Fashionably Late: Doom

Doom 1

I’ve never been a very big fan of first-person shooters. The genre was one I never really got into when I was young, mostly because the vast majority of them could only be played on high-spec Windows PCs, which my family never owned.

Eventually FPS games did expand to consoles in a big way, but by that point a player culture had grown up around them that I found particularly repellent. With online multiplayer becoming an increasingly important part of any FPS, I wasn’t really inclined to put in the hours necessary to get good at games like Halo 2 when doing so meant enduring an equal number of hours of prepubescent boys screeching homosexual slurs at me through a headset.

And as the descendant of veterans who fought (and came down with PTSD) for their country, I find the “realistic” military shooters that dominate the genre today to be tasteless and offensive, so you’re not likely to find me online playing the latest Call of Duty, either.

However, there have been FPS titles that have endeared me to the genre over the past console generation. Games like BioShock 1 and 2, Portal 1 and 2, and Left 4 Dead all helped change my opinion, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored were two of the best games I’ve played in the last couple of years. Suffice to say, FPS games have grown on me. And as such, I decided to try my hand in earnest at the granddaddy of the genre, Doom.

And I got such a warm welcome!

And I got such a warm welcome!

There are a handful of games in the history of the medium that have been massively influential, hugely commercially successful, and have inspired so many imitators they kick-started an entire genre of games. Titles everybody knows. Titles everybody seems to have played at least once: Tetris, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II. Doom is one of those games.

Originally released as shareware for MS-DOS in 1993 (which makes it the second-oldest title I’ve reviewed for Fashionably Late, after Ecco the Dolphin), Doom was hugely successful, selling 1 million copies back when that was something to brag about, and has now seen releases on just about every piece of hardware capable of running it, including the iPhone.

Though it wasn’t the first FPS ever made (technically, that distinction goes to a title called Maze War), it popularized the genre and introduced most of the conceits and qualities we now associate with it, to the point where for a long time, first-person shooters were more commonly referred to as “Doom clones.”

Part of Doom’s notoriety comes from the controversy that surrounded it following its release. Doom, along with Mortal Kombat and (for some bizarre reason) Night Trap, was a favorite punching bag of congresscritters who picked up violent video games as their issue of the moment during the early 90’s. The game, unlike Bayonetta, also caught a lot of flack for featuring demons and demonic imagery, and was accused of promoting Satanism by some…even though you spend the whole game killing demons. Go figure.

Truly, this almost turned our school system into Lord of the Flies...

A scene from Night Trap. Truly, this almost turned our school system into Lord of the Flies…

Anyway, the plot of the game is as bog-simple as it is ridiculous; the player takes the role of a nameless Space Marine, affectionately dubbed “Doomguy” by fans. When his superior officer orders him to gun down innocent civilians, Doomguy punches him out instead, which curiously leads to Doomguy getting assigned to a crappy posting on Mars rather than getting him thrown in the brig for a crime he didn’t commit and later joining the A-Team.

However, before he can begin to drown his sorrows in (and lose his eyesight to) fine Martian moonshine, Doomguy’s marine unit gets called from the surface of Mars to the scientific base on one of its moons, Phobos.

Apparently Doom’s resident megacorporation, UAC, owns stations on Phobos and Deimos, and rather than getting up to typical video game corporation shenanigans like making a zombie virus or syphoning the Lifestream, they’ve actually been doing something productive by trying to develop a working teleporter and sending things between the two moons.

But apparently something went wrong (my money’s on a tech spilling Space Frappuccino on the control console), and the teleporter, rather than mutating Jeff Goldblum or, y’know, teleporting things, opened a portal to Hell instead.

Shaping their teleportation chamber like a sinister star probably wasn't a great call , either.

Shaping their teleportation chamber like a creepy star probably wasn’t a great call , either.

The demons quickly overtake Deimos, which gets pulled into Hell and disappears from the Martian sky, and Mars loses contact with the Phobos station as well. When Doomguy’s platoon goes to investigate, they leave him outside on guard duty armed only with a pistol and some brass knuckles and go in without him, promptly getting themselves slaughtered and turned into zombies.

