The problem with Doom is it’s still good. The fact Doom 2016 managed to find ways to improve or at least add to that formula remains an incredible achievement. The idea another sequel can do the same for that game is pretty outrageous. Yet, Doom Eternal might just manage it. If only in small ways.
Doom Eternal’s title alone is a bold mission statement, an acknowledgement perhaps that yes, ‘This is more of the same because let’s face it, Doom will always be good.’ And hey, developer Id Software is not wrong. Despite that statement of intent, it’s still in the tricky position of following up on a beloved reboot that revitalised a classic formula. When you’ve already shaken things up, do you try to keep mixing or do you let this new formula settle first? After an hour or so with Doom Eternal, it’s fair to say there’s little surprising about it, but that really just means that yes, it’s an absolute blast.
In some ways it seems like an even better distillation of the classic Doom fantasy even if it’s further away mechanically. The absurdity of the Doom Slayer’s impossible badassery is dialled up to 11, the heavy metal landscapes tower over Mars and Mick Gordon’s back to deliver another set of demon slaying anthems. Much more than Doom 2016, it wants to back up the design and mechanics with a presentation that sells its fantasy.
The level we played had us fight through the wreckage of a space station in Mars’ orbit before the Doom Slayer launches himself to the planet’s surface to get up close and personal with a gate to hell. We still get those funny and silly bits of first person expression, like when our hero drags a scientist by his keycard to open a door, but all of this is accompanied by explosive scenery. Orbital BFG cannons, huge hellish wounds in Mars and cutscenes framing the Doom Slayer’s arrival like the heavy metal covers that must have once inspired the game itself – all of which is heightened by what seems to be a much more colourful palette than Doom 2016 had, one that hues a little closer to classic Doom. Overall it’s a level of style and polish that gives Eternal a bigger scale than its predecessor. And, if the trailer shown is anything to go by, this escalation will eventually take us to the halls of what appears to be heaven, in what could be a fun new direction for the series.
The core of Doom 2016 however and the key to its success was the push towards offensive play. Need health? Get in close and perform a glory kill. Need ammo? Split them open with the chainsaw. Simple enough, but the push and pull as you switch between needing one resource or the other added a dynamic and elegant layer to one of gaming’s most enduring games. So when you perfect a formula like that, how do you build on it?
Eternal’s answer is remarkably simple: expand the player’s choices. Now, armour is a second resource you can manage as grabbing it means using the handy new “flame belcher”. Set enemies aflame and kill them while they burn for a helping of armour pick ups. Simple but perfectly expanding what you can do in any given moment to tilt the odds in your favour. You also get a shoulder-mounted grenade launcher for crowd clearing when you need it, but I honestly forgot it was there most of the time. Perhaps the best addition is the dash, which lets you dodge in any direction at the push of a button, an extra injection of speed the just feels so right for the kind of intense pace the game desires. Since all of it still plays silky smooth, controls responsive as is possible without plugging the thing directly into my brain, that speed feels perfectly integrated to let you off the chain in enemy encounters. Eternal feels just a smidge faster than Doom 2016, but it makes such a difference to the feel of control you can exert over battles.
One change that feels like an outright misstep though is the inclusion of wall mantling. Parts of the demo I got to play had the Doom Slayer grappling onto concrete walls, punching his way upward or leaping to an adjacent wall. These detours into platforming feel unnecessary but worse, aren’t really well-implemented. The start and stop nature of the jumping as well as the inability to move the camera more than 180 degrees or even shoot while you’re mantled means the pace of the otherwise pulse-pounding levels grinds to a screeching halt. I’m not sure what possessed the developers to add this into a winning formula, but I have to assume it’s one of the most evil demons from hell there is because it feels incredibly out of place.
Somewhat adjacent to this is the chainhook alt fire for the super shotgun, which seemed so exciting in its unveiling, but winds up being a bit less exciting in practice. You’re already close to enemies so often that being able to close a small amount of distance ends up feeling like an after thought. Not to mention the number of times I used the hook only to realise I’d already fired my two shoots and would just bump into enemies with sheer impotent embarrassment. My dreams of chaining together kills to zip around a level remain just that, but perhaps the final game will make more use of this.
The alternate fire modes in general feel a little thoughtless. The remote detonation for the rocket launcher, letting you kill enemies around corners, stands out as the most useful of the weapons I got to use, yet none of them felt like a game-changer or really altered how I fought. A wasted opportunity at present.
All of the weapons though are as satisfying as ever to use in their primary modes. The kick and crunch upon impact differs from weapon to weapon, but they are all absurdly satisfying to wield. Better yet, they still contribute something special to your arsenal. Weapons seldom feel interchangeable and Eternal still does a great job of pushing you to use what makes sense for the situation, instead of relying on what you’re comfortable with. The game’s new gun, the ballista did make quite an impression though, it’s pin point accuracy and devastating damage offering a ranged equivalent to the shotgun that let you pick off enemy weak points.
Those enemy weak points are another new element Eternal is hoping will add some more depth to combat, letting you change enemy attacks to your advantage like removing the ranged capability of the Mancubus by blasting off its gun arms. Honestly, from what I played, it didn’t amount to much more than shooting the weak points of an enemy, but it at least contributes to the fantasy of tearing demons limb from limb.
As it stands, from what I’ve played, Doom Eternal is every bit as enjoyable as Doom 2016. Perhaps a bit more so. Yet, I was left a little indifferent overall. The refinements are all good but none of them are particularly exciting, and the new additions, like the mantling, feel like missteps. Can Eternal do enough to truly distinguish itself from its predecessor? A visit to heaven has promise, so perhaps Eternal can use such a dramatic new inclusion to mix up what I played in the demo.
As it stands, Doom Eternal is more of a good thing – but a good thing you’ve already had a good helping of. I don’t envy the task facing the developers: having to one-up a game like Doom 2016. That task might just be impossible. So Doom Eternal being just as good is probably a miracle.