DOOM Eternal Review
Updated: May 7
Since its very first entry, the Doom series has been about reinvention. With the first game, it was about reinventing video games themselves. The original's popularity inspired wells of video game creatives to give players more first-person 3D shooting action, leading to the first-person shooter genre we know today. Not only that, but Quake, the often forgotten sibling of the Doom franchise was arguably even more influential in showing the genre's multiplayer potential. Fast-forward a bit, and Doom III and Doom 2016 showed that long-running gaming franchises could still reinvent themselves. Doom's significance in the annals of video game history has been eternal. It's fitting, then, that 2020's entry into the series isn't just a sequel to 2016's much-loved reboot but a tribute to Doom's past, present, and potential future.
Having only played the demo of Doom 2016, and thinking at the time that I had experienced everything it had to offer in its first half-hour or so, I gave the game a miss. Doom 64 and Quake II were the first shooters I ever played, and while 2016 certainly felt familiar, something missed the mark. I adored the brutal executions, the power behind each weapon, and the gruesome licks of paint that had been given to the now HD demons. At the time, however, that seemed as far as the reboot had gone in bringing the franchise forward. As far as I could tell, the game was just blindingly taking swings for the fences and connecting with nothing. Eternal, on the other hand, hit nothing but home runs from the word go.
Doom Eternal drips with nostalgia. There is something so innately "Doom" about seeing ammo drops, health pick-ups, and 1-ups that garishly stick out from gothic levels because of their fluorescent colouring. Picking them up is a different step down memory lane. The sounds of Doom 64 and Quake II will forever be engrained in my mind. Nothing else feels similar to running over a piece of armour on the ground and hearing what could easily be the tin man from the Wizard of Oz crunching down on his oil can. Eternal feels like Doom because it isn't afraid to be innately nostalgic instead of being a grown-up reinvention of itself, which I think many would agree, is something the series has been trying to do for far too long now.
As a sequel, though, Eternal does have to carry on from 2016's story. iD Software, the long-standing developer behind Doom, made the choice to explore their protagonist in a bit more depth this time. It isn't exactly a deep-dive into Doom Marine's thoughts and feelings, but Eternal does certainly provide fans with more context as to who's been ripping and tearing all these years.
In a nutshell, Doom Marine has been missing since his escapades in 2016. While demons invade the earth and Samuel Hayden's resistance force fails to push them back, Doom Guy gathers some of his belongings from his fortress in space and begins his conquest to hunt down the hell priests. At times, the player's knowledge of Doom lore is a little too assumed. I highly doubt newcomers and to a certain extent, long-time fans will understand some of the nods and winks Eternal makes to link up the franchise as a whole.
Luckily, the story isn't ever intrusive, and it's enough to keep the action moving without ever over-estimating its importance to the game. I'd say the game's final acts drag on a little too long towards the end, but more on that later. Honestly, the best thing about Doom Eternal's storytelling is that the Slayer is frequently built up as a prophesied harbinger of death and destruction. Hearing it said over and over that you are an unstoppable force and that demons fear you really helps to make you feel all-powerful when you're cleaving demons in twain. But then again, that feeling of power is nothing new to these games.
Where Eternal has reinvented the franchise, though, is in its gameplay design. Classic Doom games were always about constant forward movement and shooting a load of bottle-necked enemies. As Quake evolved, the emphasis shifted into large, inventive arenas, and this is where Eternal really shines. It places the player in beautifully thought-out arenas that are only improved due to their placement in their larger levels. Gross 90s wall patterns from the Dooms of my childhood gave way to glorious hellscapes that Eternal's levels frequently show you, and they constantly serve as a scenic backdrop to the gruesome combat you take part in.
From the beginning of the game, I laughed at its high intensity. Scoffing at how frazzled your brain is because you're juggling 80 demons at once is a frequent knee-jerk reaction during the game's opening hours. What's truly remarkable about Doom Eternal is how well it teaches the player to thrive in these overwhelming situations. Very quickly, and equally surprisingly, you'll go from asking yourself "How on MARS am I supposed to deal with this many enemies?" to asking "How did I change weapons so quickly and dispatch all of those demons without taking a scratch?" Eternal's mantra is: overwhelm the player, then double the intensity as soon as they have successfully overcome it. Nowhere else is this more apparent than when you've just faced your first Doom Hunter. Its shown to you like any game would show you a new boss; an arena of its own, plenty of grunts alongside it, and cutscene to introduce it. When you finally make it eat its own elbow (literally), the game immediately gives you two more of them to fight AT ONCE. It may seem like a step too far in the direction of difficulty, but you'll continually surprise yourself with how well you'll be able to roll the punches, and how accepting you'll be of bosses who become normal enemies. It's astoundingly clever, and it's all down to how brilliantly iD teaches you to play the game.
