There are a few reasons it took me three weeks to finish Doom Eternal, and not all of them are related to Doom Eternal, but then some of them are. This followup to id Software’s no-nonsense 2016 revamp of that most seminal first-person shooter franchise takes a more-is-more approach to building on the brutal elegance of its predecessor. That means more mobility, more demons, more weapon mods and upgrades, more resource management… The list could go on and on, and frankly it’s hard to think of a single aspect of Doom 2016 that hasn’t been absolutely red-lined in this sequel.
That kind of escalation is arguably appropriate for a franchise as over-the-top and self-awarely absurd as Doom, but there are just so many pistons and gears whirring away under the hood here that you sometimes start to feel them grinding against each other a little when the action heats up. But then, when all the machinery is humming along just right and everything works in harmony, Doom Eternal offers some of the most frantic and overwhelming shooter action in history.
The 2016 Doom reboot, or reimagining, or whatever you want to call it, left such a profound impression on me that I can’t help filtering my thoughts about Eternal through a direct comparison. The sequel picks back up with the same template–shoot demons to kill them, chainsaw them when you need ammo, rip them in half when you need health, double-jump and mantle away from them when you need breathing room–and then builds outward in every conceivable direction. There’s now a flamethrower that works for armor the way the chainsaw does for ammo. You get not one but two types of grenades, concussive and freeze, that you can rapidly toggle between. Your basic melee turns into an area-of-effect “blood punch” when you charge it up with enough of the health-yielding glory kills. All of these have meters and cooldowns to keep an eye on in the corners of the UI.
In addition, the two new elements that have the biggest impact on the flow of the combat are the double dash and the addition of weak points on heavier enemies that let you suppress their deadlier attacks. Much like the double jump, the dash lets you pop off two quick horizontal movements in any direction, on the ground or in the air, which has obvious implications for getting around the combat space quickly. And dealing with the weak points is crucial for threat management. Blowing off the mancubus‘ arm cannons or the back-mounted gun on the arachnotron, or shoving a sticky bomb down the gullet of a cacodemon, is an immediate priority whenever those enemies come on the scene, purely because of how dangerous those attacks are and how urgent it is to disable them as a result. Both of these are great ideas on paper that add to the variety of the action early on in the campaign (although the game does have a penchant for utilizing the air dash in occasional jumping puzzles that aren’t really its strong suit).
This full loadout of new and old abilities offers you an amazing range of tactical options in a heavy firefight, and in an ideal setting, such as the Slayer Gate challenge arenas that constitute the purest and most intense combat sequences in the game, they lead to a level of intensity that’s above and beyond possibly any other first-person shooter I’ve played. I honestly found myself short of breath at the end of a couple of the Slayer Gates, after 10 frantic minutes of feeling like I was just barely hanging on before finally eking out a victory. But at the speed Doom Eternal runs at, it can be easy to forget you have some of those abilities at your disposal, or lose track of which ones are off cooldown, when the game is forcing you to make one split-second decision after another. The dash is fantastic for getting you around an arena quickly, but you can also find yourself dashing back into a corner without meaning to and getting boxed in by enemies, or dashing into one of the many monkey bars scattered around the levels, accidentally diverting yourself midair. And quickly popping off those weak point shots becomes a matter of survival the more enemies the game throws at you, which can cause things to spin out of control rapidly when you miss more than a couple of times.
All this means that playing Doom Eternal felt like a series of highs and lows rather than the 20-plus-hour nonstop high I expected. At its best, the game is a breakneck, exhilarating, barely controllable dance of damage output, maneuvering, crowd control, and leapfrogging resource management, and it’s so much fun when everything is working sublimely that it’s all the more jarring when one aspect of it or another feels like it gets in the way. I suspect that some of this, especially the issue with weak points, comes down to the way I played Doom Eternal, which was on a PlayStation 4 Pro on Ultra-Violence (i.e. hard). That’s also how I played through Doom 2016, and I emerged from that experience confidently declaring it one of the best shooters ever made. So I felt I had to apply the same benchmark to Eternal, which in the last handful of hours felt tougher to play well on a controller than its predecessor. Analog sticks aren’t as well suited as a mouse to nailing the small moving targets (including literal headshots in a late-game boss fight) that you need to hit reliably to survive, and there are so many abilities and toggles mapped to face buttons that taking your thumbs off the sticks at the wrong time, and thus losing the ability to move or aim or both for even a split second, can be flat out deadly late in the game. That’s hardly to say Eternal is unplayable on consoles, but I just felt more at ease with the game’s specific mechanics and requirements in the hours I spent playing it on PC, even on Nightmare. Frankly I can admire the audacity of making a shooter so demanding that it almost feels like it requires a mouse at higher difficulties, and in hindsight that’s how I wish I’d played it, but at any rate it’s something to be aware of depending on your choice of platform.
