Doom Eternal – Review (No Spoilers)

I’ve been looking forward to this post for some time. Doom Eternal has truly kept me sane during the lockdown. It’s the second-best thing that’s happened to me this year after my trip to the Caribbean. In this post I won’t be including any spoilers for the game’s story- and that statement alone should tell you something about Doom Eternal. I wouldn’t have bothered with a spoiler warning for a review of Doom 2016 because it would have been obsolete. How do you spoil Doom 2016? You can’t. You’re in a corridor and there’s a scary demon in the way, so you shoot the scary demon in order to keep going. That’s it. That’s the game. And its simplicity was in many ways its greatest strength; at a time when the standard practice of the AAA games industry was to create experiences that were ever more expansive, the Doom reboot showed us the enduring value of a streamlined product focused around a core gameplay loop. Sure, there was a story there, but you had to actively seek it out in the form of optional codex entries. It only affected the experience as much as you wanted it to. The game was making a thesis statement about narrative exposition in the medium of video games. The scene at the beginning where the Doom Slayer angrily smashes the computer terminal to cut off the voice that’s attempting to explain the events of the game is already one of the most critically-dissected moments in gaming history.

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Doom Eternal, on the other hand, is markedly different in its stylistic choices. The adrenaline rush of the broad gameplay experience is much the same, but everything else is a conspicuous shift in gears. There’s a lot more context for what is going on. There are full-on cinematic cutscenes. The Doom Slayer has spoken dialogue. The art style is a lot more cartoony and playful. The demons are less alien and more expressive in their design. There’s a hub you return to between missions, as opposed to a linear structure where each area leads into the next. All of the locations are varied and colorful. Some of them are even quite pretty (as opposed to the bloodstained corridors of Doom 2016). You can customize the Slayer’s armor. You can see his bedroom! There’s enough platforming to make Super Mario himself weep with tears of glowing pride. And there’s even a photo mode. Yep, that’s right. I never thought I’d see a photo mode in Doom of all franchises.

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I’m not knocking it- I’m a sucker for photo modes in games- but they are the ultimate example of the sort of fatty tissue that Doom 2016 would have trimmed. It’s the sort of decadent indulgence you expect from a large, cinematic open world game, and in some ways this smallest of features exemplifies the difference between Doom Eternal and its predecessor.

If Doom Eternal had just been more of the same, I don’t think anyone would have complained. Doom 2016 is as close to a “perfect” FPS as you can get. But if Doom Eternal had just been Doom 2016 with a few minor changes, would it have had much of an impact? I’m gonna say no. I can’t help but admire iD Software, because it would have been easy just to give us a second helping of 2016’s hellishly-lovely casserole. Doom Eternal is an adventurous new recipe. It’s a gamble. It changes the concept of what a Doom game is and goes somewhere completely new. Who’s to say that the Doom Slayer shouldn’t speak?

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For better or for worse, Doom Eternal is a distinctive entry in the history of the series that will always be remembered for its unique quirks. It starts a conversation in a way that a repeat of its predecessor could never have done. Are you more of a Doom 2016 guy or a Doom Eternal guy? It’s an interesting question that we’ll be asking for years to come, and of course there’s nothing wrong with favoring either one. Doom 2016 will appeal to the purists, and I can understand why the purists aren’t overly happy with Doom Eternal. It all comes down to taste- and I know you can say that about any product, but it really is the salient point here, because every reviewer worth their salt agrees that Doom Eternal is a great game. It’s not broken or otherwise badly executed, and although it takes the franchise in a slightly new direction, it’s still a Doom game at its core. You can trace its roots all the way back to the original 1993 classic in its fast-paced combat, explorative level design, and cartoonish gore. Doom Eternal doesn’t fall into the category of The Last Jedi or Fallout 76 because it keeps the original formula intact and uses it as a jumping-off point to explore new ideas.

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The two biggest criticisms of the game I’ve heard from the purists are the presence of the cutscenes and the platforming sections. I should also point out at this juncture that when I use the term purist, I don’t mean to attach any connotations of snobbery. I don’t use the term in a mocking or disparaging way, but simply to refer to someone that eschews auxiliary components. The debate around Doom Eternal’s cutscenes too often results in miscommunication in my opinion. The purists say they don’t like the cutscenes, and those that disagree with them tend to respond with “Just skip them if you don’t like them.”

