Editor’s Note: This is another guest post by Durandal. Join our discord for more in-depth gameplay discussion. http://discord.gg/EfPY4r9
DOOM (2016) was the first game to mix character action design with first-person shooting. Unfortunately it also half-assed the execution. But, that means there’s plenty to learn from its mistakes.
First, some context. DOOM (2016) plays nothing like DOOM (1993) (henceforth referred to as nuDoom and olDoom). In olDoom combat and exploration intertwined, but most combat in nuDoom takes place in locked-off arenas. This was done to get around the Door Problem in olDoom and encourage aggressive play. Long-term resource management through item placement shifted to short-term by having fallen enemies drop most of your resources. You will spend most of your resources in the arenas where most of the enemies are, so this change makes sense. To make up for the simple enemy AI, olDoom relied on placing the enemies by hand and designing the levels around them. Trying to kill and trying to run past the enemies were equally risky. But in nuDoom, the enemies (and the player) have more movement options. To allow the enemies and player to exert their newfound mobility, the layouts became more circular and vertical. And instead of enemy placement, encounter design in nuDoom relies more on mixing different enemy behaviors. However, enemy design and level design is where nuDoom falls flat the most.
Arenas in beat ’em ups are usually flat, but they could create many unique encounters through mixing different enemy types. The hard part is creating uniquely threatening enemies with a good collective synergy so different combinations of enemies require a different approach. But in nuDoom, this isn’t the case. Most enemy attacks are dealt with in the same way (circlestrafing or getting the high ground). Your weapons aren’t very situational with regards to enemy composition, only distance/terrain. And most enemies can’t pressure you on time or space, since you’re often given the space to outrun them forever. On top of that, your weapon arsenal allows for a number of cheese strategies. Because of all this, new encounters don’t make you rethink your general gameplan. Once the game runs out of new weapons/enemies, the repetitive combat becomes more obvious.
nuDoom’s enemy bestiary should look good on paper. Imps can lead their shots to discourage circlestrafing. Mancubi have a short-range shockwave attack to prevent you from getting too close. Cyber-Mancubi can fire blobs that create damaging acid pools to constrain your movement. Possessed Soldiers can fire an airburst projectile which will flush you out of cover. Shieldguys have a short-range hitscan attack and can’t get damaged from the front. Cacodemons are big flying bulletsponges that always encroach into your personal space. Pinkies will charge past you and force you to split attention between the front and your rear. Revenants have jetpacks to shoot you from any point in the arena. Summoners will summon extra enemies. Hell Razers can fire sweeping lasers and force you to jump. Hell Knights/Barons of Hell can chase you around even if you have the high ground. Lost Souls act as homing missiles and can only get dodged by shooting them down in time or breaking line of sight.
But in practice, it’s a different story. The leading on regular Imp fireballs is barely noticeable, as they’ll often plain miss the mark. Their charged fireball attack does have accurate leading, but Imps stand still when charging one, making it easy to interrupt. The Mancubus’ close-range attacks trigger at too short a range and too long a time to be noticeable at all. They should be near-instant with a much larger range to properly punish getting too close. And because the arenas are so spacious, you rarely have to deal with their short-range attacks anyways. So the range of the Cyber-Mancubus’ acid pools is also too small to ever bother paying attention to. The Possessed Soldiers’ airburst attack is effective, but for some reason they can’t turn when charging it, so when closeby you can just circle around them and watch them completely miss you. The Shieldguys can get killed with one Gauss Cannon shot through their shield, turning them into a joke once you get the Gauss. The Cacodemons’ movement speed is too slow to be able to keep up with your mobility and given space. The Pinkies’ charge attack is best used with enemies or arenas where you can’t strafe or climb with ease, only that is rarely the case. Hell Razers have god-awful accuracy and it’s easy to forget they even exist. Revenants are tankier Imps without the leading shots, making them irrelevant fodder with no niche. Hell Knights and Barons of Hell actually serve their purpose as a chaser well. The Barons are tougher Knights who can throw leading fireballs, making them an actual threat you have to worry about. But they’re only (rarely) used in the last levels of the game, and the game doesn’t explore them as much as it could.
