Doom is old enough to buy alcohol. It’s as old to us now as Pong was to it on its 1993 release. Its contribution to the world of video games can’t be overstated. Doom popularised the first-person shooter genre, which now holds undisputed commercial dominance over the medium. It similarly popularised and honed multiplayer gaming, the core mechanics of which are maintained to this day. And it formed the foundation for id Software, whose games and game engines would form the backbone of the game industry for decades.
Through the late ‘90s, Doom got supplanted in id’s development priorities by Quake; 2003’s Doom 3 was met with praise more for its graphics engine than for its gameplay, which stagnated where the likes of Half-Life had innovated. The disastrous 2005 release of the franchise’s big-screen adaptation* all but killed the series. Now, when you say its name, all the kids think of is the increasingly popular Dhoom series of Bollywood films.
Now we’re facing the imminent release of a beta of a new Doom, entitled DOOM (in all-caps), which will piggyback onto a new instalment in another age-old id property, Wolfenstein: New Order. We don’t know much about it. We know it’s ditching numbers, colons and subtitles like Tomb Raider, Thief, and Star Trek, in an attempt to seem fresh and new. We know it’ll look great, likely building on the foundation of Rage’s id Tech 5 engine. We know it’s had a torturous path getting here: when the game was first announced nearly six years ago, it was called Doom 4. Who knows what further changes the title will undergo in the future?
Hulk capitals aside, the game itself has been torn up and restarted several times in its journey through - appropriately - development hell. DOOM will be the first in the series developed largely without the input of creator John Carmack, who left id last year to change the world with VR pioneers Oculus. This is an id Software lacking focus: its divisive Rage demonstrated that a pretty graphics engine and shooting does not cut it these days. Worse, that game struggled to stake out its own niche, trapped in between classic shooter gameplay and more open, RPG-like gameplay.
So what can a new Doom actually do for us? The franchise did its innovating and made its contributions twenty years ago. The first-person shooter has evolved from the cacophonous pixelly mayhem of 1993 into a range of sleek, often complex beasts like Battlefield and Titanfall. What can set a new Doom apart in 2014? What makes it worth reviving?
Is it the shooting? Doom did, after all, bring first-person shooting to the masses. Many of the paradigms it introduced - the pistol/shotgun/machine gun/rocket launcher armoury, the power ups, the scores of monsters - are still in play today. But there’s a certain antiquity to the pacing and rhythms of Doom combat. Even Doom 3 was a conscious move away from its frantic origins, in favour of a more story- and horror-driven experience. Throwbacks exist, like Serious Sam or Pain Killer, but those games consciously buck the overwhelming trend towards storytelling, tactics and complexity. Should the series progress further along that path, adding more non-combat interactivity and scripted sequences, or maybe even character customisation? Or does that push it too far towards Call of Duty, as a scrapped Doom 4 project demonstrated? Conversely, can an old-school shooter compete in today’s market?
Is it the horror? I would contend that Doom didn't become a horror series properly until Doom 3, where it finally gained a graphics engine capable of creating dark, claustrophobic environments. Sure, hellish imagery was pervasive in the classic games. There was a palpable sense of death’s imminency, but that came predominantly from the sheer density of its imaginatively-designed monsters. They were everywhere! They weren’t, however, scary; the experience is more frenzied panic than actual fear. I do think the grandiose Hell-on-Earth (or Mars) element in Doom has legs, but it has to focus on the large scale horror of its concept. It’s not enough to be menaced by a few monsters - any number of games accomplish that. DOOM needs to feel like the floodgates have opened and the collective souls of humanity are, well, doomed. Your emotional response should be one of primal despair as you fruitlessly carve your way through Hellspawn in pursuit of a victory that may or may not exist. It needs the kind of imagery that would make Rust Cohle snap.
Is it the name recognition? This, I fear, is what this release boils down to. Having no new Doom out is like having no new James Bond movies, or no new Prince albums. It’s a mainstay of the medium it helped shape. A new game in the series should hit like a ton of bricks, demonstrating how shooters are done. But again, the industry has moved on, and innovation (beyond its Nineties accomplishments) seems almost counter to the franchise ethos. Does Doom have anything to offer us today beyond its name? Can it reinvent itself, like Bond and Prince, or would that be a betrayal of its identity?
We’ll find out more about DOOM in the coming months. There is a cult following who play the original game to this day, and new ports and mods (like the incredible Brutal Doom) have lent the game a long life. There’s clearly something to its stripped-back gameplay, but in order to appeal to more than a niche in today’s gaming world, id will have to change things up a little. Regardless, they need to pick a direction and stick to it, lest DOOM end up a confused mess like Duke Nukem Forever.
What do you want from DOOM? Let’s talk Cacodemons.
* What if the Doom movie was announced today, with the same cast? Dwayne Johnson and Karl Urban have shot up considerably in our (my) esteem since 2005. We’d probably be really excited about their involvement. 2014 Karl and 2014 Dwayne would be a great combination.