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Doom, a ludicrous yet compelling return to shooter basics

Simon Parkin, May 23, 2016, 0:00 IST
The original Doom was a carnival of overstatement. There’s the ludicrous premise: Martian moons invaded by demons. There’s the silent protagonist: a buzz-cut, space marine who sprints hyperactively through monotone corridors, firing shotgun rounds into the faces of occult-ish monsters.

Gore, guns and braggadocio. This trio of male power fantasies helped to define and, arguably, tar, an entire medium. Regardless, the game, made by a group of friends who first met in a lake-house in sweltering Louisiana, was widely celebrated. Doom made millionaires of its young designers, a group that included the wunderkind programmer John Carmack.

A writer for the British video game magazine Edge wasn’t quite so enamoured, however. In his now famous review, he praised Doom as a technical masterpiece, but bemoaned the monotony of its barbarism.

Nevertheless, it was a “what if” that has, with time, hardened into fact. Increasingly, video game designers are attempting to elevate the base act of shooting-the-other-guy-before-he-shoots-you with twists and adornments, setting their games on contemporary battlefields, pocked not only with artillery fire, but also mournful soliloquies. The relationship between player and fodder has blossomed too. First, Pokmon allowed you to tame the monsters. Then last year’s Undertale allowed you, finally, to befriend them.

Enter 2016’s Doom, a game devoid of moral complexity. We’re back to shooting hell-spawn, not militants. And they come from Mars, not Afghanistan. Gone too are the now-standard embellishments and interruptions of the first-person shooter. This is a game designed to be played molto allegro; Run isn’t a toggle on the keyboard – it’s the default pace. The same button used to haymaker an enemy is used to interact with the scenery. It matters not whether you’re punching the head off a nether-demon or punching the call button on an elevator.

The object of the game remains as direct as in 1993: shoot everything that moves and keep moving. The designers of 2001’s Halo, a variation of the blueprint laid down by the original Doom, talked about the all-important 30-second loop of play, a sequence of actions so pleasurable that a player would not tire of its repetition over the course of a game. 2016’s Doom borrows the concept. Its loop is a delicious one-two suckerpunch: a blast with a gun that causes your enemy to stagger, signifying its vulnerability to a melee attack. Strike during this window and the demon will explode in a shower of health-restoring items. It’s an ingenious piece of design. When your character’s health dips you must charge, counterintuitively, toward peril, instead of away from it, ensuring tension is constantly ramped and maintained.

New Doom isn’t entirely immune to contemporary game design fashions. But while you now pluck upgrades for your spacesuit from the dead bodies of fallen marines, and while each of the guns you harvest can be modified to suit your play style, the emphasis is on snippy decision-making. You rarely get bogged down in workshop tinkering. Exploration, however, is another matter. As with the original Doom, and its forebear, Wolfenstein 3D, the Martian space stations are riddled with secret platforms and passageways.

The secret-hunting threatens to undermine the forward-march urgency of the action, but it’s a low level conflict in the game’s fundamental design. Besides, even if you choose not to go searching for bonus trinkets, you’ll still need to build up a mental map of each level, as you’ll often need to backtrack to previously unnavigable places once you’ve found the requisite keycard. Beneath the monotony of the dingy corridors, identikit jaw-flapping monsters and endless lava streams, the game routinely offers a masterclass in level design.

Doom’s muscular campaign is its strongest asset, but there is some joy to be had in its fidgety multiplayer mode (although this, bizarrely, requires the console game to reboot each time you wish to play online). Undeniably, Doom’s simple-minded straightforwardness has a refreshing appeal in 2016. The crudeness and simplicity of its structure is juxtaposed with the refinement of its systems.

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