‘Doom Eternal’ First Impressions: Balls-Out, Batshit Perfection

     January 22, 2020

I played 2016’s Doom reboot like I was training for the Olympics if being metal as fuck was a competitive sport. So when I was invited to play the first 3 hours of Doom Eternal, the follow-up to the 2016 action bonanza, and take part in a brief Q&A with the game’s director, Hugo Martin, I cleared my entire schedule and deleted all of my contacts so no one could possibly disturb me whilst I Doom-ed.

I’ll say it right up front so everyone knows exactly what time it is – Doom Eternal takes everything that was gloriously batshit about Doom 2016, throws it in a Lamborghini full of Slayer albums and catapults it into the sun. This game is out of its goddamn mind in the best possible way, and I literally cannot wait to get my hands on the full version. In addition to actually banging my head with glee every time I eviscerated a particularly vicious cohort of demons (yes, I actually did this, the Bethesda PR people likely thought me insane), I was treated to some interesting insight from Martin about the latest entry in the long-running series.

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Image via Bethesda Softworks

The game starts with you, as the nameless Doom Slayer, standing in your spaceship high above the Earth as Hell’s invasion plays out below. The ship, called the Fortress of Doom, serves as the game’s hub area, which is an absolute first in a Doom game. In the first three games, you just blasted your way from level to level, with no way to replay earlier missions outside of starting a new game or loading an old save file. Doom 2016 introduced a menu option that allowed you to revisit any previously completed level, but that was just text on a screen. Doom Eternal gives you an honest-to-Malebolgia Fortress of Solitude, and that’s not an exaggeration – picture the Justice League’s Watchtower, refitted to look like a satanic cathedral tricked out by Best Buy’s installation team. VEGA, the A.I. guide from the previous game, acts as your Alfred Pennyworth, because this game knows exactly how ridiculous it is and embraces it every step of the way.

The Fortress of Doom is massive. I wasn’t able to access every area, and could only guess at the function of some of the areas I did see. One section had the original Doom Marine costume on display in a glass case, and Martin confirmed that the skin is an unlockable. Moreover, he indicated that there are several unlockable player skins in the game, including one he was clearly excited about but couldn’t reveal, saying that it was still in the licensing approval stage. Maybe that means we’ll possibly see a skin from the 2005 movie, perhaps featuring the likeness of Karl Urban or The Rock? As one of that film’s 12 fans, allow me this dream.

There was also a prison area, essentially acting as a training simulator for you to try out new weapons and abilities. I only had the first simulation unlocked, which was a fairly easy battle against a group of imps and soldiers, but the prison’s tight quarters should make for some nail-biting skirmishes as you unlock more difficult scenarios.

The bridge of the Fortress of Doom features an audio log that plays intercepted transmissions from Earth. The one I heard was a woman urging citizens not to interact with the Doom Guy, which is sound advice. There are two other terminals on the bridge that appear to relate to some late-game or even endgame content, but unfortunately were not available to me during my playtime.

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Image via Bethesda Softworks

VEGA tells me that I need to teleport down to Earth to destroy three Hell Priests, and it’s at this moment that I should probably mention the game’s story. Id Software has crafted an impressively dense mythology for the objectively silly world of Doom, and much like the previous game, it’s largely told within codex entries that you collect as you travel through Doom Eternal’s many environments. They’ve created a surprisingly engaging universe that had me wanting to pause the action to pour over each new log entry I collected. But if you’re the type of player who doesn’t give a tinkerer’s damn about story and just wants to decapitate monsters with judiciously applied shotgun blasts, you can completely ignore all of it and it won’t affect your game in the slightest. All of the game’s cutscenes are skippable, and Martin assured that none of them contain any exposition dumps or any knowledge required to play. You can beat Doom Eternal without reading a single log entry or watching a single cutscene, because as I said, id Software clearly understands what kind of game Doom Eternal is.

The action started immediately as I touched down planetside, and having logged easily 100 hours in Doom 2016, the run-and-gun controls felt very familiar. Doom Eternal, like its predecessor, is a fast game, pitting you against hordes of powerful enemies that force you to constantly be on the move and quick-swapping weapons to inflict maximum damage while avoiding death. You have a few tools at your disposal to earn guaranteed life, ammo, and armor, which are the over-the-top glory kills, the terrifying chainsaw, and the brand-new flame belcher respectively. Glory kills are special instant-death maneuvers you can unleash on enemies after staggering them, and the addition of a retractable arm blade has heightened the graphic absurdity of them to such a degree that I was giggling like an idiot every time I pulled one off.

