Doom Eternal Review: A Surprising Trip Through Bullet Hell

Doom Eternal defies expectations, but does that make it a good game?

Doom Eternal
Photo: Bethesda

You will suck at Doom Eternal. It doesn’t matter what level difficulty you choose or how good you were at 2016’s Doom. It doesn’t matter how good you’ve been at the Doom franchise up to this point. You will probably suck at Doom Eternal.

There are two reasons for this. This first is that I sucked at Doom Eternal, so I’m speaking from experience and, to be honest, looking for company. The second, much more important reason is that I don’t want the idea that you suck at Doom Eternal to somehow scare you away from one of the best games of 2020 and one of the most surprising games since the release of 2016’s Doom.

Yes, surprising. Don’t forget that expectations for Doom were relatively low following a disappointing multiplayer beta and fears over whether or not the franchise still had “it.” It turned out that 2016’s Doom was one of the best games of that year and, much more importantly, offered one of the most refreshing FPS campaigns in recent memory by blending the old with the new. That was then, though. Millions of people are going into Doom Eternal expecting something great. They’re not going to be surprised if they just get more of 2016’s Doom.

As far as that goes, fans will be surprised not only by the changes that have been made to the Doom formula in Doom Eternal but the ways in which the game has become significantly more difficult as a result of those changes.

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Doom Eternal is a much faster game than 2016’s Doom. It’s much faster than any other Doom game for that matter. I’ve heard some say the game is closer to Quake than Doom in that respect, but it’s actually closer to a combination of Quake, Doom, and even more intense FPS titles like Painkiller and Serious Sam.

You have to constantly move in Doom Eternal. You’ll need to run, jump, circle-strafe, and try to avoid a wave of projectiles which is sometimes so intense that it soon becomes clear that the hell of Doom is, in fact, a bullet hell. 2016’s Doom had a more weighted approach that emphasized the impact of every bullet and glory kill while Doom Eternal forces you to almost constantly work off your back foot.

Release Date: March 20, 2020
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Stadia, Switch, PC
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: First-Person Shooter

That’s not what makes the transition to Doom Eternal so difficult, though. You’ve probably played a fast FPS before, but you’ve rarely played an FPS that is this fast yet so often deprives you of ammunition, health, and armor. You’ve also probably never played an FPS this fast that also forces you to juggle limited resources, constantly move, dodge projectiles, and still deal with elite demons that demand precise shots and specific strategies to kill.

Doom Eternal asks you to manage so many gameplay mechanics at once that you might feel like something is wrong with the game. I certainly wondered if the game’s punishing difficulty was the result of level design gone terribly wrong. It turns out that’s not the case. It’s just that Doom Eternal takes the Dark Souls route. The game wants you to master many of its most important mechanics by learning from what you’ve done wrong.

For instance, you’ll eventually learn that you have to save lesser enemies for chainsaw, glory, and flamethrower kills in order to earn vital resources in the middle of fights. You’ll also realize that you have to find an ideal “path” through each area and study where power-ups and drops are placed. Most importantly, you need to figure out how to down elite demons and change playstyles at will in order to handle all of the different enemies in the game.

Trying to balance all of these elements at once is frustrating and challenging, but often exciting. Your hands and eyes may hurt after surviving Doom Eternal’s toughest battles, but you’ll be left in that “zen gaming” state which we typically associate with the later levels of great puzzle games like Tetris. But that does also mean that some players will be turned off by the fact that Doom Eternal offers such a different experience than its predecessor. There’s also the very real possibility that completing Doom Eternal’s most brutal encounters will offer those players more of a sense of relief than satisfaction. It’s a valid criticism that initially left me feeling conflicted as to whether or not I enjoyed this sequel’s approach.

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What won me over was not only a better understanding of what Doom Eternal was expecting from me but an appreciation of the little things that make this experience work.

For instance, Doom Eternal still features a pulse-pounding metal soundtrack that is not only an independent banger but effectively serves as the conductor for the pace at which you should be playing the game. The game’s enemies are more varied and mechanically interesting than what we saw in Doom, and its weapons offer far more variety. Doom Eternal’s Super Shotgun, which comes complete with a hook attachment that allows you to grab on to enemies and swing across a room, is not only a worthy entrant into the proud legacy of Doom shotguns but is one of the most enjoyable weapons I’ve used in a game in recent memory.

The real star here, though, is the level design. From an aesthetic standpoint, Doom Eternal’s blend of more traditionally Gothic environments (such as cathedrals) with industrial settings, alien weirdness, and roaming hellscapes offers a surprising mix of stunning visuals, but it’s really the gameplay implications of this creativity which sets Doom Eternal apart. Every combat arena feels like a playground and even transitional areas benefit from clever touches that make them feel far less superfluous than the hallways of previous Doom games. Some combat zones even allow you multiple ways to quickly navigate across the environment for stylistic air kills and quick escapes.