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But this is missing the point. When the purists say they don’t like the cutscenes, I don’t think it’s because they don’t find them entertaining, or that they believe the cutscenes are poorly made. Who doesn’t like a well-executed cutscene? Presumably the same kind of people that don’t like puppies and waterparks and cheesecakes. What the purists mean is that the presence of these glamorous, cinematic cutscenes is to the detriment of Doom Eternal’s effect from an artistic standpoint. It’s an interesting discussion to be had. Personally I liked the cutscenes, and their presence didn’t bother me- but I will concede that they are an indulgence. It’s a trade-off: they allow us to go deeper into the world of Doom but they also detract from the straightforward, no-nonsense image established in Doom 2016. It’s not about quality; it’s about tone. It illustrates the developers’ desire to expand the franchise as opposed to boiling it down to the fundamentals.

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However when it comes to the purists’ complaints regarding the amount of platforming in the game, I am less sympathetic. There’s nothing wrong with not liking the platforming, but to say that it’s out of place in a Doom game is simply not true. The original 1993 classic was full of platforming. You couldn’t jump, but you could fall into pits of lava or toxic slurry. The levels were designed around navigating environmental hazards and puzzles, and if you could have jumped back then, there surely would have been more such features. To my mind, Doom Eternal is the natural technological evolution of the original. It’s exactly what Romero and Carmack would have done in 1993 if they’d had the tools to do so. In the original you had to use timing, speed, and balance to avoid ceiling traps that would crush you or cross narrow platforms pitched above pools of chemical waste, and is that really any different, fundamentally, to dashing between jets of fire or walls of spikes in Doom Eternal?

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I can understand people not liking it. Personally I loved it, but then I absolutely love parkour gameplay. Doom to me is all about movement, and so the platforming gels quite well with the combat. It calls upon similar skills and is used effectively as downtime between arenas. The excellent pacing of the game’s levels is due in no small part to their platforming sections. Doom is a power trip, and you feel an added sense of agency when you narrowly avoid the blasts of a Mancubus’ flamethrower by jumping off a ledge, swinging high in the air off of a strategically-placed set of monkey bars, launching the meathook into the exposed, bulbous eye of a Cacodemon and using it to swing yourself over a lava canal and landing with an outstretched chainsaw onto an unsuspecting Gargoyle. It’s a hoot.

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When people talk about the essence of Doom they tend to talk about the fast-paced combat, but equally important, in my view, is the creative level design. The original game was characterized by highly-explorative levels, full of backtracking, key-hunting, hidden secrets, locked doors, platforming, and death traps. The 2016 reboot brought this back and expanded upon it, and was celebrated most of all for saving the FPS genre from the gray, linear, cover-based tedium of the Call of Duty school of gameplay design that had dominated the industry for over a decade. It returned the FPS genre to its roots, and gave a new generation of gamers a colorful alternative they sorely needed. That’s the biggest reason for Doom 2016’s success. That’s why it took off the way it did, in case you’re curious. The developers knew this, and that’s why in Doom Eternal they expanded upon it even further. Everything is bigger. You jump between crumbling platforms, you crawl through vents, you swim through irradiated water, you solve deadly environmental puzzles, you sling yourself across vast distances at high speed, and you furiously climb walls like Link after someone crushed MDMA into his Cream of Mushroom Soup. What was a corridor in Doom 2016 is an expansive set of parkour challenges in Doom Eternal.

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And if it’s not your thing, then that’s fine. You still have Doom 2016. I thought in the lead-up to Doom Eternal that the game would make its predecessor obsolete. But that’s not the case. If you enjoy Doom Eternal, you might find that Doom 2016 now feels restricted in its movement, but if the greater emphasis on platforming wasn’t your thing, then you will always have the previous title to go back to. As much of a success as Doom Eternal is, it doesn’t replace Doom 2016 so much as provide an alternative to it.

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Doom 2016 is a lot more carefree. If you want to largely stick to your favorite weapon and keep the chainsaw as an emergency Get Out Of Jail Free Card then you can do that. The game doesn’t dictate too much how you solve a given problem, and there’s a great freedom in that. Doom Eternal, on the other hand, is a much more tactical experience, and you’re punished severely for not using the appropriate strategy. Every enemy has a specific weak point and the combat is built around you switching guns and using the full range of your arsenal. There’s a low ammo capacity for each weapon so you are absolutely forced to use that chainsaw. Neglect it at your peril. Resource management has always been a part of the Doom franchise but it’s at its absolute harshest right here, and I can understand preferring the more balanced, free-spirited approach of Doom 2016.

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The difference between Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal is akin to that between Dark Souls and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It’s the freedom and creativity of the former contrasted against the uncompromising system of the latter. Are you a Doom 2016 guy or a Doom Eternal guy? Remember, there’s no right answer. I’m still trying to work out which one I am. I loved running-and-gunning with my plasma rifle in the former, but I also find the “speed chess” esque combat puzzle of the “Doom Dance” utterly exhilarating. The strict emphasis on resource management makes Doom Eternal a much more challenging game.

