Game * id Software * Demonic Invasion * 2016
I should have played this sooner. It has been such a long time since a shooter made me feel cool that I had kind of forgotten that I enjoy them. Halo and Call of Duty have so fundamentally transformed the genre that I didn’t even realize how my expectations have changed. I expect to be bad. I expect to plod along the plot points, enjoying what there is of narrative, looking at the world (like that brilliant skybox in the Halo games), and occasionally having to shoot things. Dying often. Never really getting much better. I don’t know, I’m just not usually terribly vested in getting better. I don’t play multiplayer for this very reason. Anyway, I eventually trial-and-error my way through to the end after which it’s like, cool. I did that thing.
Not so with Doom. You remember Doom? One of the most influential video games of all time? Even if you didn’t spend hours in front of your 486 shooting demons with a rocket launcher, you almost assuredly know the game. The Rock was in the movie version, for crying out loud. Anyway, Doom was one of the very first first-person shooters. It was extremely fast, and there were lots of demons. You shot them. Along the way you walked over ammunition and health packs and tried to not die. The game took place on Mars, or more specifically the various sci-fi installations built on Mars. Demons invade, and it’s up to you, a nameless spaceman, to kill them all and kick them out of our dimension. Eventually you have to travel into Hell and kill a bunch of demons there in order to save the day.
That was 1993. Somehow, in 2016, id Software has made the exact same game, only instead of feeling dated and old it feels fresh and invigorating, and it’s amazing. The story, such as it is, is largely the same. You’re Doomguy. “The Doom Slayer.” Whatever. You’re awakened from your cryosleep chamber/shrine by an alarm notifying you of elevated levels of demonic invasion. Oh, and actual demons. Once you kill them, you find your Doomguy suit and a gun. There’s some voices telling you some stuff. There’s a robot directing you around the facility which you generally ignore, and some crazy scientist lady who’s trying to open a permanent portal to Hell. Your job is to stop her, and kill all the demons that you can.
Once you get your trusty shotgun, Doom starts to feel exactly right. Cocking the gun in time with the music cues along with the title card help immensely with this feeling. Movement is brisk, although control is precise. You get all the usual Doom weapons, and they all have the right weight and response to them. Oh, and most importantly there’s none of this two-weapons-at-a-time nonsense. They’re just all up on you and to hell with it making sense for one guy to have nine massive guns on his person. The demons all act as you suppose they would, despite their fancy modern makeovers. Imps are Imps, and they still shoot fireballs at you, and they’re still fun to shotgun in the face.
There are two major concessions to modernity (aside from the audio-visual presentation) which elevate Doom beyond a mere nostalgic revival. The first are the upgrade systems. It’s 2016, allotting points to categories and watching meters is expected. I’m not going to go into detail, but suffice to say there are three upgrade systems and they’re all intuitive enough to not feel like they’re in the way. The upgrades are helpful but not vital (well, maybe the one which turns your shotgun into a grenade launcher), and they’re fun to tinker with. The other concession is what the game calls a “glory kill.” Once you damage a demon enough, it begins to flicker blue/orange. Push a button and you zoom up and do a melee finisher on it, which spews health. This is very important, because Doom is all about combat rhythm. You’ll take damage a lot, be close to death often, but you’re usually just one punch away from getting much of it back. Later in the game, as you improve, armor becomes important.
Here’s the flow: Run, run, run, shotgun that Imp, punch his head off, get health, run run run, jump on that thing, switch to assault rifle/missile launcher, unload in Revenant before he can rocket me to death, run, oh shit floating things, switch to rocket launcher to lock on shoot run shoot run jump over that thing switch to shotgun shoot two more Imps, punch their heads off for more sweet sweet health, uh oh Hell Knights back up shotgun back up shotgun, back up into fat thing, panic! NO! Chainsaw! Run run run, too many! BFG, and we’re done here.
Look, I don’t know what there is to discuss. I bought Doom for twenty American dollars and so can you. Are you looking for some deeper cultural resonance within this experience? I paid twenty bucks to not have that kind of experience, thank you. Video games are in a weird place now, at least it seems that way to a guy who has grown up with them. And by “grown up with them,” I both mean that growing up there were always video games around and as I grew older and matured, so did the medium. The original Doom came out when I was 14. Is there any possible concept for a video game better suited for a 14 year old boy? It’s a series of animated metalhead binder-doodles which you then shoot and explode into chunks. Yet video games as a medium weren’t all that much older. Just a couple of greasy teens hanging out massacring demons to crunchy midi tunes.
It would be unfair to label Doom as nothing but a twitchy action shooter. Obviously, the combat is a major part of the experience, and it’s super fun. I was better at it towards the end than I was in the beginning, which I have mentioned is a very rare occurrence for me to experience in a game like this. Yet there’s more to the experience than the breathless action. There is an explorative element, which is again a throwback. Doom has always rewarded players for taking their time, and looking around. The modern version is the same, and you’ll spend a good deal of time not shooting anything, looking for the way forward, or a hidden upgrade thingie, or simply a “secret.” The quiet times are necessary. The ripping metal soundtrack quiets, and atmosphere builds. These quiet moments are a vital element of the game. They’re like quiet introductions to metal songs. Without the quiet, the loud won’t punch quite as hard.
When I say that games are in a weird place now, it’s more of an acknowledgement of their evolution. In ’93, Doom was at the pinnacle of the medium. If you were the first kid on the block with a 486 and access to shareware, you brought people over to check this shit out, because it was unlike anything that has come before. Sure, there was Wolfenstein a couple years before, but Doom was such a leap beyond it’s difficult to hyperbolize how cool it was. Yet at the same time, we were kind of used to it. It was only a few years before when we popped in Super Mario World for the first time and were equally blown away. It would only be another couple years before Super Mario 64 came along and had the same effect. Yet those landmarks have come and gone, and games are at a point now where there is a vast history to draw inspiration from.
Generally, I like single-player games where I can slowly explore vast strange worlds at my own pace, discovering what there is to discover. Narrative is all well and good, but story in games is still being worked out. Combat and conflict are generally necessary, but again something I tolerate rather than seek out (most of the time). Mostly I enjoy games as a medium that allows me to go places I otherwise would not be allowed to go, or to do things I’m not allowed to do. This can be as innocuous as barging into a stranger’s house in a JRPG and randomly talking to people in the middle of their dinner, or driving on the sidewalk in a GTA, vehicular manslaughtering anyone dumb enough to not get out of the way. Doom is not a game which provides things I generally enjoy, despite providing down time to poke around the gnarlier corners of Hell. It is a game perfectly suited to its niche as a throwback action shooter. I am genuinely surprised at how much I was looking for this exact thing.