Cathartic Carnage – DOOM (2016)
This was originally written in January 2017
It is laughable now to look back at the original Doom of 1993, with its flat cartoony enemies and gun barrel sticking out of the middle of the screen, and to think that this game got called a “murder simulator” by some. Just like Marilyn Manson, Action Comics and the Kingsman’s cover of Louie Louie, Doom was the poster child a new piece of culture that would corrupt children and lure them to deprived acts of violence and Satanism. Of course, as before and as ever since, those making such comments preferred to remain ignorant of the things they were passing judgement on. Take this remark from an article entitled Video Games Can Kill (ironically written by members of Accuracy in Media, who promote fairness and balance in new reporting), in which Reed Irvine and Chris Kincaid write “In the game, the gunman moves slowly through a building, in the same way that a Special Forces soldier might enter hostile territory.” Move slowly?! You aren’t going to last long against that Pinky, Reed Irvine!
Unfortunately for some, many a game seems to have decided that the “accurate” depiction of violence and conflict in games was more desirable than the over the top action heroes of Duke Nukem and Captain Blazkowicz. With the boom initially with WW2 shooters, followed by modern warfare shooters and now near future military shooters, it was instead decided that players did want that slower pace of movement, somehow splicing those forward creeps of a Special Forces soldier with the explosions and set pieces of a Michael Bay movie. With exploding bodies being replaced by limp ragdoll effects and the total exclusion of blood in games such as the Medal of Hono(u)r series, the first-person shooter genre has mostly become a strange mixture of wanting to look like it is portraying an authenticity and wanting to create moments of exhilaration. The violence ends up feeling like nothing, with little more than the odd popping head to indicate that your cursor is able to bring death to the hundreds of goons that appear from cover like plastic figures in a whack-a-mole game.
Taking a double-barrelled shotgun and blasting the FPS genre in the face is a brand-new iteration of Doom, now unsubtly and totally unapologetically called DOOM. From the moment you take control of the Doom Slayer, the name given to the faceless and voiceless playable character, you feel the difference in speed from the other current FPS games. Even something like Titanfall requires you to build up the momentum to reach adrenaline pumping speeds; in DOOM, you just have to press W. For those of us who grow up on the FPS games of the 90s, it instantly wakes up some buried brain synapses and it feels like a welcome home. Early attempts to inject some narrative into proceedings are greeted by the Doom Slayer smashing the computer console against the wall for even daring to give his mission more purpose than “kill everything that moves.”
Before too long, you are facing demons from hell that are warping into the base on Mars ready for you to pulverise. And pulverise you do, often with the new Glory Kill moves, as well as the occasional rocket launcher blast or chainsaw slice. Although it might seem the antithesis of what you would like from your love letter to 90s FPS games, the Glory Kill mechanic must have felt like one of those eureka moments for Id Software. Do enough damage to a beasty and it will stagger, flashing an obvious blue colour. Move in and hit your melee attack button and you will begin an animation of you doing unpleasant things to your foes, ranging from yanking its jaw off, ripping off a horn and smashing it around its face or a simple neck snap. Taking away the player’s control might send a shiver down many player’s spine, but these moves lend a rhythm to the game like I have not experienced in any other FPS. It brings to mind the most visceral of action movies. Watch films such as The Raid or John Wick and the explosions of violent movement share more in common with dance choreography than with what one imagines real life violence is truly like. DOOM may not quite have reached the dizzying heights of those spectacles of cinema, but it edges the game-sphere one step closer to replicating the same exhilaration that those films can create. This becomes more pronounced as the game progress, not because you have unlocked the chaingun, nor because you have managed to find the series’ iconic double-barrelled shotgun, but through the unlocking of movement abilities like the double jump and faster ledge mantling. 2016 has been a great year for FPS games remembering that movement is a central pillar of the genre and DOOM is not an exception to this. It may not feature the near ubiquitous wall running, but the combat arenas have been constructed to really encourage bouncing between platforms and dancing around your foes.
There are a few stumbling blocks. Firstly, that early moment of defiance against FPS plot doesn’t stay throughout the game. There are a few occasions where you are forced to wait for plot to play out and there is a spin on the traditional audio logs whose sound is localised around the activation area, so moving on will stop you from continuing to listen. It is also disappointing to see that the game does not try anything at all novel with its weapon loadout. We are very much in the traditional Doom territory with the standard shotgun, plasma rifle, chaingun and BFG. They are all executed well and have unlockable alternative fires that add a great twist to each, but something new would have been very welcome. We certainly don’t need Doom 3’s attempts to do the Gravity Gun, but some new form of death stick would be good. Similarly, enemies are all very much in keeping with the old games and there is not much that will be thrown at you that is likely to surprise. Towards the back half, the game also resorts to some bosses, which are of varying quality. The arenas they are fought in do not help in making the fights that interesting as each is just a standard circular gladiatorial pit, not capitalising on the fun movement that the rest of the game thrives on.
But, the good elements far surpass any negative that can be thrown at the game. It feels like a middle finger to the rest of the genre, which has become so fixated on recreating Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that it has forgotten what else the genre can do. With the most recent Call of Duty showing big signs of fatigue from the audience, the critical success of DOOM must surely suggest another path for developers to take. A reminder that the blood-soaked history of the FPS, the punk aesthetics that the rockstar fathers of the genre at Id software created back in the 90s are still relevant and still capable of pulling an audience that has grown tired of the faux-serious and jingoism the modern warfare subgenre relishes in. These games were not “murder simulators” nor did they ever strive to create a sense of realistic conflict. They were about colour, about survival against the massive odds, about excess, about quick thinking, about movement, about failure and sweet revenge. DOOM manages to recapture this and bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century, trampling on the Call of Duty corpse as it goes.
Welcome home DOOM. You have been greatly missed.