There are lots of issues with Doom Eternal, but only one has been a deal-breaker. It’s probably not even the one you think.
It’s not the silly Prince of Persia wall climbing or the sillier Gymkata horizontal bar swinging (at least my space marine doesn’t do a full twirl around the bar). Sometimes Doom Eternal throws greater risk into the mix. Oh, so this wall is going to collapse if I don’t hurry up and find the next place to jump? Oh, so I have to time my air dash to get past that big rotating chunk of debris or those spikes or those flame-spewing vents? But even then, all this stuff is trivial to get past. Maybe a reload or two later, with perhaps an imprecation along the way. Reaching the other side is eventually so simple that I wonder why this stuff is even in here. Even when it looks like it’s going to be a challenging test of timing and reflexes, I get to the other side and Doom Eternal is smirking because it tricked me. It made me think this part was going to be hard. It wasn’t. It was just inconsequential.
It’s not the annoying Tomb Raider puzzle rooms. I can figure them out just fine, even if it does press the pause button on actual gameplay. Four out of five times, it’s just a matter of looking for the texture that says, “Hey, you’re supposed to climb here!” Even if I don’t see it in the level, it shows up as a panel on the 3D minimap. Doom Eternal doesn’t want me to stop for too long, which is why there’s always a “hey, dummy, over here!” beacon in the form of some green light, or green flame, or green glow. Green means go here. So the Tomb Raider puzzle rooms aren’t hard. They’re just inconsequential. Unlike the wall climbing and twirling, I don’t wonder why this stuff is in here. It’s part of the showmanship. Once I punch the right button, these puzzles let Doom Eternal topple majestic statues or shoot massive laser beams or slide back enormous stone doors. It’s part of the presentation. And Doom Eternal is smirking because it tricked me into thinking this would be something other than simple busywork.
It’s not the weird preoccupation with telling some sort of hellstory about hellpriests on hellearth doing a hellritual to hellhell in the hell of eternal hell. All this hellstory is especially weird given the last Doom was so self-aware about the inanity of storytelling in a Doom game. Well, now Doom Eternal has a story with lots of cutscenes. Skippable cutscenes, sure, but someone thought it was a good idea to write characters and dialogue and even backstory. Someone thought it was a good idea to give your space marine a secret destiny. Someone thought up a lot of proper nouns and threw them out like confetti. Someone wrote a lot of codex entries. Enough to give Mass Effect a run for its money.
It’s not even the absurd progression contrivances, which are so absurd I think they might be Bethesda’s attempt at a joke. As anyone who’s played Fallout 76 can tell you, it’s hard to tell when Bethesda is joking. Doom used to be about getting more powerful weapons. But these Dooms no longer trust a progression that straightforward. So they rain down progressions and progressions within progressions. Points to unlock weapon modes, other points to improve the weapon modes, challenges to unlock weapon modes, points to upgrade my armor, other points to upgrade my armor in a whole other way, runes to unlock and slot, sentinel crystals that do something or other, experience points to unlock bitchin’ new backgrounds and icons that will presumably show up on another player’s screen when I kill him in the demon vs space marine multiplayer mode, which I couldn’t be less interested in playing. “You have been fragged by tomchick,” it will say, but on arctic digital camo plating with an icon of a flaming fanged daemon skull. I unlocked that, bitch! You can even find glowing blue cylinders that unlock unlockables.
And that’s just the progression. I’ve also accidentally collected action figures and musical tracks and codex entries on floating red pages. My space marine just keeps scooping up stuff. Doom Eternel is constantly showing my space marine’s formidable arms reaching out to grab upgrade crystals, open hover robot chests, twist skull-shaped buttons, snatch protector tokens from holograms, swipe right on control screens, lift weapons hilts from pedestals, or lay his hands on glowing orbs. He is the handsiest space marine yet.
