Three Hours in Hell on Earth: Hands-On with Doom Eternal
We got our hands on a near-finished version of Doom Eternal in London and now March can't come soon enough.
By the time our three-hour demo of Doom Eternal was done, the event organisers pretty much had to prise us off the station where we'd been playing. Three hours might sound like plenty of time, but if truth be told, the 180 minutes we were granted with id Software's new shooter flew by, and now, as we muse over what we've just played, our main takeaway is that March 20 can't come soon enough. It's early days, of course, but our initial impression of this hellish first-person shooter is that it bests its predecessor in every way possible.
Doom 2016 was the reboot that the series needed, and we had a jolly old time stomping on hellspawn after the extended hiatus between that game and Doom 3. A great campaign was complemented by solid multiplayer that improved post-launch, yet at a time where it looked like all big-budget action shooters were only eyeing the online crowd, it was refreshing to see a heavyweight so focussed on the single-player side of things.
Doom Eternal is aiming to go one better than its predecessor, and id's Marty Stratton was in a confident mood when we met him in London and he proclaimed that the longer you play, the better it gets. The studio considers it a combat puzzle game and, as we've noted in the past, there are a number of systems at play that drive the action forward. If you're running low on something, the idea isn't that you should hide in the shadows and recharge, rather they want you to push on and take what you need from your enemies, and you do this by killing demons in a plethora of gruesome ways. Ammo falls from enemies once you've carved them into them with your chainsaw; health drops with every glory kill; enemies that are doused in flames will yield up armour. It's a neat system that encourages super-aggressive play.
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In the demo that we had played previously, we were served up a slice of game designed to show off this brutal three-pronged setup, but for this session, we were sat down in front of a high-end PC and let loose from the start of the campaign. We only played through two missions in that time, partly because it was challenging (we had it on Hurt Me Plenty so it wasn't too hard) but also because we were exploring the levels and looking for secrets. There's a lot going on in Doom Eternal, and Stratton's description of the game being fun on the outside but smart on the inside seemed right on the money.
This isn't a simple corridor shooter overflowing with grotesque demons, this is a brutal ballet of bullets where you're rewarded for aggression and audacity. The glory kill system, where an enemy flashes once their health is depleted and you can initiate a lethal takedown, is a visceral incentive to push your luck, but as these kills, along with your chainsaw and flame belcher, give you the resources required to simply stay alive, there's every reason to remain on the front foot. It helps you feel brave knowing that you're invulnerable during the bloody animations, too.
Guns are at the heart of things, and long-time fans will be all too aware of the arsenal that's available. Each gun has alternate fire options, which you unlock as you progress, and by completing encounters you'll get points to spend on adding new mods. We equipped a sticky grenade launcher on our shotty and whenever large groups would appear we'd switch up, fire a nade into the crowd before switching back to shells and strafing around the depleted group. Another favourite was the mini-rockets that came out of our heavy cannon. There seems to be a range of ways to upgrade each weapon, and we can't wait to explore this aspect of the game as the gunplay felt weighty and extremely satisfying, and we say that having only sampled a handful of weapons and their mods.
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There's more than just an adaptable arsenal to unlock, though. Runes, for example, are discovered as you progress and can be equipped to improve Doom Slayer's chances in battle. The runes allow you to do things such as slow time if you're at death's door or perform glory kills from further away. There appear to be three slots to unlock and a selection of different runes that you can equip to make you more potent. Then there are 'sentinel crystals' to find and these are linked to the puzzle element, in the sense that they give you more health when you initiate a glory kill, for example. We always seemed to be running out of ammo so we spent our crystals on an upgrade that meant our enemies dropped more bullets. Similarly, we opted to slow time when we were close to death so we had a chance to side-step our impending doom, and while it didn't always save us, on a couple of occasions it did and we were able to slip away from the clutches of a demon and carry on the fight.
The demons themselves are gruesome, and they look bloody fantastic. id has always made incredible-looking games and Doom Eternal is no different. Stratton explained how the PC build that we were playing was on the same level as the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X versions, although he also added that the original PS4 and Xbox One versions look "damn near the same" as their Pro and X counterparts. While we can't verify that claim ourselves, we were impressed playing in 1440p and later in 1080p when we took it down a notch for the gameplay capture at the end of our session.
A big part of the experience is the visual flair, especially when it comes to smashing demons in the face with a chainsaw. There seemed to be a whole bunch of glory kill animations, and all of the enemies were pleasingly reactive during our battles. Most impressive of all, however, is the destructible demon system. It lets you shoot bigger enemies apart, and you can see the damage on them as the fight develops. Major demons have weak points that you need to target, and once they're destroyed they become significantly less effective. If you encounter a Revenant or an Archnotron, the first thing you need to do is strip them of their primary weapon. Targeting these weak spots is a priority as soon as you encounter a more serious enemy because failure to nullify their offensive capabilities quickly will often mean a restart. Speaking of which, the load times (on our high-end gaming PC) were really snappy, and id clearly wants us back in the fight as soon as possible - a blessing when there's a stern challenge waiting around every other corner.
Traversal is more important to the whole, it would seem, with double boosts, wall climbing and monkey bars on hand to help you get around the place, further feeding into the light puzzle element. In truth, these moments, where we were bouncing from wall to wall and swinging on bars, were probably the part of the game that impressed us the least because they didn't feel quite as smooth as the normal movement. Still, we're splitting hairs and they also serve to break up the intense gunplay, and given how focused you have to be to get past the various encounters, a little (slightly janky) platforming is a nice chance to take a breather, especially as exploration often means you'll uncover secret areas, such as one we found that we unlocked with a key, giving us access to a challenging scenario just off the beaten track.
Doom Eternal is all about guns and gore, granted, but there is a story in there too. For those who seek it out, you'll find tidbits of narrative in codex entries dotted around the world, plus there are a few cutscenes that spell things out more clearly. You don't have to pay any attention to any of that - it's not really the point, after all - but it's there if you want it. We'll also be well-travelled by the end of our adventure, with Eternal taking us to a number of otherworldly locations that we'll not spoil here. Beyond that, what we will say is that we can't wait to see what id has been cooking up, because if it's as good as what we've played through so far, we're in for an absolute treat.
And that just about sums up our general feeling for Doom Eternal. Based on three hours with the game, we'll be getting a polished and intense shooter in March. It was challenging, sure, even a little frustrating at times, but it never felt too punishing or unfair, and the snappy load times gave us the chance to get back in the fight in double quick time and vanquish any feelings of failure. The gunplay is top-notch, our enemies are gloriously macabre, the environmental design is devilishly good, and there seems to be enough secrets and unlocks to keep dedicated players coming back again and again. If you hadn't guessed, we're very much looking forward to sitting down with the finished article, because everything we've seen so far points to this being id Software's finest game yet.