The Battlefield franchise sparked a fevered debate this week over its decision to stage its upcoming first-person shooter in the trenches of the first World War. Should a conflict synonymous with futile loss of human life be used as the setting for casual entertainment? Should any war, for that matter?
The makers of Doom face no such moral obstacles: this is a game in which you must rid an evacuated Martian base – so no collateral damage – of literal demons from actual hell.
But then Doom is a very literal game, aiming to stay as close to the spirit of the 1993 original as possible. All the old gang are here: the big green shields that spin around promising to keep you alive, that floaty red blob monster, a weapon called the Big F****** Gun, which is cool because it has swearing in it.
The original game featured virtually no scene-setting or character building, and so it is here: your nameless, faceless avatar escapes from some kind of demon laboratory, picks up a gun and embarks on a path of merciless, guilt-free destruction. Early on, a knowing voice tries to advise you through a computer screen; your response is to punch the console and throw it on the ground. That’s what we think of your exposition, computer man!
Doom, you see, is all about pace. Hanging back and sniping enemies from afar doesn’t pass muster in hell. There’s no Halo-style shield regeneration – surviving the waves of demons requires a steady stream of health boosts, which are only guaranteed when you stun an enemy then deliver a close-up “glory kill”. It’s simple but satisfying, giving combat both urgency and rhythm: strafe, shoot, smash, repeat. You’re rarely far from death, but drops are more generous when you’re low on health: Doom favours the brave.
Maintaining near-constant movement requires some clever level design, and this is where Doom really excels. The environments might not be much to look at – Mars is mostly made up of Half Life-esque corridors, while hell is a familiar, oft-repeated surrealist wasteland that lies somewhere between Dante and Dali – but their construction is ingenious. Some have towering platform elements, others contain warrens of secret passageways: all house hidden collectible figurines and armour upgrades.
If there’s a downside to the frenetic pace, it’s that Doom, unlike the original, isn’t all that scary. Back in 1993, the groans of the Possessed haunted my nightmares (granted I was 11 at the time). But fear requires tension. You need to be aware that something awful is about to happen – the event itself is a relief. Alien: Isolation and Dead Space both create a sustained, uneasy calm before the storm. Doom is just one big storm.
A game made up of such unrelenting violence, much of which takes place in hell, could easily feel bleak and depressing, but Doom has an unexpected seam of humour, happy to laugh along at its more absurd elements, such as the computerised warning that “Demonic presence is at unsafe levels”.
There are occasional sops to modern shooters: weapons are upgradable, giving you a degree of customisation as the game progresses (the tactical scope for the heavy assault rifle is a god-send). There’s also a multiplayer mode, which has the whiff of an afterthought to it, playing more like a campaign arena that’s been gatecrashed by other people. The key to Doom’s success is in its “stagger-and-smash” formula and this doesn’t translate well to PvP; the long-range gunplay isn’t precise enough to compensate. More interesting is the SnapMap feature, which allows players to build their own levels. I stumbled into one that was essentially a crop-management simulator, while another was a demon-infested whack-a-mole. I’m not sure I’ll be playing them in six months, but it’s a nice touch.
There’s little about Doom that feels groundbreaking, but that’s kind of the point. It is, however, forwards in looking backward: it plays like a refined version of countless other shooters – smooth, responsive and lightning quick. There will be a time during your Doom experience when you eviscerate a roomful of Imps with a chainsaw before peppering a Mancubus with your super shotgun until he goes all dizzy, at which point you’ll tear out his throbbing external heart, shove it down his throat and watch him explode. After you’ve done this, you will smile, because it is just so much fun.