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Doom Eternal (2020) Review

This review is strictly about Doom Eternal's (2020) single-player campaign. I don't delve into the game's lore, or examine its multi-player.

I'll start with the most important question, first: "Is it Gothic?"

Well, sort of.

In Britain, the Neo-Gothic movement initially focused on the return—of a Romanticized past, imprinted on the Catholic faith as demonized during the Reformation. By visiting Hell on Earth, Doom Eternal returns an "older," devilish religion to the mortal plane: the Hell priests. These robed outsiders announce themselves with gaudy icons, skulls and yawning spires; also an outside, the Slayer belongs to an order of medieval knights called the Sentinels. It's all highly Romantic from a visual standpoint; deliberately antiquated.

Doom Eternal ignores many of the other ways a Gothic space can function. Its levels aren't mazes to lose yourself in; they're scenic, and have only one direction by which to move: forwards. Gaze upon torture chambers, abandoned castles, and lakes of fire. There's little fear and awe. Likewise, the lonesome, 2016 chorus is gone, replaced with dubstep and nu-metal—anathema to the thrash crowd of the 1980s.

For a longtime metal fan like myself, Mick Gordon's second Doom entry feels like a solid "B," but hardly a magnum opus. Nothing comes close to rivaling "Rip and Tear" or "BFG Division." Instead, the new material works best to complement the action. I'd kill for some Bobby Prince. Give me some Mercyful Fate, or better yet, Aubrey Hodges!

Returning to the levels, they remain visually varied, but there isn't much progression to this variety. The areas in Castlevania (1986) and Metroid (1986) sit inside a larger eponymous structure; Doom Eternal is all over the map. You're effectively a tourist, skipping from place to place. If it were open-ended, or selected from a map screen a la Mega Man (1987), perhaps it would have worked better. But it's not. It's just an unbroken sequence of different locales with seemingly no relation to one another, a colorful Rubik's cube of combat.

With its floating 1-Ups and obvious item roster, Doom Eternal feels unapologetically retro. So does its in-game cache of nerdy secrets—floppy discs and vinyl record repressings. Groovy. Unfortunately the game's cultural attitudes are equally dated. Its target community is effectively an all-boys club, filled to capacity with men who loved Doom (1993) in the good ol' days. The game plays like an ultraviolent, "Saturday morning" cartoon, worshiping the bulging bicep, not the bosom. There's no sex, and no women. I couldn't shake the feeling of a didactic series of action figures brought out of the closet for les enfants terrible to reclaim their lost childhoods.

And honestly this would be fine if that past wasn't so sexless, so ostensibly "neutral" and male-centric. 2020 is more than a nostalgic Pax Deorum for '90s kids; it has girls and queer people in it, and open-if-optional sexual preferences. None of these things exist in Doom Eternal. All we're left with is the outmoded, homosocial worshiping of the Doom marine by a largely male audience: the giga-Chad admired by Real Men everywhere. He's too cool for sex, though. Not when there's demon bros to kill. Devilman Crybaby (2018), I hardly knew ye.

Optional, but available. 

Doom Eternal is made for the Twitch crowd, a tough-as-nails game aimed squarely at the best of the best. These exhibitions are a blast to watch; they also fill chat rooms with men obnoxiously shouting "DOOOOOOOOOOM!" I love a good bloodbath; I just don't feel the same surge of euphoria by posturing that some obviously do. And I feel like I should: I played Doom (1993) throughout the '90s, and consider myself a fan. I also think the original series wasn't nearly as overt in its singular camaraderie as Doom Eternal is. That came later.

It can be exciting to know that something was lovingly made, and just for you. I just hate to feel alienated from a franchise so near and dear to my heart because of its staunchest flag-wavers: "This is ours; it was made for us!" And maybe it was. It also misses the beauty of its predecessor, Doom 2016. That game steered away from a specific persona for a wider appeal, and worked better for it. Minimal but elegant, it rescued "rip and tear" from an infamously bad Doom comic, creating a badass slogan in the process. Doom Eternal mostly reneges on these innovations, valorizing the meme its precursor subverted so deftly.

Maybe I'm an outsider and always was (my preference for Midway's PSOne port may speak to this). It's still jarring to see the sequel to a clean-slate revival backtrack so abruptly tone-wise. Doom Eternal shamelessly panders to a fan base the 2016 reboot largely ignored. Yes, the Doom community is quite real, but is there any room for an old Doom fan like myself to enjoy the same game for my own reasons? Yes, but not through its dated treatment of gender and sex. Apparently that's my problem, not theirs.

Doom's original tone borrowed a lot from the Evil Dead franchise, especially Evil Dead II (1987)—a series that aptly demonstrates how the balance between humor and horror is tricky to manage. Generally in flux from title to title, the wrong blend of scares and laughs can alienate certain members of a larger fan group. Imagine my disappointment, then, in seeing Doom's latest reincarnation being so flippantly dumb. Yes, they include an official port for Midway's Doom 64 (1997). That feels like a hand-me-down toy on Christmas: It's the one I like, but I already own it.

The game's overall presentation is largely transparent, and would have benefited by trusting players to imagine and learn, rather than spelling out every last detail. To be generous, the story in Doom Eternal is pretty disposable, a grand space opera with debatable contributions. The game also color codes everything—items, cracks in the walls, the traffic-light signpost system. With so much visual data to work with, an obtrusive tutorial system seems superfluous. While you can turn that off, you can't disable the narrator or the multiple, chatty load screens. Cut scenes and lore dumps are frequent, but add little more than corny jokes (see: "mortally-challenged") and sanguine, WWE-style schlock.

