We break out a double-barrelled shotgun and find out how Doom’s future is being guided g ded by its past
On stepping into Id Software’s Richardson offices we’re warmly welcomed by Donna Jackson, the company’s larger than life – and thoroughly Texan – office manager. Better known as Miss Donna or Id Mom, she sits behind a reception desk that’s positioned in front of a wall-to-wall glass cabinet stuffed full of trophies and Id history. “How y’all doing?” she asks, elated that we could make it all the way from England to visit. She joined the company 24 years ago, back when John Carmack was still wrestling with the task of repurposing the Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D engine for what would become Wolfenstein 3D. Carmack, along with the rest of the company’s founders, has long since left, which makes Miss Donna – fittingly sat in front of a display that includes mint-condition game packaging and model Cyberdemons – Id’s longest-serving member of staff. She’s the studio’s last link to its formative era. We smile back, just as happy to be here as she is, but it’s a sobering realisation.
Now under the auspices of ZeniMax Media, Id is a very different company to the one that spawned an entire genre from a lake house over two decades ago. More recently, Rage saw a studio struggling to find its place in an industry it helped to bolster, while the latest Doom’s protracted development initially put the company on the back foot. Now, emerging from years of development hell, the game is the first evidence of the company getting back on track after a tumultuous stretch. But given that the industry celebrities who used to personify Id have departed, who’s driving the company? Who is Id today?
“It’s interesting that you say, ‘Who is id?’ as I think that gets to part of the answer,” executive producer Marty Stratton tells us. “Id has always been a relatively small company and the people, historically, who’ve been here are pretty big personalities. I’d say that Id was previously kind of a ‘who’ and now I feel like we’re more of a team in what we’re doing. We really try to put it all into the game and let the game speak for itself. There are definitely ‘whos’ – we’ve got extraordinary people, extraordinary talent, like we’ve always had – but the important thing is what we do as a unit, not necessarily as individuals. Doom is bigger than any one of us.”
That weight of expectation was felt keenly back in 2011, when three years of work on a new Doom project was deemed unworthy of the series’ name and effectively scrapped. Two years later, despite the fresh start, the project was still mired in development difficulties and tension between studio management and ZeniMax. Further pressure was placed on the studio by the relative commercial failure of Rage and the subsequent publisher-enforced cancellation of Rage 2. But, having now reorganised the way it works and refocused its efforts on what it does best, Id is bouncing back. And this change of approach has resulted in a game that appears to be absolutely worthy of carrying the iconic Doom logo.
“Top to bottom, every person here makes significant contributions to the game,” Stratton continues. “We’re lucky we’re still the size that everybody knows each others’ names and can fit in the kitchen for birthday celebrations. I think that camaraderie and our respect for the franchise are what’s most exciting. For anybody who’s been a part of Doom or had a Doom story over the past 22 years, I think they’re going to play this game and be like, ‘OK, this is what I would expect a modern Doom experience to feel like.’”
One of the elements that defined the original Doom was the technology that brought it to life on the screen. Carmack’s astonishing coding proficiency enabled Id to create a game that looked, and moved, like nothing else. Despite his absence, the new Doom is built on a Carmack-authored engine, too – a reworked version of Id Tech 5, the tech that underpins Rage and Carmack’s parting gift to the studio. And even without Carmack’s involvement at the company nowadays, Id remains dedicated to pushing technological boundaries.
“John was hugely influential, obviously,” Stratton says. “His fingerprints were a big part of everything that Doom was, and you can’t make a [new] Doom game that’s inspired by an original Doom without saying that Carmack is a part of it, because it would be silly to deny years and years of technical expertise and influence. But when he left, we basically just said, ‘OK, let’s move on.’ John was a very well-known part of Id – to a lot of people he was Id. But there are a lot of people here who worked alongside John who were less well-known but learned a lot from him and were a massive part of building the technologies that we’re known for. They’re now leading our new technology team, which I think is as strong as ever, frankly.”
Along with the (relatively) old guard, Stratton also points out the studio “got lucky” with a number of hires around the time of Carmack’s departure and, as a result, along with opening a tech studio in Germany, now has a truly international pool of talent to draw from. “We’ve evolved. We’ve adapted, and I think we’re honestly better for it,” he says. “It’s always been our mantra that we’re going to be the best-looking FPS on the market. People will make their own determinations, but I’m really happy with where we’re at.”
An appealingly discordant rush of metallic surfaces, gothic architecture and chunky weapons that is at once familiar and fresh, it certainly looks the part. And the whole lot thunders along at an unwavering 60fps in 1080p, exuding the kind of confident solidity that so many of its peers lack. Everything is rooted in the aesthetic of the first two games, but modernised with a self-deprecating reverence that’s in keeping with the spirit of those pioneering originals. The Cacodemons
still look patently ridiculous, for example, but the biological plausibility born of the increase in detail and resolution makes their appearance all the more grotesque and their presence genuinely disquieting.