You'll get new weapons pretty much the entire way through the new Doom. The player doesn't fully collect their arsenal until it's almost the end. For the most part, I feel like introducing new gameplay elements very late in a game is a bad idea. It's a bit like adding a new point to the conclusion of an essay - if you haven't had time to build it in earlier on, it's going to seem like an under-developed afterthought that you wish you had brought in sooner. Somehow, though, iD manages to pull this off. It must be because their inventory and enemy design are so intertwined.
There are over ten weapons in Eternal, and each of them will serve a different purpose to you when you're in combat against its 26 possible enemy types. Your plasma rifle might be the best way to go about killing a Whiplash, but you'll probably want to change to a super shotgun to fight a Marauder, before switching to a rocket launcher to separate a Mancubus from its spine. I saw uses for almost every weapon because chances were, if I found a certain enemy difficult, I wasn't using the right weapon.
That doesn't even consider Eternal's core gameplay loop. Will you perform an execution on a flashing demon in order to up your health supply? Will you chainsaw a fodder enemy to refill your ammo? Or will you flame belch a heavy enemy to bolster your armour? All three are extremely necessary actions that you'll need to do multiple times in one fight. In the early hours, you might struggle to put the pieces of Doom's inventory puzzle together but once you become fluent in its language you will feel like death incarnate. It really is a genius gameplay loop that I've not seen in any other first-person shooter to date. It provides so much meaning to every action you perform during the roughly 15-hour runtime.
Unfortunately, I found that this brilliance came at a cost in the late-game. Whatever thoughtfulness went into designing arenas in the first two-thirds of the game almost disappeared entirely in the final act. I got the impression that the incredible folks at iD knew exactly how good they were at teaching the player to Slay. To me, it seemed like they struggled to keep up the sense of overwhelming stress that the player experiences earlier on in the game. To be clear, it's not as if it gets easier the more you play. Becoming fluent in the game's systems and mechanics just starts to be so freeing and cathartic that it can, at times, feel like a therapeutic experience. Fighting hundreds of waves of demons becomes "normal" and eventually feels far removed from the stress-inducing battles of the opening hours.
iD's answer to this problem is to take away your breathing space. They shut you in increasingly claustrophobic areas with enemies that will block you in, knock you into stage hazards, and otherwise suffocate you with no room to collect yourself. It isn't something you've been taught to deal with from the opening stages, so it becomes very noticeable, and it doesn't add the cleverly balanced challenge that you're used to at 10 hours in. It feels like a cheap and inconsistent way to keep things challenging.
Arguably, the problem here is that the game is just too long. That's not a usual complaint, because surely the longer you get out of a game, the more value for money you're getting from your purchase. I wish this was the case here, but Eternal just feels like it doesn't know how to end. Receiving the "This is your last chance to upgrade before the endgame" warning a whopping five levels before the real endgame sums this up perfectly. I can't help but feel that if the game had been two, or even three levels shorter, it wouldn't have left a sour taste in my mouth by the end.
Eternal could have trimmed the fat in other places, too. Doom Guy has many ways he can upgrade. In fact, I'd say he has too many. One type of upgrade point will allow you to unlock new alternate fire modes for your weapons, then upgrade those individual alternate fire modes afterward. Another type of upgrade point will allow you to upgrade the elements of your suit. A collectible crystal in each level will unlock certain perks that build up your health, ammo stocks, or armour capabilities. Another type of upgrade point gives you unlocked enhancements to the Slayer's abilities, of which, you can choose three at any one time. It's all just a bit much, and most of the upgrades end up feeling like they don't add anything to your already deep arsenal of powerful weapons and abilities.
Moreover, Eternal gives you something that's seldom seen in video games these days - a hub world. Although, like with machine games' Uboat in the similarly nostalgic Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, iD didn't add any purpose to this new hub world other than for it to serve as a convenient plot point, and to allow the player to spend their sentinel batteries (yes, that is ANOTHER collectible upgrade system). It's nice to see a hub world again, but the whole reason those died out in the first place was for not serving a real purpose. Sure, you could go into the Fortress of Doom's training arena, but the main levels give you ample opportunity to try new weapons, come to terms with new enemies, and otherwise improve your skills. Eternal could definitely do with some cutting in places to really make the whole experience more focused.
To sum up, Doom Eternal is a perfect tribute to one of the most important first-person shooter franchises in video game history. It creates a gameplay loop that's so inspired that it feels totally different from anything that's come before it. Learning Doom's intense gameplay systems and mechanics is cathartic, therapeutic, and downright fun. iD Software has done a magnificent job of designing a game that teaches the player how to thrive in overwhelming scenarios. With some trimming, Eternal could have been so much more focused, but unfortunately, there's a level, an upgrade tree, a weapon, and a plot point too many for it not to outstay its welcome. Despite that, it's still a magnificent single-player shooter experience that shouldn't be judged by its cover - there is definitely more to this game than feeding demons their own hearts.
Played on PlayStation 4, self-purchased copy.
Images captured via PS4
Image Credits: Doom Eternal - iD Software, Bethesda