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A Legend Reborn: Hands-On With Doom's Single Player

by Andrew Reiner on Jan 13, 2016 at 09:56 AM

When we arrived at the Richardson, Texas headquarters of id Software last December, I thought we accidentally walked into the wrong office. Id’s familiar logo is painted on the wall, but the lobby doesn’t reflect the history or vibe the studio is known for.

Intense white lights shine down on colorful architecture and décor, creating an environment that is warm, inviting, and unlike anything I would expect from the creators of Doom. The office is modern in design, embracing orange and white hues wherever it can, and is under the watchful eye of the extraordinarily upbeat Ms. Donna, id’s office manager who has been with the studio for decades, and is called “id mom” by the development team.

In the deepest southern accent I’ve heard outside of actors overemphasizing it in films, Ms. Donna offers me a breath mint, and tells me in a polite way that I better have a good time playing the game. She winks at me and I am immediately at a loss for words. A security guard in full police attire (gold badge and all) sits to her right, smiling pleasantly as he soaks in my awkward exchanges with Ms. Donna.

Marty Stratton, id Software’s game director and executive producer, bounds down the hall, and whether he knows it or not, comes to my rescue at just the right time. I can’t tell if he’s smiling because he knows we just met Ms. Donna, or he’s eager to show us what he and his team have been working on over the last few years.

He gives us a quick tour of the studio, showing us the locations of the art team, programmers, and his desk, which is tucked away in a sea of cubicles that overlooks a multiplayer testing area – a cleared out section of the office featuring 12 monitors and chairs (six on each wall). He says he loves sitting out here to hear how people are reacting to the game. The one thing he doesn’t highlight are the remnants of id’s past, like the original sketch of Doom’s cover art framed on a wall, sitting out in the middle of nowhere. We also walk past life-size statues from Quake, demonic beasts from Doom on display in glass cases, and an entire wall that has been transformed into a glass display case to show off the studio’s awards and prized relics.

Our tour eventually leads to a conference room transformed into a gamer’s dream. The meeting table is barely visible, as 20-inch monitors are lined up along both sides of it with keyboards, headphones, and Xbox One controllers sitting in front of them. The conference room’s chairs have been replaced with tall, red and black DX Racer gaming chairs. This is id Software I expected to see – a conference room transformed into what appears to be a LAN party.

A nervous energy hangs over Stratton. He knows we are in the studio for the entire day, but already feels pressed for time. “We made a big game, and we want to show you as much of it as we can,” he says. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of about this game. So often [ideas] fall off of the table when you get crunched for schedules, money, time, and resources. I’m so proud of us for not having to do that.”

Although Doom is slated to release on an unspecified day this spring, the first thing Stratton shows me is a gray-boxed development area that the team calls the Movement Map. “When we started to put together our general gameplay, we created this map,” he says. “We continue to come back to it because it’s an addictive map to play. We refer to our arenas in single player as skate parks, and this map was more or less the first skate park we built.”

In this instance, Stratton uses the map to show me Doom’s basic gameplay mechanics, as I wouldn’t be given the chance to play through the game’s introductory level where the tutorial resides. After a brief but bloody demonstration in this white-walled test room, I’m given the chance to play the game myself.

Before I jump in, I ask Stratton if the development team favors the controller or keyboard, as both options are in front of me. At last year’s QuakeCon, where Doom’s multiplayer debuted, players were mocked if they reached for the controller – it was primarily a PC crowd in attendance. I’m shocked when Stratton says “controller.” He says they mostly favor the dual analog sticks, but he’s quick to clarify that some people on the team favor mouse and keyboard. As I grab the controller, I shoot Stratton a quick look to make sure he wasn't joking, and proceed into the game.

The level I enter is called Resource Operations, which is the second level of the single-player campaign. I’m suited up as the iconic space marine moments after he awakens in an underground UAC bunker. Before moving, he eyes the quality of his helmet. The visor is pristine, but the metal exterior is a little ragged for wear. F-90 is written in large text on the backside of the helmet.

Although the bunker’s lighting is subdued and ominous, the complex is mostly in working order, with various pipes, wires, and consoles with illuminated screens lining the walls. The sensation of entering a legitimate science-fiction setting is established in this instance. The only sound I hear is the ambience of the facility. It’s surprisingly quiet.

The marine’s mission is to find answers pertaining to the demon invasion, which I assume he became well acquainted with in the game’s introductory level.

The first door I open reveals that this sector of the complex is flooded with infected UAC personnel – former scientists and miners turned into demonic foot soldiers called The Possessed. Stratton has another name for them: “fodder.”

