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Thursday, June 29, 2017

DOOM 2016: "Holy Hell, This is Actually Good."

The original Doom games from 1993 and 1994 are some of my favorite first-person shooters of all time, but I haven't really enjoyed anything that developer id Software has put out since. Quake (1996) felt a little too bland and uninspired to hold my attention and I quit part-way through its second episode; Doom 3 (2004) was alright but felt too much like a System Shock-inspired survival-horror game, and less like a Doom game; and Rage (2011) inappropriately and ineffectively tried to cash in on the open-world post-apocalyptic FPS-RPG fad that was already running strong with Borderlands and Fallout: New Vegas. So when id announced DOOM (2016), which was supposed to be a reboot of their beloved series and a return to the style of fast-paced, no-nonsense action shooter that they single-handedly invented back in the early-90s, I had little faith that it would actually be any good.

As it turns out, DOOM (2016) is actually a solid FPS. It's one of few reboots that supposedly "goes back to its roots" and actually delivers on that promise; DOOM un-apologetically bucks many of the trends souring modern FPS games and offers a gameplay experience that focuses on intense action blended with complex level design. It feels very much like the original games, but with the added benefit of some modern polish and extra features. Even disregarding the legacy of its predecessors and how it stands up against them, DOOM works great as a stand-alone game with a decently long campaign that offers a ton of satisfying variety, challenge, and progression. This is a quality game from top to bottom that, for once in a AAA game, deserves all the praise it's received.

DOOM comes from an era of shooters where the best defense is a good offense; instead of hiding behind cover and patiently waiting for enemies to expose themselves for easy pickings like some kind of glorified shooting gallery, or avoiding enemies by hiding behind cover long enough for your health to regenerate (essentially not playing the game for a few moments), DOOM is a first-person shooter about sprinting through an arena dodging attacks from demonic enemies and using your vast arsenal of guns to kill everything in sight before they can kill you. It also uses a classic system of health, armor, and ammo pickups, meaning you actually have to explore complex levels loaded with secret areas to give yourself the best fighting chance at survival, and manage your supplies over the course of each level so that you don't run out of what you need.

About to glory-kill a staggered revenant.

DOOM encourages fast-paced run-and-gun action through a combination of movement speed, level design, enemy design, and enemy AI. You fight a constant variety of enemies that all behave and attack differently, from imps that skitter around walls trying to avoid you while throwing fireballs at you, to pinkies that barrel toward you with a charging melee attack, to possessed security guards with cyber shields that slowly push towards you to blast you with a shotgun, in addition to many others, all of which require slightly different tactics to deal with. A typical fight involves multiple types of enemies coming at you from multiple directions, in battle-zones designed with a lot of vertical levels, obstacles, and pathways so that enemies can spawn and come at you from a variety of angles, thereby keeping you in constant motion as you dodge attacks and try to anticipate where an enemy will appear next, while also closing the gap for better accuracy and "glory kills."

When enemies are about to die, they stagger and shimmer in a reddish-orange hue, giving you an opportunity to rush in and execute a "glory kill" where you punch them into a bloody pulp or rip their jaw off, or some other sort of gratuitously violent animation. I normally hate "press X to watch elaborate animation" mechanisms in games because it takes your hands off the controls for the duration of the animation, and it feels counter-intuitive to stop shooting something when it's about to die, but it kind of works in this game. Besides the visceral thrill of seeing those animations in effect, the reason you'd want to do this is because enemies drop health vials when they die via a glory kill, which is sometimes your only way of replenishing your health in the middle of a fight -- besides running away and looking for health packs in the arena. That element, especially in conjunction with close-range weapons like the super shotgun or plasma rifle, creates a really engaging risk-vs-reward system where you want to stay close enough to an enemy to pull off those glory kills, but that also puts you at greater risk of being hit so you have to be really quick on your feet -- again, encouraging movement.

The movement speed in DOOM is fast enough to let you quickly zip around levels from enemy to enemy (you can also climb up ledges and platforms, and can even double-jump after a certain point in the game), but not so fast that it becomes hard to aim and therefore counter-productive to run fast. Likewise, you're always fighting a bunch of enemies at once who're often coming at you from all directions, but it's never so many enemies that you feel overwhelmed. Level design ranges from cramped corridors to wide-open arenas, but it never feels too cramped or too spacious. The keyword, here, is balance: everything in this game feels so perfectly balanced, hitting that perfect sweet spot between fast-paced action and slower-paced tension, between moments of claustrophobic survival and free-roaming exploration, also offering you enough variety from beginning to end, with level design and a progression system that has you encountering new types of enemies and gaining new weapons and abilities as the game goes on, such that there's always something fresh and interesting happening in every single level. 

