I’d already decided that I liked Doom Eternal. That decision was made with a stiff upper lip. I would like this game if it was the last thing I did, which felt likely since the entire state had just been put on lockdown due to the pandemic.
But I couldn’t quite say that enjoyed playing the game itself. If that’s confusing, well…
I swear I really did like it. The art, the attitude, the lack of corporate strings. The unique vision. The fact that they weren’t cynically chasing trends like ‘live services’ or loot boxes. Following up on Doom (2016) which I also really liked was only an added bonus. But this enjoyment was more theoretical. The game itself, however, left me feeling frustrated and unsatisfied.
Doom Eternal’s central loop is cycling through your arsenal of weapons so that your enemies continue to churn out ammo or health or armor, the collection of which allows you to continue your rampage. It’s an interesting novelty and well executed.
The problem was that I hated it.
Shortly after I acquired the Rocket Launcher and an Ice Grenade power up I found myself in an arena that I had to restart a few times. After my third or fourth attempt I found my interest begin to ebb. I could see how to win. I knew what I needed to do. I just didn’t feel like getting there.
One of the biggest hurdles that the player is faced with is a dismally low maximum ammo capacity. This encourages players to keep moving to collect pickups and to cycle regularly to your chainsaw, which produces piles of fresh ammunition every time it cuts a demon in half. At its best this feels rhythmic and dynamic.
Most of the time however it felt stifling. The controls also didn’t help. I was playing on PS4 where every button is mapped to a dizzying number of tools and weapons. The continued inability to Aim-Down-Sights, while novel in Doom (2016) started to feel obnoxious. I kept missing wildly wishing I could ADS to slow the reticle and focus on a target. With the low ammo count every missed shot stung like a crushing defeat. In the end it felt like I was fighting the controller more so than the demon horde. It dawned on me quite quickly that Doom Eternal suffered from one of my least favorite aspects of video games as an art form: there was right way, and a wrong way to play.
There is a forced frenetic pace (which is perhaps true to Doom as an IP). There’s swarms of enemies, and self contained arenas. That’s all fine. But I found that the over all experience lacking. Every encounter was essentially the same, no matter how many new enemies and mechanics got layered on. Each enemy had its own particular way to stun it, which would lead to a killing animation. Performing these animations is all but a requirement, because this is the best way to heal. You must continually move and cycle weapons because of the insanely low ammo count, while strategically killing the lower tier enemies as grab bags for ammo and armor. Rinse and repeat.
These arenas are broken up by rooms with puzzle elements as well as some light platforming. Even these sections felt obnoxious as I quickly lost coveted extra lives, health and armor to bad jumps. Maybe the answer to my dissatisfaction is to just ‘git gud’, but when the core loop starts to become stale it’s hard to put in the effort.
Even some games that encourage certain play styles can be completed with handicaps. Just look at the players who beat Souls games with little to no weapons, or players who complete Destiny Raids alone. I do not believe Doom Eternal on the other hand can be played in any style except in the very narrow vision which has been set forth by its architects.
This ethos, that there is only one way to win leads my mind into a rut. When winning is contingent on a single activity performed until success is granted it doesn’t encourage me to play better or think of new strategies. Instead a sensation passes through me as if the game has already been beaten. The path has been set forth, the work has been completed, and now, even though things might not be thoroughly resolved its time to move on.
It’s possible that I was just one level away from the game opening up and surprising me but I doubt it. As it stands Doom Eternal will join the list of games that I just didn’t finish.