Upon finishing Doom Eternal, I found myself with a real itch to explore the single player FPS genre further. I only ever played action-adventure games and RPGs growing up, but I got a taste for shooters with Wolfenstein: The New Order. I then tried Doom 2016 to ensure that the experience wasn’t a fluke, after which I knew for certain that I was interested. Perhaps I was feeling burnt out on the sprawling open worlds I loved so much, which more and more seemed to resemble bloated invoices of fetch quests, bandit camps, and other such inane busywork. I was attracted to the linear structure of these games, and the way that linearity allowed the developers to really craft a sense of atmosphere and narrative pacing.
In March I bought my first gaming PC. For the last ten years I’d been using a laptop that could just about play Civilization 5 on the lowest settings before crashing to desktop around the half-hour mark. And prior to the laptop I had an early-2000s PC that threatened to melt itself into hot slag if you did more than open up a plain text document or play Solitaire. Now, for the first time in my life, I had something that felt current.
You’d think the first thing I would do would be to get a modern game so I could take advantage of the raw processing power of this beefcake. But I found that as soon as I opened up Steam on my new PC, I was much more interested in trawling through all the games that I’d missed out on over the years. I was fresh off of playing Doom Eternal, which is a game that very deliberately and very consciously calls back to old school shooters. Why not? I thought to myself. I’ve got a real appetite for iD Software’s design philosophy right now, and you can get a lot of these old games for cheap.
I didn’t get any of these games with a view to reviewing them together, but it became apparent to me that the three I happened to choose actually have a lot of interesting similarities. So here we go: three old shooters I’ve dabbled in post-Doom Eternal.
Quake 4 – 2005
I was shocked at how good this game looked, and wondered if I had a texture mod already installed with the game upon purchasing it or something like that. I was running it at max settings and it was gorgeous. The standout moments for me were the sections aboard the USS Hannibal, where I ignored the objective and admired the little immersive details like the bar codes on cardboard boxes and the half-filled cups of coffee on people’s desks. Either I had enabled a mod without realizing it or games were a lot more beautiful back in 2005 than I remembered. This must have blown PC gamers’ minds! I thought to myself as I watched all the space marines go about their duties. There weren’t many faces to go around when it came to the NPCs though, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single female character in the entire game. So in that respect it did seem kind of old-fashioned. The straight-faced tone and military clichés of this intergalactic sausage-fest did border on being unintentionally camp at times, as though the game came straight from the imagination of thirteen-year-old boys playing with action figures, but I found myself enjoying it nonetheless.
Playing with a mouse and keyboard took some getting used to for me, but it wasn’t as rough a transition as I thought. It helped that the early sections of this game are quite easy. I actually really liked the difficulty curve of this game, because it reflected the context of the narrative. The story begins with you and the lads all psyching yourselves up like high school linebackers on gameday as you prepare to land on an alien planet and exterminate the local population, and at first it all goes to plan. You start by charging through trenches overwhelming the Strogg with your superior numbers and cleaning out their military bases. One of the first things you do is hijack a massive turret and blow a hole in the enemy defenses, and once that’s done you blow up the turret as well. I wondered at this point if this game was going to be really easy, because I could pretty much let my NPC companions do all the work for me. But as the assault continues, the game gradually weens you off of their support and you are tasked with solo missions before rejoining your squad.
The Strogg aren’t having a good time of it really. Things are going well for us at this point. After destroying their hangers, you meet back on the ship for a round of applause, a pat on the bum, and your next objective. Find the Tetranode and set off an EMP device. What seems like a fairly straightforward mission soon turns into a nightmare. Things go tits-up when the EMP device is destroyed in an ambush and you get separated from your squad. And the difficulty of the game reflects the position you’re in. I liked the horror of going further into the spider’s web, so to speak; that after our success on the surface outposts, we overextend ourselves by going deeper and deeper into enemy territory, and it’s when the Strogg are entrenched that they become more dangerous- and frightening.
The tone at this stage- I would say the mid part of the game- becomes more like a horror. You really feel like you are far from home and trapped deep within this hostile alien planet. I love the way the confidence of the marines erodes into terror, and the quest for victory becomes a quest for survival. You spend long sections isolated from your squad, and it was at this point I started dying a lot. What had been a cakewalk in the beginning was now really quite challenging as I had to stay mobile, manage my resources, and learn the attack patterns of all the enemy types.
