Friday, 27 May 2016

Game Review: DOOM (2016)

I wasn’t sure about the new Doom for a while. Why would I be? Doom 3 was lacklustre, and Doom 2 was twenty years ago. There was no reason to think the thrash metal glory days of the game about beating up literal demons in literal Hell, the game that made first person shooters what they became, could be reclaimed in this wretched age of metrosexual pop and games with no challenge about people’s feelings.   

My skepticism was compounded by having sampled the multiplayer beta before release, to find it deeply uninspired. I was reassured to learn that this component was developed separately from the main campaign, which was to be the focus. £40 for a game where I know going in I’m not interested in a big part, though? It felt steep enough for me to hold off until I saw some reviews and got bored enough to want something new. Doubt lingered, however; with the legendary id software founders behind the originals long since departed from the studio, could a new Doom game be a good Doom game? Could it even be a good game at all?

Well, shit yes, it turns out. Doom of 2016 has against the odds pulled it off, creating an impressive and surprisingly modern re-imagining of the legendary series. It’s not like classic Doom, not really- that’s a very old game, where everything took place on a single plane, there was no free look, and technical limitations restricted enemy behaviours and player abilities. That heritage is respected here, but the trap of embarrassing faux-retro pandering is avoided, with the game very much offering a fresh take on the old principles of thrilling, high-speed combat, intelligent level design and also dizzying ultra-violence.
Breakneck action makes non-blurry screenshots impossible.

For the uninitiated, the premise is this simple. You are a nameless warrior only referred to as the Doom Marine. You have awoken on Mars in the far future, because the research colony there has got itself overrun by an army of horrifying murderous demons. You’re going to fight every Goddamn one of them.

And fight you will- I can’t possibly rave about the combat enough. Modern shooter staples like health regen, aiming down sights and even reloading are thrown out the airlock. A loading screen advises you that to stop moving is to die- the natural inversion is that to move is to live, and the incredible vibrancy of Doom’s battles supports this. You jump and you strafe and you run, constantly dodging into whatever gap you can find between flying claws and fireballs, blasting away all the while at the diverse cast of otherworldly abominations. Most combat encounters have a vertical element (something I really like in shooters), from raised areas or platforms and also from flying baddies like the Revenant, a gigantic screaming skeleton with rocket launchers that returns from the old games with the truly horrifying addition of a fucking jetpack. Classic Doom does not have this kind of mobility, but it is a perfect evolution of that game’s run ’n’ gun spirit.

Speaking of guns- this game has some. Mostly fresh takes on the original’s arsenal, all look and feel superbly meaty and satisfying. Though many of the game’s enemies are so large and nasty as to require lots of shooting, it does not feel that your weapons are weak, but rather that your foes are mighty. This is an area where some modern game design has been effectively included, as weapons have attachments and upgrades earned through play and exploration. These upgrades are instrumental in turning the tide, but don't feel out of place in the new formula. The chainsaw is of course back, and is here made an occasional use instant kill that produces a piƱata of gore and more usefully ammunition- a welcome spin that fits this game well.
You like Terminator 2? We all do.

Essential to the new gameplay is the “glory kill”, where wounded enemies are opened up for an especially gory hand-to-hand finishing move, causing them to drop health items. There’s a little bit of variety in these, with different animations (with the same gruesome results) playing out depending on your aim and angle on the unfortunate beastie. It works well as a replacement for the now-ubiquitous health regeneration in shooters because it forces the player to be proactive- when in a tight spot, you must not retreat but attack, contributing to the freneticism of every fight. I didn’t get fed up with these as I feared I might, and they are snapped off so quickly that they don’t bog the game down. They’re pretty damn satisfying for the most part, enhancing the player’s feeling of badassedness that is core to this game’s appeal.

In keeping with the respect for the classics, the difficulty settings have the same names they always did, and there seems to be a good step in between them. I played on Ultra-Violence, which amounts to hard mode, and was challenging, but at times I found myself considering bumping it up to Nightmare, partly because high-speed extreme-violence demon murder seems to be something I have a prodigious natural talent for, but mainly because I wanted more fighting. The combat is so good, so thrilling and so satisfying that finally clearing a room of its swarm of monsters leaves one minorly disappointed that there is nothing left to kill.

Having, ahem, sorted out the demon problem, you might have time to notice that there’s a lot right with the level design, too. The game’s stages feel particularly old-school, with maze-like elements driving the player to seek out keys (which are sometimes cards, sometimes coloured skulls and at least once a severed arm) and backtrack to the corresponding doors- very old-Doom, very Quake 1. And like those games, there are secrets! Remember those? Every level has several hidden areas containing useful upgrades, weapons that would otherwise be obtained later or delightful collectible Doomguy bobbleheads. Exploration and close attention to the automap are thus rewarded greatly, with diligent players gaining a significant advantage from the extra gear available to them.

On my extremely sick gaming PC, that I recently built myself from raw components like Tony fucking Stark, the game runs on Ultra graphics at 60ish frames per second, and looks pretty nice. Interiors hark back to Doom 3’s gritty industrial setting, exteriors at times offer striking Martian landscapes, and the Hell levels are suitably nightmarish. Most demons are familiar, and their new designs are largely good, if mostly on a brownish palette- my favourite is the frightful Revenant, which I might remind you has a bastarding jetpack now, with the Imps taking second place thanks to their impressive animations. The textures are crisp and the models well drawn, but I would say the art direction generally failed to blow me away. Mad props must go to Mick Gordon’s excellent techno-metal soundtrack which perfectly complements the dark aesthetic and pumps up the intense action.

One small criticism I have is for the game's storytelling. Purists may regard this as superfluous, and it is, but they did a little of it and I think more could have been done. There is a plot, told through cutscenes and radio messages, that is at least a little interesting, if only because the mute protagonist is clearly paying as much attention to it as your average shooter fan might. The writing's hammy in a way that works, but the only additional flavour available comes from collectible datalogs scattered around. These paint a picture of the events that led to the cataclysm, but I found myself missing some Half-life style environmental storytelling. I'd have really liked, for example, to encounter one or two survivors hiding out and holding snippets of information. Instead, every living thing you meet is a horrible monster. It's nice for the conscience to know that there's zero risk of civilian casualties because literally everyone has already been killed by demons, but it does leave the whole place feeling a little, well, lifeless. I suppose it does work to keep the game moving, and is a minor objection in any case.

I still haven’t touched the multiplayer, nor the significantly more promising "Snapmap" custom level features, but Doom of 2016 is one of my favourite games of this year. Not only does it stand well on its own thanks to the incredible combat, it's a delightful surprise and a loving homage to a legendary piece of gaming history. I love it, and I'm so pleased that the franchise is in safe hands and relevant once again.