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‘Doom’ Is Great Again

After years and years of waiting, Doom is back, and despite much reason to worry, it’s really good.

It feels weird to even type this, but the new Doom is finally out now for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

We've been waiting for this game since 2008, when it was first announced as Doom 4. A lot has happened since then. For one, the game lost the 4. The game's developer, id Software, also lost its co-founder John Carmack, one of the brightest minds in the industry who helped create the original Doom games (he's now chief technology officer at Oculus).

This is one of the biggest game releases of the year, and an interesting test case for the state of first-person shooters in general. Where is the genre in a post-Call of Duty world, when the novelty of realism and seeing modern warfare reflected in video games has worn off?

To discuss our first impressions of Doom and what it means, I emailed Motherboard contributor and prolific game reviewer Leif Johnson. In addition to writing for Motherboard, Leif writes reviews for sites like IGN and GameSpot, which often serve as signposts for the conversation around a game.

9:08 AM 5/14/2016

From: Emanuel Maiberg

To: Leif Johnson

Hey Leif,

So I think we first need to discuss why we haven't been able to play much of Doom until now. Usually, publishers send us games long before a game is released, so we can have a review ready right when the game launches or even a few days before. In Doom's case, Bethesda didn't give the press early access. We got to play it when the rest of the world did.

Much like movie studios will not screen a clunker for the press prior to its opening day, this is usually a bad sign. Why let the press write bad reviews before the game is out? Better to keep the game hidden until launch, and hope that more people buy it before word gets around that it's bad.

I think we're both going to agree that this is not at all the case with Doom. It kicks ass. It's inspired by what made the original great, it looks fantastic, and it also has a few interesting ideas for the first-person shooter formula.

I started the game, was immediately handed a gun, and shot a demon in the face. Without exaggerating this happened like in the first 10 seconds of Doom.

It's such a great opening. It immediately communicated that the people making this game knew what Doom is and what made it good. We're on Mars. There are demons. There are guns. Let's do this.

I wonder if you agree that so far the game feels very confident and good, and if so, why did Bethesda sit on it until the last second?

1:03 PM 5/14/2016

From: Leif Johnson

To: Emanuel Maiberg

It's a really odd decision, I admit, and I certainly acknowledge that such restricted access is usually the result of a bad game. I could maybe understand the restricted review access if id and Bethesda hadn't done any previews at all and wanted the experience to be a complete and total surprise, but there were plenty of gameplay videos from the studio itself already out there. I've toyed with the idea that there may have been some lingering technical issues that would have proved embarrassing, but that seems unlikely. Doom runs beautifully at the top settings on my PC, which may have a good NVIDIA GeForce 980 card but still has a somewhat outdated CPU.

If anything, I think the wait may have hurt it a teensy bit. A lot of people I know were really let down by the beta for the multiplayer mode last month, as they said it was too slow and not sufficiently nostalgic. (I was especially worried as I'd had such an enthusiastic attitude toward it in my piece on Doom from QuakeCon last year.) Players I know were starting to worry that the entire game was like that, and the feeling only seemed to intensify to the point that people weren't even putting Doom on the list of games they were most looking forward to. A proper review would have allowed Bethesda and id to let players see genuine enthusiasm for the game right out of the gate, instead of this steady buildup of excitement we've seen over the last day.

Image: Bethesda.

I could also see Bethesda being worried about leaks and reviews being posted before the embargo went up, but if that was really such a problem, they could have just allowed codes for a few trusted professional sites. I commonly hear from PR people these days that it's tough to figure out who's a proper reviewer and who's just some asshole looking for a free code because so many people inundate them with requests, claiming to be reviewers for everything from their own YouTube channels to big sites like IGN. Some of these bogus guys then use the footage obtained to release footage early. Again, though, if that was such a problem then they could have just sent out codes to a handful of sites and made everyone else wait until launch day.

In most cases, though, I'd say everyone has adjusted well enough. Reviews-in-progress are a relatively common thing now, and thus many of the sites that would traditionally have a scored review ready have instead posted comprehensive first impressions posts. Given at least five hours of playtime, it usually effectively amounts to the same. As a person who sneers at people who only look at a score instead of reading a review after I spent hours on the thing, I kind of see this as a good thing. People are being forced to read about the game instead of jumping to conclusions based on a stupid number that captures none of the nuances and qualifications of a written piece.

My main worry? That there's something big waiting at the end that'll ruin the whole experience for some players, sort of like the fiasco over the ending of Mass Effect 3.

1:46 PM 5/14/2016

From: Emanuel Maiberg

To: Leif Johnson

Yeah, I'm only a couple of hours in myself, and I could totally see it spiraling out of control or just becoming really repetitive and boring. As for multiplayer, I have absolutely zero interest in it. There are way better arena shooters already out there, and it's not what I play Doom for anyway.