There’s a great range of weapons that are all satisfying to use. Aside from the visual tone I think that might be my favorite aspect of the game. The shotgun packed a meaty punch the way it should, and I appreciated that there wasn’t too much recoil. The Hyperblaster, much like Doom’s plasma rifle, was a nice all-rounder to which it feels relaxing just to hold down the trigger without much thought, while the more contextual experience of spamming grenades with unpredictable bounce-trajectories from the grenade launcher was a good laugh. The clinical precision and heavy weight of the Nailgun’s fire, where you feel every bolt, contrasted beautifully with the light, ethereal feel that comes with the Lightning Gun’s ability to continuously chain between enemies. But perhaps best of all was the glorious Dark Matter Gun- Quake 4’s answer to the BFG. Whereas the BFG just wrecks everything in its path, the Dark Matter Gun pulls all the nearby enemies into a gravitational singularity and explodes. It’s a delicious experience that never gets old, and it really helped me take down the last boss.
By the last quarter of the game I did find myself getting a little burnt out on it, and I think that’s because of the repetitive environments. The sci-fi military bases tend to blur together at that point, and the body horror is most effective in the mid-game, after which the shock wears off. Even though the controls were somewhat substandard in the vehicle sections, I liked them because they broke up these darkly-lit interiors and gave the Strogg planet a sense of scale. It would have been a shame to spend all our time on this alien world relegated to dim corridors, so perhaps the late game could have had some exterior sections too. If I were remaking it today, I’d put in a few levels where you’re exploring alien caverns, piloting a skiff through toxic waters, or at the very least navigating the exterior of a building via walkways or balconies.
Overall, I liked this game. It didn’t have the most ambitious or complex story, but it’s got some excellent combat mechanics and an interesting visual design.
Doom 64 – 1997
I played this one on the PS4 as it came with my preordered copy of Doom Eternal. Out of the three games on this list, it definitely has the biggest sense of free-spirited run-and-gun catharsis. I loved the fast movement speed, the lack of reloading, and the reckless abandon inherent to the combat system. To look at, it’s obviously old as fuck, but the mechanics are as slick and responsive as ever. The enemies are all 2D sprites so the game can render quite a few of them at once- more so than the other two games on this list which use 3D polygons. But from what I hear, the game actually featured less enemies at a given time than previous titles in the series on account of the limitations of the N64 hardware. Doom and Doom 2 were made for the PC, and Doom 64 was the series’ attempt to expand to the N64 console, whose cartridges only had a memory of 4MB.
Given that it was made as an exclusive for Nintendo, Doom 64 has a certain sense of mystique about it that separates it from the rest of the titles in the series. You’d think from the name that it was just classic Doom ported the N64 console. But not only is it a completely original game, it tinkers with the established formula in a way that gives it its own distinct, quirky style. This only adds to the sense of mystique, as longtime fans who never played it back in the day realize that there’s this fresh, interesting entry to the franchise that they missed out on. Most folks in the 90s didn’t own every gaming platform; they were either Sony or Nintendo households, so it was easy to miss out on stuff. Those that did play it described it as feeling like the “true Doom 3”, and prior to the release of Doom Eternal, Hugo Martin stated that he believed Doom 64– the forgotten Doom, if you like- was the best of the original games, perfecting what Doom and Doom 2 had built. This only made me more intrigued; I imagined the third film in a major trilogy only being released in a certain country, flying under the radar.
The color palette of Doom 64 is noticeably darker, and the design choices for the levels in Hell are much more gothic, more akin to Quake than its predecessors. The visual tone is matched by the music, which ditches the upbeat soundscape of the first two games in favor of eerie, ambient sounds that only get more disturbing level by level. When you reach Hell, you’re met with disjointed wails and tormented moans that really bring to life the sense of place. It feels like you’re descending the Nine Circles of Dante’s Inferno, a realm of ultimate evil and perpetual suffering, far from the safety of home. It continues the way Quake started to take the FPS genre out of the bright, cartoony arcade-aesthetic toward a more serious, consistently-gritty approach. The music and color palette characterize the environment of Hell, and in so doing make Doom 64 the first game in the series that can be considered a horror. I hadn’t expected it to be so tonally different in this way- all I knew going in was that it was considered an unofficial Doom 3, so I expected it to be very similar to its predecessors.
The monster designs are different too. The Cacodemon looks the same as the Pain Elemental from Doom 2 and Doom Eternal, and the Pain Elemental is redesigned completely, this time as a hairy behemoth with bulbous, purple skin and a single eye between two mouths filled with razor sharp teeth. It gives you the feel of an experiment gone horribly wrong, as though multiple entities were stitched together, and it moves less like a living creature and more like a flying saucer. In fact, if it weren’t for the horrifying cyclops eye, I would have assumed it was a vehicle.
Then you have the Pinky, which looks similar to the original design, but with a smaller face and a bigger mouth. The mouth is almost too big for the face, kind of like those terrifying motherfuckers from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and the overall vibe makes this iteration of the Pinky less like a cartoon devil and more bestial in nature. In fact, this might be my favorite version of the Pinky; as much as I love Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal, I found their designs for this particular demon kind of bland.
