[Review] The Incredible Blood-Splattered Combat of ‘Doom Eternal’ Helps it Rise Above its Many Issues

Doom Eternal makes me feel like that hippo from Fantasia doing the “Dance of the Hours” in a stretched out tutu.

We know the Doom Slayer is fast. Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth were defined by their frantic strafing, kinetic blasting and breakneck speeds. We know the Doom Slayer is dangerous. This is the series that defined good shooter feel as “that feeling when red chunks fly off your enemies who are then themselves reduced to bigger red chunks.” This is the series that gave us “Rip and tear until it is done” and the Big Fucking Gun. But, you may not have suspected that the Doom Slayer could ever be this graceful.

In any number of battles in Doom Eternal, I shoot an imp until he flashes orange, pirouette into the sky on the wind of a blue bounce pad. I am lifted high above my enemies, unleash my meathook into the tanky Mancubus below, emptying both barrels of my super shotgun into his engorged flank before throwing a blood punch through the imp I left flashing, salting a Former Human with fire then chainsawing through his midsection, unleashing a pinata’s flurry of green armor bits and rainbow ammo.

Doom Eternal, more than even Doom (2016), is a master class in combat design. As in its predecessor, every battle in Doom Eternal plays out like a game of chess. Each enemy has different weaknesses that can be most effectively exploited by one of the weapons in your increasingly extravagant armory. Lumpy pink Cacodemons are roughly 50 percent mouth, and you’ll need to fire off a grenade into their gaping maw to take them down quickly. The Cybermancubus wears a hefty, but easily dismantled, suit of armor which you’ll need to get in close to punch off.

The Marauder (who, for the record, is good) is this chessboard’s queen, with an expansive moveset that nearly rivals the Doom Slayer’s. Stay too far away and he chucks a crimson energy axe. Get too close and he’ll pump you full of buckshot. Evade more than he likes and he’ll send a bitey plasma dog after you. He’s tough to take down, requiring well-timed counters, but finally scoring a glory kill against him is exhilarating. One of id Software’s smartest small touches this time around was the inclusion of progressive demon degradation. You can literally see how much damage you’ve done to an enemy by looking at the state of their body. If their flesh is sloughing off exposing their magma-red core, you know it’s almost time for a glory kill.

As you manage big bads like the Marauder and Mancubus, you’ll also need to balance the amount of nagging pawns on the board. These smaller enemies will do damage if you get too close, but mostly they exist to feed the beast, doling out a bevy of helpful consumables that vary in accordance with how you dispatch them. Hacking the damned to death with the chainsaw brings an explosion of ammunition. Whittling an enemy’s health down and finishing them off with a glory kill causes a shower of blue health orbs. And, new in Doom Eternal, roasting hellspawn with the shoulder-mounted flame belch will net you some much-needed armor. As in Doom (2016), survival requires constant movement, and this time around you’ll be scouring the battlefield for a wide range of pick-ups in the process. Fuel for your chainsaw. Health kits. Armor bits. Flashing enemies to glory kill. There are so many bars to balance that keeping track of it all can feel overwhelming in the opening hours.

But, once you get it down, battles become some of the most thrillingly kinetic in the entire first-person shooter genre. The Doom Slayer was more agile than ever before in 2016, with a double-jump bringing a new sense of verticality to the game’s arena battles. In 2020, the dancing hippo of death has far more platforming tools at his disposal. The double jump is back and aided by a double-dash, the shotgun’s meathook for grappling and tons of jump boosters and monkey bars strewn across the battlefield. Skilled players will rarely need to touch the ground, which lends battles a gloriously kinetic violence, as if tightrope acrobats were trying to brutally murder each other while still performing their routine.

Combat is pulse-quickeningly demanding, laughably gory and consistently rewarding. Fortunately, it is the still-beating heart of the game. Unfortunately, id’s focus on platforming-heavy combat has spiraled out into a platforming-heavy game. In the run-up to this game, id’s decision to double-down on first-person platforming intrigued me — Titanfall 2, Respawn’s criminally overlooked wall-running, double-jumping FPS is one of my favorite shooters of all time. But, outside of combat, Doom Eternal’s platforming rarely rises above the level of fine. Often, its hard-to-parse nuances frustrated me. There’s a small icon at the bottom-left of the screen that communicates how many dashes you have left, but it’s easy to miss. I often found myself plummeting to my death Wile E. Coyote-style as I realized I was out of stamina mid-chasm. 

Doom Eternal feels, at times, like it was beamed in from an alternate reality where the Doom Slayer starred, not in shooters, but mascot platformers. In combat that’s a boon. But, as you travel between arenas it can be a major liability. In the platforming sections, sure. But, also in Eternal’s addition of the most odious platformer trope: the water level. Doom Eternal doesn’t actually devote an entire level to this — which is good because just about every level is the length of two, maybe even three, levels in another shooter. But, even in short bursts, the swimming sections are viscerally unpleasant. Getting out of the water is confusing and, because the water is often toxic, each attempt to wrestle with the swimming controls is paired with the quick ticking of your radiation shields falling. The sections with purple goo, which acts like quicksand, leaving you exposed to enemy attacks, are equally irritating. 

Doom Eternal may, at times, play like a Mario game but its story is far more self-serious. Doom (2016) boasted some smart, trenchant satirical writing that soared, in part, due to the game’s tacit acknowledgment that narrative in a Doom game is hardly necessary. It mined the perfunctory nature of its story for laughs and some gonzo bits of lore. But, Doom Eternal has one joke — “demon” is offensive; they prefer to be referred to as “mortally challenged” — that id seems to think is a comedy glory kill, when in fact is more like the joke equivalent of punching a demon before they’re ready to be glory killed and watching your fist bounce off lamely. The rest of the time, Doom Eternal is significantly more po-faced than its predecessor, throwing reams of Proper Noun lore at you, in cutscenes and via the Necronomicon’s worth of codex entries scattered around the environment. This is the most story-focused game id has made since Doom 3, and Doom Eternal suffers from the increased focus.

Multiplayer feels similarly undercooked. I want to spend more time with it, but at the same time there’s nothing drawing me in. Despite the coolness of the conceit — one player is the Slayer, the other two are a team of demons — I never wanted to play Battlemode for more than half-an-hour at a time. As the Doom Slayer, ripping and tearing through demons is often significantly more difficult and less interesting than in the campaign. The demon’s powers are interesting, but you will either easily overpower the Doom Slayer or get stuck in a long war of attrition with a more skilled opponent. In the short-term, Battlemode just isn’t as much fun as the campaign. And, in the long-term, the cosmetic upgrades offer little incentive to return. 

That’s a lot of negatives, but it’s a testament to the strength of Doom Eternal’s incredible combat that id’s latest easily rises above its problems. The platforming is just fine, the story is uninteresting and the multiplayer is middling, sure. But, this is still a great shooter that meaningfully builds on the foundation laid by Doom (2016). I can’t wait to see id refine this experience for Doom 3ternal.

Doom Eternal review code provided by the publisher.

Doom Eternal is out now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

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