Available on Xbox One, PS4, PC (version reviewed)
Call it a comeback. Doom isn’t just the best it's been in nearly two decades, but the best single-player campaign from id Software since Quake II. It isn't flawless, groundbreaking or original by any stretch, but it’s smart, relentless and furiously exciting. It’s almost everything fans have been wanting from a sequel since the glory days of Doom II.
Like the less brilliant Doom 3, this is pretty much a reworking of the original, though with elements that hark back to the 1993 classic. You’re on Mars, somebody has opened a doorway to Hell, so now you're against the whole demonic army. Where id might once have wasted time with the setup, this time it just throws you in the action straight away. You’ll be blasting hellspawn within seconds of the game opening, and from there on in it’s action all the way.
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The new Doom has an intriguing back story and a great line in humour – take time to listen to the company announcements as you wander around the UAC’s facilities – but if you just want to get on with shooting demons in the face, it’s not going to waste your time. It’s kill or be killed in a gruesome fashion – that’s all you really need to understand.
This is an action game rather than a horror game, but id hasn’t stinted on the gore. The maps update Doom’s mix of Alien-style sci-fi and Clive Barker/Cronenberg body horror for the modern age, mixing flesh, bone and metal in all sorts of hideous configurations. If the Martian levels are streaked and splattered crimson, those in Hell are practically swimming with blood, while your enemies exist to be transformed into chunks of dripping meat.
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And so they will be, and not just because it looks cool, but because it makes good sense. id’s biggest and most controversial change to Doom’s classic mechanics is the glory kill; a melee finishing move that regularly sees one part ripped from a near-dead demon and shoved through whatever bits remain. Pulling one off on the glowing monstrosity results in a shower of health and sometimes ammo, and the bigger the bruiser, the more you get.
This one addition radically changes the combat. On the one hand, we’re back to the good old days of tackling large numbers of enemies en-masse, strafing and circle-strafing to blast away while dodging incoming fire. Keep moving, keep shooting, don’t get backed into a corner. There’s no cover system or recharging health, just medkits and the by-products of your slaughter, so you really need to work quickly to survive. On the other hand, the glory kills encourage a more aggressive, up-close style of combat. Often you’ll find yourself on your last legs, facing a handful of double-hard demon brutes. Keep your nerve and dish out the final blow to one, and you might just get enough health to slay the rest.
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Weapons, meanwhile, now get a progression system and additional modes of fire. Squeeze the left-trigger while firing the old pistol, for example, and you can charge and fire a super-powered shot. Do the same with the combat shotgun, and you get an exploding projectile to dish out. You unlock these modes using floating weapons droids, picking from a pair of branching upgrade lines for each gun. You’ll then earn extra combat upgrade points while fighting, to be splashed out on new tweaks and enhancements for your kit. There’s a similar system for your armour, powered up through tags collected from the Demon-battered bodies of elite base guards. There’s even a system in place to upgrade your maximum health, armour and ammo, through little orbs of Hell-produced argent energy.
These RPG trappings don’t impinge on the near-constant demon slaughter, while other additions like collectible story fragments smack of a game with a head for modern trends but both feet stuck firmly in the past. Ditto for the new jumping, double-jumping and up and over moves, which lead to sections that go a little too big on platforming.
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What’s more important is the stuff this Doom gets right. The action, for example, is unlike anything we’ve played in years. There’s barely time to breathe as you take on ever-growing hordes of Hell’s nastiest in ever-trickier combinations. Movement is fast and fluid, targeting precise and rapid, and the enemy AI hits a nice balance, with numerous but dumb grunts mixed with devilish, fast-moving, wall-crawling, fireball-throwing imps, before id starts throwing in the big guns.
All of your favourites are in here somewhere along with new ones, and part of the pleasure of playing the new Doom is seeing how the old pinkies, tomatoes and bloaters will be re-introduced and re-imagined. Doom knows that it thrives on this kind of nostalgia, reflected in everything from the weapons – even better than you remember them – to the thrash and industrial soundtrack to the satanic decor scattered around its levels. I cheered when I found the chainsaw, hurrahed at the sight of my first pinky, grinned from ear-to-ear when the BFG appeared.
Doom is great at pushing the right buttons, and it’s great at ramping up the intensity, hitting you with wave after wave of baddies, pushing you through ever more fiendish gauntlets, then – just when you think it’s all – smacking you with a one-two of Hell Knights and Cacodemons. At its best, it’s just exhilarating.
One thing Doom lacks is id’s old ‘wow factor’. With John Carmack at the helm, the studio has tended to release titles that were astounding technical showcases as well as fantastic games. Think of Wolfenstein’s and Doom’s pioneering use of 3D texture-mapping, Quake’s mastery of full 3D polygonal graphics, Quake III’s cutting-edge effects and Rage’s high-resolution megatextures. Doom 2016 looks great but never jaw-dropping. It’s no Uncharted 4 or Quantum Break in this regard.