On an interesting side-note, apparently Doom was originally going to be a licensed Aliens game before negotiations between id Software and Fox fell through. Apparently the competency level of the film’s Marines was one of the elements they decided to keep in the final product.

Doomguy, deciding that taking on the armies of Hell singlehandedly is much easier than the prospect of piloting the shuttle back to Mars himself or just radioing for help, fights his way through the Phobos station in hopes of finding a way out. His journey takes through Phobos, Deimos, and finally into Hell itself, where he must defeat the mastermind behind the invasion…who is apparently Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

No wonder Shredder took orders from this guy...

No wonder Shredder took orders from this guy…

Not that you’d know any of this if you didn’t read the manual. Aside from some very brief text crawls at the end of each of the game’s four episodes, Doom and its story are not on speaking terms. The minute you start a game, it dumps you right into the first level with a pistol and 50 bullets and expects you to shoot your way out. Like many games of its era, the plot of Doom simply exists to provide an excuse for the next several hours of carnage.

And truthfully, that’s just fine; so many game developers have gotten it into their heads that every game has to have hours of cutscenes that they seem to have forgotten to ask themselves whether the story they’re trying to tell is really worth all that effort. When “cinematic” snore-fests like The Order: 1886 and Ryse: Son of Rome are rapidly becoming the norm in modern “AAA” gaming, it’s nice to play a game like Doom and be reminded of an era where stories in games were a rarity and typically worth telling when the developer bothered to include them, and not a perfunctory feature on a checklist of expected elements of game design.

The meat of Doom is its gameplay, and that’s exactly as it should be.

If you're interested in the story, you can always check out the Doom comic. You're welcome.

If you’re interested in the story, you can always check out the Doom comic. You’re welcome.

And what a game it is. Doom consists of 36 levels (including 4 secret levels) spread out over 4 episodes. Each level is a maze of varying difficulty, populated by enemies, items and hazards. The player must navigate the level, fighting the demons that bar their progress and try to kill them, and find their way to the exit. It sounds simple, and it is at first, but the level designs rapidly become more complex as the game progresses, and the exits are soon shut behind layers of locked doors, hidden passages and switches, most of which are well-guarded by the aforementioned armies of Hell. Needless to say, Doomguy has his work cut out for him.

Luckily, the game offers quite an arsenal of weapons to deal with these devils, and Doomguy has the uncanny ability to carry several hundred pounds’ worth of firearms at once without so much as breathing heavy. Though the game starts you off with a wimpy pistol, you’ll quickly find much better weapons for slaughtering the demon hordes. Most of them are on the mundane side, including a shotgun, a chaingun, a rocket launcher and a chainsaw (on Mars…for some reason). But wait, you might say; this is the future. Where are all the phaser guns?

I will never miss the opportunity to make a Demolition Man reference.

I will never miss the opportunity to make a Demolition Man reference.

Well, Doom has you covered on that front as well. The game also features a Plasma Gun, which rapidly shoots glowing blue energy at your foes, and the notorious BFG-9000, an energy cannon capable of destroying almost anything in a single shot…as well as anything next to it. All of the weapons in Doomguy’s arsenal have different properties that make them suited for different situations (except the Pistol, which I don’t know why the game doesn’t just drop from your inventory once you get the Chaingun).

For example, the Shotgun is powerful and fires a spread of shots, but has a slow rate of fire because it needs to be cocked after every shot, while the Chaingun’s shots are individually weak, but it has a high rate of fire and can cause enemies to flinch when they’re caught in a stream of bullets, preventing them from fighting back. These tactical choices are also important because certain weapons share ammo; when each BFG shot is worth 40 Plasma Rifle shots, you need to carefully consider your choices when using either weapon.

There are also items located throughout the game’s levels to help the player. There are health and armor power-ups to replenish lost health and reduce damage, respectively. And one unique aspect to Doom is the ability of the player to increase his health and armor levels above 100%, with the correct items, which makes the game’s harder levels more survivable. There are also temporary power-ups such as partial invisibility (causes enemy shots to miss the player), radiation suits (protects from damaging floor hazards), berserk packs (increases the damage of the player’s punches) and invulnerability (duh).