Lost Souls pose an immediate threat, but a problem occurs when they spawn outside your FoV. They home in so fast–by the time you hear them and are turning around to find them you already got hit. Unless you memorized their spawn position, that is (this is also why hitscan enemies á la olDoom would be a bad idea in nuDoom). Thus Lost Souls should only ever spawn in your FoV to make their kamikaze attacks reactable.
Summoners are one of the few enemies you want to focus on because they pose a time-sensitive threat. But they don’t lend well to enemy synergy, since Summoners are always top priority no matter what. While the Archvile in Doom 2 served the same role, it was also tanky and required heavy commitment to kill. Always focusing on the Archvile wasn’t a good idea because that gave other enemies an opening to attack you. Meanwhile the Summoner can get staggered with a single Lock-On Burst/Siege Mode shot. If it’s that easy to kill an enemy that poses a major long-term threat, then they should always be your top priority. If only Summoners had more health, then they’d be an excellent enemy.
When so few enemies can shut down your mobility, it falls on the arena design to make up for it. In nuDoom that doesn’t happen. Most arenas are on the spacious side, making it easy to keep enemies at an arm’s length. The verticality of the arenas only provides more escape options, as enemies do not actively try to prevent you from getting the high ground. The AI for melee enemies in particular has no answer for what to do when you’re constantly jumping from higher platforms to the floor or bouncing repeatedly on jump pads. And to make things worse, later arenas introduce portals. These teleport you to a safe part of the arena, allowing you to get out of sticky situations with ease.
Some arenas also have power-ups which trivialize entire encounters. Quad Damage is self-explanatory, Invulnerability is self-explanatory, and Berserk lets you insta-Glory Kill any demon in sight with the press of a button. Only Haste is at all balanced as it only speeds up player movement and animations. In older shooters, power-ups were used as secrets or to allow for encounter design that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But nuDoom places power-ups right in the open, and the opposition is never that overwhelming to warrant them. Power-ups in nuDoom have no interesting choice associated with them other than choosing when to use them at all, or at a specific time (opportunity cost). Here they don’t make the gameplay deeper, only simpler.
As most arenas can’t force you to rethink your gameplan, they start feeling repetitive. One way to avoid this would be making arenas less spacious. This would force you to deal with the Mancubi’s close-range denial properties. It would get harder to outrun Knights/Barons/Pinkies. And Cacodemons could get in your face much faster. It would make you actually consider the enemies’ roles and presence if you want to survive.
Another potential means of limiting mobility could be environmental hazards. Think damaging floors, floors that slow you down, turrets firing projectiles, and moving hazards that deal contact damage. Imagine the floor of an arena being all lava. Now there’s much less safe space to move around in. You’d have to consider the enemies occupying the platforms you want to move towards. Depending on the size of the platforms you’d have to escape the moment a Hell Knight comes leaping in, and so on.
Many weapon upgrades in nuDoom undermine the weapon balance by enabling powerful cheese strategies. For example, The Super Shotgun can get upgraded to decrease its reload time and fire twice before having to reload. But each single blast deals a double blast’s worth of damage; doubling the DPS for the same ammo cost. This lets you delete all low-tier enemies and stagger mid-tier enemies within seconds. The tankiness of some enemies is what makes them interesting when paired with other enemies, as they’re threats you can’t make go away easily. Unless you have an upgraded Super Shotgun, that is.
The Plasma Rifle’s Stun Bomb mod is just plain broken. It allows you to stun a group of demons for several seconds, which works against every demon type. And when upgraded, its cooldown and ammo cost is almost negligible. Baron being a pain? Stun Bomb it. Pinky about to ram you? Stun Bomb it. Is the game trying to challenge you? Stun Bomb it. The Stun Bomb invalidates so much of the challenge and enemy niches, that it’s almost ridiculous.
Then there’s the Gauss Cannon’s Siege Mode. Unupgraded, it has an interesting risk/reward dynamic. You can charge a shot that can one-shot all low/mid-tier demons, but you can’t move while charging. It requires good positioning and timing to pull off without getting hit, so you can’t use it whenever. Upgraded, the charge time gets reduced and you can move while charging, making it dead simple to quickly fire several shots and decimate all heavy demons.