That sadly does bring us to the issue of platforming puzzles. They’re not only surprisingly abundant, but many of them prove to be quite challenging, and the toughest among them may result in as many restarts as some of the combat sections.

Even after beating Doom Eternal’s campaign, I still don’t know how I feel about these platforming sequences. On the one hand, I enjoy that they’re more substantial than some of the after-thought platforming sequences of past FPS classics (I’m looking at you, Half-Life). On the other hand, I never felt the high from completing one of these platforming sections that I got from nearly every action section. Ultimately, these platforming areas seem to exist to pad the length of the game.

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A similar problem impacts Doom Eternal’s extensive upgrade system. With the exception of the always helpful Rune abilities and a few vital weapon skills, I generally felt that Doom Eternal suffers from too many unlockables and upgrades that often seem like they’re there to make the game feel deeper than it is.

More often than not, I groaned every time that I had to dive back into the menus to spend points on a weapon or armor upgrade which only improved my abilities by percentages that rarely felt like they translated into an improved or different gameplay experience. I love Doom Eternal’s extensive collection of hidden collectibles, side missions, and additional challenge modes, but when it comes to the core upgrade systems, it felt like there should be a way to feature fewer, more substantial upgrades tied to the primary gameplay in terms of how you unlock them.

While we’re on the subject of making Doom Eternal feel more substantial, we have to talk about the game’s new Battlemode multiplayer. The gist of this asymmetrical multiplayer mode is that two player-controlled demons work to take down one fully-equipped player-controlled Doom Slayer. While the demons have the help of some AI companions, they mostly rely on teamwork and strategy to take down the deadly Doom Slayer.

It’s an enjoyable, fairly creative multiplayer option that feels like the kind of thing that we might have featured in our breakdown of the most underrated multiplayer modes. At its best, it kind of feels like a twist on the Spies vs. Mercs Splinter Cell multiplayer concept. The problem is that it’s not particularly engaging beyond the initial novelty of the mode. People sometimes talk about their frustrations with ultra-competitive deathmatch modes and the aggressive attitudes they inspire, but the inherent competition of those modes makes it easy to justify coming back for more.

I can see Battlemode being fun to play with a group of friends you’re able to constantly communicate with, but since wins and losses feel rather arbitrary (even if that’s not strictly true) and somewhat unsatisfying, it’s hard to imagine that many people will keep coming back to this mode for more as it exists in its current state. Thankfully, Doom Eternal’s array of challenges and single-player spinoff content offers more than enough to do when the campaign is over.

It will still take you close to 20 hours to finish the single-player campaign, even on a slightly lower difficulty. The bad news is that you’ll have to endure the game’s surprisingly mundane storytelling the entire time.

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2016’s Doom was highlighted by a story that felt like a kind of parody of the medium. It was a grand tale of corporate greed and mythical evil that we watched unfold through the eyes of a protagonist who was the relic of an era when Doom‘s co-creator said he felt like stories in video games were like stories in porn. Ironically, Doom 2016’s story is actually quite good, but it was the fact our hero was so disinterested in nearly everything that was happening which made it great.

There’s almost none of that in Doom Eternal. There’s a lot more story this time around, and it’s not only a significantly less interesting affair that focuses heavily on the mythology of the game’s antagonists, but it’s largely played straight. The Doom Slayer has been stripped of nearly all of his disinterested personality (and most of his other personality traits, for that matter), and the story sequences are largely conveyed through a series of fairly traditional cutscenes rather than first-person gameplay sequences.

If you told that the developers simply forgot to put a story in the game and realized they had one week to implement it before a deadline…well, I still wouldn’t believe you. The story we would have gotten from that scenario would have likely been more interesting than this plot, which feels like an oddly concentrated effort from a studio that we know is capable of more. I once burned dinner cooking for my girlfriend’s parents and embarrassingly spent the rest of the night wondering whether I would have been better off just serving leftovers. I imagine the Doom Eternal writers feel the same.

Then again, so much of the brilliance of Doom Eternal is tied to the fact that it’s not leftovers. It’s a game that’s different even though many of us would have been perfectly happy with more of the same. I don’t know why Doom Eternal has so many platforming puzzles, upgrade menus, and such an involved (and boring) story, but its refreshing gameplay is the perfect example of a studio deciding that the big-budget sequel to a beloved game (and even more beloved franchise) is the perfect excuse to try something different.

You may suck at Doom Eternal, but despite all the changes the game brings to the table, the way it kicks your ass and defies your expectations is very much true to the spirit of this franchise.

Rating:

4 out of 5