From Box Office Hell to Gaming Heaven

by Arthur B

The DOOM movie may have killed the franchise's multimedia prospects, but the 2016 DOOM game is a joy to play.
The original DOOM and DOOM II: Hell on Earth weren’t the original First-Person Shooters - even in id Software’s own back catalogue Wolfenstein 3D preceded them - but whereas Wolfenstein made a modest splash, these were huge, huge hits, to the extent that for a while you didn’t talk about “first-person shooters”, you talked about “DOOM clones”.

In fact, there’s an extent to which it still makes sense to talk about “DOOM clones” as a distinct subgenre, thriving primarily in the three year gap between id releasing DOOM in 1993 and their release of Quake in 1996. Quake was such a success both in terms of critical and commercial impact and in terms of the technological advances it popularised, that after it came out true 3D became the de facto standard for first-person shooters. Prior to Quake, games like DOOM looked 3D but were actually “2.5D” - if you look carefully at a DOOM map, you’ll note that you can map out the entire thing in 2D, with raised and lowered areas here and there but no places where, for instance, one corridor ends up passing directly over a different corridor.

Part of the genius of DOOM, in fact, was how it was able to provide this really fast-paced experience which managed to combine maps about as complex as you could get in the 2.5D format they went with, large numbers of enemies and projectiles, and gameplay principles where the basics are easy to grasp but there’s lots of scope to devise more advanced tactics, all in a package which could run on a wide range of computers. It didn’t hurt that the game has really nice graphical design, with distinctive environments and enemies, as well as a great knack for conveying the feel of how the weapons operate - firing off the plasma rifle feels very different from firing the shotgun, for instance.

These are all things which look easy but aren’t, as is demonstrated by how so many of the game’s imitators like Rise of the Triad or Duke Nukem 3D simply haven’t stood the test of time as well as DOOM. On top of that, id maintained a good relationship with the modding community, to the extent that there’s still a thriving community producing homebrew DOOM maps today and id were able to release a couple of homebrew campaigns as Final DOOM in 1996. Although I don’t think Final DOOM is as strong as the levels in the original two games, it’s telling that it still stands up as a viable commercial release that isn’t a total technological embarrassment in 1996, the same year as Quake came out.

DOOM 3 followed in 2004. I’ve not played it and I haven’t really felt like I’ve lost out by not playing it; everything I’ve seen on it suggests that it is a competently-implemented but ultimately unremarkable early-2000s FPS. The two major surfacings of the franchise since then have been the much-reviled movie tie-in and this year’s DOOM, a brand new game updating the franchise for current-generation PCs and consoles. Between them they represent a critical low point for the franchise and the chance of a sudden revival.

DOOM (the film)

DOOM was a box office bomb but didn’t really deserve to be. It’s a perfectly competent of the post-Aliens “SF horror with a claustrophobic environment and a militaristic bent to the protagonists” subgenre as represented by the likes of Resident Evil or Event Horizon, and is about as good as either of those films. In addition, it nicely juggles some fun playing with the tropes of the game as well as presenting an interestingly dysfunctional military team.

The plot is basically the plot of the original game, with all the cool heavy metal Satanism taken out and replaced with alien archaeology motifs lifted from Total Recall. A teleportation link is discovered between the Nevada desert and a mysterious site on Mars where extensive archaeological remains are discovered prompting UAC to set up a research base on Mars to look into it. Various bad things happen, and homicidal behaviour, wild mutation, and mass murder becomes the name of the game. A rapid reaction squad led by Gunnery Sgt. Asher “Sarge” Mahonin (The Rock) and including John Grimm, AKA “Reaper” (Karl Urban) - who has a family connection to an earlier research project at the Mars site that ended in disaster - are dispatched to deal with it, but they’re a group of deeply flawed individuals who may be unable to handle what’s waiting for them.

Unlike some videogame adaptations, DOOM at least bothers to vaguely resemble the game it’s based on. You’ve got a whole bunch of motifs of the game executed on film - you’ve got extensive labyrinths with big chunky doors blocking off sections, you’ve got guns that look more or less right (including the BFG-9000 - officially the Big “Force” Gun instead of Big Fucking Gun, though the Rock does refer to it by its proper name), you’ve got more or less everything of the Mars/UAC-based aesthetic of the original even though all the badass death metal Hell stuff is absent and the colour scheme is much more muted and monochromatic than the game.

You’ve also got the infamous first-person section of the movie, in which we are treated to Reaper’s viewpoint as he runs around mashing up monsters. This is the bit most people remember from the movie, and to be fair it does stick out like a sore thumb for how forced it is. I think the problem with it is that it’s a bit too goofy for the tone the movie is going for. By the time we get to the first-person bit we’ve had well over an hour of the movie focusing on its standard-issue grimy aesthetic and a story much more grim and less playful than the cheerfully gung-ho tone of the game materials. Had that not been the case, then the first-person section would have been much less jarring, but it just doesn’t belong in this context.

