Like a demonic phoenix rising from the ashes, Doom 2016 put the grandpappy of first-person shooters back at the top table of gaming thanks to a stellar solo campaign that sucked players in with its bloody, visceral gameplay and surprisingly engaging narrative beats. Now the Doom Slayer is back and id Software has turned the action up to 11 in order to satisfy our bloodlust.
The first few hours of Doom Eternal are the hardest to get to grips with. Our main complaint is that it's all just a bit too busy, with a plethora of interlinking gameplay systems that need to be mastered before you reach the halfway point in the campaign. It's a little overwhelming at first and it wasn't until about two-thirds of the way through the game that we really felt at ease with everything that was going on in terms of the controls and the busy UI.
Some might call it depth, others would label it feature creep, but the point remains that there's a lot going on with upgrades to your guns, armour, and stats, plus collectibles, in-game challenges and arenas, secrets, and a hub base to explore and unlock. What's more, the gameplay is underpinned by a three-pronged approach to resource management where you have to burn enemies for armour, perform so-called glory kills for health, and chainsaw demons in half for ammo. The addition of enemies with destructible elements gives you yet another factor to take into consideration. It takes some time to get to grips with, but once you've mastered it, you'll be knee-deep in the middle of a damn good shooter, and you'll be playing it like a pro, too.
The best thing about Doom Eternal is how satisfying everything handles. The controls are absolutely best-in-class and moving around the game's various locations is intuitive thanks to elegantly efficient visual design. It needs to be because there are some truly challenging moments waiting for you, and you'll need to use all of the Slayer's tricks if you're going to stay alive. It's never just a case of turning up with the biggest gun - you need to play smart too. However, id gives you the tools to do just that, with unprecedented close control over the action and a range of options that you can tinker with to further enhance your experience.
The aforementioned upgrade systems come into their own and truly elevate the experience by giving you a wealth of neat little tricks that can complement a range of play-styles. For example, we extended the distance that we could initiate glory kills, so we could be further away before dashing in for a spectacular finishing move. In truth, this dash is more like short-distance teleportation, so we started to use it as a way of traversing the levels, putting enemies at mid-distance under pressure so we could jump to their position instantaneously for the finishing blow. These bloody animations also grant you a moment of invulnerability, so being aggressive and pushing for these kills is often the most efficient way of staying alive in the midst of pitched battle.
And boy do the battles get frantic. Eternal offers a steady stream of new and returning demons for your Slayer to fillet during the course of his journey to Hell and back. New enemies are layered on at a steady pace ensuring a dynamic battlefield that's constantly evolving and increasingly deadly. You counter this growing threat via your expanding arsenal, and this is another area where the new Doom shines. The only blemish on an otherwise stellar line-up of guns is the automatic weapon selection; when you run out of ammo you switch straight to another, and this setup saw us waste a few precious BFG shots. On the plus side, each weapon can be modded with various alt-fire options, and these can also be upgraded and enhanced until you reach mastery level upgrades (either by completing tasks or finding one of a small number of coins that let you skip the process) that turn each weapon into an absolute beast. We took great pleasure in transforming our heavy cannon into a mini-missile launcher and using the barrage to shred our enemies, and our super shotgun was even more super once we could grapple our opponents using a flaming meat hook (yet another feature that also doubles as a method of traversal).
The Doom Slayer handles like a dream and boasts one of the finest arsenals in all of gaming. You can unlock new outfits for him at your base of operations - a base built into a rock orbiting Earth that you return to between missions - and during the campaign, we find out much more about the origins of the grizzled anti-hero. That's the highlight of the story, which gets more coherent as the narrative progresses. During our mission to save Earth from a demonic invasion, we visit some stunning locations that have been brought to life with enough detail to stop them feeling similar. The atmosphere is thick and oppressive to match the bleak narrative, and we battled our way through broken city streets, flame-filled dungeons, and otherworldly locations that we wouldn't dream of spoiling.
Despite the world being realised with craft and colour, most of the time you'll be focused on the enemies in front of you. You know there's trouble on the horizon when some game designer leaves a mountain of ammunition for you and, just as you'd expect, the high-octane set-pieces arrive in quick succession. At times it can feel too intense, but the challenge scales brilliantly to match your improving arsenal and increasingly nuanced move-set. We took the difficulty down a notch a couple of times to get past tricky moments but we definitely wouldn't have if weren't for time constraints; playing on the easiest difficulty setting means you'll cut through the vast majority of demons like a warm knife through butter and we recommend starting on Hurt Me Plenty and going from there.
