There is too much emphasis on resource management, to the detriment of shooting demons to pieces.
Genre: FPS, Shooter
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release date: 20 Mar, 2020
As a DOOM player since the first episode, and after the promising DOOM (2016), DOOM Eternal was clearly my most anticipated game of 2020. And yet, I was quite disappointed with it. Not disappointed enough to drop it, but still enough to notice that the game is not as enjoyable as it should be. To me, it missed its mark of evolving DOOM (2016) in the right direction, and I will try to explain why.
Bear in mind that this is not a review, because I have not finished the game yet. But since I am methodically going for 100% in Nightmare difficult and that I do not have enough gaming time to binge, for now, an opinion piece is all I can do to convey my disappointment.
Hugo Martin, Creative Director at id Software, likes to compare DOOM to chess. This characteristic has been there since the start of the series and is one of the many reasons for DOOM’s success: prioritizing which enemies to kill, and choosing a weapon that is the best tool for the job. So far, so good. Then DOOM (2016) came with an innovative idea that was rarely seen in FPS games (although NecroVision had a similar system): using specific lethal moves in close quarters to kill monsters and replenish player health. Why is this innovative? For three reasons:
- The players have the incentive to push forward instead of going backward.
- Health becomes a resource that can be managed during combat.
- Playing aggressively and getting close and personal becomes rewarding.
There was a similar system in place to replenish guns in DOOM (2016): the Chainsaw would cause enemies to drop ammunition, but it was just an addition in case the player was in a bind.
DOOM (2016) did not feel complex at all, there was a death dance with demons with occasional glory kills to replenish health. It was fun and exciting. But id Software pushed things further by doubling down on all of this: glory kills replenish health, the Chainsaw drops ammo, the shoulder-mounted flamethrower yields shield. And things start to get complicated.
A huge departure from pure fighting towards managing resource numbers
Many issues stem from this design decision. From one DOOM to the next, they went from a streamlined experience to a very complicated experience on several levels.
- Players have to keep track of their resources and powers on cooldown all over the place on an illegible HUD. The least they could have done was to merge the information more seamlessly into the game, for example by showing the shoulder flamethrower’s 3D model appear on the side of the screen to tell that it is ready. Think about Dead Space using the suit to visually communicate information to the player!
- Keybindings are allocated to all these actions, which means that these many keys are taken and are not supposed to be bound to weapons. Anyone who speedruns FPS games or plays them at a competitive level knows that it is crucial to have each weapon bound to a key for quick access. You want to be able to instantly pull out the right weapon when a specific enemy appears, but now you cannot bind everything nicely because the real estate is too busy.
- All these specific attacks for resources are distracting from the flow of the game, adding clutter to the player’s experience without making it better. On the contrary.
I will illustrate this with an example. A Hell Knight (big charging demon) appears. I know that he is a bulletsponge enemy and can soak up a lot of damage, so I elect to get rid of it in one shot with my Chainsaw. I use it, it appears on the screen and soon after is unequipped without doing anything: this particular enemy requires 3 charges rather than the 2 Chainsaw charges that I have, or it requires to first decrease the health of the enemy. In any case, the Hell Knight instantly kills me because I had come too close with the intention to slice him in half. It means that the Chainsaw is not an instinctive and useful instant hit tool, now you have to always remember how many charges that you have or figure it out on your ugly HUD in the middle of the action, and you die if you pull your Chainsaw on the wrong enemy. This is too inconsistent, so I ended up limiting myself and shamefully using this super powerful tool on small fry. In DOOM Eternal, there a lot of abstract notions that complicate the action without adding anything worthwhile to the previous DOOM entries (except for the grappling hook).
Same with the Glory Kills to get some health back. I said “some”, because it is much less effective than in the previous game, forcing the player to cumulate Glory Kills to get back in shape. And this comes with a legion of issues… Let’s say that I am fighting a large number of Imps in a Slayer Gate and I am low health. I try to use my Shotgun to get one to low health so that I can finish it with the melee attack, but my Shotgun kills it. Oops, next time I will be more careful. I purposefully aim poorly at the next one to keep it alive: it staggered, ripe for the harvest! Another Imp is approaching, I shoot it, also killing my previous target in the process. Oops. I see a damage boost in the arena. I elect not to take it, because I need my enemies alive for a Glory Kill. I am under pressure with many enemies and decide to fire in the hole while pressing E to automatically Glory Kill the nearest victim, but the nearest victim once again died too early and now pressing E triggered my hard-earned Blood Punch, which does not help me reach my objective to capture a still-alive undead. Damn. I am out of Shotgun cartridges, so I pull my Plasma Rifle and throw a few shots at a baddy. Victory, I see the blue highlight! Oh no, nevermind, it was just the effect of the electricity on a freshly dismembered Imp. Finally, I get a bugger to stagger without dying, inviting me to rip and tear. While the Glory Kill animation takes place, I am immobile and other enemies close the distance. As soon as the animation ends, I take a few hits and lose what little of health I had garnered. It was not worth the effort.
