Rhythm and Blues — DOOM: Eternal’s unique pace of play

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There are other series like DOOM, but franchises that manage to have such staying power with minor tweaks to gameplay and an approach to narrative that tight-ropes the line between tongue-in-cheek machismo and oh-my-god-they’re-serious lore dumps in the back alleys of the games levels exist in rare air. DOOM has lasted this long without a crumb of interest in diversifying its portfolio because its gameplay is not only some of the slickest, but it can’t accurately be replicated.

DOOM was one of the many break-neck arena shooters that crawled out of the primordial ooze of experimental first-person shooters. DOOM probably shares most of its DNA with Unreal Tournament and Quake, another product of Id Software. While some of the most popular main-stream first-person shooters and pioneers of the genre, they were also some of the first in what would become one of the mediums first sub-genres. It’s hard to accurately put into words what separates and Arena Shooter from that of a regular one. So much of it is about feel. They’re bouncier, faster. They’re way more interested in the poised act of landing a shot while both target and shooter are flying through the air than the stratagems that lead both parties to that moment.

Quake and Unreal Tournament find themselves planted on the shelf for now. Quake’s audience has dissipated while Epic Games may just be tied to Fortnite for the rest of its existence. In any event, there doesn’t seem to be that big of a market for these games, even if they were some of the first and most beloved in the genre. But DOOM persists. It survives. It rips and it tears. It’s longevity to this point might have something to do with its single-player nature, where the arcade stylings can bloom while avoiding the rat race of multiplayer titles vying for your attention. It would be completely understandable to say that DOOM’s gameplay is the reason it’s lasted so long, but I think the reason why it’s thrived is because of something a bit more intangible: It’s the rhythm of gameplay.

To boil down DOOM’s essential gameplay elements is to describe a fast paced, single-player arena shooter. There’s a weapon wheel and a few special abilities on cooldown to get you through encounters. That’s all you can really put on the back of the box before you have yo go into the minutiae of the game’s rhythm and of its spirit. DOOM is a game where you have a chainsaw on your person at all times, where ‘reload’ is a dirty word and you have two entirely separate shotguns for when something has to die and for when it really has to die. Everything about DOOM must be able to exist in a space where it can be over-the-top at all times. Your shotgun has to be able to turn into a grenade launcher, your chaingun has to split off into three separate chainguns and if your other shotgun doesn’t also light people on fire with its grappling hook, what is it even good for? DOOM is not the first or only game to live in this chaotic sphere, but it is the best at it and the reigning champ of ridiculousness.

You can understand what games DOOM is like, but it’s difficult to get a sense for what it is till you get your hands on it. A standard DOOM encounter will lock players in a large room with your standard assortment of demons, but to say the objective is to clear the room is an oversimplification. You can do it your own way, at your own pace. But Id Software has never made it more rewarding and ultimately more necessary for you to play in their tempo.

Picture a game of pickup basketball. Invariably, there’s always a guy in his High school Tack&Field shirt with no discernible basketball skills other than being the first one down the court because of the relentless energy they’ve conserved by not doing anything else of consequence. Sure, you absolutely can ignore him and still find a way to win, but their mere presence causes all other players to pick up the pace or risk giving up easy buckets. DOOM presents similar issues. You’re more than welcome to hone in on one weapon as your favorite or, lord help you, hide behind cover, but it’s not going to be as fun nor are you giving yourself the best chance to survive on harder difficulties.

DOOM’s Rip and Tear mantra isn’t just a slogan, it’s a creed. It’s not a demand, but it’s the best piece of honest advice the game can offer. With eight or so weapons with two different modes a piece, a shoulder-mounted flamethrower, two different types of grenades, a chainsaw, and melee that can be charged into a DOOM punch, the options to dispatch enemies seem overwhelming at first. DOOM Eternal was the first game in the series that I actually owned and had substantial playing time with. It doesn’t take long for the game to start shooting at your feet, throwing mid and upper-class demons at you to push you out of your comfort zone and start dancing. And when DOOM dances, it leads and you follow.

For as many special demons with different movement patterns and abilities the game throws at you, you’ve already been saturated with methods of disposing of them and the game encourages you to use all of them. Never before has a game I’ve played forced me to spin the weapon wheel this much, using every inch of my inventory to make it through an encounter. The game doesn’t offer multiple paths or upgrade trees to style your character (beyond a few binary choices to upgrade your weapons, but you’ll more than likely have maxed everything out before the game is over). There is no strategy or meta that works better than other strategies because there is only one: Rip and Tear.

The rocket launcher was my preferred tool to open a set piece with since enemies are usually bunched up at the start. I don’t imagine I’m alone when I think about how crazy is that is in the context of modern gaming. Not that there’s any fault in the strategy for one specific game, but often when I’m playing a game that lets me hold onto some kind of rocket launcher or similar big-honkin-weapon, the game elaborates that ammo will be scarce and to only use it in big fights. Most players will simply nod and never use the weapon despite it being the biggest and honkin-est, and I don’t imagine I’m alone on this. Without the foresight to know how the game is going to escalate, it can make players gun shy in a situation where no gun is larger than the one covered in cobwebs in their inventory. Such a policy has no place in a game like DOOM Eternal since it stands in direct opposition to the player’s goal of ripping and/or tearing.

