There came a point playing the latest Doom Eternal (opens in new tab) DLC where I realised I was laughing. No joke had been cracked, and nothing obviously amusing had happened on screen. I was just…laughing. It was a purely physiological reaction, my distinctly low-octane body's response to the adrenaline suddenly coursing through it like floodwater through some forgotten drain.
I'm not sure how long I'd been sitting at my computer honking like a startled goose, but to me it was a clear indicator Doom Eternal is the best shooter I've ever encountered. I've played countless FPS's over the years, and laughed at them for many reasons. A witty one-liner, a slapstick death, an enemy getting its foot caught in the world geometry and flipping out like one of those tube-guys you see outside American car dealerships. But I've never had one make me laugh because the alternative was to suffer an aneurysm.
What's especially bizarre about this is when I first played Doom Eternal, I was underwhelmed. I'm a big fan of the 2016 Doom reboot, and I initially thought the changes Eternal makes to that template resulted in a less enjoyable game. I didn't like the new emphasis on story. I didn't like the platforming bits. I hated that purple goo that prevents you from jumping.
Most of all, I didn't like the way Doom Eternal nudges you toward killing demons in certain ways. In fact, calling it "nudging" is probably generous. Every time you encounter a new demon, Eternal skids to a halt and throws up a text box that says "HERE IS THE BEST WAY TO KILL THIS DEMON". There are even demons that can only be killed using a particular method, the most notorious being the Marauder.
It was as if Doom had been invaded by Clippy, constantly rearing its stupid head to offer you advice you didn't want. It seemed to lack the flow of the first game, stopping and starting like a buffering YouTube video. I'm holding the guns, Doom Eternal. I'll tell you how I'm going to kill things.
But my perspective changed when I played The Ancient Gods: Part 1, the first instalment of Doom Eternal's DLC. The Ancient Gods starts with everything in the Doom Slayer's arsenal unlocked. Every weapon, every attachment, and every ability. Then it goes to town on you, unleashing massive hordes of demons specifically arranged to be as difficult to handle as possible. It'll force you to fight in a room where the floor is almost entirely electrified, trap you in a narrow corridor with a Titan, or just spawn two Marauders at once.
Suddenly I found myself wishing I'd paid more attention in Doom Slaying school, as all those tricks the game suggested I use became vital to survival. I struggled through as much of the DLC as I could, but eventually I gave up. It was simply too hard. Too punishing. Too ferocious.
I kind of wanted more.
As The Ancient Gods Part 2 launch approached, I decided to go back to the beginning, this time prepared to listen to what the game was saying. And I realised the reason Doom Eternal includes all these little tricks isn't because it wants to limit your murdering potential. It wants to maximise it, to make you feel like the unstoppable killing machine the Slayer is.
The Marauder is perhaps the best example of this. Most discussion about the Marauder focuses on the fact that you need to shoot him at specific moments. But the reason the Marauder exists is to teach you the power of weapon-switching. By juggling single-shot weapons like the super-shotgun, the ballista, and the rocket launcher, you can massively increase the fire-rate of those weapons, enabling you to kill the Marauder within a few seconds. Crucially though, it isn't only effective on the Marauder. It's a technique that works with other tough enemies, like Titans and Barons of Hell.
Eternal is filled with these little tricks. Some are specific, but others are broader and can be combined for powerful effects. Scorching a group of enemies with the flame belch before immediately following up with a frag-grenade, for example, will instantly refill your armour, while the Assault Rifle's sniper-scope can be combined with the aerial slow-mo rune to help you destroy the weapons of enemies like Mancubuses, Arachnotrons, and Revenants.
By mastering these various skills, you can obliterate any demon in seconds. This in turn lets id Software crank up the intensity, challenging you with bigger fights against more dangerous foes. In this way, Eternal has a lot in common with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Sekiro's counter system is designed not just to help you cope against the game's fearsome enemies. It's designed to help you annihilate them, to deftly turn aside their blows and dispatch them without receiving a scratch.
By the same token, Doom Eternal doesn't want you to survive its fights, it wants you to absolutely monster them. The issue with Eternal is not that its combat is underwhelming, but rather that it's overwhelming. It takes time to learn, and the process of learning rarely flows smoothly. Yet once you do learn, Eternal becomes a completely different experience. That flow which initially seems missing reveals itself, while the wider design, like the platforming sections, fall into place as welcome bits of downtime as you psych yourself up for the next fight.
When you reach Eternal's high-level combat (in the latter half of the main game and the DLC) the experience becomes transformative, a relentless barrage of lightning-paced decision-making. Always moving. Always hunting. Always killing. The second DLC adds even more complex demon-types, and I actively looked forward to meeting each one. A stone imp that can only be killed with the shotgun's autofire? Yes please. An armoured baron whose metal shell regenerates if you don't kill it quick enough? Bring it on. A cursed prowler whose attacks disable your dash manoeuvre until you kill it? I love you id, you evil bastards.
The way Eternal involves you in every moment of its combat makes other FPS's look embarrassingly trite. So many of today's big shooters are just about tediously shooting numbers out of things. Destiny. The Division. Outriders. Borderlands. Compare that to Eternal's incredible damage feedback, where enemies are slowly stripped down to almost skeletal forms by your onslaught. Modern shooters have also completely diluted weapon design, drip-feeding you endless identical guns that make no practical difference to how you approach combat. The only shooters that can approach Eternal's intensity are proper competitive multiplayer shooters like Warzone and possibly Apex, and even these require you to put up with a lot of downtime to get to the good stuff.
Singleplayer shooters are rare these days, but I hope those being developed look closely at Eternal's design. And there are signs Eternal is having an influence. Outriders' Trickster class seemed inspired by Eternal's ideas of constant movement and using enemies as health dispensers, making it by far the most fun class to play in what is otherwise a middling shooter. But even if Eternal doesn't rub off on the FPS genre in general, I can't wait to see what id Software come up with next.
The purple goo can still fuck off though.