Edit: Since writing this article, it actually looks a lot better than I thought, so maybe I shouldn't have been quite as scathing. We'll just have to wait and see... ;)
Edit2: Well I am pleasantly surprised! The new Doom is out now and it's great, and almost everything I hoped it to be, in fact I can't stop playing it. Well done id!
Hurt me plenty
When Doom was released in 1993 it was leaps and bounds ahead of anything else. It was nothing short of stunning. I remember opening the double page spread on Doom in PC Gamer - littered with its mind blowing visuals - and my head may as well have exploded. But is the concept of Doom 4 redundant? I watched the E3 footage recently, and while it was great, I wasn't utterly engaged with it. What really is the point of Doom 4? Don’t get me wrong, I'm stoked for it, and will buy it, but I'm having trouble determining its purpose and therefore justifying its development.
The original Doom popularised the first person shooter, and essentially invented the genre as we know it today. First person games prior to it, didn't even come close to the impact Doom had. Not even iD Software’s previous first person outing, Wolfenstein 3D, had the same effect that Doom had on the gaming community. But Doom didn't just popularise the first person shooter, it was a whole generation ahead in other aspects too. For starters, it looked incredible. For reference, go and compare any of the other games around in 1993, nothing even comes close. Secondly, Doom helped to greatly popularise multiplayer: versus other players and co-operatively, both locally and via modem. Along with this it popularised much of the terminology we use in multiplayer like ‘Deathmatch’ and ‘Frag’. And in the years after Doom was released the modding community went to town on it. iD's open attitude to modding and distribution, combined with Doom’s open and moddable system (and of course its immense popularity) saw the development of some incredible and feature-rich mods. The Aliens TC (total conversion) is a notable one; not only did it swap out all environments, weapons, sounds and enemies, but major overhauls to the game’s mechanics and design were done too. And mods for Doom are still being made even today, Brutal Doom being a prime example.
All of these incredible extras were on top of what was already a well-polished game: one that flowed well; one with interesting and challenging game and level design; one that gave good feedback to the player; and one that was pretty much bug free.
Enter Doom 4 then (in fact they’ve actually just called it Doom, but to avoid confusion I’ll call it Doom 4). What does Doom 4 bring us that we haven’t seen before? What will it popularise like no other game before it? Of course it doesn’t have to do either of these things to be successful, or even good. However, after watching the singleplayer footage, I do hope it is something more than just a nostalgia trip with better graphics. And as for nostalgia, it’s clear the developers have made every effort to recapture that. The familiar cock of the shotgun, the metallic yawn of the blast doors opening, a glimpse of the classic green marine helmet and even some of the original music played in full metal glory.
I suspect the nostalgia trip has another purpose however. Part of the complaints that were made against Doom 3 were the fact that it departed from the ‘run and gun as many demons as possible’, to a much more protracted, slower pace, that was much more horror than it was action. Areas were made up of very few enemies that gave it a ‘boogie monster in the closet’ feel. This was partly due to the technical constraints of the engine, the dynamic lighting and graphics advances were so new and complex that using more than one dynamic light within a room meant the game took a major hit in performance. Hence, using multiple animated enemies that also used the new normal mapping techniques as part of their textures was very difficult, and the design changed to accommodate this. Doom 4 then, looks set to appease its fans with the same style of gameplay as the first two titles, and that’s not a bad thing really.
Listening to the crowd at E3, it was clear what made them happy. It was of course those moments of nostalgia (the chainsaw scenes were a high point too) but they also loved some of the new mechanics. Doom has been known for melee attacks, especially in combination with the berserk powerup, but I wouldn’t say it was its trademark (with the possible exception of the chainsaw if we’re going to get pedantic about our interpretation of melee). Doom 4’s footage however, shows our gutsy marine barrelling in to Imps, ripping off limbs and punching their heads off with much more frequency than he would have in the original. This is quite possibly inspired by Brutal Doom, the recent mod for the original, and if so, it’s a wise move. Brutal Doom injected new life in to the classic original and it almost feels as if this is the way that iD always wanted Doom to be.
That said, the space in between the nostalgia and the gruesome melee felt very run-of-the-mill and the audience’s reaction reflected this. There wasn’t really much else to engage or interest me. It could have been any other first person shooter. Shoot monster with shotgun, shoot another, pick up new weapon, use that to shoot bigger monster, continue on. Admittedly when I actually get round to playing Doom 4 then it may feel a lot better than that, but I can’t escape the feeling that it may be a bit bland. A great game doesn’t necessarily have to do something new for it to be fun, but I’m hoping that iD aren’t just relying on the fact that this is Doom and, well everybody wants to play Doom, right?
