Doom, a (late) review

Good morning, here I divulge my thoughts on the 2016 reboot of Doom.  This is by no means a timely review (I haven’t owned a console in years and just borrowed a friend’s to try it out) but I enjoyed it tremendously and hope to make the best of it.  I actually felt less inspired to purchase a console after having the opportunity to play.  Not sure if I’m ready to make that leap.  It was enough acquiring a TV: a 55″ altar of entertainment in our living room:

doom

Evidence of absurdity.  A skeleton with mounted guns and a jet pack.  Bethesda Studios.

 

Released for PC, Xbox One and PS4 on 13 May 2016 by developer Id Software and Bethesda Studios, the newest installment of the Doom franchise was a return to orthodoxy: fast paced white knuckled and gratuitously red first person shooting. Classic fans will appreciate the update as Doom3, released in 2004, played upon the survival horror aspect of moving through Hell. Doom3 moved at a relative crawl to embrace new capabilities in imagery and storytelling that were unavailable to the developers when the franchise was first released on IBM machines in 1993- which were scary and groundbreaking in their own right but laughably pixellated for modern players.

I could warn readers about spoilers, but revealing the story to Doom will not take much away from the experience of playing. In an interview with Time, co-director Marty Stratton explained his design philosophy. “Our guiding principles in making this Doom has been ‘keep it fun,’ because we’ve really focused on making it a game. It plays like a game. It sounds stupid when I say that, when we’re making games, but it’s an action-combat game. So it’s all about the combat.” The story comes second to playability by design. Indeed, encountering the nuances of the story requires taking a break from the shooting to read data in an options menu or stand and wait for a voice over to fill the player in. This design offers a compromise to players who just want to blast their way through and those who want to see a narrative.

from-gamespot

Who wouldn’t want to shoot that?  Bethesda Studios.

The previous games have all based the player as a nameless marine who gets stuck in medias res and has to survive and blast his way through legions of the damned. This 2016 remake has the player waking up from a stone sarcophagus which appears to have been worshiped. The player then makes his way through the Union Aerospace Corporation, a Mars based facility that works to solve the earthly energy crisis by channeling energy from Hell. An antagonist became possessed and used the facility to open a portal from whence the demons invaded and made the walls red with UAC employees. The player’s task is to navigate through the facility, travel into hell, fight the demons and close the portal.

(I’d like to interject that perhaps the theme of using Hell to generate power for earth is a commentary on our reliance upon fossil fuels.)

A refreshing update to Doom is its naked acceptance of what it is. Computer generated voices acknowledge the “demonic presence” and refuse to open doors until the threat has been eliminated. This is unlike Doom3 when characters refused to use the “d-word” in favor of a self-serious epithet like “those…things!” The fights in Doom are initiated with pulse stripping metal music and demons can be eliminated with the “glory kill” system. When demons have been damaged they flash blue and the player can initiate a quick cut scene where they leap towards the demon and punch them with a splash of gore, or pull of an arm, or rip off a head. Glory kills release health power-ups and reward players with new abilities. This system serves as a constant reminder that the player is in a game and the UAC and Hell are just a way to make the fight look nice.

doom-review-screens-07-1280x720

An image of Hell.  Bethesda Studios.

And it’s a very detailed setting. There is a hologram projector encountered throughout the UAC which motivates employees with propaganda like “unlike everything else in your life, your work at UAC matters” and “God rested on the seventh day, imagine how much further along we’d be if he hadn’t. That’s why UAC allows you to work seven days a week.” Late in the game the hologram begins demonic chanting in its cheerful tenor. And the depiction of Hell is fantastic. There are the enormous skulls, the carved stone caves, the tortured corpses per Doom tradition, in addition to columns that are peppered with arrows, as though some ancient battle were fought there. I liked the idea that Hell was a place with a storied history and not just a place for the dead.

And there are ample rewards for players willing to explore. Hidden alcoves and crevices will hold weapons and shields in addition to collectible action figures. They offer nothing to the game, except that little splash of dopamine. This is perhaps one of the greatest attributes as well as a major setback depending upon the player. For those who want to explore and collect everything there is much to appreciate. However, other players will get the impression that they are missing something. There are also levers in each level which open a secret door to a map from the original Doom. There isn’t much there, but later the player can play through the classic levels with the updated demons. It is just one more reminder that the player is in a game and it should be taken as such.

I keep returning to this idea of gaming. While I was playing my wife was sitting there somewhat appalled at the violence, of the ripping apart of enemies, punching in the eyeball of a cacodeman, or curb stomping and sawing off the head of a pinky. It is violent, but because it is Doom and because it is so over the top it is comical in the same way that metal music and metal culture is amusing. It’s cool and scary looking but at the same time to take it seriously pushes it into the realm of farce. And as expected the studios have been amply criticized for the degree of violence here. The response is blase, that if it turns you off the game isn’t for you, in the same way that 50 Shades of Gray has too much sex which turns away some readers.

I’ve written before about violence in games before. I don’t as a rule see this as a problem or in any way unhealthy. (That said, I only had a limited window in which to play so I crammed and after two or three hours of it my heart was pounding and I wanted a break.) And there are probably not many who would say that the demons of Hell warrant anything less than a brutal killing. Putting demons or monsters is a way to grant free rein to violence- like using Nazis in Wolfenstein, it’s hard to feel sorry for the ones in the crosshairs. But it won’t be for everyone and the creators accept this fact.

Consistently rated well by video game publications, Doom is a beautifully rendered tramp through the netherworld. With its baldly simplistic story this is not the War and Peace of the gaming world. With its celebration of colorful violence it is much closer to Game of Thrones. There are classic nods such as the chainsaw and plasma rifle as well as new weapons like the Gauss canon, all of which can be upgraded using glory kill rewards. If it’s a way to relieve stress that you seek then there is no better way to put away a weekend.  And if you grew up religiously you might take comfort in destroying demons with mortal weapons.

-TK

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