The monsters in Doom 64 are all visually interesting and- perhaps this is truer of older games in general- they’re all distinct and easily identifiable. I like having intriguing things to look at- it wouldn’t have the same charm if you were fighting waves of brown-gray mercenaries like most shooters these days.
I liked the creative level design, the key-hunting, and the exploration that comes with trying to find out what the lever you just pulled actually did. I can see why some people find it tedious, but I enjoyed it. The combat was challenging, but I didn’t have too much trouble. I groaned every time Lost Souls appeared. I’d only ever encountered them before in Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal, in which they’re barely a threat. But the Lost Souls in Doom 64 can take several hits, and keep taking multiple bites at you instead of exploding on impact. If you have the wrong weapon equipped or you’re backed into a tight space, they can be quite rage-inducing.
The hardest part of the game for me was the final boss- “The Mother Of All Demons”. I died a few times taking on the multiple waves of demons that come before it, so when I saw the boss making its entrance I instantly saved. I’m glad I did, because after that I died a lot. The Mother Demon sends out these homing missiles that travel faster than the player. I tried backing far away and I got blown up. I tried bum-rushing her and I got blown up. I tried keeping at a medium distance and dodging the projectiles, and I got blown up. Just to see how far these missiles could reach, I tried hiding completely from the Mother Demon behind the nearby structures, and I tried sprinting around the edge of the arena, and in both cases, you guessed it, I found myself cartwheeling to Timbuktu. There didn’t seem to be any way to evade these things.
I typed “Doom 64 Mother Demon” into Google and the first suggestion was “Doom 64 Mother Demon impossible”. I searched YouTube for guides, but in the videos I saw, the Mother Demon didn’t seem to be firing her homing missiles. It didn’t make sense. I tried everything I could think of and I just kept dying. It was honestly the most helpless I’d ever felt fighting a video game boss. The Sword Saint of Ashina was tough, but at least in that situation I knew what to do- it was just a matter of being good enough to execute it. Whereas with the Mother Demon, I was left dumbfounded as to how the game expected me to avoid lock-on projectiles that moved faster than my maximum speed.
There had to be something I was missing. But whatever it was, I never found out, because I found a video that showed you how to cheese it. There’s a specific spot, behind the purple obelisk, where you can stand and fire at the Mother Demon and somehow the missiles won’t get you. Normally I wouldn’t resort to these kind of physics exploits, but I was so angry that I no longer cared about winning a fair fight. So I just unloaded my Unmaker on the cheating bitch and watched her eat it. I don’t know why it works but I don’t feel bad. Fuck that hoe.
Doom 3 – 2004
Part of the reason Doom 64 is considered by some to be the true final chapter of the trilogy is because the actual Doom 3 is a noticeable departure from the formula. Even though Doom 64 experimented with new lighting techniques and ambient sounds to instill that formula with horror vibes, the broad experience is still unmistakably consistent with the classic Doom titles. Putting aside the obvious technological leap, Doom 3 is a markedly different experience; a reinterpretation of its classic namesake that pays homage to System Shock 2 and Half-Life as much as it does its predecessors. This didn’t bother me, because I like reimaginings so long as they’re not shit. And I’ve always liked System Shock-style games. The best System Shock game in my opinion is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. Yeah, you heard me.
Anyway, I was doubly curious about Doom 3 because I remember being struck by the cover as a child. I didn’t dare touch it, but the sight of this eyeless monster howling at something with its jaws wide, strands of impossibly-abundant saliva connecting its upper and lower teeth, just captured my imagination. It was different from any other alien or mythical creature I’d seen. It was so dark and cruel in its tone, that I figured this game was had to be “Star Wars for grown-ups”. I saw the blood-red “18” age rating and shivered. I wasn’t the kind of kid that wanted to grow up fast- I was frightened about damn near everything. But something about that Hellknight just called to me- it was a fantastic piece of cover art, and it evoked something that I couldn’t seem to put into words. Star Wars for grown-ups. A dark, horrifying brand of sci-fi that I’d never encountered before, had never imagined existing.
Now I’m 27 and I’ve finally gotten around to playing it. I can safely say that it’s not very scary at all- at least, not in the sense of giving you nightmares. It’s not creepy or disturbing in that sense, but it is good at making you jump. I’ll freely admit that- the game startled me to no end. The way the demons always spawn behind you, in conjunction with my poor skill with a keyboard, meant that I was constantly flying out of my seat yelling obscenities. There’s one scripted jump scare in particular, where I walked up to a bathroom mirror and the camera suddenly zoomed in on my character’s face, that caused me to scream at the top of my lungs.
