Why id Software took a critically-acclaimed reboot and decided to make it better
The way Doom Eternal’s executive producer Marty Stratton tells it, the game is “speed chess”, “a page-turner” and “junk food with nutritional value”. These catchy, metaphorical zingers pepper his opening talk to an assembled crowd ahead of a recent preview tour hands-on.
While those comparisons are delivered with a smile, Stratton feels justified in making them. Later in the same presentation the executive producer, a 24-year veteran of the studio that birthed Doom, has a simpler, more straightforward description of its new action shooter: “this is the best game we’ve ever made.”
A not unheard claim. Yet over his half-hour presentation and our subsequent interview that runs nearly as long, he makes a compelling case for that belief, pointing to the studio’s learnings from a post-mortem of the series’ reboot, released on PS4 in 2016.
He’s surprisingly open about the problems they identified: an increasingly repetitive campaign. A lack of visual variation. Unintended player exploits. A by-the-numbers multiplayer. Basic post-launch support. Despite critical acclaim and a still-passionate player base (“the number of people still playing this on a monthly basis would surprise you,” he quips) the message was simple: id Software needed to do better.
And although the game’s single-player campaign promises to be double the length of 2016’s and boasts a similar increase in enemy types, Stratton is keen to stress that “better” didn’t equate to “bigger”. “More isn’t enough,” he reinforces.
If the core concern was monotony, then the solution was simple: variety. That word, that sentiment, defined every design decision for the sequel, impacting gameplay, visuals, story.
The result is, as Marty refers to it, a page-turner. “We’re always introducing something new, even in the game’s later stages: new enemies, new mechanics, new visuals. You’re doing things you haven’t ever done in a Doom game before. It’s hard to get up from.”
Choose your rip-and-tear adventure
Make no mistake: battling through demon-filled arenas is still the beating heart of Doom’s action-orientated gameplay. Your decisions still need to be razor-sharp, your reactions whip-fast (if not faster thanks to the addition of a dash ability).
Your tactical choices though? They’ve multiplied.
Injure a demon enough in Doom and you’d stagger them, their glowing aura a visual indicator they were primed for a Glory Kill. Do so, and a generous supply of health pickups spewed from the remains. Be aggressive, stay healthy.
Eternal expands the idea: Chainsaw Kills earn you ammo, cook demons with your flamethrower to net yourself additional armour. Attack to stay well-stocked.
But chainsaws need petrol, flamethrowers take time to recharge. Glory Kills require a demon to be shot into submission first. Conservation of equipment is another strategy to consider on the battlefield.
But that consideration is something I’m familiar with from a previous hands-on. Today, as the game’s opening hour introduces me to a retooled take of modern-day Doom’s gameplay, I can focus on the other alterations.
A road trip of biblical proportions
I spend that hour battling my way across a ravaged cityscape Earth-side. Not an unusual setting for the genre, but the ruined beauty of id Software’s take is inarguably stunning in both scale and detail: bow down before the power of id Tech 7.
It’s sumptuous to behold and also diverse in its layout. I battle demonic legions across fractured city streets, blast my way up the interior floors of devastated skyscrapers and go toe-to-toe with unearthly horrors through darkened shopping malls. It’s a far cry from the uniformity of Mars’ red dunes and rusted architecture.
There’s also an increased verticality to levels, Early arena brawls have me pairing grabbable monkey bars with double-jumps to propel myself further and higher, a pinball of retribution. Outside of combat I’m wall-climbing up shattered landmasses or leaping down into car parks turned valley floors due to earthquakes.
There are also environmental dangers to contend with. I experience first-hand fire-belching pipes that complicate a vertical ascent while elsewhere demonic walls spit flame down mall corridors, forcing to me dodge into storefronts and use mannequins as cover.
And Earth promises to be just the first stop. By the campaign’s end, you’ll have shot your way across the solar system, kicked in Hell’s door and knocked on Heaven’s own.
It’s tantalising to consider what id Software’s artists have imagined for Hell’s opposite. Aside from the story implications that the studio is inferring ahead of launch, Stratton is just jazzed for players to experience the levels set heaven-ward, which include his favourite moment in the entire campaign.
That locations feel more diverse and come stockpiled with environmental puzzles and secrets all stem from the studio’s desire to further diversify gameplay outside of combat encounters.
Scouring a level of secrets isn’t new for the series, but many of Doom Eternal’s will be closer to the critical path, part of a fundamental philosophy of keeping everything in this sequel “within arm’s reach” of the player, encouraging exploration. Level automaps return, improved UI highlighting areas of interest to further nudge inquisitive players to seek out more carefully hidden collectables. These can offer gameplay changes, player buffs or cool in-universe merch.
Difficulties to suit all tastes, both in campaign and multiplayer
Completing Doom 2016 unlocked Ultra-Nightmare difficulty, challenging you to re-run the campaign without dying. Here, it’s available from the start, rubbing shoulders on the game’s menu screen with all-new Extra Lives mode.
Here’s how that works: collectable 1-ups are already secreted around each level. Collect and instead of a reload and checkpoint respawn come death, your health is instead restocked and a brief period of invulnerability gained. The studio liked that old school approach enough to build an entire campaign mode around it.
Nicely the studio has also added opt-in support for those struggling with tougher boss fights: Sentinel armour will be deployed near the player after a certain number of deaths, granting them a health and armour buff. The mechanics, Stratton stresses, stay the same. It’s just a helping hand to deflect any frustration and keep players immersed in the campaign.
That wish to accommodate for more than just the reaction-perfect Slayers is one of the explanations for a fundamental shift in multiplayer. The game launches with Battlemode, a 2v1 clash played out in tight arenas between two demon-controlling players and a lone Slayer.
Conceived and built in-house at id Software, the intent is to add some depth to the multiplayer arm of the Doom experience, making winning multiplayer matches more about great strategies than twitch-based kills.
Equally as intriguing is the post-launch Invasion mode, opting in to which allows any other player to take control of any demon in your game. Tailored to the core who know campaign levels inside out, Stratton believes it feels a natural extension of the Doom experience.
That mode is just one idea of an extensive post-launch support plan, which includes everything from meaty DLC expansions to cosmetic skins. But the exact details remain a mystery. We’ll have to wait until closer to March’s launch.
Even without the post-launch roadmap, there’s plenty to get excited about here. A robust, varied single-player mode, the kind of meaty campaign that promises to swallow you whole if you’d let it. Test your skills and wits in combat which, while still core to the experience, gels better with moments of exploration. There are secrets to track down if you’ve the mind to and different modes to lose yourself in, catering to both lone wolf or social player.
An action shooter that’s filling as well as thrilling? Junk food with nutritional value indeed.