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It’s biggest problem, though, is a lack of invention in the level design. Here, Doom scores high for classic Doom stuff, like big monster rumbles, key-locations exploration, secret areas, brutal power-ups and sudden monster spawns, but the latter grow too predictable too quickly, and there’s a really heavy reliance on extended fights against waves of enemies.
In some cases, Doom will lock you in a room then refuse to open the doors until you’ve killed every monster. In others, you have to activate what’s charmingly known as a Gore Nest, blasting the monsters as they show up until the Gore Nest disappears. For a long while, these encounters are thrilling, as the game throws in new monsters, more monsters, and new combinations of monsters. Nine or ten hours in, though, you begin to suspect that the designers have run out of new ideas, and that you’re just going to get more and more monsters until the game reaches its end. If so, you’re right.
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Take my advice: enjoy the campaign one or two levels at a time. Doom is a repetitive game, there’s some spectacular scenery but not that much variety, and it’s not a game for huge binges of play. Play it in a series of sessions and you won’t get dragged down by the repeated elements, and you’ll be left with scrap after frantic scrap against one of gaming’s greatest monster rosters. What’s not to love? Well, the map. You will get lost in some of Doom’s labyrinthine levels, and while I generally think that’s part of the fun, it’s also very irritating when the map doesn’t clarify that there’s a gate across a seemingly open corridor, or that area A is not accessible from the adjacent Area B.
The multiplayer might be a bit more controversial. It’s not short of tightly-designed maps or modes, but the sci-fi armour and futuristic industrial settings give it a slightly generic feel. In fact, the punchy nature of the team-based action kept reminding me of Halo 4 and Halo 5. The modes are effectively variations of old Doom/Quake favourites or hits from other games, with Team Deathmatch self-explanatory, Domination a control-point mode, Soul Harvest a riff on CoD’s Kill Confirmed and Clan Arena a Team Elimination effort. Warpath is basically King of the Hill. The most interesting mode is Freeze Tag, a mode where killing freezes enemies in place, where they can still be revived by quick-witted comrades before you get a chance to freeze the whole team. It’s a lot of fun, yet it’s weirdly hard to find a running game.
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Luckily, Doom does bring some of its own identity to the table. For instance, power-ups, health and ammo still play a crucial part, with a new Demon Rune that transforms players into one of the game’s more malevolent beasties, giving you the chance to rain carnage on the enemy as a Revenant or a Baron of Hell. The weapons, too, are classic Doom – with a few Quake classics thrown in - and when you combine that with the speed of movement you have a fine quickfire, shoot first, worry later game. In fact, after an hour or so of playing I was firmly back in the old Quake zone, working out optimal routes around the maps and trying to gain the edge from each little skirmish, picking off close kills with the super shotgun and long-range shots with the multiplayer-only burst rifle. It’s not going to change your world, but Doom multiplayer has what it takes to gain traction on the e-Sport scene and – more importantly – is a lot of fun.
Yet id isn’t done with the good stuff yet. Remember the .WAD scene of the nineties, where up-and-coming level designers used some pretty tricky tools to fashion levels and share them over the Web? Well, that's back. The new SnapMap is both a level editor and a repository for user-created content, covering single-player, competitive and co-op play plus some fun play as the demon scenarios. The tools are surprisingly easy to use, enabling you to work with basic templates then snap on new themed corridors and halls as you see fit, then either placing monsters, weapons, power-ups and exploding stuff within them, or using generators to dish out the hellspawn. It’s early days, but it’s already clear that you can produce good stuff, with id’s designers already leading the way with some fun little samples. If SnapMap takes off, it could give the new Doom a longevity that its campaign and multiplayer alone wouldn’t guarantee.
So, this is a comeback. It’s not the kind of comeback that you get where a great band come back from the nowhere to release the album of their career, or a movie star returns from years of crap to pull out a potential Oscar-winner. No, this is more one of those situations where the reformed band puts out a record good enough to remind you why they became legends, or the star seems to have rediscovered the charisma that once made them a box-office draw. I’m not complaining: this is more than good enough. iD didn’t have to make a genre-defining masterpiece - it’s done that twice already - but it’s made a Doom that fans can believe in.
This is the Doom you’ve been waiting for, packed with gruesome, unrelenting action, gore and one of the finest monster menageries in gaming. The reliance on staged arena battles makes for a slightly repetitive campaign, but it’s enormous fun in its own brutal way. Throw in a set of solid multiplayer modes and the intriguing SnapMap option, and you have a Doom that’s good enough to restore your faith.