Game Impressions: Doom 2016

I really like Doom 2016, here's why

Published Apr 25, 2019

Spent the past week absorbed into Doom 2016. My “let’s play” is being gradually released on YouTube: playlist link. This post summarizes my impressions.

I’ve tried to phrase this from my subjective perspective: “what I like” rather than “what’s good”, because everyone likes different things. The accompanying post Tips and Tricks: Doom 2016 contains advice on how to play, while this post analyzes the game’s design. This is about single player only; I haven’t tried the PvP.

TOC

Overview

Things I like:

  • Good performance, especially with Vulkan
  • Run & gun fighting, with lots of movement and verticality
  • Monster design, with varied moves that can surprise you
  • Weapon design, with mods that give you more options to use and master
  • Upgrade system, mostly qualitative rather than quantitative
  • Implementation of difficulty that makes monsters more aggressive and accurate
  • Map design, with loops, shortcuts, verticality, secrets
  • Overall polish

Things I don’t like:

  • Sluggish mouse cursor in menus
  • Unskippable scripted scenes
  • Doors that lock behind you
  • Occasional hangs and crashes when using Vulkan

Things I’m lukewarm on:

  • The music needs more metal

Difficulty

I really like how this game implements difficulty levels.

Difficulty doesn’t seem to affect enemy spawns or enemy health. Instead, it makes them more aggressive, accurate, and damaging. You also get less health and armor from pickups. You have to pay more attention, think faster, dodge enemy attacks better. But monsters don’t get any healthier. By playing well, you can still do a glorious slaughterfest, while always a few errors away from death. It checks your skill, not your gear or patience.

I particularly like how much difficulty is added through the enemy behavior, not through numbers. On lower difficulties, enemies pause between actions, while on Nightmare they won’t give you any slack. Sometimes they will use surprising moves, like suddenly switching from long-range shooting to a melee rush. Their shots also start leading your movement, a subtle change that requires smarter dodging on your part.

This reminds me of the best 3rd person melee games, which use basically the same approach. In Devil May Cry 1/3/4/5, enemies get more aggressive and hit harder as you raise the difficulty. On the highest difficulty, you die in one hit. It’s the ultimate skill check the requires a perfect performance. The game is carefully designed to make this hard but possible.

This isn’t new to id Software games or shooters in general, but many still get it wrong. For example, I enjoy the Borderlands series, but it relies too much on stats, turning higher “difficulties” into a pure gear check, and is particularly guilty of bullet sponge enemies.

I also like that dying doesn’t cost you time. The game saves between each “arena” encounter. Dying just forces you to replay the last encounter that killed you, and do it properly this time. Monsters also disgorge health packs when your health is low, and ammo is everywhere, so you can’t get stuck by entering an arena unprepared. These nice quality-of-life features make higher difficulties comfortable while still dangerous.

If you consider yourself good at shooters, try the Nightmare difficulty. You’ll die a lot while learning, but this just makes getting on top more rewarding.

Monsters

The game has a healthy variety of monsters, which are well-animated, well-programmed, and have a healthy variety of moves.

I feel like the monsters are animated better than in most games. There’s a certain smooth, fluid feel to their moves. I’m not educated enough to describe this in technical terms, but I certainly appreciate the animators’ work.

Some enemies have multiple attack patterns, which makes them harder to predict and requires you to pay more attention. For example, Imps can throw fireballs on the move, sometimes several in a row, sometimes while hanging from walls, or charge bigger fireballs. Attack frequency seems to vary; I haven’t noticed a set pattern. Imps smoothly switch between ranged and melee. When close, they’ll go for melee, and may pursue you aggressively. They can also just randomly decide to rush into melee on their own. Or they can start with melee and run away for ranged attacks. The lack of a set pattern breaks up the rhythm and requires attention, which I quite enjoy. This is similar for other ranged enemies, though Imps are probably the most complex.

Melee enemies are comparatively more primitive and predictable, but also have a bit of move variety. Hell Knights can jump-slam for splash damage, lunge to grab, turn around with an uppercut, and more. They’ll always charge you, which makes them a bit too easy to predict. I would probably appreciate if melee monsters at least tried to dodge.

Upgrades

The game has four upgrade progressions:

  • health, armor, ammo
  • utility systems
  • weapon mods
  • runes

I don’t really like the health and armor progressions. By the end, it doubles your health and triples the armor. It just boosts your numbers without changing how you play, exactly what I praise this game for not doing much. It adds to the power creep, widening the difficulty gap between the early and late missions and thus impeding replayability. The game could have been better without it.

Utility systems is stuff like faster weapon swapping or becoming immune to barrel explosions. They don’t affect the game much; barrel immunity is the only major effect. I’m guessing they added this to incentivize secret hunting. Fortunately, these upgrades don’t increase your power much. They could be taken out of the game and nobody would notice.

I really like the design of weapon mods and runes, see below.

Weapons

The game has 8 guns, and 6 of them have “mods” for another firing mode. You gradually earn upgrade points, and can spend them to improve those mods even further.

What I really like about this design:

  • Mods add a new option that needs skill to master
  • Most of them don’t improve the main firing mode; no flat +power
  • In principle, this could virtually double the amount of guns

Mod balance isn’t perfect; I consider almost half of them useless. See the weapons section of the accompanying tips & tricks post. But I still really like the approach.

