Doom 2: More Gore, Less Focus

Following an exploration of the original Doom and John Romero’s unofficial fifth episode, Sigil, a couple of weeks ago, I still felt as though I hadn’t digested quite enough Doom. It seemed like just the right moment to pick up the sequel, Doom 2, and answer a few of my own questions that I had about it. Firstly, just how different is it from the original? and is it the better game?

Like many people, my first real experiences of Doom outside of the shareware release was of the sequel rather than the full version of the first game. Unlike its predecessor, Doom 2 had a retail release which meant that it was (especially in the UK) much more widely available and I remember a friend of my sister bringing it around and installing it on our shiny new 486 PC; which let’s face it, as an early 90’s tween was my only real route to getting my hands on it. Running around the crumbling ruins of ‘Hell on Earth’ and blasting those damned minions with god-mode and all weapons was the way that I took my Doom-latte back then. Armed now with the Switch port, I cranked the difficulty to a respectable ‘Hurt Me Plenty’ and left it on mortal-mode to eliminate Hell’s forces on Earth once and for all… or until the next time…

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Released only 12 months after the original, using the same engine, and reusing all of the original’s weapons, enemies, and ingame textures; Doom 2 looks remarkably like the first outing. Cynics would say that it’s more like an expansion than an entirely new game, but scratch the surface and there are some differences between the two titles. With bigger levels, expansive designs, and more enemies onscreen, Doom 2 required a slightly heftier rig to run than the original Doom, albeit still in the realm of most average PC’s of the day. Its 32 new levels (30 + 2 secrets) now form one single campaign without the episode breaks (and associated load-out reset) of the first game. It is still nominally split in to three themed sections representing a military base, city, and hellscape between each of which is a small text interlude filling the player in on what little plot there is. The game introduces players to a solitary new weapon, the iconic super-shotgun, with a slow reload and devastating slaying potential alongside the new ‘megasphere’ power-up. By far the biggest gameplay change in the sequel is an extended enemy roster including the hit-scan nightmare of the chain-gunner, mancubus with its fireballs, lost soul vomiting pain elemental, and the terrifying arch-vile capable of telekinetic attacks and an ability to resurrect fallen demons.

and yeah, chonking around Doom levels blasting revenants with a Super-Shotgun has become such an iconic image of the game that it’s easy to forgot that it wasn’t a possibility in the original…

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I merrily began the romp though those familiar first few levels, before slowing to steady-progress through the midgame, and finally a slow grind during the game’s latter stages. It was disappointing to find that from around level twenty-something until the end I’d begun counting down stages to the game’s finale with the experience occasionally teetering on the edge of enjoyment, liable to slip at any moment into tedious. Maybe Doom-fatigue was a factor, but this was undoubtedly amplified by a dawning realisation that, despite the surface similarities, Doom 2 just isn’t as strong a game as the original.

And for the record, I ‘wanted’ to enjoy it; I wanted to have another dose of that same tense, tight gameplay that I’d enjoyed so much in the original. Combat is undoubtedly more interesting thanks to the new enemy types which make a visceral and gory spectacle when combined with the increased numbers and large combat arenas. Likewise there are some great levels in the mix, unfortunately it’s also the level design that lets the game down. For each great level there is a least one that’s more suspect and, in a game where the presentation and gameplay is so streamlined, it’s the levels that keeps the player engaged. Maybe these deficiencies were just more obvious coming off the back of Romero’s Sigil, or maybe it’s that the direction the designers took wasn’t to my taste, but as I eliminated the army of hell from Earth’s surface a few annoyances came back to irritate me again and again.

The biggest of these is that many of the maps feel unfocused; the increased size allowance seemed to entice designers to add just a few more rooms and corridors, diluting core concepts and reducing direction to a meandering ramble through samey looking rooms.

