‘Doom Eternal’ proves that more isn’t necessarily better

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Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks

Hype for the Doom franchise has been reignited ever since “Doom,” (2016) a reinterpretation of id Software’s classic title, ended up surprising audiences by being really good. Its sequel, “Doom Eternal,” is here to further satiate our need for repackaged ‘90s nostalgia in a modern context. Playing “Doom Eternal” is overwhelming in the same way you might imagine how a kid feels if left unsupervised in a candy store. Mechanics upon upgrade systems upon mechanics are piled high over the already compelling gameplay loop of “Doom.” Practically every level is sprawling to the point that every corridor and room begs a degree of exploration to find all of its easter eggs and secrets. Even the previously sparse story is given an important seat at the table with incredibly self-serious cutscenes and codex entries that are almost a requirement to read if you want to understand the underpinnings of Doom’s universe. “Doom Eternal” does in fact keep its predecessor’s promise to be bolder and bloodier than ever, but this transition toes the line in being borderline excessive.

At its core, “Doom Eternal” remains an incredibly satisfying experience, any shooter fan expecting a good time will get one. The sequel leans further into “Doom” 2016’s subversion of modern military shooter mechanics to emphasize ferocious play. A slew of new abilities are given soon one after another, rapidly expanding your arsenal and the amount of decisions you have to make. Take for example the addition of dashes. The increase in mobility enables faster positioning leading to a decision tree of last second dodging, gap closing, flanking maneuvers, etc. “Doom Eternal” is a more punishing game than its predecessor too, minor mis-positions or poorly timed dodges can easily result in death. This is just within consideration of the dash mechanic. Other mechanics included are a flamethrower that’s used as another avenue to accrue armor, a retooling of the chainsaw to constantly regenerate ammo, two types of grenades for crowd control, different point systems for permanent upgrades, new enemy variants and so on.

A byproduct of raising the skill ceiling by adding all these options is that to balance this out and make the game compelling to play, the skill floor had to be raised as well. Playing “Doom Eternal,” especially on higher difficulties, is anything but involved, requiring a competent level of attention and deliberation in your reflexes and decision-making that can make combat feel deliberately restless. By the end I never felt frustrated by what the game asked of me, but it did leave me with a sense of exhaustion. It gave me pause for thought and made me wonder how necessary some of these additions were and how so much of what is new really felt like bloat considering how very little I actually remember from my fights.

Similarly to how the rebooted “Doom” entries carried on the legacy of old school shooter design philosophy in its gameplay, so did its story. The key difference in “Doom” and “Doom Eternal” is how the two contextualize this old ethos of sparse storytelling within each respective game. Part of the success in revitalizing Doom was that 2016’s “Doom” story worked as a cathartic tone piece. Make no mistake, “Doom” tonally was very weird; it is a hodgepodge of meta commentary on climate change, corporate cronyism and even modern military shooter tropes through the actions of our protagonist, The Doom Slayer. Exposition dumps via narration and cutscenes were treated in text with an element of apathetic disdain as The Doom Slayer literally shoved aside or smashed important plot MacGuffins against the advice of off-screen characters. This lent the game a sense of self awareness and a tongue-in-cheek tone that lampooned corporations and its culture in how exploitative they were with energy resources and their employees. It largely worked though. “Doom” understood that players were here for a fun time and embraced the fact that it wanted to ferry you from one arena room to smash demons in, to the next arena room to do it all over again. If it could sneak in a sly joke in your travels in-between, it did so mostly in a clever way via our protagonist’s demeanor.

“Doom Eternal” reverses course on what “Doom” did by adding all the lore, too much lore. Take for example, early in the game when you’re told to find a character called “The Betrayer” so he can give you a plot device. A lengthy third person cutscene is employed with weighty dialogue hinting of a history between the two of you to emphasize a tone of seriousness. You’d think he comes back later too but he doesn’t. The most you get is a log entry placed in your path of progression shortly after detailing his entire backstory. Moments like this litter “Doom Eternal,” important context always ends up being buried somewhere in collectibles. Although “Doom” is guilty of the same thing, albeit to a much smaller degree, it does so with a sense of levity and casual disregard that “Doom Eternal” lacks. As a result players never become hung up on story beats. It’s never so much that “Doom Eternal” doesn’t try to have humorous moments either, things like the return of a running gag where a holographic corporate spokesperson talks in grating PR lingo about how eternal damnation and the loss of your soul is actually a good thing becomes id Software’s attempt at satire. But to reiterate, the developer overplays their hand again with its frequency and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you of a time I was actually amused by this environmental storytelling. It is revealing how much the restraint of  2016’s “Doom” structure made the narrative work and how this lack of recognition on the developer’s end causes “Doom Eternal” to suffer for it.

“Doom Eternal” distilled to a single phrase is personified maximalism. It embraces the roundabout mantra of maximalism that more is always better on the virtue that it is more. Playing through the campaign genuinely is a delight with how hard the game presses you to think and adapt rapidly through the challenges it throws at you. The euphoria never seems to linger though and with how much the game unsuccessfully leans on its lore to give you stakes to care about, I’m surprised myself with how the increase in scope actually detracted from the experience. Just like that unsupervised kid in the candy store, after the initial high of a sugar rush I end up just feeling nauseated.

Verdict: On paper “Doom Eternal” gives you everything you would want from a sequel, iterating and expanding on all the best parts of its predecessor, but in doing so loses a lot of the magic “Doom” had by giving you too much of a good thing. As a result, this sequel seems to prove the principle that sometimes less is more.

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