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I recently beat Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and that game is often listed as the most difficult game of all time in modern journalistic rankings. But I don’t think there’s such a thing, because different games require different skillsets. Sekiro is very defense-oriented whereas Doom Eternal is all about being aggressive. Sekiro requires patience and focus on a single threat whereas Doom Eternal requires high-speed multi-tasking. Everyone is different, and Doom Eternal on Nightmare mode is more challenging for me because I suck ass at multi-tasking. I’d try and chainsaw when I’m out of fuel, or I’d chainsaw the wrong kind of enemy (Prowlers, usually). I’d mismanage my use of space and find myself helplessly trapped between Mancubi and Hell Knights. I’d so often be unaware of what was attacking me until it was too late. I’d press the wrong button at the worst possible moment. I’d get a complete mind-blank mid-fight and cycle through my arsenal without purpose.

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On the whole, I love this game- but it’s not without its flaws. And it does have more flaws than its predecessor- but in some ways that’s inevitable for something on a bigger scale. So just in case you thought I was about to get lockjaw from fellating this game too much, here are my gripes:

  • The game’s best addition is criminally underused. Yes, it’s the meathook. It’s one of the most satisfying tools I’ve ever used in a game, but you can play the whole thing and never use it. When you first get the super shotgun, there’s a moment where you have to traverse a pit by firing the meathook at a zombie on the other side and pulling yourself over. But that never happens again. And it’s a shame because it is so satisfying to use. I often only found myself using it in combat because I wanted an excuse to do so, not because I needed to. I wish there were sections designed around this mechanic, like jumping from Cacodemon to Cacodemon in order to bypass a sea of lava. You saw the Doom Slayer swinging from Cacodemons quite a lot in the game’s marketing, but I didn’t do it once during my playthrough.
  • The Unmaykr is a massive letdown. Considering this weapon is your reward for beating all the optional Slayer Gates, it’s not very useful. It does less damage than the BFG and uses the same ammo. I wish the prize had been something more interesting, instead of what is undoubtedly the most forgettable tool in your arsenal.
  • The tutorial pop-ups. Yes, you can turn these off, but that’s not the point. The hand-holding is too aggressive in this instance and it ruins the fun of discovering the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses for yourself. I don’t think this belongs on any difficulty setting- I think it’s something that should pop up if you keep dying at the same arena after a certain number of times. What annoyed me even more was that it kind of ruined the entrance of a new enemy for me. You’d be walking along and a text window would pop up telling you that you were about to face an Arachnotron for the first time. I liked it in Doom 2016 where you’d get a tiny intro cinematic as a new enemy appeared, and I’d feel a mixture of fear and excitement. You don’t even need that to give a new monster a badass debut. In the Slayer Gates, for example, you would encounter demons that don’t appear until later in the main campaign. And you don’t get a tutorial in those sections, so when I was beating a Slayer Gate somewhere in the midgame and I suddenly noticed a Tyrant for the first time, I was like “Oh shit, what’s that?!” and I wanted more of this throughout the campaign. Who can forget seeing a Big Daddy for the first time in Bioshock or a Deathclaw in the Fallout series?
  • In my opinion there were not enough unique bosses. I know at its heart the game is more about unrelenting waves of enemies, but I personally love boss battles in games that break up the wider experience. So I didn’t like it in Doom Eternal when foes presented as bosses get turned into standard enemies after you beat them. The Doom Hunter was kind of underwhelming, especially as he got his own trailer in the marketing for the game. I’d rather he was made into a more powerful boss that we fight once. The same goes for the Marauder in some respects. While I liked the idea of having elite enemies that stalk you on your journey (makes me think back to the ninja robo-pirates in Rayman 2), I just wanted the bosses to feel like bosses. I also thought that Kalibas was a big disappointment too. I was all excited for the Sightless Judge, a “rare breed” of demon, but he just ended up being a giant brain you can hardly see. I just thought it was a chance to create a unique demon that was visually interesting, a kind of spectacle boss fight like the Great Serpent in Sekiro.

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Other than that, I’m not sure what else there is to say about Doom Eternal from a gameplay perspective. The double-dash was a blast, the sound design for the weapons makes them feel so satisfying, and the glory kills are just glorious. Mick Gordon nailed the soundtrack once again. And the Funko Pop style bobbleheads are the cutest collectibles ever. It might be the best shooter I’ve ever played, and it’s certainly one of my favorite games of this generation.

Thank you for reading. I’ll be back in a few days with some more spoiler-y posts that focus on the world of Doom Eternal!

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