Fighting demons on the Mars UAC base.

Each fight is less about the quantity of enemies and more about the quality of the encounter with unique combinations of enemies, items, powerups. Although you spend the bulk of the game repeating the same basic things over and over again -- killing demons -- the game is constantly mixing things up in unique and interesting ways so that each encounter offers a satisfying challenge, while the variety keeps you engaged as the game goes on. Gameplay constantly evolves over the course of the game, so you're always reacting to new things and adapting to new situations, while progressively getting bigger and better guns and more powerful abilities that essentially break the normal rules of the game, almost like cheat codes. These changes aren't just arbitrary changes for the sake of variety, however; it's a constantly evolving system that's always layering more things on top of you as you gain mastery with the previously-introduced systems. 

Contrary to the impression many reviews might give you, DOOM isn't just constant action; every fight with a horde of demons is juxtaposed with calm moments of downtime when you're exploring the levels trying to figure out where to go next, finding keycards and platforming to reach the next area, searching for secrets, taking in the lore and story, or just basking the atmospheric ambiance of the levels.

This is some of the best level design I've ever seen in an FPS, especially among "modern" shooters released within the past decade. Although the game features a linear level progression from beginning to end, a lot of levels give you a set of objectives to be completed in any order you desire, allowing you the freedom to go where you want and to take as much time as you want exploring. For an avid explorer like myself, I was constantly impressed by just how big and complex these levels are, with some of them taking an entire hour or more to complete. Most of them tend to sprawl out in multiple directions, with paths connecting at various points and thereby allowing you to gain access to to a ledge, a room, or an area that was otherwise inaccessible from another angle. The game often teases you with a glimpse of a special item tucked away somewhere that you then have to puzzle out how to actually access, and that proved extremely satisfying for me. The secret areas, likewise, are plentiful and so discreetly hidden (but no impossibly so) that each one you find is a genuine accomplishment, and most of them offer some kind of tangible reward like powerups or upgrade points.

A hellish arena near the end of the game.

One of the few "modern" trends that DOOM brings to the table is an RPG-lite system for character and weapon upgrades. As you play through the game you can find robot drones that let you pick alternate-firing modes for each of your weapons, and then as you find secrets and kill enemies you earn upgrade points that you can spend enhancing those weapon modifications. With the basic combat shotgun you can pick between a three-round burst or explosive shells; with the plasma rifle you can pick between a heat blast or stun rounds. With weapon upgrade points, you can further enhance each weapon mod, like making certain projectiles penetrate enemies, or decreasing the load time for alternative ammo. Additionally, you can find cyber modules on fallen Doomguy soldiers to improve your armor (reducing damage from environmental hazards, boosting powerups, increasing weapon swap speeds, etc), and you can find argent cells (a special energy source) to increase things like your maximum health, armor, or ammo pools. You've also got "runes" that you can earn by completing challenges within levels that grant even more unique abilities, like granting infinite ammo if your armor is above a certain value, or giving you mid-air control of your movement while jumping.

While the upgrade system is generally fine, this is one area that I think the developers went a little overboard. Progression systems are fun and rewarding in most video games, but I feel like there's just a little too much going on in this game, to the point that the various upgrades become either cumbersome or obsolete, while also vastly lowering the difficulty as you improve. I often found myself in situations where I didn't really want or need any of the upgrades available to me, and so I just dumped points somewhere for the sake of it. You can, for instance, unlock every single weapon mod over the course of the game, and upgrade all of them to max if you're really diligent about exploring, but you'll probably find switching between them to be a bit of a nuisance and just stick to whichever mod is more effective or more fun to use. Other things (like "climb ledges faster" or "launch into glory kills from greater distance") I just didn't care about whatsoever. And by the end of the game (playing on normal mode) I felt so over-powered that there was little challenge and limited risk of death outside of boss fights.

The boss fights, I should mention, are really solid. There are only a handful of actual boss battles in this game (you're frequently introduced to newer, stronger enemies as mini-bosses as part of the ordinary gameplay), but these few that you encounter are on par with Dark Souls bosses in terms of their design and behavior. That is to say, the bosses in DOOM have specified sets of attacks and behaviors that they cycle throughout the fight, and so each boss involves a particular learning curve as you become familiar with their attacks, learning how to dodge each one and finding the most opportune moments to attack.

