Doom: the Poor Man’s Doom

Maybe poor isn’t the right word — maybe it’s more like “cheap”, seeing as last year’s acclaimed reboot was only twenty bucks during the holiday season. However, my personal budget was already drained by gifts and other extravagances I had, at the time, deemed more worthy. I’ve been wanting to experience the new Doom game ever since it came out, when everyone’s jaw simultaneously dropped to the floor because they couldn’t believe a modern, triple-A FPS could be so wholesomely fun. This isn’t such a bad thing, however, because I have since rediscovered the classic which preceded 2016’s blockbuster.

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More specifically, I’ve spent the past week playing GZDoom, which provides a new suite of graphics and gameplay enhancements to the original, freshening up the experience with some crisp visuals and more convenient controls, as well as a mod that updates the soundtrack to a high definition, instrumental iteration, the Doom Metal Soundtrack Mod. These enhancements transform what might have been a session playing through a classic, but nonetheless poorly aged gem into an engaging, atmospheric experience.

What this older title has going for it, more than anything else, is the timeless appeal of its presentation, which blossoms from its unique visual concept. Doom’s overall theme is remarkably unique if you sit for a moment and consider it. Sure, space marines were already a well explored niche before Id Software’s creation hit store shelves, as were demonic-themed games and movies. But like many popular franchises, it is the execution, or perhaps combination, of existing genres that can crank out a fresh and exciting product. Nerds can list a number of games, comics, movies, cartoons, etc. that revolve around space soldiers, or monsters from the fiery abyss: Diablo, Halo, Super Troopers, Warhammer 40k, and any number of sci-fi or horror media. But ask us to name a game about fighting demons in outer space, and the first, and pretty much only thing, that comes to mind is Doom.

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The 80’s-90’s subgenre of sci-fi is one of my favorite aesthetics. Bulky, blocky pieces of computers and hardware that span the walls and ceilings of entire installations, and sterile, monotonous rooms and corridors — the spaces presented by this specific archetype are as bizarre and alien as they are delightfully retro, and present a frontier that is not only nostalgic but also mystically foreign. The technology and attire are also similarly appealing, clothing being generally simple in design, and equipment and weapons appearing cumbersome and overly sophisticated, much like the technology of the era they were conceived in. Many popular pieces of fiction owe their charm to the old-school sci-fi style. Legends such as Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey come to mind in particular, but Doom’s take is considerably more gritty, dark and industrial, and more akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Doom takes the retro-science fiction theme and smashes it together with an oppressively satanic palette: desolate corpse-strewn locales haunted by the not-so-distant roars of predatory horrors. Each level of Doom oozes atmosphere, and as you progress further into the infested galactic bases, it becomes more and more difficult to discern where the corporate-military facade ends and the demonic corruption begins. Darkened computer rooms and quiet vistas overlooking abandoned facilities suddenly give way to archaic, sinister dungeons and lairs, and though Doom’s story is sparse (and unapologetically ridiculous when it does show up), much of the narrative exists in the spaces you must explore and fight in.

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But Doom wasn’t so wildly successful when it launched because of its thematic appeal. The gameplay is simple, tight, and addictive, a spinning dance of rapid strafing in and out of cover as you pop off shots at aggressively approaching terrors. Each level features an almost maze-like layout, and to reach the exit and progress further, the player must explore each nook and cranny for keycards to locked doors, in addition to health, armor and ammo pickups. The latter items are just as essential as the keys, as the rooms and narrow passages are littered with scores of nasties who will relentlessly shoot, bite, claw and chase you the moment they spot you. The enemies of Doom are remarkably intimidating and exciting to fight, and not just because of their superbly creepy sound design and wicked appearances, but because of the inherent sense of danger they instill. Each improperly timed dodge or hesitation of your trigger finger can eat up significant portions of your health and armor, and even a couple of enemies can spell death if you aren’t prepared. Ammo and health pickups are often a relief, and you’ll rarely be at maximum capacity for either, especially in later levels.

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This title is certainly an action packed shooter, and wickedly fast paced, but the experience is made sweeter by the horror trappings the game devs have smoothly mixed into the gunplay. You can’t really tell where the enemies are until you round a corner or open the next door, but you usually hear them before you see them. This tension builds up at the start of every level and in between skirmishes as you hear the unholy groans of the bases’ abominations, and explodes the moment the player and the enemies spot one another, ending in a bloody spectacle of gun flares and unrepentant violence. The game utilizes these build-ups between fights, and likes to give the players many unpleasant surprises. Often times, this is through use of darkness and poor lighting, inspiring dread in its players as they are suddenly cut off from clear view of the shrieking horrors seeking to kill them.  Some levels are especially guilty of this, and I recall more than a couple occasions when Doom suddenly shut off the lights and forced me to navigate nearly blind amidst the ambient growls of my hunters, sometimes for several minutes at a time. Doom is truly a horror game, not only thematically, but through its tense and occasionally terrifying gameplay elements.

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The game also makes for a deeply engrossing coop experience. If you can get a local server up, there’s lots of fun to be had running around the possessed moonbases with your buddies, shooting the big bads and occasionally getting creamed by a cyberdemon. If you’re thinking about replaying Doom on your PC (or if you’re booting it up for the very first time — lucky you!), I again heavily recommend you get GZDoom and seek out the heavy metal music mod; it really amps up the intense atmosphere of this mesmerizing experience. Also, I’ve been messing around with the wonderful Brutal Doom mod, and while that deserves an entire article of its own, much of the things I’ve said about Doom doubly apply to Brutal Doom: its a darkly enchanting horror-action romp in a refreshingly retro sci-fi setting, although I can’t say for sure which I enjoy better.

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