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Doom: Impressions on the first half of the campaign

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It's not a guarantee that a game will be bad when reviewers don't get it early — Blizzard notoriously doesn't send out review copies of its games in advance, for example — but it's usually a bad sign. With that in mind, I'm just going to say it: I don't know why Bethesda didn't want reviewers playing the new Doom early, because about halfway through, it's really not bad at all. In fact, it's occasionally pretty good, at least so far.

Doom is very violent, in case you weren't aware. It's all kinetic shooting with very graphic kills that have blessedly been toned down somewhat from their original gruesome debut at last year's E3. The so-called "Glory Kills" — a fancy name for melee executions available when an enemy takes enough damage — are no longer quite so drawn-out and torturous. Instead, a glory kill takes about two seconds to finish, long enough to be savage but not the extended gore porn that made me a little queasy when I first saw the game in 2015. More importantly, this allows glory kills to serve as tiny, needed oases in the potential chaos of Doom's more frenetic encounters, and they encourage a very active play style that it seems clear id Software intended for the game.

And that pacing makes for an exciting game. It's actually much faster than the original games tended to be — a statement I'm comfortable with, as I spent a chunk of last weekend playing Doom and Doom 2 in lieu of the absent Doom 2016. Proximity just isn't the same kind of risk in this new Doom that it was in the original games, and the encouragement to get in close and hit things is a tacit sort of admission of that. But hey, it mostly works. And blasting things with the shotgun is appropriately satisfying.

Doom is a curious thing set next to 2004's Doom 3

The biggest surprise by far is the effectiveness and evocative nature of this new Doom's collectibles and secrets. Playing through Doom 2, I was struck by how big a part the sense of secrets and discovery played in its reward loop. Finishing a level showed how many of the stage's enemies were killed, items collected and secrets discovered. And that is very much in effect in this Doom, and, in a smart move, you always know how many secrets you've found and how many are left, how many collectibles are still there. I'm enjoying wandering through levels and trying to get into new nooks and crannies, in part because I know there's something in it for me.

In this way, Doom is a curious thing set next to 2004's Doom 3. The original games are something of a cipher — old enough and abstract enough, mass audience enough to be different things to different people. Those games scared the shit out of me on a regular basis. They were terrifying on every single platform I played them on — PC, SNES, PS1, N64 — and Doom 3 captured that part of Doom incredibly well. This Doom seems more focused on the feeling of killing things in the original games and also that constant sense of discovery. It lacks the oppressiveness that defined Doom 3, and seems more interested in a much less stressful kind of fun.

All that said, I'm not prepared to relay a verdict on Doom. I'm about six hours into the game and just entering Hell. Which I suppose would be a spoiler, save that Doom is aggressively self-referential, with passing narrative elements that feel mostly determined to reassure you that you're playing Doom and catch you in a-ha moments where id have slightly subverted or twisted your understanding of the series.

That suggests a level of sophistication to Doom's storytelling that isn't present, though. Despite what you may have heard, there is story in Doom, to be sure. But some competent voice acting aside, it's a trifle, an occasionally intrusive scaffolding to hang monsters and guns from without being questioned too much. Which is strange, really. Doom, of all games, carries with it an implicit suspension of disbelief that most titles would kill for. That was the thought running through my head during another multi-minute dialogue sequence that I couldn't skip, that didn't particularly improve anything about the game.

So far, that's not the main problem I'm starting to see visible behind the seams in Doom's facade. I've discovered the bulk of Doom's bestiary, found almost every weapon, upgraded many of them, tricked out my suit, etc. I'm impervious now to barrel explosions, for example, and that's a relief, let me tell you. But already, six or so hours in, fights are starting to blur together, to feel a little same-y. Hopefully, now that I'm leaving Mars, that changes.

If nothing else, at least the scenery is nice.