And you’ll need every bit of help you can get to deal with the hordes of hellspawn, ranging from zombified marines and fire-ball chucking Imps to hulking “pinky” Demons (and their invisible brothers, the Specters), to flying Cacodemons and the minotaur-like Barons of Hell. Additionally, each of the game’s four episodes is capped off by a boss fight against an extremely powerful demon, like the rocket-launching Cyberdemon, or the aforementioned Krang-like Spiderdemon.

Try typing “demon” that many times in a row. It’s fun.

YOU CALLED?

YOU CALLED?

Doom has something of a reputation for being the quintessential brainless action game, but frankly, that’s doing it a disservice. While it’s true that few of the game’s puzzles are likely to break your brain (the most challenging among them generally involve finding a well-hidden switch or key), Doom doesn’t reward players who go in guns blazing. While the game doesn’t starve players of ammunition, anybody who doesn’t place their shots carefully and use the right tool for the job will quickly find themselves running from a huge horde of demons and scrambling for any ammo they can find.

Tactical decision-making is a huge part of the game, and those decisions frequently need to be made in a hurry. One of Doom’s favorite tricks to pull is to place a vital objective like a switch or a key in an unpopulated room…only to open several well-hidden compartments and fill the area with demons once the player makes a grab for said object, throwing the player into a fight where they must act quickly and correctly, or die just as fast.

While Doom isn’t a horror game in the strictest of senses, it’s honestly pretty frightening the first time you run and grab a key, only to hear several doors that you didn’t open slide up right behind you, followed by the roars of a dozen pissed-off monsters. As the game continues and you get used to these tricks, you’ll often learn to see these ambushes coming, and the fear and surprise is replaced by a feeling of tension and dread as you steel yourself to spring a trap, and try to pick the best weapon to deal with what you think lies on the other side.

For example, here your best option is trying not to crap your pants.

For example, here your best option is trying not to crap your pants.

Sometimes the game will throw other curveballs as well, such as forcing the player to make a run across a hazardous floor without a suit to a vital objective while contending with demons, or to go into a poorly lit room and fight the monsters inside by the intermittent flashes of light. Doom is an intense, harrowing experience, even today and even for veteran gamers.

Admittedly, some of the game’s difficulty is artificial due to its episodic structure, a holdover from its days as shareware. You see, once you’ve completed an episode and start the next one, the game treats it as though you’re starting over fresh (in fact, it’s entirely possible to play the episodes out of order, if you so choose). This means that you don’t carry over any of your equipment or ammo from episode to episode; each time you start a new one, you do so with a pistol and 50 bullets, and that’s it.

This makes Episodes 3 and 4 extremely challenging, due to the difficulty of facing the early levels with limited resources. In fact, I couldn’t even clear Episode 4 on anything but the lowest difficulty due to this early-level resource starvation, and I’m not entirely sure how the designers expected anybody to be able to clear the first level with starting equipment on the higher difficulties (for the record, I did beat episodes 1-3 on “Hurt Me Plenty,” the normal difficulty). If you’ve managed it, you’re clearly a better Doom player than I.

Though at least I avenged Doomguy's pet bunny. Seriously.

Though at least I avenged Doomguy’s pet bunny, Daisy.

The game also forces you to start a level from the beginning if you die, with only the starting pistol and ammo; there are no checkpoints. Luckily, the game does allow you to save anywhere and at any time, so as long as you’re judicious about saving early and often, this won’t pose too much of a problem, though it does make me wish the game (I played the version included in the PS3 version of Doom 3: BFG Edition) had a quick-save feature.

On the subject of gameplay features, it’s interesting to look back at Doom and see how many features that we currently associate with FPS titles that it doesn’t have. Due to the way the engine is designed, treating the entire vertical axis as being part of the same plane, Doom has no vertical aiming or jumping; the game auto-aims at enemies that are higher up or lower than the player. This mostly works…although the game can be finicky when it decides whether or not you’re aiming at an enemy over long distances when they’re on another level, which makes sniping difficult.