True to this name, one carefully placed pistol shot turns a Possessed’s head into a messy soup of brains and blood. A shot to the body stuns this foe, setting up either a second shot that will kill it, or a bone-snapping Glory Kill opportunity.

If the player chooses the latter, they must be positioned closely to the stunned adversary, now glowing blue, signifying that the Glory Kill can be initiated by pressing in the right analog stick on Xbox One controller. I fire off two shots to stun two different infected, setting up a satisfying moment where the marine lowers his firearm to finish off both enemies as violently as possible. He rips the jaw off of one of The Possessed. A stern boot to the chest ends the second one’s life. Stratton tells me the Glory Kills I execute are not random, per se, and are dependent on how the player is positioned next to the enemies.

The combat at this point unfolds in tightly quartered hallways and balconies. The controls feel fantastic for these brief battles. The pistol packs a cannon-like wallop, but this isn’t the only firearm I have at my side. I pull out the combat shotgun, which sends the Possessed flying back with each pull of the trigger. No gun in Doom ever needs to be reloaded. As long as you have ammo (which you must pick up), the weapon can be relied on to deliver the function you request.  

I tunnel deeper into the facility, and the marine is periodically asked to jam his hands into malfunctioning doors to muscle them open, done by quickly mashing on the X button.

After a short jaunt, I enter a control room decked out with computer terminals and other working gadgets. Huge metal shutters hang above the computers the marine investigates. The shutters give way to reveal beautiful condensation-covered glass overlooking Mars’ red and orange surface. The immense scale of the UAC complex comes into frame here, as does a massive satellite array that I eye as a point of interest. My gaze is quickly diverted when a monitor to my left flickers to life, revealing the face of an elderly woman. She says her name is Dr. Olivia Pierce. I suspect she has a message for me, and could be a potential ally, but id’s scribes waste no time revealing she’s a venomous villain in the making. Pierce speaks in a defiant and harsh tone, broadcasting a message to everyone within the complex.

“My sisters and brothers, be thankful. You will be the first. You will have a seat alongside them, just as I will, in what will become the new world they create for us. Starting now.”

The marine backs away from the terminal. It’s clear that Pierce had a hand in the invasion, and worse, turning her own people into the zombies I just mowed down.

Pierce’s dark message continues on, echoing ominously through the halls as it’s piped over the P.A. System. Her words almost appear to double as a rally cry, as the demons grow in numbers.

The intensity of combat is increasing. Possessed crowd the scene, but the real threat now are Imps that are not immediately identifiable, and often descend from crates or ascend railings of walkways. These foes move quickly, capable of scaling objects to get better targeting views. True to the Imps of old, their primary function is unleashing fireball attacks. They can even charge up the fireball by twirling their hands to create a more potent blast. This action delivers an identifiable sound, something Stratton tells me I need to pay attention to, and should deal with quickly if it rings out.

Health and ammo are scattered liberally in this area, but I don’t need much of it at this point, especially with the Combat Shotgun dishing out thundering punishment over and over again. Stratton tells me to keep an eye on my health as it can only be regained through pickups.

My journey leads to a locker room upended by the army of Hell. A UAC worker’s corpse greets me as I enter, almost appearing to be a warning for anyone else who dares set foot into this room. The worker clearly died from a chainsaw wound, as its still wedged into his body, which has been sliced in two from head to chest.

The marine unflinchingly yanks the chainsaw from the body, admiring it for a brief second before moving deeper in the complex to try it out first hand on Imps and Possessed. The chainsaw cuts through these foes with just one slash, allowing for four or five different enemies to be slain in quick succession. These kills are just as violent as the Glory Kills. The chainsaw cuts through flesh, bone, and everything that it comes in contact with in seconds flat.

Stratton points out that using the chainsaw rewards the player with more health and ammo drops. If you are running low on either, taking the chance of a close-range chainsaw kill may be worth a shot. Getting in close unscathed is the tricky part. You have to eye the foes closely to see if such a window opens up.

The arrival of a new enemy type called the Possessed Engineer makes me lower my chainsaw, and quickly retrieve the pistol – an action that can be handled by simultaneously tapping the right bumper and the direction of the pistol on the weapon wheel. The Engineer is wearing an explosive canister on his chest. One carefully placed shot on the canister sets off a chain reaction linked to a series of nearby red barrels. The Engineer, the barrels, and a a handful of foes all go up in a vibrant, physics-based explosion. The splash damage catches me, lowering my health signifiantly, but it was worth it.

