Videogame reviews are not a new thing on this site, but they are a rare thing. I don’t find interactive entertainment near as fun to analyze as films, nor do I have the time to complete dozens of hours on more than a couple games a year, at most. My work consumes more time than I care to admit, while most of my free time is consumed by, well, watching and evaluating movies for this site. Part of my problem is I never considered myself a “hardcore gamer” even as an adolescent, and tended to dislike most of my K-12 classmates who considered themselves as such, the sorts of teenagers who adored classic Nintendo platformers (e.g. Donkey Kong [1981-2015], Super Mario [1985-2010], Mario Kart [1992-present], Super Smash Bros. [1999-2018], etc.) and read 1Up.com or Electronic Gaming Monthly with pride. The subculture reminded me of anime and its fan base, for which I also have little patience.
On the other hand, I enjoyed several popular and niche titles growing up; I’ve also enjoyed my time with The Elder Scrolls (2006, 2011), Dying Light (2015), Hitman (2012, 2016), and Wolfenstein (2014, 2017) in recent years, as well as revisited personal computer (PC) ports of older console titles as I’ve embraced PC-gaming and the wonderful online videogame hub that is Steam; but I have never felt a consistent passion for the entertainment medium like I did with filmmaking.
Doom (2016) and its 2020 follow-up, Doom Eternal, are different. The former is the fourth canonical installment and reboot of the classic Doom (1993-1997, oftentimes stylized in all capital letters as DOOM) franchise that came to prominence in the 1990s and helped popularize one of gaming’s most recognizable genres, the first-person shooter (FPS). Having come of age in the 2000s and been raised on console shooters like Halo (2001), I never embraced the franchise beyond the fun yet limited Xbox port of Doom 3 (2004).
The modern Doom titles have become an exception for me the way the original Halo, Splinter Cell (2005, 2006, 2010, 2013), and Mass Effect (2007, 2010, 2012) titles were. The tone and mechanics of their gameplay connect with me in ways that make me revel in their popular culture impact. Much like my intense, lifelong affection for the Alien (1979, 1986, 1992) or Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983) media franchises, my interest in Doom feels genuine and longer lasting because it scratches multiple aesthetic and emotional “itches” for me, in addition to being a well made piece of artistic entertainment. Doom sports the biopunk aesthetic reminiscent of other violent, technologically augmented creature-features I enjoy such as District 9 (2009), Resident Evil (1996-present), Predator (1987, 1990, 2010), and Love, Death + Robots (2019), flaunting demonic monsters borne of flesh and metal that you must rip, shoot, grapple, and tear apart until all are vanquished. These rebooted Doom titles are excellent from a technical perspective, combining the rhythm of Mick Gordon’s acclaimed, versatile nu metal soundtracks with the relentless pace of combat to form a synergistic whole; their efficient memory allocation and smooth performance on even dated hardware like mine further reflect the game’s sleek, toned gameplay and effective diegetic approach to ultraviolence.
Their approach to FPS mechanics is so gory and over-the-top as to make the most ardent anti-videogame mom’s head combust, and is a function of Doom’s overarching philosophy, which I describe below. The 2016 game and its 2020 follow-up eschew many of the overthought trappings and pandering, self-serious nonsense of mainstream FPS titles that I find tiresome (e.g. an overreliance on progression-based multiplayer, bland military industrial complex lingo and art styles, bad cover systems, regenerating health/hit-points, shitty deathmatch or team-deathmatch multiplayer, boring sound-design, incoherent melee combat, shitty multiplayer… ), while updating the arena-based, chaotic combat systems of yesteryear for the modern era. Doom, for me, checks all the right boxes in terms of style and substance, which is in large part due to its overarching gameplay philosophy, what developers id Software decided were their mission objectives in making what may be the most successful franchise comeback in gaming history. Those principles are:
1.) Incentivize aggression: This is Doom’s (2016, 2020) most definitive guiding principle, its most consistent “North Star,” if you will. In contrast to most contemporary shooters inspired by the regenerating health systems of Halo and the patient, quasi cover-based tactics of Call of Duty (2003-present) et al., Doom has utter contempt for slow-paced combat that requires you to shoot from behind protective objects. Given the comical number of enemies the game throws at you at all stages of player progression, as well as its ingenious health, ammunition, and armor-pickup systems, Doom requires you to take the fight to the enemy in all situations and love doing so. Hit points do not regenerate on their own, while armor and ammo pickups are too sparse to supplement the game’s breathless pace, so players must dive back into the fray when they are at their weakest to execute “Glory Kills,” brief melee simulations that eliminate weakened or staggered enemies, to regenerate health. Out of ammo? Ready your over-the-top, gigantic chainsaw to cut through enemy tissue and watch ammo spill from your opponents’ guts. Need armor? Your shoulder-mounted flamethrower will cause enemies to shed armor pieces that bolster your defenses while weakening theirs.
Doom requires you to take what you need from your foes. Though these games have several prominent stylistic overtones and diverse aesthetic flourishes, their philosophy that the best defense is an overwhelming, hyper-aggressive offense is their most defining trait.
2.) A cornered animal is the most dangerous: Much of the magic of contemporary Doom is how well it seesaws between making you feel like a complete badass and a besieged, desperate underdog. These opposite tonal qualities are linked at a fundamental level, because much of what makes one feel badass is the overcoming of near impossible odds. Doom’s antagonists are biopunk, heavy metal renditions of literal hellspawn — demonic monsters, for lack of a better term — and they always outnumber you at least 10:1. Thanks to the games’ creative resource management system and the endless rhythm of its soundtrack, your determination to triumph over hordes of enemies is most intense when you feel at your most desperate.
If you’ve ever seen a feral cat, monitor lizard, wolverine, or other small to medium-sized animal caught between a rock and a hard place, those tenacious bastards fight like animals ten times their size. Doom doesn’t make you feel like a badass because you’re portrayed as 10 feet tall; you feel like a badass because you took down numerous beasts that size and larger. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
3.) The only thing they fear is you: Perhaps the most famous tagline of 2020’s Doom Eternal, this quote from a non-player character is featured throughout the game’s marketing and even has a track based on it. The premise of the game revolves around a demonic invasion of earth and humanity’s nearby space stations (the game takes place a little over a century in the future), which can only be stopped by the cybernetically enhanced and spiritually(?) possessed soldier of vengeance: The Doomslayer. The Doomslayer is the player, and the player is you.
The backstory behind this narrative is clogged with incoherent lore and near endless, superfluous detail connecting Doom Eternal with the larger franchise’s canon. Unless you’re a diehard fan of vintage shooters, which I’m not, or a sucker for extended fictional universe trivia, which I’m also not, most of the diegetic minutiae will fly over your head throughout Eternal’s 20-hour campaign. That’s OK because as much as its developers are in love with their company’s legacy and intellectual property, their fans and customers don’t have to be to enjoy one hell of a great celebration of videogame ultraviolence. The story of Doom is not the star, but its tone is.
The philosophy of Doom is that the world is full of big, scary monsters who want to have you for lunch, but that’s OK because you’ve faced countless monsters before and are still here. These new monsters will fall like the rest, because you’re the Doomslayer, and fighting monsters is what you do. The only thing they fear is you.