The combat can get extremely intense, especially during certain hard-fought battles when you face off against some of the game's bigger demons, like the Doomhunter. There are, however, various platforming sections to break up the action and give us a chance to catch a breath in amongst all the wanton slaughter. After playing Eternal ahead of launch we weren't sure how we felt about these passages of double jumping and boosting between platforms, but by the end of the campaign, we were sold on their inclusion as they make for a great palate cleanser (except for one near the end of the game that had us screaming at the heavens) and they give us something different to do other than decapitating demons.
Beyond the campaign, there are a couple of extra activities to check out. One is the remixed master levels that add an additional challenge to existing environments. Another feature that we didn't get to try was multiplayer. At the time of writing the servers are not online so we're not able to let you know how that part of the game does out in the wild. We'll share our thoughts on how the experience holds up on live servers in the future, but for now here is an edited version of our impressions from a recent preview trip to id's studio in Dallas, Texas.
Battlemode pits a lone but fully equipped Slayer against two others playing as one of several demon-types in a relatively small, arena-like map. The Slayer has access to all of the campaign weapons, while the two demons can summon minions, or create healing or damaging areas.
The playable demons have different strengths and weaknesses, ranging from the tank-like Mancubus with his large health pool and hard-hitting rocket attacks, to the more vulnerable Pain Elemental that can fly to stay out of harm's way more easily. Different demons have different minions they can summon, with further customisation depending on the demon profile you select before a match. This allows for a lot of combinations regarding defensive or offensive play for the demon-players to coordinate and for the Slayer to devise counter-strategies against.
The demons are reliant on special powers, loot blocks against the Slayer, and the demons you can summon, while the Slayer relies mostly on FPS shooting skills. However, we quickly learned that you're equally vulnerable without a strategy when playing as the Slayer. There's (hopefully) no shame in admitting we didn't manage to win a single round when playing against the demons. The good thing is it didn't turn us off, rather it made us eager to try different strategies, figuring out which demons to prioritise and deciding when to push for a kill. Playing together as the demon duo was equally fun, watching the Slayer struggle against our minions and alternating between attack and evasion. It also seemed a bit easier for players starting out.
Update: After having played the multiplayer since writing the original review, the servers seem stable and we thought that the mode was good fun. It's a nice change of pace from the campaign with more focused encounters. The best-of-three format works well and the comms are cleverly done (the Slayer can't hear the demons talk during battle, only in the lobby). Matching up the demons for synergies requires a fair amount of thought and then tactical coordination, and without that, the odds seem skewed in favour of the solo Slayer. Whether Battlemode has the chops to survive in the long run will depend on ongoing balancing and new content drops, but it's a solid start to life.
In terms of the moment-to-moment action, we noted a smooth and consistent gameplay experience (although we played on a decent laptop rocking an RTX 2070 so that's to be expected) with no really noticeable frame-rate drops, which is an achievement when you consider the size of the groups you'll go up against and the quality and detail on display. We spoke to colleagues who had been playing on PS4 and they had no technical flaws to report, although we'll have to wait and see how the Switch version performs. Regardless of platform, it looks phenomenal thanks to the bold use of colour, some exceptional environmental design, and a parade of spectacular monsters that are animated to perfection. It sounds pretty good too thanks to the crunching soundtrack by Mick Gordon, with heavy metal riffs that drive the action forward.
The only negatives we experienced from a technical perspective were the semi-occasional cut to desktop, however, the game kept running in the background so it was a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. The GRTV team suffered a very different fate, however, with a late-game save corrupted and hours of progress lost. We probably could've written that off as one of those things that sometimes happens in PC gaming, but after similar issues around Doom 2016, it's a technical flaw that we can't ignore.
In fact, it helped make our mind up when pondering the score below. The busy UI and overly complicated player-progression had us on the line, but the technical hiccups sealed the deal. We can't give Doom Eternal the highest honours, although it is an excellent first-person shooter that offers 20+ hours of astonishing and visceral entertainment. We had a blast battling hellspawn and mastering the deadly art of slaying demons, and if you're going to be trapped in the house while the world outside is on lockdown this spring, we recommend you kill some time with a shotgun in one hand and demon's severed head in the other.