Movement through the UAC complex has been linear up to this point, but the marine now stands in a maintenance room with locked red and yellow doors and various nooks and crannies that lead to different secrets or potential areas. I know my quest is still centered on aligning the array, but I also know that I’ll need to locate keycards to get into these yellow and red areas. A console in the nearby vicinity triggers a visual recording. Id refers to it as an “echo,” a ghost-like image that recounts a recorded event within the environment it occured.

I follow the echo of a UAC worker through the complex. He slowly shuffles his feet across the room (appearing as though he is wounded or turning zombie) and vanishes through a closed door. I try to give chase, but the door is locked. I’ll have to find another way inside. A nearby ventilation shaft grants me passage.

The marine drops into a warehouse, which just happens to be the largest area yet. On one side of the warehouse I eye a vast chasm cautiously, knowing full well that those damn Imps will be scaling its walls soon. This area also consists of numerous points of vertical space in the form of balconies and crates that can be scaled with ease either by me or enemies. Obi-Wan once said something wise about having the high ground, and if war breaks out here, I'm going to try to use it to my advantage.

Smack dab in the center of the warehouse is something alien, hellish, and difficult to properly describe. It almost looks like a large creature was turned inside out, and every one of its bones were snapped artfully to create a pedestal that holds a small portal – a window that I realize is connected to Hell.

Whatever this thing is, it’s alive, but not for long. The marine jams his hand into the tower of flesh, and yanks out its still-beating heart. He crushes it, and the pedestal (which id calls a Gore Nest) explodes into blood and guts. The screams of countless demons echo throughout the chamber. They are connected to it somehow. Stratton laughs and says I “just kicked the hornet’s nest.”

In the blink of an eye, the area is crawling with enemies – Imps and Possessed are everywhere. They’re crawling out from the chasm, over railings, are raining fireballs from perches, and are relentless in their pursuit of me. This is the first true combat test in Resource Ops, a situation where I need to keep moving to stay alive. I find myself circling the area, making slight detours to deal with Imps that are trying to use vertical space against me. With the movement speed defaulted to sprinting, I almost feel like a parkour runner navigating the sea of demons. The marine’s actions are fluid and fast-paced. Any wasted second could lead to death.

The familiar fodder is quickly joined by another threat, Hell Knights, nuisances that complicate the combat flow I’ve established. The press of the attack goes on far longer than I expected, lasting for what feels like a few minutes. All is going well until I back myself into a corner, an opportunity the opposition takes advantage of. A rain of fireballs and what must be a Hell Knight fist to the back of the head ends my life.

My next attempt doesn’t go as planned, either, with an Imp sniping me with a charged blast within 15 to 20 seconds of my run. My third attempt is solid, and I find myself almost killing to the beat of the music, which is reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails’ work. I find myself switching up weapons frequently, sometimes using the weapon wheel to slow down time to survey what is directly in front of me, but mostly using the hot swap to instantly call upon the weapon best suited for the immediate threat.

This aftermath of this intense and beautifully paced battle produces a moment of respite, in which I come across a field drone, which is essentially a hovering weapon mod terminal. This drone offers two mods for the combat shotgun – a three-round charge bust, and an explosive shot that functions like a grenade launcher. Hitting up on the directional pad switches between the mods. Holding down left trigger initiates their functionality.

The new firepower offers up another dynamic in combat, which I am able to put to the test immediately in another huge combat arena. I access a keypad to open an airlock out onto Mars’ surface. Objects near the door are sucked out of the complex as soon as the large bay doors open.

This arena offers wider sight lines, and even more verticality thanks to bridges leading along the exterior of the complex. I also run into two new variants of the Possessed, a soldier that shoots plasma rounds, and a security guard that carries a shotgun and an energy shield. This engagement is just as chaotic as the previous arena, producing a hell of a challenge. I manage to squeak through this fight with my life, thanks in large to the Combat Shotgun.

After the last demon collapses to the ground, the marine ascends an elevator to a control tower housing the shield array interface. A corpse lies near it. I  approach it slowly, but I'm not given the chance to see what happens next. The screen fades to black, and my time in Resource Ops is over. Stratton says this isn't the end of the level, but is all they are willing to show off at this point, hinting at a potential spoiler tied to the satellite dish coming back online.

My immediate takeaway: I didn't want the demo to end. Although combat is the showpiece of this experience, I was equally engaged in the journey. We all know it eventually leads to Hell (which we’ll discuss in great detail in another story this Friday), but it looks like id is expanding upon the scope of the narrative in interesting ways, and through supporting characters that are new to this universe.

The combat feels great at this point, showing a nice level of polish and balancing along with the satisfying carnage. Doom is still Doom at its heart, but it also feels like a new experience in the first-person shooter category. I question if it will have the legs to support a full campaign, but the small slice I played was an absolute blast.


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