I must confess, I was all set to fervently hate the new Doom reboot when I got my hands on the online beta a couple of weeks ago. I was jet-lagged, and a touch cranky, and the very notion that there was a ‘new’ Doom touched a nerve; I was spoiling for a fight, but not perhaps the way Id Software and Bethesda had in mind.
Doom is the standard to which I hold other first-person shooters, even now, twenty plus years down the road, and we all know that remakes and reboots rarely (if ever) climb anywhere near the heights of their forebears. At best, you walk away from a reboot thinking “well that wasn’t a complete besmirching of everything that went before it” and the scale trickles downward from there.
And then, after all of that going against it, the new Doom beta exclusively featured online gameplay – which to be fair, is the norm for betas – but this still irks me. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to count all the reasons I hate online play in the modern era, with every developer and publisher trying to become the next Counter-Strike and every twelve year old boy trying to prove his penis is the least diminutive by virtue of his online skill, but playing the new Doom preview online struck a particular nerve with me.
My stock response to said teenagers, my shield to hide behind when they humiliatingly tea-bag me for the umpteenth time, is to proclaim that “If this was a proper game like Doom, and not some modern tosh like Call of Battlefield: Repetitive Ops, then I’d be kicking your ass every time!”
But unfortunately for me, this is Doom – or at least, it’s called Doom – but whether it truly is Doom? Well, that remains to be seen.
What’s good about the new Doom?
It’s fast, for starters.
It’s fast to pick up, with fast-paced game modes, and it feels fast to play. Anything other than a fast Doom game would simply feel wrong, but in the same breath it has to be said that the rest of the world doesn’t feel nearly as slow as it once did, compared to Doom and its descendants (Quake and Unreal Tournament). That’s as much to do with the way the online community – through its dedication to the craft and sheer competitiveness, combined with copious energy drinks and twitch reflexes – have forced their preferred games to be played at breakneck speed, but you feel like Doom has been expressly designed with fluidity in mind, rather than the high skill level of players driving the pace of matches forward.
There’s very little in the way of waist-high cover or crates, and opportunities for camping and ambush are – at least in the two maps available for the Doom beta – very limited. When combined with a degree of classic Romero-esque level design, of twisting warrens resembling a satanic ant colony (as opposed to the perfunctory ‘three-lane’ design of modern shooters) and movement that is a genuine joy, this makes for an incredibly slick experience that promotes locomotion. If you’re not moving at all times, you’re not doing Doom right, kiddies.
It also promotes active game management: there’s no bleeding red screen/hiding in a hole until your health recharges here. You have a health bar – and when it hits zero, you’re dead – but you can of course collect health packs to refill your meter, and armour to offer some protection against damage. It sounds terribly old-fashioned in a world where hit point counters have made way to the moving feast of regenerating health, in the same way random encounters in J-RPGs feel dated when compared to open world adventures like Witcher 3 or Skyrim, but do you know what? Doom is, at first appearances, infinitely better for it.
The fact that pick-ups are well-distributed and power-ups replenish on a timer only works to keep that sense of locomotion and urgency at the fore, and the demonic possession system brings a welcome new dimension to what could easily slide into yet another team-based shooter with a different visual skin. The first person to touch a demonic rune, which spawns at random locations at several points during a match, turns into a whopping great demon; in the demo, the only demon choice available was the iconic revenant, with it’s Dallas on steroids rocket-launcher shoulder pads. The dynamic instantly changes from even and squad-based to something akin to an asymmetric hunter/hunted shooter like Evolve; but if the ‘defensive’ team are able to take down the demon, the remainder of the possession time passes over and they are able to go on the offensive.
Much like the speed, the mechanics, and the familiar and solid feel of weapons like the rocket launcher and the iconic super shotgun, the demonic possession system is very satisfying… up to a point.
And what’s not quite so good about the new Doom?
Where an asymmetric shooter (like the aforementioned Evolve) will have a very evenly matched dynamic, derived from rigorous testing and ultimately the permanence of the mechanic, a match in Doom will begin with evenly sized teams… then someone touches a demon rune and Hulks out. Unlike Evolve, however, they’re not alone: an 8 v 8 match doesn’t instantly become an asymmetric 8 v Demon; it’s actually 8 v Demon (+ 7 original squad-mates clinging onto the overpowered demon’s coattails). It’s similar to a power play situation in ice hockey, which perhaps isn’t a bad way to look at it – and boy, is it satisfying when you take a demon down against the odds – but if one team gets lucky on the spawn location of the demon rune a few times in a row, it knocks the balance of the match out of whack.
The bare matchmaking isn’t perfect either, although to be fair, that’s the sort of thing that should be addressed on the back of beta testing. I joined the Doom beta late on Sunday afternoon – due to travelling – and found I was behind on a levelling system, as is standard with multiplayer online shooters. If the levels are all the matchmaking is based on then there’s clearly some flaw in the algorithm, because I frequently found myself on one side or the other of disproportionately levelled teams; if however it’s based on performance and results… then I’m not sure I saw any evidence of fairness or balance there either, and following a few slow starts and time spent in a queue earlier in the day, it felt more like it was skewed in favour of loading up matches with a full complement than ensuring the teams were at some sort of parity.
And do you know what else? It’s still not quite fast enough.
Having said that it’s very fast – and compared to other modern first-person shooters it absolutely is – it’s still not as quick as the Doom games of yore, or the games it spawned. There’s an argument perhaps that to have a game played at the breakneck pace of the original Doom would be impractical, and for the sake of accessibility and fairness across a range of players it’s been turned down from the proverbial 11, but there’s one slight flaw to that argument: there’s a haste power-up.
When you touch the haste power-up, new Doom feels exactly like old Doom, and it’s absolutely bloody glorious. The rest of the time, it’s just a really, really good modern interpretation of an unimpeachable classic. It’s close as it stands, but if everyone could play it all with the haste power-up permanently turned on?
That, my friends, would be heaven.
The new Doom launches on May 13, 2016. Pre-order it now from Amazon.