The game gets a sick pleasure out of taking you by surprise. One of its favorite tricks is having an enemy appear right in front of you when you open a door, and it’s impossible to avoid getting hit on a first time playthrough. I wouldn’t have minded too much if this only happened once or twice, just to keep you on edge, but it starts to get annoying after a while because it’s just an arbitrary health deduction that punishes you for no reason.
I really wanted to like this game, and while the weapons were pretty cool, I found myself becoming increasingly bored by the repetitive, claustrophobic environments. Don’t worry, Doom 3: it’s not you, it’s me. I fully understand what it’s going for, but I found out during my playthrough that I didn’t enjoy it the way I thought it would.
I did indeed like the greater focus on story- especially the whole beginning sequence where you get to explore the Mars base and see it during its mundane, working hours. I appreciate it the same way I appreciate the steady pace of old movies, because it makes the world feel lived-in and atmospheric. I liked the badass Pinky redesign (my second-favorite Pinky after Doom 64), I liked the heavy pumping of the Chaingun, and I liked strumming an air guitar to the awesome main theme composed by Chris Vrenna and Clint Walsh.
But what I didn’t like was the central gameplay loop. When you strip away all the ancillary details, such as the lovely graphics, the cute-as-fuck Sentry Bots, and the cool-looking demons, the game is essentially about fighting your way through a succession of very confined, darkly-lit rooms. I felt like a clumsy idiot that kept banging his shins on coffee tables as I frantically tried to determine who was attacking me, spraying bullets in all directions, frequently getting pwned in the middle of reloading or worse yet, accidentally equipping the rocket launcher while backed into a corner and blowing myself up. The Imps aren’t hard to beat, but they’re so annoying the way they always spawn in behind you or burst out of hidden doors with tiresome regularity. Picking up health packs hardly seemed worth it when you realized that doing so would see the relentless bastards jump you like a surprise birthday party courtesy of a barbershop quartet.
My biggest problem seemed to be getting trapped by enemies too short for your field of view if they were close enough to you. I’d be sitting there like a lemon while a Chaingun Commando rips through my health bar, wondering why I can’t seem to move, only to look down and discover a gang of spiders with fucked-up upside-down human faces on their backs are slashing away at my kneecaps.
The game definitely had its moments, but I didn’t do as well with the mouse and keyboard as I did with Quake 4, and the basic loop in conjunction with the environments was just too repetitive to sustain my interest. Things picked up at the end when I got the Soul Cube though. I thought the last boss was a good fight, but I didn’t figure out until after I’d beat him that he only took damage from the Soul Cube attacks. So I was playing Ring Around the Rosie burning through BFG ammo and wondering why it was taking so long.
It was only after beating all three games that I realized each one was something of a digression from its milieu. Quake 4, Doom 64, and Doom 3 are all, to varying degrees, interested in pushing further into the action horror genre. Playing them felt like a celebration of the way the Doom and Quake franchises are constantly being reinterpreted with each installment. And as my own reactions to them show, not every fan is going to be happy with each iteration to the same degree.
I’d originally planned to review them separately, but I feel like they go together quite nicely. Out of the three, Quake 4 was my favorite, even though I know it’s the least critically acclaimed. The combat feels like a middle ground between the two- not as fast-paced as Doom 64 but certainly more streamlined and varied than Doom 3. I’ve concluded that while I like the atmosphere that comes with horror, I much prefer my shooting gameplay to be a relaxing experience, where I’m mobile and I have a decent amount of breathing room.
The biggest comparison of course exists between Doom 3 and Quake 4. The latter uses the engine of the former, came out a year later, and seems to have taken some visual inspiration from it too. There is a similar biomechanical theme present in the enemy design, and the mini-bosses Sabaoth and Voss felt very similar. Both of them are former allies that have been transformed into hideous cybernetic monstrosities. On the whole I found the Strogg more disturbing, probably because they seem intelligent and organized, whereas the forces of Hell seem primal and chaotic. In Quake 4 you get a glimpse into how the humans are abducted and experimented upon. The business of Stroggification is methodical and systematic. It takes time and resources to accomplish. They go through a lot of effort to torture people- and it’s that effort that disturbs you, as you walk through labs with human torsos fused into computer interfaces, the vast industry that powers this sick desire.
In Doom 3, the demons assimilate humans because it’s what they do. It happens more or less instantly, powered not by machinery but an ancient magic. The Zombie security guards seem like they are under a spell, and I found them less menacing than the Strogg. That said, you can’t deny that Doom 3 has the more varied and distinctive enemy designs. The Cherubs and the Trites are absolutely nightmare-inducing, and the Hellknight reigns supreme over pretty much everything in my opinion. The monster that had so long ago captured my imagination on the Doom 3 box art did not disappoint. It’s easily my favorite version of the Hellknight in any Doom game, and my favorite enemy design overall across the three titles I reviewed in today’s post.