Here’s the test for me, and it’s something I like to think about whenever I’m presented with a game that is partly relying on a licence, an established franchise or even a straight sequel. Any game where the audience’s expectation of it could be skewed by their previous experience of its prequel or related content.
Imagine if we were to strip away all of the ‘Doom’ from Doom 4. Take out the familiar weapons, monsters, sounds, environmental art style (hell, even the plot about, well... Hell) and replace them with something else, something the player wouldn’t recognise as part of the Doom universe. Now imagine what the game would be like. Fun? Fresh? Engaging? Maybe, maybe not. Obviously I’m hoping for the former. We could also apply this same test to any game that relies on graphics as its main strong point. However, it should be pointed out that great graphics (despite the age-old theory that great graphics don’t make great games) do play a large part in our immersion and therefore our enjoyment of a particular game. This is generally dependent on the game in question and on graphical style though. That same positive attitude could also be applied to these elements of nostalgia that iD Software are clearly exploiting, I just hope they aren’t just relying on nostalgia.
This all may sound a bit scathing, and I don’t want to sound entirely negative about Doom 4, especially given that I haven’t actually played it and my reactions are based on gameplay videos. If Doom 4 does win me over though, how would it accomplish that? In short, with great feel, feedback and flow.
Feel and feedback are closely linked. Feel is the perfect marriage of animation, sound and timing that makes me feel connected to the game. In a first person shooter this is predominantly linked to weapons. The way the bullet sounds as the trigger is pulled and the subsequent recoil of the weapon, expertly timed; the speed and motion of the player in movement; the sway of the weapon and its sense of weight. All of these contribute to how the game makes me feel. In short, it is the expert timing of everything the player actually does or has control of. Feedback is the reaction of the elements I’m interacting with. The way that enemies twist and writhe backwards in the appropriate body position with the force of projectiles; the way the environment reacts to player actions (such as barrel explosions and the subsequent destruction they cause); the post process effects such as screen shake to simulate vibration. With good feedback, modern real-time physics systems play a crucial role.
Both feel and feedback should be expertly polished and timed. Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo are masters of this concept. During the development of Mario 64 they used what they call the ‘Mario garden’ to prototype movement for Mario. They spent months fine tuning Mario’s movement. Consider a simple jump action in Mario 64. Everything from the moment a button is pressed till the end of the animation is expertly timed to make it feel responsive and satisfying. The delay after the button is pressed; the height, length and arc of the jump; the landing; the sounds made and the reaction of Mario’s body in flight. And all this is done before any levels are put in place. Brutal Doom managed this concept very well. The new chaingun for example, was much more satisfying to me than the vanilla version for a number of very simple reasons. The screen shake, the dramatic muzzle flash, the sound and speed that makes it seem so much more powerful, the barrage of ricochets and holes it produced in the walls. Then there are also the enemies: the sound as the bullets hit them, their physical reactions, the way the blood spews from their bodies and how they are occasionally torn to pieces. That may sound a little gung-ho, and maybe a little bit like an NRA member’s wet dream. But admittedly, great care with timing, animation and sound in these elements make a first person shooter immensely satisfying.
Good flow in a game is something I think level design is largely responsible for. It’s the pacing that a player feels moving through an environment, the mix of high intensity situations with low intensity (or potentially quiet, ominous ones). It’s the number of enemies and how frequently they appear. It’s the physical spaces you move through and the pace at which you move through them, from wide open halls and arenas to claustrophobic corridors. It’s about maintaining a certain momentum and letting it ebb and flow within the context of the design. It can be the speed at which an average player would solve a particular puzzle. Some may be short reactionary puzzles (e.g. physical hazards) and others may be deliberately more drawn out, methodical and cerebral (e.g. locked doors or vaults). In general, flow refers to keeping the player interested and engaged with the environment, and having them keep an appropriate pace and momentum within the context of the game.
It’s these elements that, if Doom 4 gets right, then I’ll be pleased. And it may well do all of these things. The gameplay footage at the end of the E3 announcement - the part that was set in hell - did look more fun than the opening gameplay. And this may be due to the fact that the footage at the start was taken from near the start of the game, where it would naturally have a slower pace. They also announced the 'Snapmap' feature, which is iD's way of continuing their support of modding. It looks like an accessible way to create new content for Doom 4 and would allow for some interesting, community-led gameplay and lasting playability. However, I can’t really make a judgement on Doom 4 until I play it which, according to Bethesda, will be early 2016. So until then, I’ll just have to hold my breath.