Finally, there’s the BFG. In olDoom, it worked like a shotgun with a massive horizontal spread. You could point-blank demons for big single-target damage, or stand in the open to hit the most demons at once–encouraging aggressive play. In nuDoom, the BFG fires an orb that insta-kills almost every demon in its line of sight. There is no depth to it other than finding the best opportunity to use it and aiming the shot at where it can hit the most demons. It’s a panic button, for which you can hold up to three charges on top of arenas containing extra BFG charges! Part of what should make nuDoom engaging is fighting demons, yet here the BFG lets you skip that. The BFG is plain overkill, and there is no good reason for why you would not want to use it against anything that seems like it’ll push out of your comfort zone.
While there’s nothing wrong with panic button mechanics, there should be a good reason to not use them. Otherwise it’s likely that newer players will frequently rely on them as a crutch to get through difficult encounters, and so have less reason to interact with the full depth of the gameplay. For example, in bullet hell games you will often get extra points for not using your panic button. In The Ninja Warriors Again your panic button would deplete your entire super gauge, preventing you from using your more powerful EX moves for a while. And the Serious Bombs in Serious Sam were very rare, meaning you couldn’t always rely on them. There should be a limitation on panic buttons in either power or rarity, where nuDoom chooses neither.
Normally shooters will limit ammo and force you to churn through weapons with other ammo types, making fights vary based on what weapons have ammo at any given time. nuDoom tries to accomplish this (in spite of the questionable weapon balance) through the Chainsaw, where chainsawing a demon insta-Glory Kills them and makes them drop a third of each ammo type. And since the Chainsaw runs on limited fuel, you have to ration its usage.
In practice, it’s a different story. You can upgrade your max ammo for all weapons, which also expands your max Chainsaw fuel. After fully upgrading max ammo, your max ammo for all weapons has tripled, and your max Chainsaw fuel has seven pips. Now consider that Chainsaw kill ammo drops scale with your max ammo. This gives you more ammo than you will ever spend in a single fight. Especially if you add in the ammo pick-ups already present in the arenas. Because of this, ammo-costly power weapons like the Rocket Launcher, Super Shotgun, and Gauss Cannon can get used all the time, which ends up making your more situational weapons redundant. There’s less of a need to switch weapons if you have the ammo to use the SS or RL for an entire fight.
Even so, it’s also a problem that a lot of weapons or their mods aren’t worth using to begin with. Your starting pistol has infinite ammo and is meant to be a fallback weapon for when you’re dry. But after max ammo upgrades you’ll never find yourself using the Pistol again. The Combat Shotgun’s Charged Burst pales to the versatility of the Explosive Shot. And on its own it’s a less ammo/DPS efficient Super Shotgun blast anyways. The Scope mod for the Heavy Assault Rifle is never worth it. It only lets you zoom in and deal a bit more headshot damage, at which point you might as well use the Gauss Cannon. The Plasma Rifle itself has no niche, what with it being a slightly more powerful HAR with less range. And on top of that it shares the same ammo type with the much more useful Gauss Cannon. The Plasma Rifle’s Heat Blast does not begin to compare to the utility of the Stun Bomb. So does the Precision Bolt mod for the Gauss Cannon not fill a good niche to make it worth using over Siege Mode. The Chaingun itself isn’t worth using that much, especially on Nightmare difficulty. Most of your damage comes from switch canceling between several weapons, so a weapon that doesn’t do burst damage loses relevance. Neither does the Chaingun have unique utility to offset this fact. The Gatling Rotator skips the Chaingun wind-up, but that doesn’t fix the lack of a niche for the Chaingun. Mobile Turret does have higher DPS and can stunlock some enemies, but it slows you down when deployed. And on Nightmare, being slow is a death sentence. Compared to Siege Mode, you’d have to stay immobile longer using Mobile Turret to achieve similar DPS. So if you want to risk being immobile for more damage, you’re better off using Siege Mode instead.