You can eventually obtain and max out all upgrades. The game doesn’t stop you from playing with all of its toys.

The weapons themselves are what you’d expect to find in a Doom game. Without mods, they’re not particularly imaginative, at least nowhere near the level of Painkiller or Unreal Tournament. But mods and how they match up against different enemies are more than enough to compensate.

In a nice touch, late-game guns share ammo with early-game guns. This has numerous benefits. You can more reliably find ammo for any particular weapon. In intense fights, you don’t have to cycle through unwanted guns just because you ran out of ammo for a favorite; chances are, you have a favorite for each ammo type. This also improves replayability: early missions have ammo for late-game weapons.

I appreciate the “mastery” challenges required for the last upgrades. Some of them force you to pay attention and try something new. For example, the Tactical Scope mastery requires many headshot kills, training you to use the Assault Rifle the right way. Without this challenge, I probably wouldn’t realize how effective headshots are. The Precision Bolt challenge teaches you to one-headshot Hell Knights, which you normally wouldn’t try. Not every challenge surprised me, but it’s a good try of a good idea.

Runes

Runes passively change something about your character. You gradually earn 12, but can only use 3 at any time. This means you don’t just max them out and forget about it; you’ll keep thinking which runes to pick for a given situation or playstyle, which can be interesting.

Unlike other upgrades, they’re unlocked and upgraded through challenges rather than points. The unlocking challenges teleport you into rooms with very strict rules, while the upgrade challenges are done through normal gameplay. Just as with weapon upgrades, I really like this approach. It provides a different kind of gameplay and can teach you something new. For example, one challenge requires you to survive a dangerous fight on 1 health. You might have to learn to dodge some attacks you didn’t before. The same challenge also forces you to use a Gauss Cannon with an un-upgraded Siege Mode, which stops your movement; this suicidal tool turns out to be vital against charging Pinkies. That challenge can teach you a lot, and you wouldn’t try that during normal gameplay.

Rune upgrades are done by performing a certain action N times. I find the requirements a bit too bland. Unlike weapon mastery challenges, they tend to require actions you’re already doing: Glory Kill N demons, pick up N armor, and so on. They tend to just happen in the background without requiring much thought. But the overall concept is solid; I prefer it to any currency-based unlocks.

What I like the most is that rune bonuses are qualitative, not quantitative. No rune gives you flat +power. Instead, they make a change in your behavior. Consider In-Flight Mobility: it increases “air control”, which is how quickly you change direction in the air. As minute as it sounds, this is handy when enemy shots lead your movement and you need to change direction constantly. It’s also handy for platforming. The only reason you can consider using this is because it doesn’t compete with a rune for +damage or +protection. There isn’t one, so you can play with the interesting qualitative effects. This also keeps the player’s power in check, allowing to keep the early and late missions closer in terms of difficulty, which is important for replayability.

Replayability

This section shifts from praise to critique and talks about wider game design principles. Feel free to skip. I should probably develop this into a separate post.

I like the ability to replay missions in arbitrary order, while keeping and even advancing the upgrades. Would be even better if scripted scenes were skippable. That said, eventually you get bored.

I’ve heard phrases like “the game doesn’t outstay its welcome, and that’s fine”. While logical, it misses a larger point. It assumes that boredom was inevitable. What exactly leads to it, and what could postpone it?

Many get bored during the first playthrough. Those people should raise the difficulty to Nightmare. You can’t expect such a mechanics-centric game to be interesting when it doesn’t challenge you. Let’s talk about replayability after the first playthrough.

The game consists of a few fixed, hand-crafted maps. Each map spawns the same monsters in the same locations, and most objectives are linear. You can play missions in a different order, and for some time, there’s variety in trying different guns, weapon mods, rune combinations, tactics, and learning how to handle each monster type. But eventually you memorize each map, each encounter, and start relying on pre-set patterns that trivialize any challenge.

In short: replayability requires novelty, and the fixed structure impedes it by definition.

The last few years, I’ve been fascinated with how “roguelike” games make themselves endlessly replayable by branching or randomizing most elements of the gameplay. My favorites are FTL and Slay the Spire. They consist of short “runs”, and each run branches or randomizes the map, enemies, events, and the tools you get to use. This creates a combinatorial explosion of scenarios, making each run unique. In my view, the key to keeping it fresh is that each run, you have to adapt your tactics to the different tools and enemies you find, and that’s only a fraction of the possible combinations, of the possible tactics. The more different it can be, the more potential variety there is, the better. Only the rules of the game need to stay consistent. The same principle should work for FPS games.

Traditional storytelling requires a mostly-linear structure. But in such a mechanics-centric game, I would happily trade the coherent narrative for branching or randomization that improves replayability. We can find other ways of telling the story. It could be pieced together from scattered pieces, like a puzzle. In Doom, the story is merely a backdrop for the action anyway.

FPS games with roguelike elements do exist, but it takes many attempts to produce a catchy masterpiece. Among hundreds if not thousands of tactical 2D roguelikes, I like only two: FTL and Slay the Spire. This doesn’t mean every contender is worse, but they might not have gotten as lucky with marketing. The fact remains that it can take hundreds of games before a big success. So keep trying, developers.

Conclusion

That’s all for now. Read the accompanying post Tips and Tricks: Doom 2016, and have fun!


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