Interesting to come back to this game now. I think Doom Eternal has done a thing or two to elevate this game in the minds of most people, which certainly seems on the face of things to be a stripped-back and grounded affair in comparison to its strange little brother.
To be clear, this is and continues to be a technically impressive game in all respects, and you could play far worse, but for me this game just feels quite samey from start to finish. The design of the classic Doom games is best understood as a painters’ palette, allowing for great and varied level design to constantly happen – this is why people are still making userwads for it, after all – but this game traded all that away for a single, one-note gameplay loop.
This is why the very fluid health and ammo systems allowed for by the glory kill mechanic steal something away. The mechanic in itself isn’t really all that bad – the animations are certainly well-done, and they give the player safe moments in which to make the next decision – but they don’t really allow the level design to have a say in how resources should work for a map or a particular fight. Every enemy is a walking health kit – and universal ammo pack, thanks to the chainsaw.
This is why many players insist on the “pistol start” rule when playing wads – it’s not simply some stupid e-penis enhancement thing, you should play on even the easiest difficulty going if it helps you pistol start – the rule allows the mapmaker total control over resources, which they can use to create unique fights and setpieces. The starving paranoia of maps that rely a lot on traps and incidental combat doesn’t hit the same if you can bring in 50 shells and a blue vest from a previous map, and many a more hectic brawl of a map climaxes with the reveal and retrieval of a powerful weapon like the rocket launcher or BFG. But, when health and ammo are mostly on tap, these resources can’t be a way to create interesting gameplay and thus serve only a most basic role.
The other reason that fights feel incredibly samey is going to paint me as a real no-fun-allowed kind of guy. Such is the price of truth; it’s the movement. Doom 2016’s nippy player movement speed isn’t as fast as the DOS games – no, this isn’t some heuristic of game quality, dummy – but is augmented with a jump1 (and, quite quickly, a double-jump), as well as maps designed to always allow for free movement. The self-contained arenas that contain most of the setpiece fights are designed, in the developers’ own words, like skateparks – large and open, with plenty of verticality and many possible routes to get from A to B.
This means that the demons can’t control space. Doom 2’s bestiary all control space in different ways – some literally clog up the gameplay space, some set up nasty sniping sightlines, others spam the playfield with projectiles while others push and pull the player through all of the above. Many types of monster complement and support the others when placed in the right spot. This, to me, creates an ideal of aggressive gameplay – the player enters a closed and layered defensive system, looks for a weakness and pulls on it while fighting for their life. Pull hard enough, and more and more comes away until it’s left as nothing more than a gaggle of confused and ineffective demons for the player to rather idly clean up. Comparisons to the game of chess go more than surface-level.
But in 2016, the demons will find the player to be rather uncontrollable. Doom Eternal takes this to the next level with silly things like airdashes and monkey bars, but it’s still a problem back here. So, in every single fight, we progress immediately to the “cleaning up a horde” phase – many of these demons can certainly be immediately lethal if a mistake is made, but keep moving in roughly the same direction and you’re generally safe. I used to believe this was a problem in the enemy behaviours and the way they are unceremoniously spawned into arenas – but it’s better understood as the fact that fighting for control is most fun when it’s a two-way street of give and take, rather than being a SSG-wielding-pinball power fantasy.
Doom 2016 wants to present itself as a purist, back-to-basics shooter, and these are roughly the terms that people have accepted it on. At the same time, it wants to have five different upgrade mechanics – praetor suit tokens, weapon mods, weapon upgrades/masteries, argent cells, runes, rune masteries. I have no idea how people are able to hold both of these notions in their heads without exploding – such is the effect of good marketing?
Why have five different upgrade mechanics? Perhaps a reconciliation of the task of filling a 10-hour campaign with rewards and shiny things with the simple fact that people only really want a handful of quite basic things in this combat system. Can’t dole out all the sugar at once. But, with the encounter design being systemically incapable of offering variety, we have to rely on such systems to provide. “Perform six types of glory kills” and “Kill thirty demons while mid-air” to get upgrades is the kind of thoroughly footery gameplay that has to suffice for variety now.
If you didn’t know, neither DOS Doom game has any notion of jumping beyond “running REALLY FAST diagonally off something and hoping you make it”. Jumps are an affordance of sourceports – the original maps aren’t designed for them, and neither are the majority of userwads. ↩