For my money, Doom is the most important video game ever made. Not this Doom (2016), mind you, but the original.
I mention that up front for two reasons. First, to be honest about my bias. And second, to let you know how high my expectations were and, in turn, how notable this Doom’s accomplishments are.
It’s been nearly a dozen years since the release of Doom 3, itself an attempt to update and modernize the first-person icon. But where Doom 3 did this through technology, launching the vaunted id Tech 4 engine and fleshing out the franchise’s famously spartan plot, the new Doom did this by distilling just what it was about the original Doom — the game, not the technical marvel — that worked so well.
Doom is fast. When I first played it, I remember thinking that it actually seemed too fast; this is in part an illusion, since the game sets you free in a small chamber before introducing you to the game’s massive outdoor environments. But it’s also a statement: The game lets you know that things are going to be different. Doom’s introduction is quick: You’ll kill your first demon within a minute; your first “Glory Kill” occurs in three minutes; a large-scale battle comes in five minutes; and you’re on the Martian surface within seven minutes.
Speed is baked into Doom’s very design. The speed of Doomguy’s locomotion, stitched together with the game’s clever, albeit gruesome, melee attacks, creates a simple but flexible mechanic that the levels are built to explore. You run, shoot, jump, transition into a melee attack, rip a staggered demon in half, recoup some health and then you repeat the pattern over again. And over and over again. The game’s combat arenas are often like puzzles, tasking players with figuring out the most expedient route through the waves of enemies.
Doom demands just enough precision to be challenging, but allows enough freedom to be, well … joyful. I can’t remember the last game that put a smile on my face the way Doom did. I understand this is a weird response to a disturbingly violent game about a space marine dismembering demons from hell. But there it is.
I’m not the first person to point this out, but Doom reminds me a lot of … a Nintendo game. Don’t worry about the weird settings, or the nonsensical plot, or the silly narrative; this is a game built around its mechanics. This was true of the first Doom (1993) as well; while worried adults saw pentagrams and demons and blood (“It’s so realistic!”), I only cared about the mechanics, the levels, the WADs. The creativity. Forget about the faux subversion; that spark is on full display in this Doom.
Speaking of WADs, it’s worth pointing out where Doom doesn’t fulfill its legacy. When you launch a game called Doom, you willingly inherit the comparison to the most important game ever made. The game that popularized everything from online multiplayer to user-created levels to the ethos of indie development to the debate over violence in games and, yes, the very genre of first-person shooters itself.
While Doom tried to take on some of this, a mediocre outsourced multiplayer component simply isn’t competitive and fails to capture the magic of the campaign. Similarly, the game’s attempt at user-generated content — the so-called SnapMap system — stifles the kind of madcap total conversion mods that Doom thrived on in place of a pre-baked level creation toolkit. It’s neat, and there are some good levels, but it’s not enough to stand out.
And while that may seem like a lot to criticize for our top pick of the year — and for some, those are undoubtedly major shortcomings — for me and many of my colleagues at Polygon, what Doom accomplished exceeds its deficiencies by such a margin as to still make the top of our charts.
Were there better total packages this year? Definitely. (Hat tip to Titanfall 2.) But there wasn’t a better shooter campaign this year. Doom had the audacity to reject years of common wisdom, decades of increased expectations and generations of first-person brinksmanship to reach back to the beginning, to reintroduce the shooter that started it all.
Polygon is counting down our favorite games of 2016. For more on the process behind how we choose our top 10, read this guide to our voting process.