hansschultz's Doom Eternal (Digital Deluxe Edition) (PC) review

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Become Doom Guy

I think DOOM 2016 is one of the best games of all time. Its campaign is a tight twelve hours of nearly flawless level design, combat encounters, and headbanging music.

I think that while DOOM Eternal stumbles in a handful more places, it stumbles only because it is running where DOOM 2016 walked. It is an ideal sequel, an evolution of the best parts of DOOM 2016, along with the introduction of things more novel to DOOM that work just as well. Top it off with a generous helping of 25 years worth of fan service and references woven into the games DNA, and you have an absolute blast of a game I haven't been able to put down or stop thinking about.

What Id built with Id Tech 6 and DOOM 2016 serves as the bedrock for Doom Eternal. That means that the tremendous optimization, technical polish, and visual fidelity that set 2016 apart as a gold standard in the genre are fully intact here. I ran the game on a low tier PC that, in places, falls below the system requirements. Despite this, the game ran at an almost constant 60 fps, and barring some crashes on launch night my experience has been free of major bugs.

Painted onto this magnificent technical canvas is the game's core mechanical experience: combat. The absolute backbone of combat, and where the game begins, is where 2016 left off. You move fast, hit hard, have a double jump, and can replenish health at any time with "Glory Kills", melee finishers set up by stunning enemies. You can switch weapons rapidly to perform "weapon switch" combos to maximize your damage output. You also immediately get your trusty chainsaw back, meaning you can again use "The Great Communicator" to saw demons open for refills of ammo. When I say that these mechanics are the backbone of what the rest of Eternal accomplishes, I mean both that they inform everything else the game does and that they are absolutely essential for survival.

Contrary to DOOM 2016, your maximum ammo counts are low enough that you will often blow through them every fight, meaning that incorporating the chainsaw into your combat flow is essential for keeping your barrels glowing hot. While at first I found running out of ammo periodically annoying, once I learned to add an occasional chainsaw into the flow of my moves in combat I found that ammo was less of a problem than it was in parts of DOOM 2016. The game facilitates this by constantly spawning in "Fodder" class demons, Imps and Zombies who can be chainsawed with a single can of fuel or staggered and glory killed in a split second. As well, that single can of fuel constantly recharges, meaning that the player is never truly out of ammo as long as a fodder enemy is nearby, and fodder enemies spawn into arenas constantly as long as the fight is still going and the music is still pumping.

In addition to the returning resource management mechanics are added a slew of new ones. First and foremost is the Flame Belch, a shoulder mounted flame thrower. When Demons are set alight, they take damage over time and drop shards of armor. When combined with the frag grenade (a very pedestrian piece of equipment from 2016 that returns as a rad grenade launcher) the Flame Belch can turn any group of shambling zombies into a pile of glowing green shards you hoover up with satisfying Quake III-esque *chunk* sound effects. The same shoulder mounted grenade launcher eventually launches freezing ice bombs that stun demons and, after your suit is upgraded with Praetor Suit Points, cause them to drop health. Another way to make Demons turn into health is to Blood Punch them, a cool down timer limited area of effect punch that hits like a rocket. The Blood Punch is recharged first by glory kills, and then once upgraded can be refilled by picking up health or armor while their respective bars are full. Both frag grenades and Blood Punches are great for "Faltering" demons, a term the game uses for interrupting their attack animations.

Another key element that Eternal adds is the Demon Weakness system. Most demons have a major weakpoint that takes more damage and, when destroyed, greatly reduces the demon's damage output. For example: the Revenant, a screaming flying skeleton with a missile launcher on each shoulder, can be a real long range threat with his barrages. This means its always a good idea to grab one of the many tools at your disposal suited for the job (the plasma rifle's heat blast mod, the precision bolt mod for the heavy cannon, the ballista, etc.) and knock those missile launchers off. This hurts and angers the skeleton, but his scrawny frame is now no match for you. Another example is the Arachnotron. A bastard brain on legs with a massive plasma turret curled like a scorpion's tail behind him, he can ruin your day with ease at any range. Once you knock that turret off, however, he can only launch slow moving grenades that are far easier to doge and have much less range, allowing you to wail on him until he's ripped and torn. These weak points are all like this, and all of them have multiple ways of being dealt with that make it feel like if I got toasted by a Mancubus fireball or blasted by a Revenant's missiles it was truly my fault for not prioritizing them. If I'm out of ammo for one good solution to a demon, there is always another one I can reach for before I need to go chainsaw and top up.