There’s also the fact that the first-person segment just isn’t fast-paced, exciting, or funny enough to sustain its running time; it outstays its welcome after the first minute or so and then keeps going for another 4 minutes or so. I honestly think that the film’s awful reputation comes down largely to this part; the 85 minutes or so preceding it and the 20 minutes after it (well, 10 minutes and then 10 minutes of credits) aren’t that bad, but being joined at the hip to that 5 minutes of nonsense drags them down.

One of the things I quite like about the movie and the slightly more serious take it has on action movie monster hunting is the way it really teases out the toxicity of the marines, which is perhaps the most conscious critique of masculinity I’ve seen in this sort of movie since Predator. For instance, one of the soldiers, “Goat” (Ben Daniels), ostentatiously self-harms whenever he takes the Lord’s name in vain, and another, Corporal Portman (Richard Brake) is a leering creep who harasses women and gives drugs to The Kid (Al Weaver), the newest member of the team (and it’s The Kid who asks for the drugs in the first place, so he’s not just inexperienced but also irresponsible as all getout). And of course in classic pro wrestling style the Rock ends up doing a heel turn partway through the movie (which he’s quite good at), becoming an embodiment of all that’s bad about militaristic might-makes-right hoo-ah bullshit.

These aren’t the only interesting twists the script offers - for instance, it sets us up to expect that Mars base scientist Samantha (Rosamund Pike) is John’s ex-spouse or something, as she would usually be in this sort of thing, but actually she’s his sister. These two strands actually come together quite nicely when Sam and John talk about why John left a promising academic career to join the military, so you end up with John joining the military as a way of getting away from having to understand stuff and seek answers and instead finding a place where he can just follow orders, but that doesn’t work out in the long run.

This does mean that this is a rare action movie where the male lead doesn’t actually have a love interest. For her part, Sam does end up flirting with Sgt. Duke (Razaaq Adoti), but not in a way which distracts from her work, and it’s really nice to see the romantic subplot in a movie divorced from the “this guy and this woman have unresolved animosity between them” subplot and a female character given a free hand to flirt with the guy of her choice without being obliged to get back together with her estranged dudeman who happens to be the main protagonist. (It’s especially nice to see an action movie which doesn’t present a woman as being a man’s prize for being a hero.)

For the most part, the script and direction manage to handle all this perfectly competently (first-person section notwithstanding), with some of the lines actually edging towards being quasi-profound. (“You don’t shield a baby from time.”) Some aspects of the direction don’t entirely make sense - why is there a computer workstation in the containment cell which nobody enters except experimental subjects? - and some parts of the production are a bit cheap. (The teleportation arrival and departure halls on Earth and Mars are very obviously the same set with different lighting, but that sort of makes sense since you’re dealing there with two installations both built by UAC for more or less the same purpose.)

Still, the movie does a decent job with what it has, and there’s some nice action set pieces, like the bit where where Portman is in the toilets and drops an ammo clip which he needs to retrieve without a monster noticing, and has to sloooooowly creep under the partitions between the stalls to get to it. The movie came out at a time when Dwayne Johnson was still billed as “the Rock” most of the time, and the final fight between Reaper and the Rock actually seems to build on pro wrestling tropes - for instance, there’s a bit where Reaper uses his genetically-bestowed super strength to wrap some railings about the Rock’s arms to trap him which looks an awful lot like like the classic “arms caught up in the ropes” spot in pro wrestling.

It’s not quite DOOM in tone, but as an example of the sort of movie it is - namely, a cheesey brainless SF-horror action-fest - it’s a reasonably good one.

DOOM (2016 version)

DOOM has never really been very much about the story; this new DOOM game somehow manages to turn that on its head by telling a story about its lack of a story. Rather than taking the DOOM 3 route of giving you a protagonist with a name and a personality and a history and all that, DOOM embraces the mute anonymity of the original protagonist (affectionately known as Doomguy by the fanbase) and casts you as the Doom Marine, emerging into the game from an ancient sarcophagus that you have been imprisoned in for goodness knows how long. Fragments of Hellish scripture you can collect over the course of the game suggests that the Doom Marine is the same person that the demons know as the Doom Slayer - a warrior who travels through countless different worlds, unrelentingly harrying the forces of Hell as he does so.

This can very viably be interpreted as a nod variously to the original game, the various reboots the franchise has endured (DOOM 3 was a full-on reboot of the franchise), and the expansive multiverse of homebrewed levels and campaigns that fans have produced over the years. (For instance, the Doom Marine was discovered next to a full set of armour - which you wear for the purposes of the game - which is very specifically modelled on the armour depicted in the original cover art for the 1993 game, and there’s references to this being the “Fourth Age”, like the previous games were previous iterations of the timeline.)

