Doom Eternal (opens in new tab) has a terrible secret. It's hidden underneath layers of oozing red gore, torn out eyeballs and forcibly amputated limbs, but after a few hours with the iconic id Software shooter, you'll see it anyway. It wants you to be smart. Like the nerdy kid hiding their math ability behind a collection of Norwegian death metal T-shirts, the game that seems all about being a badass is actually about being a badass with brains.
There's no stealthing Doom Eternal, or drawing out a meticulous battle plan with color-coded markers, but if you want to end up as more than a strawberry jam smear on the floor, you have to learn to strategize your mayhem. Killing everything is still the plan, but more than ever before Doom Eternal makes you think about how you're killing. Glory Kills make enemies drop health, Chainsaw Kills drop ammo, setting an enemy alight with Fire Belch will make them drop armor. Like a really gory episode of Sesame Street, it makes you learn, but makes the learning damn good fun. My session with the game was the first three hours, and the learning curve – at least on the Hurt Me Plenty setting – always felt like the right balance of death and demigod power fantasy.
"Every aspect of the game has depth, has meaning, and is smarter than you think it is," explains Hugo Martin, creative director on Doom Eternal. "You're surprised at how deep the different aspects of the game are. It's like on the outside, Oh yeah, Doom, it's junk food. But that doesn't mean it can't be loaded with nutritional content. Fun on the outside, smart on the inside.
Once upon a cacodemon
There's also more story in Doom Eternal than ever before. There are new characters, lore, and Hell Priests whose names all sound like German sanitary products. It doesn't get in the way of the sheer, unadulterated mayhem of Doom Eternal's core action, but it does feel like the blood-red frosting on the delicious murder cake.
"For the people who are like, 'I just want to murder demons.' You're like, cool, don't read the thing. Just shoot everything in the face," says Martin. The game has a codex where you can read through the lore, stories, and history of the Doomslayer whenever you want, but when it comes to id Software itself, Martin is a walking talking codex. He likens building a universe around the shooter's hardcore action to the John Wick movies.
"I think that's what makes John Wick, in part, good. Because, yes, on the surface it's just nonstop action. But there's the Continental, and the organization, and the high table. And who are these people, and why does this work this way, and what the hell is that coin?"
Personally I love a little bit of lore with my lunacy, but in my three hours I never felt held back from the action, there was never a time I was desperately trying to click through a self-indulgent cacodemon reflecting on the fragility of human connection in the modern world. Just some cool glowing scrolls, and kickass cutscenes. And what I've seen is just the beginning, teases Marty Stratton, the game's executive producer. "The last three levels of the game are just taking you to places that are... I mean, you come back to earth at the end, but the last couple before that, you're just like, 'Oh my God.'"
The game is very much a shooter, shepherding you from one area to another to kill everything in sight, but the sense of scale is much bigger. From the individual levels, built around ruins or the carcass of a mech, to the Doom Slayer ship itself, complete with a desk littered with toys and a demon prison to practice your skills in, it feels like the playground just got planning permission for a serious extension. It reminded me of the same sense of awe I felt with God of War, the sense that each part of the world was part of a much bigger, richer whole. This new world is just another part of the universe building that marks Doom Eternal as an evolution for the series.
"You play through the intro and you see these big mechs that have fallen on Earth. Like what was going on there? Like, you know, we want people asking those questions, and even wanting to play in that little corner of the universe," explains Stratton. Martin, meanwhile, is ready with another movie analogy.
"George Lucas, really, he was a genius obviously. You've met and saw Boba Fett for what, minutes, in Empire Strikes Back? And you just, I want to know everything about that guy," Martin adds.
"That's what we try to do, you know, with every aspect of the game, that players want more. And if they're asking for it, then you're in a good position because then you're able to provide them with it. You don't want to give them something they don't even care about. So the mechs everywhere and everything, it's just trying to pique the player's interest and build out a universe that we think is really interesting."
Hope springs Eternal
The seeds of evolving Doom's primal action into an entire universe of heavy metal and mayhem were sown with the release of Doom in 2016, but Stratton and Martin wanted more for the series. "Doom 2016 was great. Everybody just thought we were just going to do new glory kills, it's going to be great. And we were playing, and it was just like, this is boring. You know, I'm bored. And we had to be honest with ourselves. Like nobody in the studio is playing the game," says Martin.
"That's the true test. You just could notice that nobody was playing. And nobody would openly say it sucks. We're like, 'Well, we just won all the awards, and we sold a bunch of games; it's good, right?' But nobody's playing, and I don't want to play, and he doesn't want to. None of us are like finding reasons to go into the studio and play. So engagement emerged... as we have to make this engaging, more so, than the last one."
That's a candor you don't often hear from game developers and makes them all the more believable when they say with Doom Eternal, everyone is playing all the time. Martin probably the most, with Stratton a close second.
"Like if you'd let me play it right now, I'd go down there and play it," says Stratton, while the PR handler gently shakes her head.
"If it can entertain us, it will entertain the fans because we're the biggest critics. I mean, when you talk about jaded. I mean, we know how the sausage is made. I know everything about it. So like if I still think it's good, then there's something there," says Martin, and, from the three hours I've played, he's right.
That said, whether or not he's realized the role of loremaster and George Lucas of the new Doom, he's ready to stop thinking about that codex. "I'm going to print it out and bury it in the backyard because I don't want to see it again," he says.
"It's been so stressful. There are so many little pieces, that the strings and threads, and this guy's name, and that reference, and this city, and this thing, and that's their relationship, and blah blah blah. Because people care. I mean, we care. We have to be consistent. And it is kind of gnarly keeping it all together. But it's fun. It's a good problem to have."
Doom Eternal will be released on PC, Xbox One, and PS4, on March 20, 2020.