Not the hell you were expecting
Sequels can impose a precarious situation for both developers and fans alike. There is a delicate balance between changing too much and not changing enough that can so often be difficult to nail down. Doom 2016 was for all intents and purposes a blank slate for Id to work with and after several preview events expectations were quite low. Gore kills? Who put melee combat into a Doom game? Why do they keep talking about these Snap-Maps? Despite publisher Bethesda’s best efforts to not advertise the release of this seminal franchise, the impossible happened and a modern Doom game surpassed all expectations. As the celebrations died down and Id settled back down at the drawing board, the question on everybody’s mind was how do you top this?
The short answer is you don’t. To be more precise, you don’t top Doom 2016, you make a different kind of Doom that is just as good but very different from 2016’s lightning in a bottle.
Doom Eternal in many ways feels like a really refined mod, developed by dedicated players that kept on playing long after everyone else had stopped. Eternal is faster, meaner and more complex than its predecessor right from the opening moments encouraging aggressive gameplay and nuanced resource management. In an effort to iterate on the existing formula that was met with such aplomb the first time around, Id has layered system upon system building up combat mechanics not too dissimilar from that of a fighting game. The sheer number of neon lined upgrade menus can be overwhelming at first, as are the number of stat points and skills to level up and collect during your lengthy romp through hell on Earth. When it all clicks and you’re flying through the battlefield at a hundred miles per hour, nailing all your shots and using every single ability at your disposal to its fullest potential it can be exhilarating. When you’re not, Eternal can feel like an exhausting dance to a tempo the game relentlessly enforces. Game director Hugo Martin likened the frantic gameplay to driving a formula 1 car, and true to this analogy you better know what you’re doing when you get behind the wheel or you’ll crash and burn at the first corner.
Narratively the connection to 2016 is at this point tangential at best. There is possibility of a DLC episode in the future that might bridge the gap between the two games, but at the time of writing no such plans have been announced. Eternal opens up it’s story mid sentence as the Doom Slayer assaults a Hell Priests fortress - the exact details of how you got there are left unspoken. Due to the events of the “first” game Earth is besieged by demons and it is up to the slayer to eliminate them all and shut the gates spewing demons into our world. Plenty of codex entries fill out the fiction surrounding Hell,Argent energy, and an ancient society of warriors from who this entire mess started in the first place. Eternal commits the classic sin of show don’t tell, bombarding the player with written accounts of spectacular battles and power coupes you’ll never see or experience. The game world is littered with burning codex pages whose entries are often long and written in stilted, dry prose. With this much backstory being filled in through lengthy writing, it’s puzzling why the actual campaign is so bare bones in storytelling, to the point where characters you meet and events you witness will bear little meaning unless you spend the time poring over these ancient scriptures. I’m not much of a lore person in the best of circumstances, even in games whose worlds I actually find genuinely interesting, so it was exceedingly jarring to be pulled out of the action into entries running four paragraphs long about the history of the Doom universe. Worse yet Eternal took it upon itself to establish a lot of key backstory for the Doom slayer himself. Were the writing exceptionally good one might understand the need to dig this deep into the lore of a franchise historically known for its single minded focus. Sadly most of it feels needlessly superfluous and reads a lot like fan fiction. The main villain of this entry has a fairly deep story, but you'll need to do a good bit of reading to learn any of it as it's all explored in the texts and almost none of it shown in the sparse few story moments.
