Hands-on: The highs and lows of DOOM Eternal at E3 2019

DOOM Eternal looks and plays like it belongs in 2019, this ridiculously futuristic-sounding year in which we live. It's the kind of videogame that might have been shown in "the future" in some 1980s time travel movie. Just describing it - an ultra-fast, ultra-violent shooter with a heavy metal soundtrack in which you kill aliens and demons across Mars, Hell, and Heaven - sounds like you're coming up with an over-the-top parody videogame for an episode of The Simpsons. Seriously, DOOM Eternal might as well be Bonestorm.

2016's DOOM received near universal acclaim for its skillful reimagining of the classic franchise for the modern era, and all indications are that DOOM Eternal will take that ball (which is probably, like, some kind of creepy skull ball or something) and carry it even further in the same direction, brutally dispatching anything that gets in its way. The hour long hands-on E3 2019 demo wasn't totally without flaws, but it's great in all the ways 2016's DOOM was, and improves on some things that were already strong in the previous game.

The Good

The most entertaining FPS money can buy

DOOM Eternal is relentlessly fast, satisfying, and fun. The weapons look and feel great, and the game demands that you move, think, and shoot as quickly as you possibly can. Pitched battles are relentless and intense, and will leave your pulse racing and your palms sweating by the time you finally bring down your final enemy. You never have to stop and reload - instead you'll be switching weapons as the situation demands or as your clip runs dry.

Though you can find health, ammo, and armor scattered around the map, the best and most satisfying way to get all those resources is to farm them from your foes, via melee glory kills, your shoulder-mounted flamethrower (which causes burning enemies to drop armor pickups), and insanely gory chainsaw executions. This core feature, which made 2016's DOOM so great, means that when you are low on supplies the game encourages you to seek out enemies, rather than avoid them. DOOM Eternal wants you to feel frightening and powerful as the Doom Slayer, and tearing ammunition and armor packs from the broken bodies of your demonic enemies sure does accomplish that goal.

DOOM Eternal serves up more enemies than ever before and gives you more different ways to kill them. One of the best new additions in the game is an expanded contextual damage system, which allows you to literally shoot the limbs and weapons off of your enemies, weakening them during a protracted fight (for example: you can shoot the tail gun off of the Arachnotron, or the hand cannons off the Mancubus). And damage is reflected visually on your enemies more than ever before, as your weapons blow chunks of flesh off their bodies while they continue to chase you around. It's gruesome, but it isn't gratuitous, as this visual reference gives you a better indication of how close powerful enemies are to death than you would otherwise have. 

Extra Lives

DOOM has always had fun with in-game power-ups, and the addition of "Extra Lives" scattered across the map is a highlight of what's new in DOOM Eternal. Floating green helmets can be found and picked up to grant the Doom Slayer an additional life, and if you have one banked then you'll get a chance to get back in the fight when you go down, right away, without actually dying and reloading your last checkpoint. The screen goes grey for a moment and the game lets you know you have used your extra life, and then you're right back in the action.

You come back with a moderate amount of health when you revive via an extra life, so you'll likely need to play tactically and farm health and armor to get yourself back up to full strength. Even with that, though, extra lives are a great way to eliminate frustration and downtime, since DOOM Eternal excels when you are right in the middle of the action.

Incredible visuals and audio

Running on a PC for the E3 demo, DOOM Eternal looked fantastic. The environments on display looked like heavy metal album covers or Renaissance nightmares: flaming hellscapes, floating islands on Mars, and oceans of lava. Even the more traditional sci-fi corridors and environments look great, but the game really shines when it opens up and shows off its cosmic, apocalyptic set pieces. 

And the enemies? They're horrific monsters, full of creative designs and fine details that will be hard to appreciate at the game's normal high speeds, but which you get a chance to see up close during glory kills and chainsaw assassinations. Enemy deaths are varied and dynamic, reflecting the weapons used to dispatch them. A particular highlight of my demo was killing a bloated Mancubus with a rocket launcher and seeing its burned and hollowed-out corpse collapse to ash, with the spine and skull standing straight for a moment before falling to pieces.

Boy, it's kind of hard to talk about this game without sounding like an absolute psychopath.

Mick Gordon, composer of the incredible industrial/metal musical score that fit so well with 2016's DOOM is back again for DOOM Eternal, and based on the demo the soundtrack will be just as strong in this sequel as it was in the first game. The music fits perfectly with the fast-paced action and horror movie visuals, and complements the well designed, ultra satisfying sound effects for gunfire, kills, and basically everything else.

The Bad

Jumping Puzzles

DOOM Eternal gives you more movement options than ever, with double jumps, air dashes, climbable wall surfaces, bars to swing on, and a shotgun with a grappling hook in it. When it all comes together these options can leave you feeling like a superhero, flying around the battlefield with a degree of mobility FPS games rarely offer.

But DOOM isn't a platformer, and trying to time your jumps and successfully execute dashes between climbable surfaces can quickly grow tedious compared to the adrenaline rush of the actual FPS action. The least entertaining part of the one hour E3 demo was a jumping puzzle sequence, and though the game wisely just respawns you with a small health hit when you fall and die, minimizing the frustration, a few failed attempts can quickly break the magic spell DOOM Eternal weaves, leaving you missing the normal forward momentum and rapid, aggressive action.

Jumping puzzles are about being careful, and being careful doesn't feel right for the Doom Slayer.

Too frantic for its own good?

The best moments of the E3 demo came when I was surrounded by enemies, low on health, and pushed to my limits - but this sort of challenge can be difficult to balance. Towards the end of the demo I had to move through a tight complex packed with demonic enemies and horrible tentacles which emerged from the ground, and it was at this point that the switch flipped from entertainment to frustration. In the tight quarters it was hard to make any distance between myself and the legions surrounding me, and I died several times attempting to fight my way through. Damage came from all around me, and added up quickly even when I focused on farming health with glory kills.

I eventually made the progress I needed to in order to reach the next goal, and all told this rough patch only took about five minutes - but it was enough time for the DOOM adrenaline rush to relax its hold enough for the seams to start to show.

There's also a chance DOOM Eternal might err in taking the beautiful simplicity of the first game and adding a bit too many systems and bits and bobs to it. It still plays in the same straightforward and aggressive fashion fans are used to, but now there are more options and potential gameplay choices to make at every point. You have more resources you can farm, more ways you can move, and more ways to kill your enemies. All of these additions are good, but there is a hypothetical point at which the elegance of DOOM would be hindered by more stuff stuck on to it. I didn't necessarily see that point in the E3 2019 demo, but I saw the possibility of it in a way I never did in DOOM 2016.

You're Doomed, this November

As I said at the start, DOOM Eternal seems almost too videogamey to be real. It's likely to be one of the most intense, aggressive, bloody, and entertaining shooters of our era. It's the kind of game that you can imagine literally killing a person transported from the year 1980 if they somehow got their unprepared hands and eyes on it.

DOOM Eternal is coming to all major platforms, including Google Stadia, on November 22.

 

Check out more E3 2019 coverage.