While the gameplay mostly consists of running and shooting (ripping and tearing)DOOM: Eternal is also, fundamentally, a game about resource management. Perhaps not the sexiest blurb on the back of the box, but in practice, it may be the game’s most exhilarating feature. It wouldn’t be long till I would be out of ammo for the rocket launcher and would often switch to my chain gun to burst down whatever biggest threats were left, followed by the Super-Shotgun and so on down the line, mixing in the plasma rifle to easily take care of shielded enemies or the heavy cannon’s sniper-scope to shoot at enemy weakpoints if I had a spare moment to stand still. The game throws simply too much fodder at you to grow attached to one style of play or one weapon in a way that is conducive to what the game wants. Replenishing your ammo is done by using the chainsaw the game starts you with, giving you ammo for each weapon upon each use. The chainsaw is on a cooldown, meaning that while you never have to worry where your next cache of bullets is going to come from, knowing when to pick and choose your spots to stock the cabinet back up becomes a central part of the game’s rhythm. Making this mechanic tied to a melee attack means that there’s nothing to be gained from running away in a world where waiting behind cover is the only way to survive in most modern titles.

Resource management married to the aggressive style of play the game leads asks of you is where the spirit of DOOM lives. By the end of the first stage, the game fully expects you to know the choreography. You’ll know the conductor’s tendencies: when it’s safe to hunt weaker, fodder enemies for ammo, which of the greater demons you can avoid and which need to be taken down immediately. These are all decisions that feed back into the idea of you playing at the game’s desired tempo, not necessarily its play-style. The game tells you early that throwing a grenade into a Cacodemon’s mouth will put it in a near-death state where you can perform a Glory-Kill on it, a finisher that gives the player back some health they can perform on critically damaged enemies. This is one of the oldest tricks in game design, using a character model to illustrate where the weak spot is (in this instance, throwing something into a giant floating mouth’s mouth) but in DOOM Eternal, it’s less about doing it to dispatch enemies most economically, and more designed to use the games system to keep the player on beat. A stunned demon will stagger for a few seconds, powerless, flashing and beckoning players for health-dropping glory-kills, allowing you to shoot your way out of a different problem. That demon will still be available for you to siphon some health back for a few moments if you can spare it. DOOM takes the age-old concept of shooting at a weak point and puts a DOOM Slayer spin on it that perfectly captures the game’s essence; staggered enemies allow you to deal with other problems quickly and be more aggressive while also serving as a life preserver to get a quick health boost when you need it, but you can only get close enough to use it provided you’re playing aggressive. Aggression begets quickness begets even more aggression which leads to more fun, more efficiency, and more DOOM.

Players get three Rune slots that can be used to enhance the DOOM Guy in different ways. One put enemies in a stagger-state for longer, while another allows you to slow time while you’re in mid-air. One Rune simply makes the animations for glory-kills go faster. There is no discernible gameplay benefit to doing so. The game puts you in an invulnerable state while performing glory-kills on top of giving you a boost of health for doing them, so even if you have to venture into harm’s way, you’re guaranteed to come out of them in a more advantageous position. Literally the only reason this upgrade exists is to enhance the rhythm of the game. This is for the player that’s played this song so many times they know it forward and backward. It’s a chance for the player to strike up the band and play with maximum quickness even if it provides no strategic benefit. There is no better example of this game being less about strategy and more about rhythm than this optional upgrade.

Unlike many other arena-shooters, the core DOOM Eternal experience is single player (there is a multiplayer mode where two greater demons face off against one human DOOM Guy, but it’s hardly fleshed out and after a dozen or so games I think I’m already done with it). This means that the game can afford to let players be as fast as possible without accounting for competitive balance and multiplayer ramifications. As a result, Eternal is one of the fastest shooters on the market. Switching between all the weapons and abilities is seamless and polished to a mirror shine. In most musical performances, it’s easy to be impressed when things move this fast with so many moving parts that you can pick out individually and with so little cracks or blemishes to pick out. When watching DOOM gameplay, it can feel like everything is just quick read-and-react action, but it’s in fact composed of so many tiny decisions all in quick succession. It’s not just shooting, it’s resource management; It’s playing in tempo not because the game forces you to, but because it does an incredible job of rewarding it. Getting the most out of DOOM is not as simple as having a player play the game in a “just add water” self-sufficient sort of way with most games. People don’t often think of shooters like DOOM as a game that should be played in a specific way to get the most enjoyment out of it(similar to how some stealth games can be beaten without ever attempting to be stealthy) but Eternal provides a space for players to shed pre-conceived notions of shooters and enjoy a new groove.

It’s these moments where players enter encounters in rooms they’ve never been in, without knowing enemy spawn patterns and yet are still aggressive to the point of parody if it were anything else but DOOM. The moments where you can take a grav lift across an arena, fire three rockets before you hit the ground, double dash backwards to criss-cross and double-back your way across your flight pattern only to grapple with another enemy and glory kill another all before you touch the ground are DOOM distilled; accept no imitation. Other games may offer similar freedom of movement and weapon options but no others present them in the way that DOOM does. DOOM Eternal isn’t the first or only title to forgo a cover system or conservative style of play, but it’s the only one creating an atmosphere and environment to let players thrive. To survive, you can’t go into fight-or-flight. This is fight and flight. No other AAA game on the market has mastered this.

DOOM Eternal is one of the most unique games on the market not because it lets you do things no other game does, but because it trusts players to learn the rhythms of play and then improvise, utilize every gameplay system and tool and then stick the landing. Not many other games can say they trust players enough.

Comedian. Sports fan. Former reporter for ABC News.

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