A Hell of a Good Time
id Software's Doom came out in 1993, and it took the world by storm, more or less inventing the first person shooter genre, and setting off a wave of baseless controversy over its violent content. It literally went on to become one of the most famous and influential video games of all time. The inevitable sequel, entitled Doom II: Hell on Earth, came out just a year later, adding on to the original with 32 new levels, as well as a variety of new monsters and a single new weapon. Back in the day, it was a simple thought process: If you owned a computer, and you liked video games, you bought Doom and Doom II. But this is a review of the Xbox Live Arcade version of this venerated game, so, now, sixteen years later, the question isn't "was Doom II a well-made game?", it's "does Doom II still hold up a decade and a half later?".
And the answer is, well, yes! It's not the revolutionary, mind-blowing experience it once was, but it's still an awesome amount of fun, in a crazy, retro kinda way. The game reproduces every aspect of the original PC version of Doom II: Hell on Earth, and it does it well. It runs totally smoothly in all but the most ridiculous of situations, and even then, given the relative simplicity of the graphics, it was still just a little bit of slowdown, nothing that would hamper your ability to play the game. The graphics haven't been up-scaled in any way, so the Imps, Revenants, Lost Souls, and other denizens of Hell look just the way you remember them. For that matter, all the audio has been left intact as well, from the beloved door opening sound to the snarls and moans of the Imps (which are often used in movies as FX for camels, for whatever reason), to the surprisingly awesome MIDI background music.
This package even includes a brand new campaign, "No Rest for the Living", created in the year 2010 by the guys at Nerve Software, the nice fellows who ported the game to XBLA in the first place. Based off the episodes of the original Doom, "No Rest" features eight never-before-seen levels (plus one secret level, accessible from a hidden second exit in one of the other levels) full of angry demons to kill and all the guns and ammo you need to do it with. This campaign is especially interesting because you can tell that the guys who made it have been playing around with the Doom engine for years and years; the levels themselves are far more intricately designed than the ones id Software themselves made, with huge sections of the maps being entirely optional, only accessible to the truly curious. The "Vivisection" level stands out in my mind for throwing huge groups of dudes at you for almost everything you do, to the point where the level ends with a frantic close quarters stand-off with about forty or fifty assorted demons. Very memorable.
Story: The plot of Doom II is paper-thin, but this is excusable, because it was written in a time when having any kind of story whatsoever outside of a paragraph on the box was a luxury. In fact, this version of the game doesn't even include the basic storyline included with the instructions text file of the original. Still, for what it's worth, the storyline is as follows: As the "Hell on Earth" subtitle suggests, and as anyone who beat the original Doom can tell you, the original game ended with the Space Marine fighting his way out of Hell only to discover that the demons had beaten him back to Earth. There's a vague storyline about the Marine freeing the captured Human survivors and then destroying the demonic invasion force, but it's mostly irrelevant to your actual actions, which consist entirely of killing demons, pushing buttons, and locating keys to open colour-coded doors. Still, it certainly doesn't get in the way, and the strange sense of humour in the text screens that ham-fistedly feed you the plot is always welcome.
Presentation: Not a whole lot to say here. Just like the original product, this version of Doom II features relatively simple 3D levels with monsters, weapons, ammo, and other power-ups represented by 2D sprites. This style holds up uniquely well, because while early all-3D games tend to look like crap compared to modern games, this 2D-on-3D style looks decidedly retro. I was especially fond of the secret level that recreates the first stage of Wolfenstein 3-D, complete with Nazi SS guards (and the super-secret level recreating the first boss stage of the same game).
One very minor thing about the graphics I was bummed about though, was the appearance of the players in multiplayer mode. In cooperative play, the marines are (in order); green, indigo, brown, and red. Green is fine, and I haven't seen red since I have yet to play with four players, but indigo is pretty obviously black (which lead to me getting killed a few times as my brother confused me for a shotgun zombie in the dark) and brown is just incredibly ugly. What's wrong with blue? Or yellow? Why throw in brown and black? Admittedly, I never played Doom multiplayer back in the day, so I don't know if this is a legacy problem or one created by the port.
Gameplay: The game works rather nicely into a 360 controller. Left stick walks forward and backward, right stick turns left and right, right trigger fires, left trigger is the run toggle, Y and B are next/previous weapon, A is 'interact', X brings up the map, and the bumpers zoom in and out on said map. Doom II manages to improve over the XBLA version of Doom in the D-pad, which now functions as a quick switch between the various weapons, placing two weapons in each cardinal direction. The game runs into a few hitches, however, in multiplayer. Rather than rearranging the screen the way you'd expect for split-screen co-op (which was not available in the original PC version), it simply smacks two full views down next to each other, shrinking them down enough to fit on the screen and wasting about half the space on the TV. Unlike most games with split-screen co-op, it's actually more economical to use three players than two, since the size of the screens is the same in both.
In addition, when playing with two players, the game idiotically presents two views of the after-level score screen, despite the fact that both screens show identical information. It also presents two views of the famous text screens, rendering the words tiny and blurry, almost impossible to read. Irritatingly, this problem was not present in the XBLA version of Doom, meaning in this regard Nerve made the game worse. The problem corrects itself with three players, however, so it's not entirely terrible. In addition, there is minor instability present. The game crashed on us once, in "March of the Demons", the secret level of the new campaign. On another occasion, a major problem with the graphics arose; for those of you who remember the original, random areas of the map suddenly had the same visual effect as putting on the noclip cheat and walking through a wall; visually repeating gibberish. And another time, when my brothers and I were playing the final level of Doom II proper (designated as the 'Hell on Earth' campaign), we successfully killed the Icon of Sin boss, only to have the level fail to end, leaving us trapped in a dead level forever. I have no idea what caused these problems, but be aware that the game isn't flawlessly stable. One other thing, if it makes a difference: all the cheat codes have been removed from the game entirely, so you won't be able to just throw on God Mode and BFG your way through every single monster.
The game also features full online co-op and deathmatch mode, but I will admit that we stuck to the local, and found co-op much more entertaining than deathmatch, especially since friendly fire is permanently on anyway, and with infinite re-spawns, there's almost no penalty for dying save losing your fancier guns. It's really too bad that all the Achievements can only be unlocked in singleplayer, co-op is a hell of a lot more fun (if you'll pardon the pun).
So yes, the game is worth it, even all these years later. It's only ten dollars, and if the original is anything to go by, it'll probably be dropped down to five before long. It's a violent, nostalgic romp through Hell and back, with all the enemies you love to hate and the classic weapon archetypes which went on to inspire the arsenals of an entire genre. Doom II: Hell on Earth was considered the best version of one of the most beloved video games of all time, and it's great to see that it's been brought to XBLA to keep kicking ass in its twilight years, bringing veterans back to the fight and entertaining a whole new generation of gamers.