This just does not work. Once again, this is too inconsistent. Moreover, I was shamefully hoping for the other monsters to be on Pause while I do the deed, as is the only way to make it worth doing during an intense and crowded fight. And for those who think that a Pause is unworthy, then, to compensate, one Glory Kill should yield more health, so that executing it makes enough of a difference and does not need to be repeated every two seconds, especially considering how easy it is to get hit while performing a Glory Kill. In any case, Glory Kills are presently too unreliable to obtain for too little gain, which completely puts into question their use as a core game mechanic. And this is coming from someone who praised the Glory Kills in DOOM (2016)! So the issue is only a matter of calibration and its impact on the flow of the game.
I had similar issues with the shoulder flamethrower, as it pushed me to get close to my targets, but the demons of DOOM Eternal are very strong in close-quarter combat, making it so that the trade-off of dropping a few shields is to lose all my newly acquired armor as well as most of my life, pushing me to start the cycle of doing Glory Kills and shoulder flame-thrower again, mixed in with another Chainsaw slash to refill my ammo. There is too much time spent trying to manage resources and not enough time having fun blasting demons. Resource management was the icing on the cake in DOOM (2016), it is now too much of the filling, and it does not taste so good.
As I just mentioned that enemies are strong with their melee attacks, this is a huge problem in this game. The basic punch attack is completely useless without a Glory Kill, unlike Brutal DOOM’s kick that can at least push back an enemy. There is a clear dissonance between being forced to do things in close quarters while having demons that can instantly deplete most if not all of the player’s health. Even basic enemies that should be dangerous only in numbers individually deal a lot of damage!
And another problem that comes with this sort of danger is that the monsters do not signal their presence or telegraph their attacks with sound. Often, big demons have appeared in the arena and immediately killed me while I was unaware of their very presence. Sometimes, I was simply moving around the level and suddenly the camera turned to dark, I was dead from an enemy that I had no idea even existed, charging me from behind… As I replayed from the checkpoints, I started to learn when and where new enemies arrived, but this issue is honestly a sign of bad design. Enemies are suddenly… there. Classic DOOM had enemies groaning to signal their presence, and even useful monster infighting to add an entire layer of fun to the combat!
Another problem that I have with this lack of information, whether the illegible HUD or the lack of sounds, is that the visual effects are on the opposite end: there are so many efforts to guide the player, that the fluorescent lights and highlights all over the place scream “Look at me! I am a video game!”. Under default settings, Glory Kills are highlighted, but it is sort of necessary to quickly know who to approach and when to press E. But then, the weapon and ammo pickups are ugly neon items rather than splendid weapons to grab, the secrets are big fat interrogation marks, many in-game characters are neon holograms, the Chainsaw drops a pointless rainbow of ammo (who would stop to look at which color means what in the first place?), it is all super tacky and immersion-breaking. And the worst part is that despite all these flashy colors to help see things quickly, combat is still a huge mess.
The beginning of the game is particularly painful, with few weapons and not enough ammo to service them. Then, players gradually improve their equipment as if they were playing an RPG. The game is filled with these little things to keep you hooked, receive a little bit of this to improve a little bit of that, get your dopamine fix for the day: there are even weekly challenges… Free-to-play game mechanics to boost player engagement, in a DOOM game… it is very tasteless, and it might be one of the reasons why the beginning of the game is so much worse than it should be.
A small thing that really helps to put into perspective what happened here is the delivery of story-telling in the game. The DOOM Slayer is not anymore an aggressive monster punching and breaking everything he interacts with. Now, he silently listens to characters delivering their exposition monologues of overtly complex lore. A little bit of lore was a nice addition to DOOM (2016) but going full-blown narrative in DOOM Eternal is senseless. I am not saying that I don’t want a story nor cutscenes (that can be skipped), what I am saying is that reading and hearing about this ancient civilization is not a really fun way to experience the story. Similarly, the Glory Kills was a nice mechanic in DOOM (2016), and DOOM Eternal went too far by doubling down. We can see a pattern here: taking something that worked well in DOOM (2016) and dialing it up to 11 in DOOM Eternal.
I am now trying to imagine Hugo Martin in the same shoes as George Lucas when he did the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Someone that worked well with limiters and other people to channel his energy, suddenly being thrown into a position in which a past success lets him go over-the-top and add ridiculous ideas with no one to say no, before realizing “I may have gone too far in a few places”. What was id Software thinking? The result is an ugly, bloated mess rather than a refinement of DOOM (2016)’s great formula.
Is DOOM Eternal the evolution of FPS games? No, in terms of flow and feel, it is a step down from DOOM (2016), and in terms of fun, it does not hold the comparison to Brutal DOOM. Despite the disappointment, it is not a disaster: many levels are gorgeous, the navigating abilities are excellent, and the enemy AI is highly mobile and numerous. DOOM Eternal is still a good game, simply not the new messiah whose arrival we awaited.