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If you want a specific example of this then check out two levels: “Circle of Death” and “The Pit”. Both of these maps have a distinctive central feature that the level is built around. In “Circle of Death” it’s an exposed elevated circular walkway, and in “The Pit” it’s a deep pit (surprise!) with elevators in each corner. Both of these areas serve as the level start point. In “Circle of Death” the player typically starts by clearing the first wave of enemies from the circle noticing, as they move around it, various locked doors or blocked pathways. From here they leave the circle to find a key or flick a switch, but always return to unpick a new route. Gradually the level unlocks whilst maintaining focus by using his central feature as a hub. “The Pit” feels as though it’s going to go the same way; the player initially picks which elevator to take up and finds four chamber overlooking the hole, however as they move away from this core element the level deteriorates in to a sprawl of rooms and mismatched visual styles that feels meandering and unfocused. The player only returns to the pit once or twice. In short ‘Circle of Death’ feels like a well constructed puzzle box and “The Pit” feels like lots of rooms with monsters to shoot.   

A related annoyance are the open ‘city’-style levels, although I do at least appreciate what the designers were trying to do with these. In a game where the player is supposed to be clearing demons from earth, it makes sense that we’d see some levels based in cities. Unfortunately the technical limitations of Doom reduce these down to stark featureless rectangular buildings in equally stark featureless open spaces. Without gently guiding interiors and landmarks I found myself dashing from rectangle to rectangle trying to work out which one I could enter next; once all the monsters were cleared from the ‘streets’ the emptiness of these vast open expanses is amplified. One of these levels even features a huge glowing arrow on the floor to entice the player in to a productive direction although I still found myself bumbling around searching for an elusive door that I’d missed.

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On top of this I gradually became more an more disappointed that Doom 2 didn’t feature distinct episodes. Thematically, the interlude map screen of the original helped re-enforce progression and highlight what little plot exists. Functionally, the loadout reset from starting a new episode gave the designers the opportunity to strategically gift players each weapon four times during the game, each occasion having the same significance. Doom 2 repeatedly attempts to gift players ‘big’ weapons, but after the first it’s essentially meaningless (other than the ammo boost). There are several points where the player finds a BFG on a pedestal in a room, with the sure knowledge that as soon as it’s picked up a monster closet will pop open, unfortunately these moments carry none of the intended weight as the player is already wielding the BFG.

… and Doom 2 isn’t coy about giving you the big guns to begin with. The super-shotgun turns up on the second map with slaying power that keeps it in the player’s hands for most of the rest of the game. The remainder of the loadout follows pretty quickly with the player carrying a full weapon set after only a handful of levels. This is kind of necessary with the increased enemy numbers, but the contrast between Romero’s Sigil and this couldn’t be more apparent; in the former the restrictions on resources manages to drive up the threat of the basic enemies whereas in the latter standard enemies barely even register once you’ve got both of those barrels.

Finally, there are too many moments that feel cheap or gimmicky (I’m giving “Tricks ‘n’ Traps” a free pass here because I have a soft spot for that level); Monster closests opening directly behind players, unmarked teleporters moving enemies (or you) around unexpectedly, and teleporters that send you into immediate danger all feature and made me roll my eyes.

One of the weirder annoyances I had were certain levels where progress is blocked by a waist-high step or wall; Ok, we get it, Doom-guy can’t jump! But where the first game didn’t draw attention to it, Doom 2 seems to mock the player with the absurdity of it.

Special mention has to go to “The Chasm” which contains many of the above and forces the player to navigate implausibly narrow paths (maybe a few inches across); it feels more like a dubious fan-made map rather than something that belongs in the official release.

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So I’m guessing that there are at least a few of you out there already mashing your keyboards at the idea that I could criticise the almighty Doom 2, and hey, I’m not arguing with its status in history or that there are some excellent levels in the mix, but compared with the original there’s also a fair chunk that feels unpolished. In the rush to make something bigger and better it feels as though the designers lost sight of some parts of what had made Doom so great to begin with and realistically more of the maps that ended up in the final release really should have ended up on the cutting room floor. Overall I enjoyed the experience – Heck, I finished the game – but it’s not quite the tour-de-force that I was expecting.

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