DOOM 2016 is built for speed. Guns don’t need reloading; the Doom Slayer blitzes around like he’s on wheels; enemies slop apart like rotten fruit. There’s barely a plot to color in the white space around all the gore. The Doom Slayer rises from his coffin and exterminates any and all demons he comes across. Further exposition is doled out in tiny doses. id Software’s approach to reinventing DOOM is best summed up in this video where the game’s composer Mick Gordon says he rearranged the MIDI speed metal theme from the original DOOM as a nine-string guitar djent riff. Lower; dumber; louder. That’s DOOM 2016.
But the game falls apart in the details. If it is indeed built for speed, which all cues point toward, then why do certain arenas require the player to backtrack and pore over an illegible map? One early level had me flat-out stuck as I scoured a now-empty factory for a key. The repetitive finishing moves (is wrenching a demon’s skull off its spine the kind of thing that should ever really get old?) have to be executed up-close but there’s no way to zip toward flashing enemies and gobble up the the essential health and ammo pick-ups held within their wretched frames. There’s a perk that lets the player execute those kills from a greater distance, which feels like a half-admission of the problem. Why does the plasma rifle feel like tossing a pool noodle at a dragon? The game’s sound mix is strangely muted despite the amount of shotgun blasts and screeching and gurgling. And for a game that’s attempting to obliterate the player’s senses with ever-escalating extremity, both the limp boss fights and the complete anticlimax of a last level are silly missteps.
It’s fortunate that the guns generally “feel good,” a watery descriptor that nonetheless applies to the provided arsenal (aside from that piss-poor plasma rifle). Since DOOM is a game propelled by the act of shooting demons, it’s kind of essential that the demon-shooting is compelling enough to carry the player through to the end. If the shooting blows, the whole thing fails. Demons, as Reid pointed out, are ripe for killing. When their rust-red husks shatter and split under a hail of shotgun slugs they even seem to enjoy it. We have yet to see a Paradise Lost-esque reimagining of the DOOM imp but until that happens it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that demons are evil personified. They feel Good, i.e. righteous, to shoot, both because they are Bad, i.e. evil, and because they writhe and explode in bursts of blood.
To further lubricate the bullet-spraying, the player is not a Marine, but some kind of ancient paladin locked inside a sarcophagus by demons. His purpose is quasi-religious—a crusade in all but name. The game’s boring mythology (wisely tucked away into ignorable text/audio logs) explains all this, and it goes a long way to avoid specific references to real-world religions amid its proper-noun soup. In doing so it avoids falling into some kind of allegorical xenophobia, but this behind-the-scenes backstory feels remedial. If it were important enough to influence the player in-the-moment, the designers would have found a way to relay it. Instead it comes off like an industrious intern came up with some world-building and the higher-ups tossed it in the game to make her feel good. There’s nothing to be learned by diving into this fantasy slurry that isn’t summed up in the game’s economical introduction: “Rip and tear, until it is done.”
Compared to its sister Wolfenstein series, with its spongy shooting and miserable level design, DOOM looks incredible. But it struggles to hold itself together. Bump it up to the highest difficulty and the seams strain even further. Often the game can’t even handle the volume of violence it puts onscreen, with supercharged projectiles flying out of nowhere and enemies falling into weird little loops—when the player dies in a particularly large explosion their corpse will lock into an animation at the same time as it’s being tossed halfway across the map.
There is some brute power in DOOM’s conveyor belt of shotgun slaughter, the same way that a Meshuggah riff is perfectly tuned for headbanging no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. At its best the game flows like blood—get in close; wait for the flash. Rip, tear, you know the song. It’s a shame the game so often forgets the lyrics.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.