That isn’t the only thing which is a bit nostalgic about DOOM - if you buy a physical copy the cover art of the game is reversible, so you can swap out the horrible generic-looking art with a glorious scene in the style of the original box cover. On top of that, the monsters are for the most part based on the classic monsters of the original two games, as are the weapons, as in fact is the plot involving the UAC having an accident with some teleportation technology on Mars that leads to a massive outbreak of possession and demonic invasion.

To a certain extent there would always be some nostalgia involved in a game entitled DOOM. You can’t simply junk everything that came before and still call it DOOM, after all - people will notice and call you on that - and so since you’re going to have familiar elements present anyway that nostalgia factor can’t go away entirely. id, however, go out of their way to have fun with it. The best example of this is how in this fourth iteration of the basic story the UAC has gotten weird; far from the portal of Hell being an accident, the UAC knew full well what it was doing and was tapping into Hell for a cheap energy source for the Solar System. (Company propaganda chirpily talks about “weaponising demons for a better tomorrow.”)

Since so many other games have riffed on DOOM’s central plot point of a dodgy research project going badly wrong (see System Shock, see Half-Life, see Quake for that matter), it almost becomes a celebration not just of DOOM but of the FPS subgenre as inspired by it. In particular, some plot elements - especially the ending - seem to be almost deliberately riffing on Half-Life with the theme of the player character being deliberately used to simultaneously contain the outbreak and allow sinister forces to maintain a foothold in the other dimension.

The plot unfolds with literally three other named characters interacting with you over the course of the story - VEGA is an AI, Samuel Hayden is a genius scientist who has transplanted his consciousness to a cyborg body, and Olivia Pierce is a colleague of Hayden’s who uses an external exoskeleton to get around due to a painful muscular disease. All of them are pretty shallow archetypes, more or less deliberately so, though thankfully the game keeps full-blown cut scenes mercifully brief and few in number - if you don’t care about the plot, you can just breeze past it and you don’t lose a whole lot, but if you pay attention you’ll catch all sorts of little references (like locations being referred to using terminology reminiscent of original-DOOM WAD files and map numbers).

The thing about all this nostalgia stuff, though, is that it can’t sustain a game experience, and that’s where 2016’s DOOM really excels - by providing a thin story stripped down to its absolute basics (as evidenced by the limited cast) and concentrating more on providing a compelling play experience, id have made the game a really successful update of the overall style of the original. In particular, it manages to provide a game experience which feels like a descendant of the original DOOM, rather than marching to the step of what is currently fashionable in FPS terms. Reloading basically isn’t a thing, enemies drop collectable resources, and you carry a small arsenal of guns each with a distinct niche.

Where it really excels is in presenting combat which is fast-pace and rewards remaining constantly in motion and in the thick of the fight, as opposed to the more cautious and careful style rewarded by most other FPS games these days. Staggered enemies can be beat down by hand in “glory kills” reminiscent of Space Marine in order to drop health, so like in that game you have a strong positive reward for getting into the thick of it. (Chainsaw kills cost chainsaw fuel, but drop stacks and stacks of ammunition.) This is different from the original game, wherein if you got into hand-to-hand combat at all you were essentially screwed (this time around you have an energy pistol with infinite shots, so you never have to rely on melee to kill things or weaken them up for a glory kill), but it’s different in a way which makes the 2016 DOOM faster and more chaotic than its competition, and that distinction is very DOOM even though the implementation is strikingly different.

The implementation of the various monsters is also good, with all the beasts having distinct niches in combat just like in the original. (In fact, in some respects it’s better; the Hell Knights now have a schtick of their own, rather than just being cheap recolours of the Hell Barons.) Iconic bosses like the cyberdemon return in boss fights (there’s three, the second of which is a bit boring and annoying but the other two of which are great fun), iconic guns are back in town (along with a gauss cannon that feels a lot like the gauss gun in Quake 3 for good measure), and that includes the BFG-9000 which, yes, will still clear an entire room of demons in a single shot if you use it right. The whole package is capped off with decent multiplayer support along with SnapMaps, a means of producing homebrew maps and publishing them so that other players can play and rate and enjoy them.

Back in the day it was popular in some circles (particularly when it came to CRPG and point-and-click adventure elitists) to write off DOOM as a game by lunkheads for lunkheads. (John Romero’s particular brand of publicity-seeking back in the day didn’t help matters.) That sells the original game short; producing a game with gameplay that good is difficult, especially when it has to walk the fine line of offering catharsis whilst avoiding frustration. The original DOOM hit that balance perfectly, and the new version of the game does the same. It won't be for everyone (the weeping of GamerGaters besides, a 7.1 rating that IGN gave it seems about right), but you should enjoy it provided you approach it for what it is rather than expecting it to offer a plot of the depth of Spec Ops: the Line or an aesthetic as imaginative and original as Dishonoured. Ultimately, it’s a high-adrenaline shooter about blasting your way across a version of hell ripped from trippy metal album covers, and if that’s your thing you will be very pleased with it.

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