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How Doom lived up to nearly a decade's worth of expectations

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It wasn't just the brutal glory kills

Depending on when you start counting, Doom 3’s successor has been in the works for nearly a decade.

That’s 10 years of unbounded, ever increasing expectation. Time enough to play, discuss and analyze gaming engine id tech 5 and its first id Software game: Rage. Ten years of Sunday quarterbacking on what the next Doom should and shouldn’t include.

And how could a gamer resist, especially a fan of shooters? Especially me?

Back in 2011, back when I ran Kotaku, I wrote a story about how to make the Doom 4 that gamers wanted, needed. It mostly played off of what was delivered with Doom 3 and what I found lacking in that more horrific take on the storied franchise.

As I pointed out back then, Doom holds a special place in gaming history as what is considered by many to be the progenitor, or at least the popularizer, of the first-person shooter. For years, any game that tried to capture the flow and play of a first-person shooter was dubbed a Doom clone.

doom screen 5

With that lofty distinction came great expectations, expectations that id sometimes struggled to meet.

How can a game both help to define a genre and also continue to remain innovative and relevant as that genre evolves?

With Doom 3, that answer seemed to be to double down on graphic fidelity and bathe the game in a haunted house atmosphere. Doom 3 was fun, scary even, but I found it too narrow an experience, a game that was hindered, not helped, by its lofty goals.

For Doom 4 - later to be renamed simply Doom - to succeed, I said that it would have to do four things: create a compelling story, expand its settings without straying from the Doom sense of claustrophobic horror, fill the screen with the hordes of hell and remind us that id is the master of the online shooter.

And for the most part, I think this is exactly what Doom did.

Warning: The rest of this story contains spoilers.

A compelling story

Story has almost always felt like an afterthought in Doom games. They’re all built around the same premise: Science unlocks the doors to hell, all hell breaks loose, Doom guy saves the world with guns. Id Software seemed to get that its game could use a stronger narrative and did much to correct that with Doom 3. But the company didn’t quite succeed.

I had high expectations for 2016’s Doom, chiefly because id turned to Graham Joyce to develop the game’s story. I described Joyce’s writing as a British take on magic Realism, a sort of writing that blurs the lines between the real and the surreal, in particular in its acceptance of magic in the world of today.

I was excited by the notion that id would track down such an interesting writer with the idea of fixing Doom’s lacking story-telling. Unfortunately, Joyce passed away in 2014. I thought that his work would live on not just in his dozens of novels, but also in Doom’s story, a retelling of the origin of the series and its afflicted hero.

Unfortunately, his writing, it seems, was limited to work on Doom 4, which never made it to the game. Instead writer Adam Gascoine, whose work on games includes Call of Duty, among them the amazing, original Black Ops, picked up the gauntlet and did an amazing job.

Doom does something very clever in its opening moments: It doesn’t worry too much with story. The same could be said for its opening gameplay.

Both come across as misleadingly light, to the point of being, perhaps, not very good.

Having first played eight or so hours of multiplayer and then jumped into the game’s campaign, I was letdown by how easy and simple it initially seemed. The same goes for the story.

The game opens as you awake from a stone table of sorts, grab up a weapon and start shooting. There’s nothing there to overtly hook you, narratively speaking. Nothing, until you watch your first holographic reenactment: a scene that appears to show people worshipping a stone casket of sorts while someone says, "We have to contain this."

Now there is just a table where the casket sat, a table with a man-shaped impression.

Then you might, if you’re into storytelling and games, think back to that loading screen and the four sentences that set up the game:

"They are rage, brutal without mercy. But you. You will be worse. Rip and tear, until it is done."

If you’re REALLY into Doom, or you Google the phrase, you’ll find that it’s a callback to an old, bizarre Doom comic book and a thing that the protagonist says while killing demons.

In retrospect, I think it was a deliberately planned head-fake, a bit of text and chapter titling designed to lower story expectations and throw narratively-driven gamers off the scent of what would slowly build to be a compelling storyline.

But at the time, at the time I felt let down.

Those feelings faded as the game continued to layer on complexity and the story, deftly inserted through those holograms and a few choice cutscenes, continued to spool out.

The hook sunk in as planned, early on: a question of who you are or maybe what you are. But it didn’t start to pull me in until about halfway through the game. Up till then, I was essentially learning the elements of this new Doom, marveling at the recreation of familiar demons and fighting to survive. Just as the gameplay began to fully unfurl, that hook tightened and started to drag me through the game with its singular question.

That question isn’t answered in the end. It simply is joined by more questions and something completely unexpected: A cliffhanger of sorts.

Re-imprisoned, the protagonist finds himself not just trapped, but also not yet the savior of the world.

While Doom doesn’t quite deliver the Pan’s Labyrinth story I was hoping for, it’s still a marvel among Doom tales and a fascinating reimagining of what was once a singularly flat origin story.

High-tech, id Tech atmosphere

Despite its PC problems, I remain a big fan of 2011’s Rage. But I’m an even bigger fan of id Software’s restraint in creating this new Doom using the sort of tech found in Rage, which could have done lots of things to decouple the game from its might roots.

While Doom resists any temptation to create an open world or bring in vehicles, it also solves the problems of Doom 3, which felt too constrained. The level design seems to shift between those narrow, maze-like levels of classic Doom and wide-open spaces that give the player the ability to approach an encounter with a bit more tactics than simply running forward and turning with the walls that enclose you.

Players are encouraged to explore these spaces not just for weapons, gear and to survive, but also to gather up the hidden goodies peppered throughout the game.

If anything was lacking in this new Doom, it was its ability to deliver a sense of dread. While not all of the games in the franchise have played with fear, it was always a welcome addition when they did. Its absence is noticed in this latest game.

Multitude of monsters

Id completely nailed this. Instead of using the power of their engine to create singular, massive monstrosities, they used it to fill the screen with demonic mayhem. They also took the time to rework their classic demons, from the Mancubus to the Barons of Hell and cacodemon. Even the imps, one of the lowest forms of enemies you face off against in the game, have been reworked to be much deadlier. I actually saw a bit of Rage in their unpredictable movement and helter-skelter attack style.

When I died, and I died a lot as I neared the end of the game, it was almost always because I was overrun by the hordes of hell … just as it should be.

Take back online

The biggest disappointment of Doom 3 for me was its afterthought of online play. How a developer so known for its online play could release a keystone title with just four-player gameplay and four modes remains a mystery. Fans, also unhappy with the offering, actually went in and fixed it for id.

This time around, I don’t think that will be necessary.

Working with developer Certain Affinity, id created a multiplayer mode that shipped with six modes, nine maps and supports 12 players.

Both it and the single-player version of the game strip away the need to reload and give the player the ability to double jump. That leads to faster, more fluid multiplayer matches. Online also supports the ability to unlock pieces of armor that can be mixed-and-matched and colorized to create whatever sort of run-and-gun nightmare you have in mind for your character.

Most importantly, the game includes SnapMap, a way to easily create and share your own multiplayer maps and challenges for the game.

Doom 3 was an interesting departure for id, a game that seemed to try and pull away from some of the elements of the franchise while doubling down on atmosphere and graphics. This new Doom isn’t just the best creation to come out of id in years; it seems to be forecasting the start of a bold new remaking of the franchise and perhaps eventually reclaiming of the best first-person-shooter mantle.

Now enjoy the spoiler-packed end credits of Doom for a reminder of all that is good about this game.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that Graham Joyce's work didn't appear in Doom.