The game's calling card is over-the-top ultraviolence and it achieves this well. Doom 2016 was effectively "Move, shoot." There was no reload. Not so, with Doom Eternal (2020). In it, you'll need to manage three key resources: health, armor and ammo.

The chainsaw "reloads" ammo. You'll have to use it often: every single fight. The same goes for flame belch and glory kills, but also all of your weapons. Ammo counters are precariously small and discourage weapon bias. The game is designed to be played in a very specific manner, especially on the harder difficulties. There's some wiggle room with weapon mods, Praetor points and runes. Likewise, every fight feels special. Despite following the same rules, everything occurs inside a solid, consistent combat loop.

Another plus were the choices concerning charge-based moves like the chainsaw and blood punch. The latter cannot be refilled without performing two glory kills and the chainsaw can use up too much fuel if used on the wrong demon. It pays to prioritize the right demons with the right tools at the right time. Using the wrong tool can be dangerous, if only because it's a waste of ammo. The game isn't survival-horror. Even on Nightmare, rebounds are possible. Just be prepared to go back to school; the learning curve is steep.

While the combat in Doom Eternal is impeccable, its parallel movement schemes—combat and exploratory motion—don't mix. Platforming sections give the player something to do outside of fights. However, the game should have melded the two schools into something more cohesive. I say this because its combat movement is the core gameplay experience, and is actually dangerous to perform, thus exciting to watch. Generally isolated, the exploratory movement is tedious and dull for everyone involved.

Another complaint involves the berserk power-up. Doom 2016 featured the Slayer flying through enemies like a tornado and punching larger foes to pieces; in Doom Eternal, Doomguy has one kill animation per foe—an oddity considering how many glory kills he can do by comparison. This includes the chainsaw. Despite this dearth of carnage, Id Software removed my favorite glory kill from 2016: the belly slash for the mancubus. His kill animations, and those for the cacodemon's ill-fated eyeball, are far too repetitive.

The boss fights are frequent and varied. However, the late-game additions to Doomguy's arsenal overpower them. Given the obvious strength of the Crucible, I would have put it behind the Slayer Gate paywall and cut the Unmaykr from the game. Giving the player a "bad ending" option by defeating the final boss without it would have been cool, too. I also think the Crucible should have been powered by killing demons instead of ammo placed around the map. There's way too much of it, considering how strong the weapon is. Sure it doesn't kill trash, but does it need to? Behead the Baron and his cronies scatter pretty fast.

Cleaving through "super heavy" demons also cuts the dance short. This may be to encourage speedier end-game fights, but from a design standpoint feels a bit checkered. In-game, I'm torn between watching the Slayer kill enemies, or speedrun. These are two very different schools of thought, and should be cooperating instead of competing with each other for the player's attention (which I write about, here). I can't help but feel that Id Software is juggling. It does a good enough job, until the two areas are suddenly at odds.

The guns in Doom Eternal are beefy and loud. However, I wanted to feel in awe—even afraid—when firing a Hell-forged rocket launcher. Instead, I remembered I Am Ninja's warning to would-be weapon buyers: "Sure it says, 'Forged in the belly of a pooka-werewolf...'" Doom 2016's arsenal was sleek, legit—the sort a futuristic company like the UAC might actually use; Doom Eternal's stockpile is somewhat cartoonish and toy-like.

This being said, I loved the revamped plasma rifle. I always hated how it appeared in classic Doom, but Doom Eternal makes it look and sound awesome.

Remember the "ultimate demon" from Doom 2016, how he sounded like the Cookie Monster? In Doom Eternal, everything sits in his shadow, pandering to players who couldn't care less about gravitas. I found myself remembering the mysterious old man's causus belli from 2016: "Brutal, without mercy. But you... you will be worse. Rip and tear, until it is done!" Wouldn't a full campaign of that be cool? No such luck. The combat in Doom Eternal is exhilarating. Attached to something substantial and tremendous, it could have been magnificent, too. Instead, it's kind of dorky.

The monster design isn't terrible. However, 2016 wore "uncanny" on its sleeve. Here, the mancubi aren't cyclopean; the hell knights have eyes; the cacodemons have pupils; the possessed have normal faces, and so on. They're also strangely expressive, sounding almost human-at times—less H. R. Giger and more Don Ivan Punchatz.

Doom Eternal is effectively a game of puzzles: the monsters, and the ammo you kill them with. But it's more complex than it sounds. Generally easy, the classic games are hard when played as fast as possible. Doom Eternal is tough by default; it will be harder still if the combat cannot be skipped by speedrunners trying to go fast. I love how Doom Eternal caters to Twitch speedrunners. No matter how a game is designed, a speedrunner can find ways to break the rules. Some categories will still require a healthy dose of combat, hopefully.

Is the game perfect? No. Is it fun? Absolutely. Doomguy is like the Predator—not just in appearance, nor how Mick Gordon rips off Alan Silvestri, but in how the Slayer skins his enemies alive (not only is the gorehound in me pleased; it's another strategic layer to the game)! When the game is stripped of its own cartoonishly big muscles, we're left with a cleverly designed skeleton. It holds up rather well. The "made for boys" attitude doesn't, ignoring demons and violence as a realm for everyone, women and queer people included. In Doom Eternal, they simply don't exist.


Check out two of my other interview series: Hell-blazers: Speedrunning Doom Eternal, and the Alien: Ore" Interview Project.

My favorite posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?, Mandy (2018): Review, Gothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.

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