What fresh hell is this: A critical review of “Doom” (2016)

What is there left to say about 2016’s “Doom”? The game was universally liked, but it wasn’t exactly a goldmine of philosophical or psychological depth. After being lauded, there wasn’t much left to say. But lack of purpose has never stopped this blog before. I’m sure we’ll think of something.

Is “Doom” a horror game? Is it sci fi? Is it a cosmic horror game? The answer to these questions is likely “no,” “I don’t think so” and “kind of, but not really.” However, considering why that’s all the case is an interesting endeavor in itself. “Doom” can help us define those genres by what it is not or what it might have been, rather than by what it is.

The plot of “Doom” is worthwhile to discuss only in terms of getting it out of the way. You control the Doom Slayer, who was found in a Hot Topic sarcophagus in hell. That gets taken to a super futuristic research base in space, which is, as the Doom Slayer discovers when he wakes up naked and clutching a pistol, under attack by shambling undead and fire-spewing demons. You’ll likely figure out what to do with that pistol pretty quick.

There is something else brewing – energy stolen from hell by a corporation that seems a bit too naive to be completely evil – but none of it makes sense. There are ghosts ala “Bioshock” to display some of the backstory, but their presence has no explanation I can remember. There’s a kind of betrayal at the end, but it’s the wrong character doing it. There was a perfectly appropriate one who could have, and it would have made narrative sense, but I guess the game is more interested in hitting genre marks than having an organic story. Everything culminates in a clumsy sequel setup. Huh. I reckon id Software and Bethesda must have been pretty confident “Doom” would do well. Better focus on yanking that trigger.

So sure, the story is crap, but the some of the characterizations and dialogue are a lot of fun. It doesn’t hurt that the voice acting is all done with appropriate pulp passion, particularly your cyborg mission control – the giant and cartoon-fingered Samuel Hayden, voiced by Darin De Paul. The environments are all fun too, in a Halloween outlet store kind of way. The surface of Mars is dusty and desolate, the base is a blood-splattered mess, and hell itself is all cemetary cobblestone, twisted bodies hanging out of walls, floating platforms, gooey lava and lots of chains. It’s never the most creative, but it always fits.

To be fair, “Doom” is a player focused game before anything else. It doesn’t want narrative to slow down gameplay, so the story never has to be sturdier than a collection of cliches. The gameplay itself is simple to pick up – weapons don’t need to be reloaded; climbing ledges after a jump is automatic (on consoles at least); secrets will be marked on the map. Checkpoints are usually before something big, so if you die in the midst of combat, it only takes a minute to get back into things. The name of the game is speed.

Accordingly, “Doom” is not really a horror game. In fact, perhaps no Doom game is really a horror game, except maybe the claustrophobic and atmospheric “Doom 3” (I can’t talk too much about it though; this blog only played the demo back in the day). As a genre, horror is about making the protagonist – and by proxy the audience – feel vulnerable and lacking control, bewildered and afraid. In games, this is typically done by limiting the player character. Ammunition and health are scarce. Environments and gameplay mechanics don’t allow a lot of freedom of movement. Lighting makes it difficult to see. In some titles, even looking at enemies too long can cause special damage or disorienting effects.

“Doom” has none of this. The lighting is not the best, but it’s never oppressive (except that one time I got trapped in a room because I literally could not see the exit). There aren’t many jump scares either, despite the opportunities being there. Most important, you are always in control of the situation. The Doom Slayer never feels fear or vulnerability. If anything, demons fear him. Resources are never scarce. Need health? Tear off a zombie’s leg and beat it to death via a special kill, and health tokens pour out. Running low on ammo? Fire up a chainsaw to split a demon in half, and it bleeds bullets. The demons hit hard, but the Doom Slayer hits harder. The speed of combat is yours to set, as long as you don’t mind choosing between fast and very fast, all to a pumping metal soundtrack.

“Doom” isn’t really sci fi either, at least not the sci fi we now expect from the genre. “Doom” doesn’t ask any forward looking “what if” questions. Even the one question it appears to ask – what if a corporation found a limitless supply of energy, except it came from hell – isn’t a point to ponder; it’s the entire plot. If “Doom” is sci fi, it’s very vintage, more in line with Flash Gordon serials or adventure novel-esque space operas than H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick or anyone else who wrote in the genre and used an initial or two.

And yet, the genre dressing of “Doom” cannot be ignored. The vehicle by which we experience the action adventure carnage feels very much like those genres. It’s not a horror game per se, but it does utilize a lot of horror tropes: drooling monsters, Gothic environments, nightmarish landscapes. The same can be said for the sci fi. The Doom Slayer portal hops around Mars, communes with cyborgs and collects outlandish energy weapons that can vaporize otherworldly opponents in seconds. “Doom” is perhaps best labeled a supernatural or science thriller. It thrills more than it horrifies, and while it never bothers to ask any metaphysical or psychological questions, it doesn’t mind using the trappings of both genres to do its thrilling.

But here’s the interesting part. If by some chance someone convinces me that I’m wrong and “Doom” is actually a horror game, then it is quietly a cosmic horror game.

Despite sometimes taking place in hell, the previous Doom games never threw around their metaphysical weight. “Doom” 2016 has no misgivings about it, hinting at misguided cults, eldritch and antediluvian aliens, and something akin to eternal recurrence. In all this, humanity is but a blip, a checker on a black-and-white board, waiting to be shoved by the next primordial power that be. In fact, humanity only attracts the unhappy attention of these cosmic forces by trying to play with their toys.

Shoot, this is becoming an analysis rather than a review. Is “Doom” good? That depends. Do you like breakneck gunplay, light platforming and watching demons burst into puddles of gore and spare teeth under a space marine’s boot? If so, then “Doom” is likely for you. If not, then I dunno man. Go play some lame-ass phone game or something casual and leave the real shit to the gamers.

That’s not to say “Doom” is without weaknesses. There are a host of guns, and while it’s fun to experiment, every gun does basically the same thing. You’ll likely find your favorites and stick to them (or the game will find them for you – it seemed awfully fond of shoving the starting shotgun and machine gun into my Doom Slayer’s hands). By the time you have access to a variety of weapon mods and challenges to upgrade stuff, you’ll likely have already found your gunplay groove.

The difficulty pacing seems rather flat. I was playing on normal (in Doom style, it’s called “hurt me plenty”), so maybe I should have taken a more challenging setting. I was definitely dying, but less as the game went on. There are only three bosses, all with pretty killer intro cinematics. But while the first boss took me the better part of an evening to topple, the next took less than an hour, and the final only took two tries. Perhaps the quick gameplay had me fooled, and I was dying more than I realized. The action tends to blend after a bit.

At its worst, the gameplay of “Doom” is solid but repetitive; at its best, it’s pure rhythm. If you can get into that, “Doom” is rewarding like the best old school arcade games. It’s thrilling and intoxicating, very capable of coaxing “just one more try” out of players when they fail, and a fist pumping blast when the Doom Slayer, a sliver of health remaining, tears victory from the jaws of some fresh hell beast.

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