Let’s face it: shooters have gotten boring.
It feels like every new shooter these days has regenerating health, a postmodern military setting, human enemies and some of that good left-trigger-right-trigger action we’ve come to expect. When a shooter deviates — even a little bit — it’s lauded as “the most exciting shooter in years” and the praise train starts chugging along. But it’s rare to find a shooter that feels truly fresh these days, one that pushes you in new directions or perfects the old ones. Overwatch seems like it’s probably that kind of shooter, given the hype, but I wouldn’t know; I’m too busy still playing DOOM.
DOOM isn’t the most exciting shooter because of its setting: it’s Mars and it’s Hell. We’ve been there before in other games and in DOOM games from decades’ past. It doesn’t have a slew of wacky Ratchet & Clank-style weapons, Bulletstorm-style combos or Mirror’s Edge-style parkour; it revels in the classic weapons and mechanics with minimal emphasis on modern innovations. It doesn’t have a deep story filled with moral choices; it relishes every moment to reject a pompous, self-serious examination of tired themes.
No, DOOM isn’t great because it’s brimming with new ideas. It’s great because it’s simply an excellent, fun-as-hell shooter.
DOOM starts strong by setting you up as a feared demon-slayer resurrected, a tone that carries through to the game’s combat. I don’t ever hang back and take cover the way I do in other shooters; I rush forward into the thick of it and gnash and tear my way out. I have zero interest in playing conservatively or doing the stop-and-pop that has robbed so many shooters of any semblance of kinetic gameplay in the last decade. DOOM is frantic and wild and it wants you to get lost in blood and bone. It nudges you toward a more aggressive playstyle than most shooters would allow in some really intelligent ways, like eschewing regenerating health in favor of life and armor bars. To get your health back, you can’t simply duck around a corner and wait; you have to earn it back by either scouring for a health pack in the heat of battle or by putting an enemy in a low-health stagger state and performing a gleefully violent melee “Glory Kill” on it.
The Glory Kill system in particular is a brilliant piece of design that only makes itself more apparent as the game goes on. Your standard “Possessed” slow-moving zombie type becomes a joke after a couple of levels, posing hardly any threat at all even when swarmed. It’s tempting to want to clear through the lot of them at the start of a battle to free you up for bigger, more aggressive monsters like the Hell Knight or Mancubus, but the smart play is to dodge around the Possessed and leave them alive as roving health packs. All it takes is two quick taps of the melee button to get health back from them, so you’ll find yourself naturally letting them live until you need to squeeze the juice out of them. Glory Kills aren’t just satisfying; they’re a critical tenet of the gameplay.
Similarly, the game does a fantastic job restricting your ammo to force you to change weapons and stay agile. In most games, a lack of ammo is either frustrating or a scare tactic, but in DOOM, it’s a way to keep you from ever feeling too comfortable. You might like the machine gun the most, or find yourself gravitating toward the shotgun, but the game won’t allow you to rely on any one weapon for too long. At some point during a battle, you’re going to run out of ammo for your current weapon and need to switch; you’ll probably run out for that one too. You’re going to burn through ammo at an alarming clip and find yourself scrambling through the weapon wheel making tough decisions about which gun to pull out next. That’s where the chainsaw comes in. Essentially, the chainsaw is to ammo what the Glory Kill is to health. Pull out your chainsaw and slice a demon in half to guarantee ammo pickups that can make the difference in a pitched battle. But even the chainsaw needs gas, and bigger demons will require more gas to slice through — you’ll need to make split-second decisions about whether to get health or ammo from a particular monster.
DOOM pushes you, and it pushes you hard. It’s not an easy game, and it’s much better for it. The harder difficulties force you to engage with mechanics you might otherwise ignore, like the aforementioned balance between health and ammo. It’s a fast game that requires excellent spatial awareness as demons chase you down, leap or fly at you, teleport around you. You’ll walk into a crowd of them as they sprint around the arena and need to decide who to follow, who to shoot, who to avoid and who to keep an eye on. You’ll whip around and find a Hell Knight lunging. You’ll look up and see a Revenant hurtling toward you. It’s a chaotic, ferocious dance and you’ll need to learn the moves and learn them quickly.
Save for the fresh coat of paint, DOOM 2016 is in many ways nigh-identical to DOOM 1993. You’re still hunting down color-coded keycards in labyrinthian mazes, checking the map for secrets and getting lost in the shuffle. It’s all about getting back to the basics. At some point, we traded the fantastical for the realistic, the overwhelming speed for the slower pace, the challenge for the gratification; DOOM rejects those trades. It harkens back to the days when all you really wanted was tight design and skill-based, relentless action. DOOM succeeds because it is principled. DOOM succeeds because it is joyous. DOOM succeeds because it is really, really fun. And I can’t stop playing it.