I object to the kind of criticism people had for Mass Effect 3, though. If it's a fun game for 30 hours, but then the last hour isn't fun, the ending doesn't negate the good time I've already had with the game. So far, I'm having a good time with Doom, so I don't really care if it turns into a dating simulator in the last chapter. Actually … that would make it even better.

Image: Bethesda.

I heard Vi Heart once make an offhand comment at the Game Developers Conference about how part of the reason first-person shooters are fun is the abstraction of input to output. I'm only moving a couple of fingers on a keyboard, but on screen I am moving through spaces and causing chaos. Doom has always been the king of this. You move so fast you can dodge projectiles, and you dominate the enemy not only because you're overpowered, but because you can move as fast as you think, which is not the case in real life.

This new Doom really gets that. It's so fast. It's about navigating interesting spaces and dancing around enemies. It's not something you see often in first-person shooters these days, and I'm really glad id nailed this part of what made Doom great.

The other two things I really loved about the original Doom are the weapons and level design. Level design here is so far off to a good start. Basically, there are big, open rooms with lots of stuff to run around and climb up. This is where the real carnage takes place. Then there are connecting linear paths between these arenas where Doom builds atmosphere and tells its very thin story. Both work super well and switch from one to the next while I still wanted more of each.

At this point I'm not sure the weapons in the new game live up to the original. It seems that all the weapons have a futuristic style to them, which I don't get. The most iconic weapon in the original Doom is the good ol' shotgun. Nothing fancy, just a regular, metal and wood stock shotgun, but it was tuned to perfection: The noise, the spread of the bullets, the damage it dealt. I don't know that there's anything here that holds a candle to that.

It's almost unfair to compare any game to the original Doom, but hey, that's the name Bethesda put on the box, so I can't really avoid it. How do you think this game compares to other popular first-person shooters these days, and how do you think it compares to the original? Is part of the appeal here just the fact that it is not another modern military first-person shooter?

2:35 PM 5/14/2016

From: Leif Johnson

To: Emanuel Maiberg

Hey, if you're going to pick up the Mass Effect thread, I'll add that I never had that much of a problem with the ending. It always struck me as a tidy little commentary on how some things are just beyond your control, no matter who you are and how many aliens you sleep with.

Anyway! I admire the new Doom precisely because it's not like modern shooters. I rarely have the patience to play many of them properly. With Doom, I may be carrying a big shotgun, but the experience of playing feels almost as if I'm swinging a big greatsword as I go from demon to demon, smashing their heads in with the finisher for a bit of health. I realize that many modern shooters are going for at least a degree of realism, but that approach has never really appealed to me. I want action—I want fast action, specifically—and Doom gives that to me. The whole experience feels kind of comic book-y, and I love it for that.

Image: Bethesda.

As for the weapons, I will admit I'm not a fan of the futuristic handgun. It feels a bit like a water pistol. But I actually kind of love the shotgun. It may not be double-barreled, sure, but it's got that heavy thump I was looking for and racing around with it feels like proper Doom.

Back to Mars, the idea that all this is taking place on the red planet has always been one of my favorite things about the series. I remember just staring in awe for several moments the first time I got to see the landscape outside in Doom 3. Even in that graphically advanced take on the game, the outside world enjoyed relatively little screen time. Here, though, it becomes a character in its own right just minutes in with little caverns snaking through the mining operations around the facility. Never before in the series has the planet seemed such a real part of the experience. With Elon Musk racing to perfect his reusable rockets and NASA planning to get people on Mars within our lifetimes, giving that planet a life and personality of its own has arguably never been more important.

Keeping the story shoved far into the background was also a wise idea. When the Doomguy shoves a speaking monitor out the way but moments in, it's kind of symbolic of the direction here and I love that touch. People usually talk about the approach in terms of its keeping with the spirit of the original 1993 story, and that's certainly true, but I think it's also important to point out that games like Dark Souls have helped prove to guys like id that it's okay to have minimalist stories in richly detailed environments so long as the action and gameplay proves it can survive well enough on its own without all that blather. Oddly, with my erratic play schedule for games I'm not reviewing, I find myself eager to play more since I know the playtime I do have isn't going to be cut short with a bunch of talk.

3:47 PM 5/14/2016

From: Emanuel Maiberg

To: Leif Johnson

Image: Bethesda.

Let's DM about how everyone but us was wrong about Mass Effect 3 later.

I generally agree with everything you're saying, and we should probably wrap this up because we'll probably just keep agreeing. The only bad side-effect when a game like this is very well put together is that there's not much to say about it other than: It's good.

It's just such a happy ending for this story. So many years of waiting, rumors of troubled development, people leaving the company, the company being acquired, then that boring multiplayer beta, etc. But somehow, it all came together. I feared it was going to suck until the moment I started playing it!

Now I can recommend Doom based on what little I've played of it, and this thing might have some real legs on it because of the in game editor, SnapMap, which seems like it has a lot of potential.

Doom is great again, and that makes me really happy.