Also, there are no magazines for the guns; each weapon fires from its pool of ammo with no need to ever reload. Apparently Doomguy’s guns operate on 80’s action hero rules.

Although the visuals are primitive by today’s standards, I find they have a certain charm that helps them hold up well today. Sure, the characters and effects are all heavily pixelated sprites with few frames of animation, and the levels all look like what you might get if you had H.R. Giger and Heironymus Bosch build you a movie set out of Legos, but there’s a coherency of design that manages to transcend the technical limitations of the time.

Satan's got one hell of an interior decorator.

Satan’s got one hell of an interior decorator.

The environments make sense and are easy to interpret, and the strong aesthetic, particularly as you progress through the game and the space-age technological environments gradually give way to the gothic look of Hell, really draws the player in. Additionally, I think the simplicity of the visuals helps make the “gamey” elements easier to swallow, like the open pools of toxic waste in a science facility and the abundance of shotgun shells and rockets in Hell.

The game’s violence, which was once the cause of much harrumphing, is actually pretty quaint by today’s standards. Dead enemies just turn into a pile of bloody pixels. Compared to the last two games I’ve reviewed, Doom is almost an exceptionally violent Looney Tune. Honestly, the part of the game that still comes off as kind of shocking to me is some of the scenery that you begin to see as you approach Hell. Objects like still-beating hearts atop altars, impaled (and writhing) zombies, piles of skulls topped with candles and flayed torsos hanging from chains begin to populate the environments, and those did give me pause.

The sound design is very good; the demons all have unique identifying cries, allowing you to easily tell what kind of demon is approaching you and from what side. The gun effects are loud and viscerally satisfying, and the music is excellent, starting off with a catchy heavy metal style, and gradually giving way to gothic, atmospheric pieces as the game goes on. When the topic of classic games with great soundtracks comes up, few people mention Doom, and I think that’s doing the game’s score a major disservice. For me, it passes the “hum test,” and that’s the highest praise I can give it.

The last aspect to discuss, and perhaps the most important, as it’s one of the elements of the modern FPS that Doom helped firmly establish, is the multiplayer. Now unfortunately, the online scene for Doom 3: BFG Edition and all its included games is completely dead at the time of this writing; I waited 30 minutes to find a match without ever locating a single partner. Luckily, though, Doom allows for split-screen multiplayer, so I was able to play a few deathmatches against my brother.

So much carnage in such a tiny space...

So much carnage in such a tiny space…

Doom’s multiplayer holds up remarkably well. The action is fast-paced and satisfying, the catchy soundtrack puts you in the mood, and there’s a manic energy to it that modern shooters seem to lack. The session was punctuated by some truly memorable, crazy moments, like our protracted rocket launcher duel in the Tower of Babel, or me fighting to remove him from the BFG spawn point after he was stranded there by lava, or him sneaking past my line of fire and smearing me with a single berserker punch.

The game also allows you to play multiplayer on every single-player map (there are no multiplayer-only stages) which, while it can lead to some incredibly unbalanced moments and some primo camping opportunities, allows for a ton of variety. I suspect Doom (and Doom II, in all likelihood) will become prime choices for game nights at my house from now on.

All in all, Doom is a great game. It’s a tightly-designed, well-thought-out experience through and through. The designers knew what they wanted it to be and went for it, honing it until they got it just right, and it shows. It’s not hard at all to see why Doom became one of the most influential games of all time. If you haven’t played it, I’d definitely suggest picking it up in one of its many forms and seeing what all the fuss is about.

Now, I mentioned that I also have Doom II, and I plan to play it as well, but I doubt I’ll review it for the simple reason that very little has changed from the original. It uses the same engine, and aside from a few additional items and enemies, and some larger levels, it’s basically an expansion on the original game. It should be a blast and I look forward to playing it, but a review would basically boil down to me saying “This is just like Doom, which is awesome” over and over again.

Now Doom 3, on the other hand, is a Cyberdemon of a different color…but for now, I have other business to attend to. Monkey business, that is…

Be well!

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