Dodging pinwheel fire jets from a boss.

I also feel that there are a few too many weapons and items in your arsenal, to the point that switching weapons becomes cumbersome while rendering others obsolete. By the end of the game you have: a pistol, a combat shotgun, a super shotgun, a heavy assault rifle, a minigun, a plasma rifle, a railgun, a rocket launcher, a chainsaw, the BFG 9000, fragmenting grenades, life-siphoning grenades, and holographic decoys. In my experience the pistol, combat shotgun, and heavy assault rifle all became obsolete once I got stronger weapons, and I kept constantly forgetting that I even had the chainsaw, BFG, or grenades at my disposal, because those three are mapped to their own unique keys and I always found it more intuitive just to keep shooting things with my regular guns.

It's worth noting that the chainsaw functions a lot differently than it did in other games. Whereas before it was just a basic melee weapon where you stood there cutting through enemies and getting mauled in the process, it's now a limited-use "one-hit-kill" that costs gasoline to use, consuming more gas against more powerful enemies. I found that aspect underwhelming, because common enemies are easy to kill with regular weaponry, and the stronger mini-boss enemies (like mancubuses, hell knights, or barons of hell) take so much gas to kill that you basically use the chainsaw once and then have to wait forever until you find more gas to use it again. The real reason to use the chainsaw is that it causes enemies to spew out tons of ammo when they die, so there's some tactical decision-making to be made in terms of "do I use it on lesser enemies to keep my ammo reserves up or use it on the tough enemies so I spend less ammo killing them," but on normal difficulty I rarely ever had problems running out of ammo, especially since I was committing so much time to exploration that I was always at or near max on everything.

I'm also not very fond of the checkpoint-only save system. I realize that "save anywhere" quick-saves can trivialize difficulty when you can save before a fight and reload it you do poorly, but since there's so much exploration involved in this game, with a lot of instant-kills if you miss a jump or try to go somewhere the game didn't anticipate, you can end up replaying significant portions of levels (having to kill certain enemies again, or having to collect health/armor/ammo all over again) every time you mess up and die. Which, as an avid explorer constantly trying to test the limits of the explorable space, meant I was frequently dying and having to replay segments of each level, trying to remember what all I had done between the last checkpoint and when I died. Fortunately some things persist after death, like upgrade points and weapon mod discoveries, but regular pickups for health, armor, and ammo don't.

Seeing digital ghosts of soldiers in Hell.

I'm not sure where I fall on the soundtrack. It felt suitably epic and awesome during battles and appropriately atmospheric during moments of exploration, but in retrospect I can't remember anything about it. I've listened to the soundtrack a few times while writing this review and still nothing really stands out to me. I've also watched several videos on the "making of" behind the music, and while it all sounds technically impressive and creative, the actual music, particularly during fights, feels kind of bland and generic to me. It all feels like repetitive industrial/thrash riffs with droning tones underneath, which to my ears is just noise. I can't pick out any sort of melody anywhere, and the riffs themselves are too busy and hover too closely around a singular root pitch to stand out as anything more than "fast tremolo-picking guitar licks." So while everything works great at complementing the action and tone of the gameplay, it doesn't really work for me on a musical level.

I could complain about the story feeling compulsory and tacked-on, but I really can't, because the story in these games simply doesn't matter; it's just a pretense to get players shooting demons with some kind of reason to move on to the next level. In a game of this sort, you don't want an in-depth, complicated story distracting from the action and gameplay, so while there's nothing to write home about in this department there's also nothing to complain about. You can dig into the backstory through a wealth of audio logs and lore stones if you really desire, but frankly, I skipped most of those so I could focus on the gameplay.

And the gameplay really is top-notch. I'm not sure I've done a good enough job explaining exactly why (I'm rushing on my one day off to try to finish this review before the month's out, and I'm four beers deep at the moment), but I feel like shooters are usually pretty self-explanatory; as long as you know what you're getting into before you start playing, you should already know whether you'll enjoy a particular shooter or not. I wasn't really sure when I started playing DOOM, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. There's nothing mind-blowingly awesome about it, mind you -- I suspect in a year or two I'll have completely forgotten about it -- but it's a solid, competent shooter that does a really good job of recreating that old-school vibe without feeling like some kind of gimmicky, anachronistic "retro throwback" shooter. Hopefully more shooters will follow its example and we'll see more games like this in the near future.

1 comment:

  1. Yet to play this one but try Brutal Doom. That game is a lot of fun!

    ReplyDelete