It’s not the half-hearted attempt at base-building as I find doo-dads to develop my space castle, unlocking new areas and what I assumed were supposed to be new gameplay features. Did I need a training room in Doom? Because now I have one in the basement of my space castle. What about a jukebox? I put my collectible records on the wall so I can listen to them in my space castle instead of going to the next mission. I just stand there in the control room — I think it’s a control room — and listen to what I presume are remixes of Doom’s MIDI soundtrack while I look out the window at the space skybox. Does Doom Eternal think I need stuff to do between levels? Here I am looking at the skybox listening to someone furiously finger metal from an electric guitar. I think there’s a melody in there somewhere. I decide, well, that’s that, time to play the next mission. Turns out this space castle is nothing more than a place to leave.
It’s not even the level design, which is just going through the motions during the early parts of the game. The usual trying-too-hard Goth-angst space castles populated with monster closets. The monster closets are even labeled on the map. Doom Eternal tells me that when I get here — it puts an X on the map made of crossed swords — it will close the doors until I’ve killed all the monsters it’s gonna spawn. So I hit the trigger point and, sure enough, bam! Doors slide shut and now I have to kill three waves of ten monsters or whatever. Doom used to open monster closests and spill monsters out into the dungeon. Now Doom locks me in the closet with them. Except they’re not locked in here with me, I’m locked in here with them! Wait, I might have that backwards. You know what I mean. Clear out the closet, the doors open, and now I play through some obligatory Prince of Persia stuff to get to the next closet.
But Doom Eternal knows enough to get better before I lose patience entirely. The later levels get better, both in terms of structure, visuals, and variety. As the trying-too-hard Goth-angst space castles do the usual Doom progression to Mars and Hell, they manage a sense of majesty and even style along the way (it helps that this is a nimble graphics engine with an astonishingly short loading time). There are times Bethesda seems to be making fun of Gears of War by taking Gears’ usual space-classical cityscape and doing it even better, with more detail. There’s really no point in saying a game looks good anymore — pretty much all games look good — but I’m going to say it anyway. Doom Eternal looks good.
But what really animates the later levels is the way the level design encourages interplay between the space marine and the monsters. The monster closets open into arenas, built around the space marine’s jumping, dashing, and mantling. They’re made for my guy! They are quite literally playgrounds, with tunnels and swing bars and trampolines and ledges just so high. And they can play differently depending on who shows up to play. One element of the absurd progression is the introduction of new monsters. It gets a bit silly that every five or six closets adds a new demon or daemon or whatever. Invariably something with horns, fangs, and a propensity for being chainsawed or glory killed.
And here’s where I realize two things, the first of which very nearly kills Doom Eternal for me. I realize Doom Eternal is a game about constant shortages. Any given fight turns into me not having enough of something, and having to get it. In the earliest Doom games, getting stuff was part of exploration, or even just moving forward. I ran around different rooms and picked up ammo and healing and maybe the occasional armor shard. I stocked up and then spent it all shooting throaty guns at snarling demons who splashed me with fireballs.
But in the latest Doom reboots, there’s no stocking up; there are only the shortages that kick in as soon as the shooting starts. At any given time, my favorite weapon is well on its way to running out of ammo. Even after I’ve leveled up my ammo pouches (yes, that’s a thing), sustained fire is not an option. I work my way through the different weapons, most of which share ammo with another weapon, until it’s time to chainsaw a zombie and get the ammo he carries in his guts. But maybe I don’t have enough chainsaw fuel, so I dash around frantically while it refills. Now I don’t have enough armor, so I flame belch — yes, flame belch — a demon to make armor shards leap off him like popcorn. And I never have enough health, which is where it gets me. Almost every time I’ve died in Doom Eternal, it came as a surprise, because I thought I was doing fine. But when I’m constantly short on the things I need, I might not notice when one of those things is health. So back to the last checkpoint.