When we sit down with the game, another more striking difference in the enemies becomes apparent: they’ve gained a terrifying turn of speed. As a result, there’s no time to stand still, much less attempt to strike up a conversation. Spidery Imps climb the walls to cut off our escape route as we back away from the outpouring of a Mancubus’s flamethrower; Revenants bombard us with plumes of fast-moving rockets while an armoured pink Demon charges straight for our position; and now a pair of muscular Barons has entered the fray, one of them catching us off guard as it leaps a couple of storeys from ground level to reach the platform that will imminently serve as our final resting place. “If you stop moving,” we’re warned prior to tackling the section on Ultra Violence difficulty, “you’re dead”. We heed the advice, but expire anyway.
It’s entirely our fault. We’ve been furnished with a double jump, the ability to mantle up surfaces, and the newly acrobatic Doomguy’s no slouch when running either. We simply weren’t prepared for the ferocity of our enemies’ response in kind.
“You can’t give the player all these traversal abilities, but not give the enemies more attack abilities to balance that out – it automatically ups the ante,” explains a grinning Hugo Martin, Id Software’s art director, as we reel from the onslaught. “We wanted it to be as fast and as fun and as fluid as it could be, so we just kept pushing that bar up higher and higher until we felt like it was as high as we could go. We didn’t necessarily set out and say, ‘This is how fast we want the game to be.’ We just naturally let it land where it wanted to land.”
The flowing combat is further supported by the game’s elaborate Glory Kill system. Inflict enough damage on an enemy and you’ll put them into a staggered state, in which they flash blue from a distance, and orange when you move into range. Click the right thumb stick or hit E and you’ll perform a contextsensitive takedown that varies according to your angle of approach. You’ll get extra ammo and some health for your effort, along with a quick, amusingly gruesome animation. It’s not just a service to gorehounds: the setup also provides an effective way to manage the large numbers of fast-moving enemies, allowing for tough foes to be rapidly expunged from a fracas or temporarily taken out of the equation while staggered.
Married to the glory kills is another layer of depth in the form of player character configurations. We’re only given a brief look at this aspect, since the studio isn’t yet ready to show its entire hand, but the currency you earn from glory kills can be spent on alternative weapon firing modes and gameplay modifiers. If you prefer a safety net, for instance, you could boost the amount of ammo and health you receive from kills, and even have an opportunity to come back from the dead. More aggressive players can sate their bloodlust with faster glory kill animations and a resultant speed boost that propels you across the room towards your next targets.
The alternative firing modes, meanwhile, are mapped to the left trigger in place of ADS (although one weapon, the Lightning Gun, does allow you to scope with its alt mode), and each weapon can have two mods attached at any one time, alternated using up on the D-pad. The shotgun can fire a triple-burst shot for finishing off sticky opponents, while the plasma rifle is capable of stunning enemies. Then there’s the formidable triple turret mode on the minigun (useful for taking down a lumbering Mancubus) and the rocket launcher’s projectiles can be detonated prior to impact, allowing you to get creative with your splash damage.
Although it sounds complex on paper, in practice all of this quickly hangs together intuitively, but that doesn’t mean balancing it has been an easy task. “Every time we’d get together to talk about adding features to the game, it was tricky. I mean, everything is new,” Martin explains. “That’s why it was critical for us to set up filters – what we felt was the tone of our game. So whenever something new came in, of course we’d playtest it and evaluate it and all that usual stuff, but we also made sure that tone-wise it fitted our game. We want to make sure we’re clear on the type of experience we’re trying to make – a game that’s all about pushforward combat. That combat is king in our game.”
That same line of thinking has driven a masterful interweaving of enemies’ complex, aggressive behaviours. The studio sees its bestiary of hellspawn as chess pieces, designed to influence players’ decisions on the fly. “Each time we added a new enemy, we’d ask, ‘Does it make you move? Does it make you think?’ Martin explains. “We didn’t want mindless bullet sponges – each character promotes a certain type of movement in the player. And they all work together – you can’t have every guy be a pressure unit, because then all of a sudden you get pushed into a corner and start kiting guys, and all you’re doing is running backwards and shooting.”
Despite the bloody shower of new ideas and mechanics, then, Id’s latest is a thunderous callback to the first two games. Faster and more aggressive, granted, and certainly smarter than before, but the lineage is clear. Id Software has left the creeping dread of Doom 3’s winding dark corridors behind and focused once again on the joy of moving quickly through an environment while using a ridiculously oversized shotgun to splatter its surfaces with demon entrails. And for this reason, Doom feels like, well, Doom.
Developer Id Software Publisher Bethesda Softworks Format PC, PS4, Xbox One Origin US
FROM TOP Studio art director Hugo Martin; executive producer Marty Stratton