DOOM is perhaps one of the most carefully crafted titles of last year. Hell, you could even argue that it is the most finely tuned, polished, and designed game to hit the shelves in 2016. Born from experimentation and a failed effort to “modernize” as a tactical military shooter, DOOM feels very much like a clearly focused experience that put its efforts into violent enemies and open arenas.
Too bad I got tired of it after a while!
I found DOOM’s campaign exhausting and unnecessarily long, but it should be understood this was through no fault of the mechanics. In fact, the mechanics are largely what kept me playing to the end. It’s that weird line you walk when a game is clearly engaging you still, but you’re not thrilled, excited, or relieved when each combat encounter begins or ends. I still enjoyed ripping and tearing the huge guts out of the huge mancubus’ huge abdomen. The problem is I had done it so many times in so many set-piece arenas that they all began to blur together.
This is the risk of a longer game. The core combat mechanics of DOOM are so solid that it’s more a matter of how many levels and arenas do you have the budget and schedule to build? As long as the player is able to keep moving then they are going to be engaged. Mobility is the secret sauce to DOOM. Like agitated molecules the fight remains heated and crackling as long as you keep moving. Stillness is the antithesis of this game’s design, and if you are to stop then you are to die. Each enemy is running off of its own A.I., though perhaps no creature as varied as the agile imp. Some will swarm right up to you, others will flank you, and others still will clamber upon the walls and ceilings to snipe you from afar. All the while Hellknights, Pinkies, Cacodemons, everything will be drawn to your location like sharks drawn to blood.
Which is perhaps why the level design is the most crucial aspect of DOOM. Each arena needs to logically adhere just enough to its narrative context for players to believe in it, and it will need to set itself apart from other arenas throughout the entire campaign, but it must also be perceived as easily as simple geometry. A player must see a ledge or pillar and immediately know if they can access it or not, and if they cannot then they must be able to see a path that can lead them there. Not so they can necessarily get a proper vantage point, but because multiple paths should always be available. Hellknight before you and Baron of Hell behind? Turn to the side, clamber up the ledge, and shotgun the imps so you can turn and rocket the larger foes in the face while they’re climbing behind you.
If the arena is ever confusing or leads the player down to a dead-end, then the level designers have essentially screwed the player out of a good chunk of – if not all of – their health. Enemies will no doubt be rushing in from behind, and if they’re not looking to slaughter by hand then they’ll no doubt be launching projectiles from afar.
Consider, then, what it means to have a teleporting foe like the Summoner on a map. Aside from basic pathing and geometry issues that can crop up, each arena this creature shows up in must be easy for the player to follow the path of. Not only should its particle trail leave a visible path for the player to trace, but it should be a path the player can easily follow. In every map the Summoner appears, the player has ample opportunity to fight it close-up or from afar. Never or rarely will there be an instance the player is unable to follow before the next teleportation. This is both a trick of the enemy’s A.I. and also how the arena in which these creatures appear are designed. While some arenas are as many as three or four stories high and have special routes to access specific parts of the room, arenas with the Summoner are often only maybe two floors high and circular in nature.
This indicates that these arenas were designed with the Summoner in mind. If the development team was this careful with just one foe, then we can assume they took such care in designing arenas around any foes that would be present. Making sure imps had plenty of places to climb and snipe from, plenty of large routes for Hellknights and Barons to chase you from, space for Cacodemons to fly around. The base mechanics of DOOM are certainly great, but they rely heavily on the level designers excelling at their duty. This is where I feel the real strength of DOOM is at play, where you can witness the true master craftsmanship. It is also a most fitting legacy considering the importance of level design in the original.
I want to make it clear that it is through no fault of the mechanics themselves that I found the game to dull over time, and that there are no doubt many that will be sustained by the mechanics as a result of the persistently excellent design of each arena and conflict.
However, two other interlinked factors caused each set piece and battle royale to blur together. The story and the slow drip of new features or creatures.
It may seem silly to pin any blame on the game’s narrative, seeing as it is supposed to be self-aware and acknowledge that most players — of DOOM at least — don’t care about a story. The marine tosses equipment aside and ignores the guide’s cautionary instructions in favor of just progressing to the next monster to kill. The Doomslayer has no time for your chit-chat, machinations and illusions of artistic credibility! It’s time to bathe in the blood of Hellbeasts.
That is, until the game decides to awkwardly stop you so that you can sit and listen to an NPC’s monologue. Then the Doomslayer forgets that he’s supposed to be impatient and irreverent, allowing the story to be told to an audience that has, until that point, been told the story doesn’t matter.
Then the story just sort of stops. With maybe a quarter or a third of the game left, the story becomes a very simple MacGuffin Gate quest. The player walks through each level without anything of significance happening or changing, just the occasional update on progress to completion. Without any change, the story feels stagnate. Once the story feels stagnate, the game feels padded.
Simultaneously, new weaponry, abilities, and enemies all begin to slow down in their introduction. There’s nothing to reinvigorate the experience or shake it up, and even new enemies are largely slightly modified variants to enemies already introduced and fought. The closest thing to a real shake-up are the two boss fights that feel like a proper final boss belongs there instead, and each opponent is never seen again afterwards.
If DOOM is a road trip, then the first two-thirds of it are a series of roads and turns with plenty of sights to see and constantly changing scenery. Once you’ve gone past all of that? It just becomes a single highway with nothing but grass to look at. For some this view will be serene, or the stretch of road will grant them the opportunity to really see how fast their car can go. For everyone else, it’s the longest stretch of road because nothing changes. It’s just a steady repetition until the destination is finally reached, mind fading in and out of awareness as the body goes on auto-pilot.
Perhaps id should have cared a little bit more about the story they were telling and how to keep it tonally consistent. A game’s narrative is often skipped over because it amounts to little more than fetch quests and demands by NPC’s, which is ultimately what DOOM boils down to by that final stretch of levels. The Doomslayer feels as if he himself is on auto-pilot rather than expressing any agency, enough so that a player may actually miss his one action that suggests a thought besides “I don’t have time for this shit”. The lack of new weaponry, abilities, and enemies also suggests that there wasn’t enough game available in order to sustain the actual length.
I’m left with the impression that DOOM is only as long as it is because the level designers got happy and excited and just kept making more and more arenas until the deadline closed in. Realistically I know that’s not what happened, but it has that same feeling. The level design is the glue that holds DOOM together, but if that team were permitted to over-indulge then you wind up with excess glue showing, shattering the illusion of perfect adherance.
If id had allowed themselves to condense those final levels, they may have had just the perfect amount of game.