Underlying the flow between these various forms of attack (shooting, chainsawing, glory killing) are the game's traversal and evasion options. Just like in its predecessor, you have a double jump, and now gain a dash and the ability to swing on yellow poles called Monkey Bars. The dash has two uses, each one on a cool down. If you only use one dash, the cool down is havled, but if you use both you have to wait for both to refill. This means that, finding the right rhythm, one can tap the dash button to dash continuously and move really fast. Monkey bars allow vertical and forward movement, as the swing propels you both upwards and forwards above the field. Monkey bars get you out of the demons' sight lines and allows you to survey the field and pick your next target, as well as the basic utility of swinging out of the way of fireballs. By combining the double jump, dash, and monkey bars, you can cross entire arenas in zig zags, running circles around the most agile of demons. The dash is incredibly satisfying to use as a dodge, with it coming in handy all the time to split second dodge a deadly swipe from the teleporting Prowler demon.

Those previous paragraphs probably make it sound like the game has a lot to manage mechanically, and it does. On the higher difficulties, if you neglect more than two of the game's many cool downs and systems you will be punished with demonic fervor. However, while the game is a stern teacher, I never felt like the balance of power was totally in favor of the demons or that the difficulty curve was steep or inconsistent. And once I mastered the systems, I found their elegance and their flow. Early ammo problems turned into well timed chainsaw recoveries, demons with a single weakness became vulnerable to a buffet of combat techniques, and I went from managing frustrating cool downs to earning powerful rewards for maintaining the violent movement through arenas the game is designed around. Each combat encounter was light-speed combat chess, a constant flow of decisions where high level play came from being a few steps ahead of the demons in planning your next offensive move. I went from asking "What resource do I need to kill this demon?" to asking "Which resource should I get from this demon so that I can kill the next demon even faster?" Cool downs and ammo limitations keep my tactics varied, meaning I can never rest on my old reliable techniques, but also that I always have a trick up my sleeve no matter how hairy things get. Eventually I was able to consistently blast my way through hordes that would have seemed insurmountable with ease, and delete individual demons from the playing field with rapid fire weapon switch combos amplified by judicious use of my equipment launcher. While I understand why for a lot of people it could be exhausting, for me Doom Eternal's combat is exhilarating and joyful.

The joy of the combat is further enhanced by the strength of the level design. One of the chief things that, in the end, made DOOM 2016 repetitive was its level structure. It very consistently started with a quiet corridor sprinkled with fodder, went to a big arena brawl, then repeated that pattern multiple times in every level for the entire game. Especially the last few levels in 2016 are not particularly memorable as levels so much as they are memorable as a series of individual fights linked by hallways. It speaks volumes of how good 2016 is that one of the worst things one can say about it is "All I remember are the fun fights", and it as well speaks volumes of Eternal that it evolves beyond this level design for more varied, memorable, and exciting levels. More corridors are now combat spaces, with demons slamming through walls and ceilings to ambush you while tentacles leap up from holes in the floor. In some levels the game hews closer to the original 2016 design, with heart poundingly intense arenas followed by lulls of exploration and platforming, while others are driving and relentless with the claustrophobic fights I described above a near constant. Until the end of the game the game maintained this variance in pace, in a way that made it immediately more engrossing and engaging than 2016.

Another area in which the game maintains its variety throughout is in its wide array of demons to throw at you. Old pains in the butt like Pain Elementals and Archviles are reintroduced, alongside new enemies like the Doom Hunter, Prowlers, Gargoyles, Dread Knights, the list goes on. A lot of these demons share roles in combat with others, for example Dread Knights are essential meaner and more powerful Hell Knights, but rather than making them repetitive to fight it gives the level designers the tools to add finer differences in difficulty in individual fights. The result was that the difficulty curve always felt fair but challenging as the game went on, with newer and more powerful demons always arriving as I as well got more upgrades and became more powerful. Among the new demons, the Doom Hunter is a particularly enjoyable mini-boss. His weak points are a shield vulnerable to plasma damage and a hovering platform that launches barrages of missiles. Once his sled is destroyed, he enters a second phase in which he's a nimble flying demon that has far less health. At my first encounter with them, Doom Hunters kicked my ass, and now I can easily kill one in under 30 seconds. Another enemy that recreated this pattern was the Marauder. A sort of Virgil to your Dante, he can dash and run at speeds to match you as well as having a super shotgun and energy axe. He can also regain resources by summoning a spectral wolf, though you can also gain armor by using your flame belch on the wolf. I found fighting the Marauder to consistently be a treat that pushed me to my limits, testing all of the skills I'd learned in combat. I had to constantly move to evade his axe projectiles, stay out of range of a his super shotgun, and regain health and ammo lost to him. But nothing was more satisfying than gaining the ability to quickly dispatch him one on one.

In between these hectic fights and their multifarious villainy, there is platforming. Platforming in 2016 felt perfunctory outside of combat, just jump toward the green light and you'll be okay. In Eternal, while this is still the case as far as decision making, the platforming requires a bit more mechanical flourish than it did in the last game. You're going to need to make some Xen-ass long jumps using your dash, climb a lot of walls, and eventually even jump through rings in the air like its Superman 64. For the most part, the platforming is tactile and satisfying enough to never be outright boring, but is simple enough to still serves as a welcome breather between bouts of high octane demon killing.

