Is New DOOM A Return To Classic Campaign Design?

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Maybe it’s extremely late to comment on the singleplayer stream Bethesda Softworks held for DOOM last week, or maybe it’s just in time since the game comes out in a week. Either way, watching the stream archive this week has gone a long way in assuaging fears I’ve had for the game that basically went unanswered for months.

Almost all the excitement I’ve seen for DOOM this year surrounded the multiplayer because that’s what Bethesda and id Software covered and that’s what players talked about coming off the multiplayer beta. I don’t think I’ve ever directly stated it on this blog before but I’ll just go ahead put down a feeling I’ve had for a while:

I’m mostly not interested in multiplayer games these days, especially not competitive games.

This is unfortunate because this seems to be where the market is going right now, particularly for shooters. I don’t have numbers behind this right now, but the prevalence of full-price multiplayer-only games like OverwatchTitanfall, or Rainbow Six Siege, as well as games primarily built around online multiplayer like Destiny and The Division, seems to be putting singleplayer shooter campaigns into decline. Beyond the big ones like Call of DutyHalo, and Uncharted, I see fewer campaigns being made in the mainstream market.

It makes perfect sense I guess. Campaigns probably cost a lot more than multiplayer in relation to what players potentially get out of them. Many only finish a campaign once, if that, while multiplayer just keeps going. In multiplayer you also don’t really have to have this elaborate storyline with cut scenes and voice acting, or design a bunch of huge levels with choreographed set pieces or complex enemy AI. Multiplayer is probably a lot easier to test too — I imagine it’s easier for developers to get lots of data on what players are doing. Combine that with the increased focus on video games as continuous services instead of singular pieces of media.

From my perspective, the most significant singleplayer shooters of the current hardware generation have been Fallout 4Metal Gear Solid V, and Wolfenstein: The New Order. Maybe others would put in the last few Call of Duty games and Far Cry 4.

But I digress. The point is, if I buy DOOM, it’s going to be to get a good campaign. I probably won’t touch multiplayer. And this brings me to the chief concern of myself and probably every old school DOOM fan — that it won’t be DOOM. But what does that mean?

A lot of the conversation around old-style first person shooters mostly seems to focus on the core combat. People want DOOM to be about movement-focused combat with a variety of outlandish enemies and guns as opposed to Call of Duty’s stoic militarism. We’ve seen pre-2007 FPS combat return with games like Shadow Warrior and New Order. That’s all good and well, but what I haven’t seen make a big return until I watched the recent stream is the other important element I feel separated old shooters from modern ones: the level design.

You can just go look up that 1993 vs 2010 joke image to see what I’m talking about. It’s something I’ve realized as I’ve gone back to a lot of 90’s shooters. Levels back then were designed to feel like giant problems for the player to solve — you had to actually figure out how to get past this obstacle or find the key to that door. Many games did it in annoying ways but the industry pretty much decided to do away entirely with the elaborate maze-like style of level design you saw in classic DOOM. Post-Call of Duty campaigns are just singular paths that involve little thought beyond getting to the next piece of cover. I really like exploration in video games, so I prefer level design that asks the player to explore, not just go where it tells you to go.

Simply taking the combat back to the old school wouldn’t have been enough for me to invest in DOOM. I didn’t want it to just be another arena shooter. Even New Order has mostly linear level design. What I want is for some big developer to make elaborate, exploratory environments with modern art asset quality, and the DOOM singleplayer stream seems to point towards just that.

The first clue I got was of course when  the stream went to the automap, which reminds me of the map screen in Metroid Prime. Come to think of it more games should have map screens like Metroid Prime. The first Dead Space did a pretty good job with the style. I guess it’s because many singleplayer games don’t even have map screens for the reason I described above.

But all through the DOOM stream they talked about finding secrets and getting rewarded for exploration. They’re even bringing keycards back, though I hope they design the levels to where that aspect isn’t as confusing as it was in many old games. I’m just glad though because not enough big games are made for exploration anymore.

What really get’s to me is that in the stream it felt like I could already perceive the building blocks the levels were made. Maybe it’s because a majority of the rooms looked somewhat rectangular in orientation, but maybe they were built in a way not unlike how old DOOM maps where built. Maybe id’s tools aren’t even all that different from the tools we’ll get in SnapMap. SnapMap has probably been the most reassuring part of DOOM since its unveiling — that if id can’t make great maps, at least the mod community eventually can.

Whether or not id does make a good campaign, the stream at least makes the game look more like a DOOM sequel than like other modern first person shooters. The speed does look a bit slowed down for console controllers but that honestly doesn’t concern me to a great degree. What matters is that the people working on new DOOM seem to at least understand what makes it DOOM.

BULLETS:

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