That’s a lot of words about the pure combat experience of Doom Eternal, but there’s a ton of other stuff built around that core action. There’s now a hub area, which is a literal gothic-sci-fi castle floating in space, that you return to in between levels. This home base helps act as a wrapper for the game’s numerous upgrade systems, which initially look like a lot to take in but are really no more complex or unmanageable than those in Doom 2016. Weapon mods (which there are more of) can still be upgraded and then put through mastery challenges to unlock their ultimate forms. Passive upgrades, which fall into two categories, enhance your movement, various damage resistances, grenade attributes, and so forth. And the runes from the previous game also return as a sort of perk system, letting you equip three really meaningful bonuses at any one time from a pool of things like a last-stand chance to regain some health when you “die,” increased range on glory kills, and slowing down time when you use a weapon mod in the air. To the game’s credit, as punishing and sometimes irksome as I found some of the later levels, it did force me to reexamine the rune loadout I had settled into using for most of the game, and changing things up there made a big difference in how I got through a couple of the rougher spots.
It still seems improbable even now, but somehow Doom 2016 had a hilariously self-aware story–about the corporate exploitation of Hell and the Doom guy‘s ferocious dispensation of divine justice–that felt like it walked a fine line between being extremely serious and not remotely serious. The key to that balance was the overt disdain the player character himself displayed for everything going on around him, but here, the Doom guy is a more willing and eager participant in a much wider ranging story that features demon priests, spectral warrior kings, a fallen interdimensional empire, and an array of other elements that feels like it’s attempting to build up a quantity of elaborate, faux-Biblical lore. I did enjoy the game’s take on the clash between Heaven and Hell and its unusual conception of a celestial host pulling strings behind the scenes, but what felt like a wry commentary on man’s arrogance and greed in the first game has taken a backseat to straight up backstory here, an attempt to create something akin to a Doom cinematic universe which fills in some blanks from the previous game that I would have rather remained unfilled.
One way that Eternal certainly brings it just as strongly as the 2016 game did is in the sights and sounds. Where the previous game’s setting was pretty much limited to a generic sci-fi facility, the red sands of Mars, and a couple of expeditions into Hell, Doom Eternal sends you all over the place to multiple hotspots on the demon-occupied Earth, several locations in the interdimensional outworld, and deep into the bowels of Hell’s most insidious strongholds. Eternal’s art design feels like it recognizes and embraces its adolescent roots, and some of the late-game levels in particular offer some really gnarly, fire-and-brimstone depictions of infernal human suffering that land somewhere between Milton and Iron Maiden. The graphical fidelity is still top notch and the game still runs smooth as butter, even on consoles, and I have to give special credit to the location-specific damage tech in this game. Having enemies take damage exactly where you shoot them might seem like old hat these days, but Doom Eternal takes it to such an absurd degree that it really stands out when you peel big, meaty chunks of flesh off the bigger enemies with every blast of the super shotgun, and by the time you’re almost done with bruisers like the hell knight, they can half look like a bloody skeleton still chasing you around. Focusing on that kind of tech feels like another fun throwback to the days of shooter engine one-upmanship, when games like Soldier of Fortune II put that kind of thing right on the back of the box.
The previous Doom’s multiplayer options were perfunctory at best, and here Eternal improves significantly with the new Battlemode, a round-based, asymmetric two-on-one versus mode with two players taking control of a demon, including the mancubus, revenant, and arch-vile, and the third playing as the Doom marine with his full bag of tricks from the campaign. Each demon type has a range of unique special abilities (some of which let you spawn other heavy demons in), and the arena is also populated with plenty of AI fodder enemies, which means the Doom guy player can really have their hands full. And both sides get to choose from a handful of perks as the rounds progress that enhance certain abilities or change the flow of combat. I found Battlemode more engaging playing as the Doom marine, though it seems like the more time you spent with the demons the more you’d get a feel for using their abilities to really muck things up for the third player. Throwing a couple of human players into the enemy mix is a clever way to further intensify the game’s already complex and varied combat model, and I actually wouldn’t mind going back to Battlemode now and then, which is more than I could say for Doom 2016’s multiplayer.
One thing I can say without reservation about Doom Eternal is that it’s ambitious as hell. The devs at id weren’t content to just pop out a new set of levels with one new weapon and a couple of enemies (which, ironically, is how the original Doom II came about). Instead they included an enormous roster of new ideas both obvious and unexpected, and took these additions and enhancements to over-the-top extremes. Eternal may not have quite the same purity of focus as its predecessor, but it’s so relentless about throwing everything in its toolbox at you at a thousand miles an hour that it’s often hard to stop and notice.