But who comes to Doom for it’s story? You want to Rip and Tear as the “Doom Guy” (a term literally spoken aloud several times in the game) is so well know of saying. And rip and tear you will, through ungodly amounts of hell soldiers and demons new and old. The action in Eternal is frenzied and much faster paced than it’s 2016 counterpart. Seemingly unsatisfied with how people stuck to a single weapon or how they didn’t use certain abilities all that often, Id came up with a system to enforce their usage organically through gameplay. There are many new skill systems, ability wheels, and upgrades for weapons that feature their own nested upgrades. All of that stuff works as one might expect and is tangential to the combat. The main attraction is a brand new gameplay loop of staying alive through aggressive combat. Eternal is quite stingy when it comes to both ammo and health. There are very few pickups in the world in order to encourage, or rather force, the player to use the tools at your disposal. Gore kills make their return with outlandish animations of limbs being torn and stuffed down a variety of openings and they are your primary means of gaining health. The chainsaw likewise is back with a new cool-down based fuel mechanic and is now your primary way of gaining ammo. Finally a brand new shoulder mounted flame cannon called the Flame Belch will set your enemies ablaze which makes them shed armor shards and is, you guessed it, your primary way of gaining armor. These are the three primary tools that you need to use to stay alive and they create a co-dependency between you and the demon hordes. Without the demons, you won’t have the ammo or armor to keep going. Sure there are pickups around the world but encounters are long, pickups are scarce, and even the most basic enemies will shred through your health and armor in no time. You need to stay aggressive to stay alive. This is the first stage of the dance you are being forcibly taught. Learn the steps and live, fall out of tune and you’ll find yourself stranded with no ammo, no armor and hell’s minions driving you into a corner.
Every good defense needs a solid offense, and in order to gain these precious resources you’ll need to rip them from the bloody clutches of your adversaries. This is where the second part of the dance comes to play. Eternal introduces a set of hard counters for certain enemies that expedite their disposal and most of the time are necessary if you wish to stay alive in the frenzied combat encounters. The very first of those you’re introduced to is the Arachnatron, a spider bot with a laser cannon mounted on its tail. This enemy will hound your every move with long range barrages of lasers and makes it a real hassle to maneuver around the battlefield, especially when you’re already being flanked by several other tough demons. A single grenade from your shotgun attachment destroys the turret and changes the Arachnatron into a much more manageable foe to contend with as it switches gears to a more melee focused approach. Plenty of enemies have similar tactics to exploit and the game is not shy about letting you know right away what they are. Eternal isn’t here to challenge your detective skills in figuring this stuff out, it straight up shows and tells you all enemy weakpoints. Eternal is mainly concerned with challenging your ability to exploit these weaknesses in a tactical manner using your arsenal and abilities. This is where the simple waltz turns into a breakdance session. Different enemies are vulnerable to different weapons. You might need heavy rifle ammo, but you’re out, so now you’re dashing around the battlefield looking for easy fodder to chainsaw all while being bombarded by the enemy you’re trying to subdue in the first place - and four more on the side. It can be hectic enough with one of these bigger baddies, but Eternal wastes no time in populating arenas with 3-4 of different types of heavy hitting aggressors during the opening hours of the game, not to mention the plethora of weaker mobs all eager to get in on the action. When the system works, it’s great. You are flying through the world using the brand new dash ability, swinging from monkey bars, freezing groups of enemies with grenades only to set them on fire just before you engage a chainsaw kill that gives you the much needed second or two to catch your breath as the animation works it’s magic. When it doesn’t work you’re being hounded by demons while out of ammo, your abilities on cloodowns, making rounds around the arena looking for the basic imp so you can begin leveling the playing field before quickly running dry again and having to start your laps once more. There are various cool down meters to keep track of on top of your basic health, armor and ammo and the HUD doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when something is ready. When projectiles are flying at you from every direction and tough melee tanks are stomping on your head the second you stop moving, even that one second it takes to peel your eyes away from the action to the bottom corner of the screen where your meters live can seem like too much.
In that regard Eternal unfortunately can make a bad first impression. In the beginning of the game you are taught ways of defeating demons and you stick to them because your choices are limited. The gameplay can feel suffocating because you simply do not have all that many tools to work with. Weakpoints early on are a necessity as both your health and offensive options are quite limited. For the first half of the game you are building your arsenal, but Eternal starts throwing increasingly brutal enemy combinations your way within the first few arenas. The jetpack touting Revenant is a mere afterthought in the latter stages of the campaign, but a real nuissance in the opening hours. There are a number of ways you can easily dismiss him from the playing field once you have a number of powerful guns at your disposal, but the game is slow in introducing more effective weapon options. During the sparse tutorial, you are taught to take out a Revenant’s cannons with your scoped rifle and that is really the only choice you have. The combat of Eternal works best when you have all the toys in your sandbox, and it takes a little too long to get there, leading to a lot of running around and waiting for openings - actions that don’t feel core to how Doom is typically played. Once you’ve collected a lot of toys and spent some upgrade points the combat really hits its stride. It is unfortunate that you have to wait a while to get there.
