The first-person shooter — where players take command of, and see through the eyes of, a gun-toting protagonist — has been the granddaddy of video game genres for over 20 years. FPSs dominate various “game of the year” lists and a first-person shooter has, without fail, been the bestselling video game globally for at least the past five years.
Activision has experienced eye-watering success with their “Call of Duty” franchise (2003 – present) ever since adopting a gameplay experience pioneered by Bungie Studios with “Halo 2” (2004). Gamers froth at their collective gobs whenever a rumor about Valve’s as-yet-to-be-confirmed “Half-Life 3” surfaces and anticipation is at a fever-pitch ahead of the May release of Blizzard Entertainment’s first FPS “Overwatch.”
But the FPS that launched the genre and brought first-person shooters into the public eye was id Software’s 1993 masterpiece “DOOM.”
“DOOM” was not id’s first FPS (that honor belongs to 1992’s “Wolfenstein”) but it was far more successful than its predecessor. A blood-soaked romp through a demon-infested Martian base, and eventually Hell itself, “DOOM” was dense with satanic imagery, “Big F*cking Guns,” and ultra-violence. “DOOM” caused a moral panic, but also pioneered the networked multiplayer “Deathmatch” mode that is the foundation of all modern FPS multiplayer gameplay.
The fast-paced, pick-up driven experience that “DOOM” established launched the arena shooter, a multiplayer experience defined by players moving around mostly-small play spaces at high speed while hunting for weapons and power-ups. But by the mid-2000s arena shooters had fallen out of favor, superseded by the comparatively languid pace of “Halo” and later “Call of Duty,” which appealed to the wider audience consoles brought to gaming.
Fast forward to 2016, and arena shooters are once again in vogue. Veteran game designer Cliff Bleszinski, of “Gears of War” (2006 – present) fame, founded Boss Key Productions to produce “LawBreakers,” a title inspired by the arena shooters of old. Epic Games is working on a new installment of their storied “Unreal Tournament” series, and most importantly, id Software is set to release the fourth game in the “DOOM” series (conveniently titled “DOOM”) in May.
Since revealing concrete details about “DOOM,” id has pushed the message that the game will be a return to the series roots, with a fast pace, big guns and even bigger demons forming the core of the experience. id released an open beta of “DOOM” late last week, giving gamers, beyond the select few that played a limited alpha in December, a foretaste of its multiplayer mode and a chance to see if id’s claims hold water.
The “DOOM” open beta features a pair of game modes: Warpath, where two teams of players compete to control a moving area of the level, and the classic Team Deathmatch, where two teams duke it out to reach a predetermined number of kills.
Both game modes take place on a handful of levels that very much channel the game’s traditional aesthetic: a mix of futuristic industrial facilities and caverns — pentagrams, candles and streams of gravity-defying blood also abound. All the levels shown so far feature a good deal of verticality, so players must be aware of what is above and below them.
Gameplay maintains the signature pace of the “DOOM” series. Players move quickly, able to run at great speeds, double jump and mantle over edges, all of which combine nicely with the level’s aforementioned verticality.
Learning levels to identify locations of pickups like additional health, armor and ammunition is essential to surviving combat and harkens back to arena shooters of yesteryear. Power-ups are the most powerful of these pickups, and players fight viciously to acquire them. Classics power-ups like quad damage return often give the players who acquire them a decisive advantage. Particularly fierce competition invariably breaks out for control of the coveted “demon ruin,” a power-up that briefly transforms a player into a borderline-unstoppable demon equipped with a jet-pack and a pair of rocket launchers.
The weapons on show in the beta kick and roar as expected and have a chunky, industrial look, handling almost like lethal future power tools. Old standbys like the rocket launcher make an appearance and the fan favorite Super Shotgun, styled like an old-timey double-barreled shotgun, returns as a magnificent anachronism, one that packs enough punch to reduce opponents to gibs with a well-aimed blast.
Though “DOOM” retains much of what made classic arena shooters great, it nevertheless has made some fundamental changes to its core gameplay, changes that reflect the state of shooters in 2016. Purists will be most disappointed with how “DOOM” handles starting weapons. Rather than starting with a basic weapon and having to pick up their favorite gun from a specific location in the level, players can now choose the two-weapon loadout they start with. Fighting over a prized weapon was a pillar of the arena shooter experience, and this change feels like a short-circuit of one of the genre’s defining aspects.
“DOOM” also introduces progression, a mainstay of modern shooters. The more time players put into the game, the more items they unlock to customize their character. Fortunately, it seems that players mostly unlock cosmetic items as they progress, meaning that the best guns are available to everyone, not just the most dedicated.
Halo-esque melee attacks have also been added for all weapons, if a player melees an opponent with low health, they will trigger a brutal execution. Executions comprise over-the-top animations, such as literally pulling an opponent’s head off in a fountain of gore. The executing player is invulnerable for the duration of the animation but is frozen in place, giving their opponent’s vengeful teammates time to line up their demise.
Despite having sacrificed some of the purity of its lineage by conceding to modernity, “DOOM’s” multiplayer nevertheless bears the hallmarks of its exulted forebears, which has been missing from an unfortunately homogenous shooter landscape. If “DOOM” releases with a solid single-player campaign and more maps and modes in multiplayer, it will be a formidable contender in a very crowded summer.