How Doom Took the FPS Campaign to Hell and Back

By Kotaku on at

By Richard Wakeling

“Hell devours the indolent.” A loading screen tooltip says all you need to know about this year's newfangled Doom. Four words spill the beans on its fleet-footed philosophy, and developer id Software’s rediscovery of a game-making ethos. But I knew what type of Doom revival this would be before ever noticing that tooltip: the first time I met one of the game’s iconic imp enemies. If the little bastard launched a fireball and I neatly strafed to avoid it, I knew this had potential.

There was never anything to worry about. As has been remarked, this Doom is your grandparents’ Doom, your parents’ Doom, and your eleven-year old self’s Doom. It’s a Doom that goes well alongside Jurassic Park and The X-Files, or an evening listening to Nirvana and Blur. This new 2016 Doom feels a lot like that old 1993 Doom.

Mechanically, however, it’s not nearly so easy to call this new Doom retro. It’s a lovingly-crafted throwback, sure, but the design is absolutely modern. The brutal essence of Doom is inextricable from the fast-paced anarchy of the ‘90s shooter, and it’s this speed that’s still surprising in the 21st century. In broad strokes, it strips away the archaic interactions but re-builds them with the same instantaneous spirit, and gory imagination, before linking them together with more purely slick modern touches.

Take the “glory kills” - a seemingly out-of-character addition, these split-second execution moves have a crucial function in greasing all other parts of Doom’s combat. By giving you back health with each kill, they actively encourage you to wade into the fray, to put yourself in harm’s way and chain between firing and glory kills because it’s the only way to stay alive. It feeds into a focus on constant movement. In the original Doom your defensive options didn’t stray too far from simply dodging projectiles and running away to grab health pickups: new Doom solves the age-old hunt for health items, not by introducing a regenerating system, but by seamlessly tying it into the combat. It’s brilliant stuff.

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Surprisingly so, some might say. It would be easy to look at something like John Carmack’s unforeseen departure from id (among other recognisable names), or Zenimax’s purchase of the company during Doom’s eight long years in development, and guess about pervasive disruptions. There was leaked footage from a cancelled Doom 4, which looked just like another bland Call of Duty clone with “A Doom skin on it” - the later words of Bethesda vice president Pete Hines. Combine all of this with some tepid responses to Doom’s early showings - not to mention concerns over a lack of early review copies - and optimism wasn’t particularly high. Many thought id would make another good Doom game when hell froze over.

They were wrong. There are no obvious remnants of Doom 4’s misguided vision here, nor any other problems often associated with such a lengthy spell in the oven. 2016’s Doom is as Doom-y as Doom has ever been: risky, endlessly engaging and unapologetically metal. It’s the most fun I’ve had with an FPS campaign since - and how’s this for historical coincidence - 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order.

The differences between the games is telling. Take Wolfenstein protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz: in Machine Games’ excellent reboot he’s reimagined as a Nazi killer with a soul, as affable as a dual-shotgun wielding murder machine can be. Atop this he’s now got a conscience, and sprinklings of personality. Doom’s protagonist (hereafter ‘Doomguy’) has none of these qualities. But he is very, very angry, which is endearing in its own way. And you can’t really blame him either, after waking up in a demonic sarcophagus and fighting to stay alive while other characters ramble on about station protocol bullshit.

Doom does have some grin-inducing dark comedy, to be fair, and that’s without mentioning the fact it’s set on a Martian facility which turns out to be literally Hell. But the story’s just there to prop up all the rocket-propelled mayhem and expunged flesh. Moments of expositional downtime would be more egregious were it not for Doomguy’s reactions to them. He hates that stuff.

This might seem innocuous in the grand scheme of things, yet Doomguy’s tonal characterisation marks a notable departure from the genre’s norm. In almost any other first-person shooter the classic silent protagonist is fairly detached from the stories they’re in, either a mute savant at the core of the human resistance (Gordon Freeman) or little more than a cipher for the player to project onto. Doomguy, whom you could make a decent argument is the most generic protagonist in the history of video games, makes his presence keenly felt by simply not caring about the story in the same way that your average FPS player doesn’t care about the story.

doom-quakecon-2015-1He’ll punch computer panels off their hinges when he’s tired of all the chatter, ignore every command given to him - usually to destroy things he’s been asked to preserve - and is just generally pissed off whenever anyone talks to him. He exists purely to kill things, doesn’t care about anything beyond where the next fight is coming from, and id knows that’s exactly why you’re playing a Doom game too. In the downtime he embodies the player and some kind of mind-meld happens: why am I not shooting demons?!? Doom 3 took itself far too seriously when the secret all along, as Doom rediscovers, was irreverence.