Levels seem to have lost a bit of focus in order to go with the “hell on Earth” motif and a focus on arcade arena structure. There are skulls and lava lakes aplenty with comical monkey bars for the Doom slayer to summersault over in the middle of slaying. Combat is broken up by simple puzzle sections that tend to lean on platforming over bottomless pits and crawling on walls like a post apocalyptic Spider-Man. If not for the generous checkpointing and low cost of failure (should you fall the game respawns you instantly with a bit of health loss) these would be a real nuisance. Even the purple goo that prevents you from running or jumping can be excused as it appears so infrequently throughout the campaign. It’s the absolutely abhorrent swimming sections through radioactive water that steal the show. Swimming is typically bad in games but Eternal manages to somehow take it to another level making it worse than it has been in at least a decade, and then it makes you take damage while you do so. These sections feel so bad and are so needless it almost feels like someone lost a bet and had to begrudgingly put them in.
The tone can similarly be a turning point. While 2016 focused on a satire of corporate greed, Eternal makes a sharp turn into very self-serious lore written without a drop of humor. This change in tone is so drastic it makes you wonder what happened to the writing team from the first game? The few times it tries for the same cheeky undertones as it’s predecessor it often falls flat on its face - the UAC hologram spewing painfully unfunny “mortally challenged” dialog being the primary offender. Secrets and collectibles are displayed as prominent glowing icons that further reduce any sort of immersion. In fact anything of importance like ammo or pickups has a bright neon glow to it in order for the player to be able to make out key items from a mile away due to the fast paced nature of combat. It’s a sensical gameplay solution that unfortunately adversely affects the overall style of the game. The Doom Slayer himself loses a bit of ”oomph” both through gameplay and the narrative. Eternal isn’t shy about humbling you with the amount of damage even basic imps can impose on your health bar. Instead of the unstoppable hell killing machine you feel like a glass cannon, dealing out great damage but being unable to trade blows, which feels at odds with the way the story presents you as this superhuman menace. Early on you acquire a flying space fortress which is a neat addition and clever way to handle unlocks, only to populate its interior with a Doom slayer “man cave” complete with guitars on the walls and all sorts of humorous items that cross the line from subtle humor to overt internet meme territory.
Doom Eternal is a great, modern, first person shooter with an intricate combat system and a plethora of upgrades and secrets to collect. While most of the boss encounters range from poor to OK and the final boss fight is an especially tedious ordeal, the minute to minute gameplay can’t be touched by any other shooter on the market. It’s a little long, and the levels can feel a little samey, but if you fall in love with the act of taming that chaos on the battlefield you might not feel it drag at all. The multiplayer is “just there” and for whatever reason they’ve now completely eliminated competitive deathmatch and in its place inserted a strange 2 vs 1 demons vs Doom Marine arena shootout. The cynic in me can only view this as a way to peddle microtransactions but maybe it will find a cult following. Last time I checked it out I was getting matched with level 216 players so there obviously are some enthusiasts for this style of competitive gameplay. Or maybe they just don’t have anything else to play.
All that said, Doom Eternal is a disappointing follow up to Doom 2016 when you look at the whole package. While the combat has been greatly overhauled, everything else that made the first game unique and entertaining has fallen to the wayside and in certain cases straight up taken a turn for the worse. In an effort to top themselves Id have turned a shooter with innovative mechanics and broad appeal, to a niche experience that places all its emphasis on catering to the specialized player effectively alienating a large chunk of their original fan base. Not since the days of Dark Souls 1 have I seen such a resurgence of “git gud” commentary used towards anyone complaining about the gameplay. The misguided phrase “it’s not supposed to be fun” is thrown around quite casually in an effort to contradict any arguments against enemy design. Doom Eternal is undoubtedly a meticulously crafted shooter experience that is sure to find a lot of fans among those that yearn for that raw gameplay and nothing else - it’s just not the followup to the less intricate but a lot more balanced and thematically interesting Doom 2016 that many were expecting.