In the olden times, Doom was one of the earliest and most powerful videogame power fantasies. But now it’s based on running out of stuff? Where the space marine used to spit bullets and beams and rockets like a bottomless Roman candle, now he’s constantly on the verge of sputtering out. He’s constantly fighting to fill his tightly capped supply of ammo, armor, health, and chainsaw fuel, all so he can collect more weapon points, more armor points, more of the other armor points, more runes, and more experience points. Of course, the difficulty level is a major factor here, and Bethesda expects us to find our own fun. They can’t be bothered. So you have to figure out how scarce you want your scarcity. Even on the easiest difficulty, it’s an endless spiral of consumption, more about farming monsters than killing them. These aren’t demons anymore. They’re vendors. I’m not powerful. I’m hungry.
But like the level design, this is something that changes as the game progresses. With enough upgrades, you can carry more ammo, take more damage, shorten cooldown times, and improve your farming efficiency. You can better manage the shortages. The demons get bigger accordingly, and Doom Eternal sustains and smartly paces the upward spiral of bigger gun meets bigger demon meets bigger gun meets bigger demon. With some accumulated muscle memory and a bit of developed Doomskill, the gameplay lays down a rhythm of chainsaw, guns, fire, glory kill. Chainsaw, guns, fire, glory kill. Chainsaw, guns, fire, glory kill! Chainsaw, guns, fire, glory kill! I think there’s even a melody in there. It’s a song about the cycle of consumption and collection, spending and earning, supply and demand.
And here’s the second thing I realize. These shortages are actually exchanges. I kill the monster, he gives me the stuff I need. It looks like they’re lining up to attack me, but really they’re lining up to keep me supplied. Even during the boss fights, lonely plodding zombies spawn in the corner, waiting patiently to be harvested for ammo. The little winged guys hop up and hover in the air, flinging half-hearted attacks at me to get my attention. They flap around following me so they’ll be there when I need them. When a monster is ready to give up the goods, he flashes bright orange or blue, like a neon sign reading “Open for Business”. I can actually see their resolve breaking down, whether it’s shattered armor plates or accumulating fleshy wounds as they ripen for the plucking. Soon, they tell me. Soon.
I once heard Keiji Inafune, the guy behind the Dead Rising games, explain that he thought of the zombies as your playmates. You put traffic cones on their heads, you poke them with gag zappers, you play loud guitars at them, you wrassle with them, you shoot squirt guns at them, you crowd surf over them. And they don’t object. You slash and burn and mangle and they never take their ball and go home. There’s a sort of innocence to it. A guilt free invitation to gleeful violence because it’s all in good fun and nobody’s getting hurt, because zombies aren’t people. It’s all a playful collaboration.
The same is true of these demons. There’s a sense of merriment as eyeballs are poked out and heads popped off. During the up-close glory kills, the demons have goofy expressions like they’re making faces at a baby. Slicing a chainsaw through these silly beasts is more Tex Avery than Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So much of Doom Eternal is triggering these scripted hands-off animations. At first, the glory kill animations are thrilling. This lasts maybe three or four times. Then they’re tedious and repetitive. How many times are you going to poke the same eyeball out of another cacodaemon? This lasts for about twenty times. But then they’re just the split second you need as the monsters show you their funny faces. Movement in Doom Eternal is a frantic interplay of zigging and zagging and circling and then dashing toward a glory kill, trusting that the animation will give you a moment to catch your breath. It always does. These are part of the rhythm of Doom Eternal. Not just another note, but the beat between the notes.
It can be tedious and exhausting. Its faux angst and exuberance and hellstory can be grating. It’s probably a level or two too long. But in the end, there’s something so lovable about Doom Eternal, so endearingly goofy about the gory glory kills, so affectionate in the way a monster looks at me cross-eyed as I shove a blade up through its chin and out of the top of its skull. The conventional wisdom is that the monsters in this rebooted Doom gameplay are resources, and what I call shortage is just the necessary harvesting of a monster crop. But more to the point, they’re my playmates in this hopped-up jungle gym with its trampolines and swing bars and tunnels. We’re all in this together to make a colorful over-the-top playground with blaring metal music and blazing quick movement and splatter gunplay and chainsawyering. It’s enough to win over even the coldest critical heart.