Look at the AAA FPS landscape and, before this year, there wasn’t much like it. Most of Doom’s contemporaries love cinematic spectacle, focusing on the dramatic destruction of famous landmarks and Michael Bay-esque mayhem. In these games’ most ‘spectacular’ moments you’re always just a passenger. Explosive theatrics can be great, but not when they engender passivity.

You could argue this informs everything about them. The act of aiming down sights, the rata-tat-tat feel is second nature. Hunkering behind cover, picking off a carousel of foreigners, maybe throwing a grenade or two, and cowering to either reload or let the jam fade off the screen. When the design priority is to build towards the next set piece, the moment-to-moment play is not the priority.

Doom is the antithesis: Doom is active. You need to be in a constant state of motion to have any hope of surviving. You need to get up close and personal at times, to rush in and pump a few Super Shotgun shells into a Mancubus’ heaving gut or launch onto a stunned Revenant for a split-second execution. You never need to reload your weapons, there’s no regenerating health forcing you to take a breather, and combat never descends into whack-a-mole because your position is never ever fixed.

And this is part of the reason why I adore Doom so much. The combat is complex yet focused on the purity of killing demons without any needless fluff. There’s little room for bombastic spectacle here: combat and exploration rule, with hectic arenas broken up by the sprint to the next one. Even here Doom excels - levels are massive open spaces punctuated by winding, interlocking corridors, with the verticality to encourage some slight parkouring around for alternate routes.

So many little decisions pile up and, if you increase the difficulty, they come on thicker and faster. As the hordes gather, you bounce around like some heavily armed gazelle, switching from rocket launcher to gauss cannon depending on the biggest thing you can see. When you hear the worrying clink of an empty gun, you simply rev up the chainsaw and replenish that ammunition with a jagged slice through a Hell Knight’s bulging neck, hitting a glory kill on an unsuspecting imp to boost your health before diving back in past a fireball barrage.

It may look simple on the surface, but Doom has all of these underlying systems that keep the tactical part of your brain engaged. It’s a fast-paced game yet you’re not simply reacting to it, you’re learning about how it works and what to do better next time. It’s not that common a feeling.

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In this way Doom was an FPS epiphany: an eye-opener that made me question why I’ve been playing all these other shooters. Buying Call of Duty every year is almost a habit now. It’s not like these games play poorly: they all know how to make the basic act of shooting feel good. But as Doom identified, success had made the top end of the genre rote and codified.

In the indie space titles like Superhot turned first-person gunplay into a slow-motion puzzle; in terms of online multiplayer, Overwatch finally brought the class-based shooter into the mainstream. But with AAA FPS campaigns, the kind of thing that tops charts and gets stocked in the supermarkets, things felt stale.

Doom is a ray of hope but, recently, an equally big surprise arrived with Respawn’s Titanfall 2. The two games share much - the hyperkinetic speed, ease of movement and shrewd level design - but split when it comes to the player character. Titanfall 2 is about the dynamic between wall-running, double-jumping Pilots and their mechanised buddies: the lumbering, chest-laser-shooting Titans. Respawn’s design principle for the game’s campaign, after being heavily-criticised for skimping on this aspect the first time around, was simple: each level is vastly different, each has a particular gimmick, and none outstay their welcome.

This wouldn’t work if Respawn weren’t masters: there’s as much care and attention in mechanics that last 15 minutes as in the flawless fundamentals. It’s a game where everything ‘clicks’ straightaway and, if it seems like I’m skirting around giving away specifics, it’s because I am. To merely describe some of these ideas would ruin a tiny part of their splendid surprise. Just know that each new concept is as fresh, exciting, and innovative as the last, propelling you through an expertly paced campaign that matches up to some of the greatest the genre has ever produced.

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There’s a grace in Titanfall’s movement - a more expansive, traversal-based system than Doom’s crunching pace - that remains unmatched by its many imitators. Once you begin to hone your skills and learn new techniques, either through experimentation or word of mouth, the feeling of building up speed as you bound from wall to wall and propel yourself over a massive chasm is unrivalled. The levels are built for it, too, setting up these salivating feats of platforming prowess and letting the player go to work. Titanfall’s 2 shooting is fantastic but it's the marriage between this exhilarating traversal, and the way the campaign constantly shifts gears and exceeds expectations, that make it shine.

Big-budget shooters are, ironically enough, easy targets - if you want to talk about a lack of innovation from big publishers, designs that grow stale over time, or bemoan the production-line needed to develop them. Each of these points has something to it, but 2016’s FPS titles tell another story. It’s one where Doom, finally, got the modern interpretation it deserved. One where Titanfall 2’s mechanical creativity makes you think of comparisons to Nintendo. It’s fitting that Respawn, a developer that arguably created the AAA FPS game’s modern form, should be shoulder-to-shoulder with id - both creating new paths for the humble shooter, and bringing their legacies along for the ride.