainsaw.
Regarding the pace, the map consists of benign areas of exploration and platforming (more on those later) and killboxes where the player is forced to battle through waves of enemies. The enemies spawn fast from all directions and projectiles are thick in the air. The player is thereby forced into constant movement, and the killboxes are indeed designed around this need. They have the feel of an arena, fully equipped with various topography, jumps, and gymnastics bars. Next, the stronger enemies have certain weak points which generally require a certain class of weapon. As a result, weapons are constantly being cycled because the player cannot simply rely on any weapon with ammo—the player needs the right weapon with ammo. But ammunition is consumed fast, which means that the player must use the chainsaw to harvest it…but the chainsaw can run out of fuel. While it will replenish on its own (slowly) and the player can stock a few extra canisters, the Slayer may find himself out of ammo and out of luck in the heat of battle. All of these elements collide to create battles that feel frantic rather than savage. Instead of blasting and slicing his way through the minions of Hell, the Slayer is rapidly sprinting in circles and criss-crossing the map, desperately seeking out fodder in order to harvest enough health, armor, and ammo for yet another charge at the big demons. Maybe the answer is to “git gud”, as the kids say. However, I believe that the artificial tension generated by this mechanic undermines the feeling of power that a player should experience as the Slayer. And that is a problem.
On to the levels. Doom Eternal is not an open world game, which is fine. It does mean that the Slayer must follow a path from point A to point B, during which the player overcomes various platforming obstacles and solves simple “find the switch to unlock the door” puzzles. There are also some secret collectibles and power-ups that can be discovered. None of this is bad, per se, but these sequences stand in contrast to the speed and frenzy of the battle areas and do not completely jive with the “slaughter demons” raison dêtre of Doomguy. As a result, the platforming feels a bit out of place. The level aesthetics are not terribly varied, consisting of “industrial space motif” in an arctic region, or “industrial space motif” in a hellscape, etc. While they do not set Doom Eternal apart from its peers, they serve the purpose of the story and are a nice backdrop for heavy metal demon slaying.
Speaking of heavy metal, there was a lot of hype about the “heavy metal choir” that forms part of the soundtrack of the game. As a fan of power metal, I was actually quite eager to experience this aspect of Doom Eternal. The music matches the pace of the game. During the platforming and exploration sequences, it is foreboding and subtle to set the mood. During the battles the music ramps up, but the combat was too frantic for me to focus on it—my attention was fully directed towards survival and demon slaying. While I enjoyed it, the music did not grab me as much as I anticipated. It is still very much a videogame soundtrack, and therefore is not front and center.
There is fun to be had in slaughtering the minions of Hell and I am still drawn to continue overcoming Doom Eternal’s challenges. But the supply limitations and frantic nature of the battles prevent the game from soaring. I kept thinking back to Wolfenstein, another one-time id Software property (now developed by MachineGames). While they are different styles of FPS, I felt that the gunplay contributed to the experience in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and that the tension served both the setting and gameplay. Unfortunately, in Doom Eternal my experience as the powerful Slayer is frequently undermined by the game’s constraints. I have found that I have more fun dispatching armies of Nazis rather than armies of demons.
Priestly Comment from Fr. Stephen (trekkie4christ):
“I can’t tell whether Doom takes spiritual warfare too lightly or too seriously, but it certainly takes it literally. While it can be cathartic to saw through manifestations of your demons, a rosary is more effective than a chainsaw in keeping the real demons from invading the world.”
Doom Eternal is a gory, violent game. The player gruesomely kills hordes of ugly demons in gratuitous ways. The game does not take itself too seriously (as evidenced by the almost comical ways that some demons are killed), but the death animations are bloody and graphic.
With enemies coming from Hell, much of the aesthetics are inspired by the arcane. There are references to Hell Priests, lots of skulls, the occasional pentagram, etc.