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Image via Bethesda Softworks

I spent the next three hours murdering my way across three massive levels that were incredibly varied in terms of design, beginning in a blasted post-apocalyptic city, then moving to a vast overgrown temple, and finally ending up in a heavily-fortified arctic base. According to Martin, one of the biggest pieces of feedback about Doom 2016 was that the levels became a little repetitive, and id Software has addressed that feedback head-on at 250 mph. Just those first three hours of Doom Eternal had more variety than the entirety of the previous game. Each stage had a completely different feel – the city was very ground-based, with dark subway tunnels and skeletal office buildings. The temple was spread out across what felt like miles, with an unexpected amount of verticality and traversal thanks to the new climbing mechanic. Yep, Doom Guy can now cling to certain walls, as well as swing from poles to extend his jump and gain access to distant ledges. The climbing controls are a bit funky, like Spider-Man with a rotator cuff injury, but the traversal puzzles are fun and satisfying, and allow for some truly massive environments. (I know I keep using that word, but Doom Eternal is emphatically, unapologetically huge.) Finally, the arctic fortress had plenty of verticality and traversal, but introduced a new trap mechanic that had Doom Guy simultaneously avoiding elaborate death machines while waiting for the right moment to trigger them himself to pulverize unsuspecting demons. Each level felt distinct, and Martin promised that players will continue to be introduced to new enemies and environments right up until the end of the 22+ hour campaign.

He describes Doom Eternal as a thinking person’s action game, and that the team’s goal was to create a combat puzzle worth your time. From what I’ve played, I can say that they have absolutely succeeded. The game rewards you for stepping outside of your comfort zone to try out new weapons or play styles that you may not be accustomed to. For instance, in the arctic fortress you’re introduced to a brand-new enemy called the Whiplash, a Medusa-esque snake demon armed with an energy whip. I have been playing Doom since 1993 and have played every single game in the series, and I can safely say that there has never been an enemy that moves as fast as Whiplash does. When I asked him about the intent behind the enemy’s design, Martin said that it was meant to provoke players who normally stay in relatively one spot during firefights into moving around the map (if you stand still while fighting Whiplash, she will kill you in seconds). Furthermore, he said that the challenge with a new enemy was figuring out which piece of gear might be useful against them, and suggested I try out the freeze grenade I’d just received at the beginning of the level, a suggestion so obvious that I might as well have slapped my forehead after he said it. (“Oh right, I should use the one item I have that slows enemies down to fight the super-fast demon!”)

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Image via Bethesda Softworks

However, Martin stressed that their goal was not to make a difficult game, but rather to give players something they could master. I definitely felt that design in every encounter, which get progressively more challenging and forces you to constantly dig into your bag of weapons, equipment and abilities to discover new strategies, with the ultimate goal of keeping you from falling into a repetitive playstyle. The end result is immensely satisfying, leaving me eager for the next big fight and dreading it at the same time.

In addition to the standard enemy encounters, there are high-level encounters hidden in almost every level that toss you into a particularly grueling arena that rewards you with extra customization points if you manage to beat it. There are also special encounters that task you with certain parameters, such as kill 2 Cacodemons within 5 seconds. Anyone who played Doom 2016 will recognize these as being pretty similar to the Rune challenges, and like those challenges they can be replayed as often as you like.

Speaking of Runes, those are hidden throughout the environment, as well as numerous other secret collectibles, like action figures and vinyl records. You can also find canisters of energy that you can use to upgrade your stats and unlock special abilities, and numerous weapon mods you can discover that grant new firing modes to your arsenal (my personal favorite so far being the mod that transforms your Plasma Rifle into a microwave ray that cooks demons until they explode). You can even collect upgrades for your Fortress of Doom. That’s not even a full list of everything there is to find in Doom Eternal, because as I said, the word of the day is “massive.” Eagle-eyed Doom fans will notice a rabbit named Daisy hidden in every single level, a nod to the infamous ending screen of the 1993 original.

The only complaint I had during my time test-driving the game (and this is very minor) is that the game crashed three different times, roughly once per hour. That’s not a great batting average. In fairness, I was playing a pre-release version, and any major performance issues will likely be solved by the time the game ships, or with a post-release patch.

Doom Eternal really embraces being a video game. It’s fast and frenetic and completely out of control, but there’s a remarkable amount of depth in both the gameplay options and the storyline. Martin referred to it as “a ridiculous premise with a sincere execution,” and for my money, truer words have never been spoken. Doom Eternal releases on Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Stadia March 20.

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