Friday, June 17, 2016

DOOM (2016) - Thoughts

A palpable shock must have blanketed my face during my first hour with id Software's new Doom. "Wait, this doesn't suck?" is what I was most likely thinking, mouth agape at the spectacle of gore before me. But it wasn't the blood that had me nonplussed—no, it was how good the game felt to play. A bizarre realization unraveled before me in Lovecraftian fashion, a maddening truth sprouting from this newly formed coil—"I'm playing a Doom game in 2016 that doesn't suck!" Better yet, not only did it "not suck" for the entire campaign, but it was actually a hell of a lot of fun.

The catch, of course, is that it contains some of the most baffling design decisions I've seen all year.

For those that don't know, I grew up with the classic 1993 Doom as a kid. I played it and its sequel on my parents' IBM work laptop, and in my spare time nowadays I occasionally make maps for it. Having such a close attachment to a 20+ year old program means that I'm extremely critical of anything that sprouts from the brand's name, skeptical of whether it actually has any relevance nowadays. The crux of my concern for the new Doom was that the series hadn't been relevant for a long time. Sure, Doom 3 was a fun game in its own right, but it took the franchise in a questionable direction, structuring the game largely around its untenable "horror" roots. For myself and many like me, there just didn't seem to be a good way to revive Doom, especially considering how many leaps and strides the FPS genre had taken beyond it. The series felt almost Shakespearian in its relevance, heartily revered for its accomplishments but likely to be laughed at by the common-folk if it was placed on the silver screen today (which ironically happened in '05).

Somehow—somehow!—I was wrong. Doom not only successfully exists as a modern game, but it actively puts other FPS campaigns to shame. The best (and most integral) part about the game is that it is fast. While it's easy to overlook such a simple adjective when you're reading a review, Doom's speed absolutely dominates the gameplay from the moment you take control. No longer must you wait behind cover and gradually lick your wounds; the key to surviving is to blow the face off of any enemy that gets within sniffing distance. Initially the glory kills seem like a gratuitous and pace-breaking inclusion, but they're a brief and satisfying way to pick up health during the first half of the game, perfectly fitting in with the "dumb metal" theme of the game (speaking of, the soundtrack is pretty kick ass too). Before long, you'll get a good handle on zipping around imp fireballs and snapping their jaw clean off their skull—and it'll feel great too.

Complementing the breakneck speed of the game are the bone-shattering weapons. Doom disregards modern FPS conventions by tossing out maximum weapon capacity and reloading, urging the player to constantly switch up their armaments in the midst of battle. Toss in some weapon mods that vastly change how you'll use each of the guns and you have a veritable amusement park of death right at your fingertips. To accompany the variety of firearms are a parade of some of Hell's finest, most requiring a different approach from one another. Hell Knight getting too close? Machine gun rockets or plasma stasis will give you some room. A mancubus blocking the path? Blow that sucker up with some rockets or get up close and personal with the super shotgun. Too many low tier enemies warping in? Rev up the chaingun or line 'em up with a gauss siege shot. The bread and butter of Doom is playing around with its weapon and enemy combinations to see what works, what doesn't, and which are your favorites.

The levels are the cherry on top of the creamy gameplay sundae, wonderfully accentuating the brisk pace of combat. Since staying mobile means staying alive, each of the arenas you'll duke it out in give you plenty of clambering avenues, ensuring that it'll be difficult for your enemies to overwhelm you. Outside of combat you can scour the environment to find some tricky secrets or hidden weapons... until the game starts gating you from backtracking for some reason. And here is where Doom really starts to miss its mark.

The levels work in perfect tandem with the game's battles, but past the Argent Facility (level 4) the design shifts towards unidirectional linear progression, tossing interconnectivity by the wayside. This pushes the game to focus only on combat, even when you're eager to explore its hallways for stray goodies. And for some reason the designers become insistent on stopping you from backtracking to find secrets, even when there is no reason for them to do so. One moment you'll be wandering around and the next a door will slam behind you, lock, and trigger a checkpoint. By the time you get to the end of the campaign, Doom doesn't feel like the full game it promised it would be at its start.

There are copious other issues that unfortunately mar the title too. The starting weapons are blatantly outclassed by the late game armaments, especially once you unlock the final upgrades on the weapon mods. Doom presents its ludicrous story with a straight face (which I commend it for) but feels insistent on forcing the player to sit there and listen to dialogue, even after it's established that the Doom Slayer doesn't care one iota for Hell's sympathizers. The multiplayer is serviceable but lacks an identity (if anything, it made me miss playing Halo), and Snapmap is plagued by the worst of Zdoom-isms: text-laden gameplay that tries it's best to emulate something other than Doom.

In spite of these failings, I continue to want to play Doom. Akin to Hyper Light Drifter, the flaws on display do not outshine the title's greatness; Doom contains one of the most satisfying gameplay systems of 2016. The snappy response of battle, the ease at which you can traverse the environment, tackling the challenge, weapon, & rune tasks in combat, and the excitement that comes from facing the higher difficulties meld together to form a non-stop adrenaline rush that sticks to your mind long after the credits have rolled. Doom joins Wolfenstein: The New Order in not only successfully revitalized a series from perpetually obscurity, but also making its contemporaries look tame and meek in comparison. Do I wish it was a tad better? Yeah. Did I nevertheless enjoy my time with it? Hell yeah.

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