Originally published in July.
DOOM’16 is one of many modern games that’s added ‘progression’ to its formula – EXP, levels, loot, skills and all that jazz that lets you customise your character over time.
It’s obvious why: these things attach players to the game on a personal level, changing or upgrading their favourite weapons or abilities to personalise the experience. Quests or missions are the same: they let players choose their own direction instead of following the straight and narrow. They offer choice and customisation and can ground players in the game’s world, characters and mechanics. They make games more satisfying – in theory.
But like adding layers of cheap frosting to a cake or overloading a pizza with toppings (food metaphors just seem the most appropriate here), burying a game in these things can add needless complexity. They can dull games whose strengths lie in their simplicity.
In the case of DOOM’16, especially compared with its forebears, it’s goddamn loaded with toppings.
DOOM’16 starts strong, with solid gameplay and scenarios that evoke the classics pretty well. You can still have issue with it but by modern standards at least, DOOM’16 is pretty solid and stands head and shoulders above most recent shooters.
But then it starts getting messy: DOOM’16 not only adds progression, it buries you in it.
These mechanics buzz around you incessantly. They prod you from almost every direction, demanding your attention. It adds more and more as it continues like a piling debt. Things to juggle, things to do, things to go out of your way to find. Another innuendo for the futility of modern life, etcetera…
But seriously, at least for the first playthrough (which will be most people’s only experience with the game), they’re an issue. They’re all technically optional and you can simply speed through each level as easily as you’re able, but for most they’re too rewarding to comfortably ignore.
Ultimately DOOM’16 gives you two choices: play how you want for less reward, or play how the game wants you to for more.
It’s a choice that runs contradictory to the game itself and, in my opinion, to the medium. That’s not to say other games don’t do this, just that DOOM’16 is an overt case of it: there’s so much choice in its gameplay systems, giving you access to all these weapons and tools to progress through the game, but they’re consistently limited by the game itself the entire time.
At any one time in DOOM’16, the player will have more than a few objectives to complete.
First and most obvious is the level itself: go do something or run somewhere. No real reward outside of progressing to the next level and is more of an excuse to throw demons at the player. Simple stuff.
But then there’s the rest of it:
Each level has three side-objectives. They’re easy but they generally need the player’s focus to complete – for example: defeat so many demons with a certain weapon. You get an upgrade point every time you beat one.
Each level also has five available upgrade points to obtain by advancing through the level. Simple, but the player has to explore and find most hidden enemies (to my knowledge) to get all five.
Most levels have a rune to find, too, equippable upgrades you get by completing a challenge room. Each one comes with their own objective to complete for their subsequent upgrade – like killing however many demons in mid-air. They’re meant as passive, long-term objectives without much urgency (though if you want to upgrade most of them, you’ll have to focus on them specifically).
Most weapons also have two objectives of their own that have to be completed before it’s fully upgraded and finished.
Lastly, the rest of the game’s upgradable stuff – the tokens for the suit upgrades, the caches for the health/armour/ammo upgrades, plus a few others – encourage the player to venture out into the corners of the level.
All these things gel together nicely, overall. But there’s so many of them that the freedom that the wealth of gameplay systems encourage is actively discouraged.
The clear-cut objectives – kill a demon this way, kill this many demons that way – motivate you to play the game a very certain way. It subtly restricts the freedom that the game otherwise provides in its weapons, glory kills and power-ups. Instead of letting you find your own way through the game, using the weapons and tactics you gravitate to, it pushes you to play by its own rules.
It’s not a mandate of course and the player can technically do whatever they want. But instead of being rewarded for their agency and creativity, they’re punished for not following the checklists laid out for them.
I understand why it’s all there, though. They’re ongoing systems that explicitly encourage experimentation, getting players familiar with all the mechanics the game offers by specifically rewarding it. It’s important for those who don’t really experiment intuitively but they also prepare players for the harder, later encounters in the game. It encourages players to view weapons as tools in a kit, each useful in their own way.
But DOOM’16 goes a little too far with them. They act as effective tutorials at first but they persist, ingrained into the game’s progression. If the player wants to get the most out of the game (or at least use most of the weapon upgrades), they’re unavoidable.
DOOM’16 also reminded me of the wholly separate character-action genre.
Character-action games are the modern evolution of the 2D beat-em-up – think Double Dragon or Streets of Rage and you’re on the level – but merged with the variety of moves seen in a fighting game. Filled with attacks, weapons, items and enemies, games like Bayonetta, Devil May Cry and Metal Gear: Rising are essentially action sandboxes.
DOOM’16 progresses in a similar way to the character-action genre, where the first playthrough acts more as a tutorial. It hands out new mechanics gradually so the player becomes more comfortable with the game’s controls over time. Games like Bayonetta even lock out integral moves early on, too, pushing players to learn the fundamentals of the game before they’re layered with the rest.
Developers of these games know how complex and obtuse their games can come off and make a real effort to teach the game. They work slow, focusing on specific enemies first or even specific weapons. Like fighting games, the systems are the game. The story and campaign – as strong as they can be – are more like excuses to play and experiment with the systems.
DOOM’16 works the same. Weapons are handed out over time and the upgrade-based progression means that players become familiar with the base weapon before having access to its complexity – just like a character-action game. This applies to all the enemies as well: encounters focus on a few enemy types at a time then add new enemies over time, mixing scenarios over the course of the game until you’re battling against most of the cast at once.
But DOOM’16, by railroading the player down certain types of gameplay in exchange for upgrades so frequently, ends up keeping players at a distance. It keeps players shackled to its progression elements, following orders so they can actually get all the toys in the playset.
Games like DOOM’16 fascinate me from a design perspective. How developers resurrect a classic series and, successfully or not, create a new entry. Does it cater to almost exclusively new fans, like the reboot of Devil May Cry DmC? Or try to hit more of a middle-ground, like Mass Effect: Andromeda with its larger open-levels and overhauled combat (while still trying to keep the rest intact)?
What’s worth changing? Adding? Keeping?
It seems hard either way. There’s little room for growth or change, but the changes that are made need to be both meaningful and subtle, in a way that doesn’t interfere with the core appeal or formula.
At least from my view, a lot of it comes down to ‘tricking’ the older fans. Franchise revivals are almost always practices in exploiting nostalgia, and, for the most part, it’s about appealing to the exact nostalgic image in the fans’ heads. Trying to replicate that perfect image that’s lingered in their minds, polished by time, in full HD, with all its scars buffed out. It’s about isolating the fantasy that appeals to people, that people remember, the game that exists in their memory and nowhere else.
The recent Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy is an interesting one. A remake rather than a new entry, reviews still criticised the difficulty spikes and other problems that originally existed in the older games. It’s a product specifically made to exploit nostalgia and, for some people, that perfect HD image in their memory wasn’t what they ended up playing.
DOOM’16 is easily one of the better revivals, recreating the same core ‘fantasy’ of the originals – blood-splattered marathons of metal music and demon gore – with modern tastes and expectations. A sandbox of industrial-futurist weapons, ultraviolence, cult shenanigans and demon-killing in unsettling realism, just how I hoped it would be.
I just wish it’d take off the training wheels.
All images attributed to id Software, Bethesda Softworks.