I do need to address that the level design does contain what are some of the game's largest flaws. These are the areas where, earlier, I mentioned that the game stumbled. First and foremost are some late game swimming sections. I genuinely cannot fathom why these are here, other than to offer variety and a mechanic unique to that level. The problem is that, unlike everything else in the game, swimming feels bad. Like... really bad. I've beaten the game four times, and I still do not know how to consistently go from underwater to the surface. In a similar vein, though a vastly less mechanically offensive one, is the purple goo. This sticky mess adheres you to the ground so you can't jump, slows you down, and disables your dash. Again, this feels like variety for variety's sake, without anyone stopping to ask "Is this a worthwhile addition?". I appreciate Id's ambition, and I still prefer Eternal's levels despite their more glaring defects, but boy that purple stuff really bums me out! That swimming really bums me out! Both in a way that nothing in 2016 ever did! A lesser flaw is that exploration feels more simplistic and secrets less secret than in 2016, one that I'm willing to forgive since they break up the pace well enough.

That said, returning to things the game does on par with its 2016 counterpart, Mick Gordon has once again scored the game phenomenally. The atmospheric tracks thrum with the chants of dead worlds and echo with rumbling guitar riffs, while the combat tracks have a pounding beat that frequently synced up perfectly to the rhythm of your dashes and gunshots. The pacing of the levels and the music is always in perfect sync, with the tracks maintaining either ambient build up or a constant hectic beat. Each track is also densely layered with easter eggs and references, from Hell Priests chanting the bass melody of Countdown to Death from Doom II, to the melody of Dark Halls sneaking into the ambient tracks in the Arc Complex level.

This predilection for fan service in the excellent soundtrack is downright subtle compared to the rest of the game's tone. The game's story and tone are essentially one of self love and self reference (and even reverence). Doom Guy lives in the Fortress of Doom, a giant cartoon space castle that serves as his man cave. He has a giant gaming rig, demonic electric guitars, and a collection of toys and albums you build by finding them as secrets in the levels. His lair is strewn with magazines covered in dumb jokes (including the incredibly questionable and oft-repeated "mortally challenged" bit), and the albums you collect are from older Id titles including Quake II and Doom 64. More than anything, rather than reading as a narcissistic pandering, to me this read as a love letter to the fans who've spent the last 25 years stewing in WADs and memes. The fan created portrait of Doom Guy holding Daisy the rabbit that hangs as a painting is perhaps the best example of this reverence for in-jokes. The other best examples are huge spoilers that I will not go into here.

The story itself serves its purpose well, behaving like the lyrics of a metal song. The reason it is there is to provide a bone simple conflict, wrapped in layers of style and panache, so as to set up the over the top gameplay. That style the conflict is delivered with is the sort of camp of a 80's metal track, with one character's performance consistently calling to mind the introduction of Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast" and its' Vincent Price opening. Just like a campy 80's metal song, most of the fine details are cruft that are not necessary to the story, and in places the game's desire to create a broader universe comes too close to encroaching on the central conflict. For the most part though, the story and soundtrack combine to serve as the player's hype men, cheering and playing them on to rip and tear.

The multiplayer carries many of the campaigns successes through, as opposed to its 2016 counterpart which failed to capture what made the campaign special. In the multiplayer Battlemode two players play as demons and one player as Doom Guy, in an asymmetrical arena brawl meant to evoke the game's hectic singleplayer battles. While the multiplayer does not come close to the high highs of the campaign, it still has its own thrills. The demons are encouraged to work together to get in damage against Doom Guy, and usually need to be pretty crafty to do so. My favorite demon to play as is the Archvile, whose flame wall and flame floor attacks can be combined to entrap and quickly kill a Doom Guy at full health. Playing as the Doom Guy is still enjoyable because it plays like the singleplayer for the most part, though with a considerable feeling of latency. Frustration can come as Doom Guy when the demons take advantage of the fact that both demons must be dead at once for the Doom Guy to win the round, and play hide and seek. This and other balance issues mean that it remains to be seen whether Battlemode will remain a fun multiplayer mode in the long term. Without a doubt however, it is much more Doom and much better than that of its predecessor.

All of these successes, in level design, enemy design, in soundtrack, in style, all combine to make the player feel like Doom Guy. That is the game's singular goal, and it succeeds far better than its predecessor in singleminded pursuit of that objective. It is a massive improvement on the massive success that 2016 was, a stunning achievement I did not think possible. It is everything I wanted from it and more. If you like first person shooters, or even action games, you owe it to yourself to at least try this game out. It is one of the most finely crafted games I've ever played, and one of the best shooter campaigns of all time. I will say though, be kind to yourself and don't be afraid to lower the difficulty if you are struggling. The game is about empowerment at the end of the day, and if you don't feel like Doom Guy, there are a plethora of settings and assists that make the game extremely inclusive of all kinds of players. Anyone can be Doom Guy, and being Doom Guy is incredibly fun.

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