When designing around arena combat, you also have to decide what to do with everything outside arenas. If the game is always operating at 100% intensity, the player will get tired fast. Back-to-back arenas can work for arcade-length games, less so for games with 10+ hour campaigns. Unfortunately, nuDoom goes too hard on the inter-arena downtime. Only a handful of minor enemies will get placed outside arenas, which are a total bore to fight. In olDoom, even fights against minor enemies had some tension to them. Resources in olDoom were finite, so each shot you missed or hit you took mattered. But in nuDoom, each enemy is a potential source of ammo and health. Even if you do take a hit in minor encounters, it’s usually not that big of a deal. Having roaming enemies like in olDoom wouldn’t be that engaging in nuDoom as a result.
nuDoom tries to reduce downtime with platforming, but the platforming in nuDoom is very shallow. It’s always about having to make the same (double) jump over a static gap, and the game never asks more of you beyond that. Sometimes you have to wait for moving platforms to jump on, but that’s about it. This is not to say that platforming in nuDoom is inherently bad (nuDoom’s movement is certainly more suitable for platforming than something like DMC), but it would have to get expanded on more to not feel so repetitive.
The downtime could be made more bearable by allowing more speed tech like in ULTRAKILL. That would make moving fast from one arena to the next less boring, as in nuDoom your main mode of moving around is just holding down the Move Forward button. There’s no on-demand speed tech in nuDoom other than Gauss Jumping and Grenade Jumping. But you only get the Gauss Cannon halfway through the game, and Grenade Jumping is tied to a cooldown. Though it should be said that more advanced movement isn’t a prerequisite for a good FPS (in olDoom you couldn’t even jump), and would further unbalance nuDoom’s combat if added in willy-nilly.
At the core of nuDoom’s combat there’s Glory Kills: melee a staggered demon, and you will perform a finisher that gives you health. It incentivizes you to stay close to enemies and in the thick of the fight, rather than trying to take potshots from a distance. Since most projectiles in nuDoom are harder to dodge and hit harder (compared to olDoom) and because it saves ammo, you’re taught to rely a lot on Glory Kills.
To get new players to embrace this system, the developers decided to make you invincible and prevent enemies from initiating new attacks during a Glory Kill. On Ultra-Violence and below, Glory Kills are usually safe. But on Nightmare, demons can attack you right as your Glory Kill invincibility ends (this example is from Eternal, but it applies to nuDoom too). Attacks that were initiated before a Glory Kill won’t get canceled, so it can happen that you get hit by an Imp fireball that was launched before a Glory Kill and hits you right after it ends. If you consider that on Nightmare Glory Kills only drop +5 HP while a regular Imp fireball deals -50 HP damage, using Glory Kills is often not worth it.
The largest risk behind Glory Kills is that they briefly make you lose situational awareness. By the time you’re done Glory Killing a demon, other demons can swarm you and move around you, leaving you in a tough position. You can’t look or hear what’s happening around you when Glory Killing, meaning you just have to hope for the best that you don’t get hit right after it ends. Similar finisher mechanics in top-down and third-person games don’t suffer from this because you can still see around you during the execution, which gives you the information to make a plan for what to do next after the execution ends. So a mechanic like this in a first-person game is inherently risky. To make Glory Kills properly safe, the invincibility/combat pause would have to be extended for a while after the player has regained control, and all enemy movement during a Glory Kill would have to be frozen. The game could also offer an alternative method of Glory Killing where you can finish off a staggered enemy with a regular melee attack that doesn’t play a finisher animation or lock you in place. The paired finisher animations could be then treated as purely optional.
But the potentially more interesting approach here is for the Glory Kills to double down on their risk. Imagine if Glory Kills (and the Chainsaw) gave you no invincibility at all, and the health drops got tuned to make them worth the risk. Instead of a finisher move that’s always safe to use, Glory Kills could be more of a situational tool with trade-offs you had to consider. Glory Kills tend to feel like they break the flow of combat because of how often you get to do them. But once you remove the i-frames, you’d be way less inclined to do them all the time. Outside the visceral satisfaction of brutalizing a demon, you’d now also have the satisfaction of pulling off a Glory Kill without getting hit during. Glory Kills restoring a major portion of your health would also make them useful on Nightmare. There’d be a lot more depth to Glory Kills if you had to think about when it’s proper to use them (and on Nightmare this is already how Glory Kills more or less work anyways). And if you are on low health, enemies in nuDoom already drop health on death regardless of how they are killed, so it’s not as if making Glory Kills harder to do would make replenishing health impossible.
To make informed decisions (for Glory Kills) you need to be able to know what’s going on outside your FoV. In first-person games with arenas as circular as in nuDoom, that’s especially important. Other first-person games like Thief and Devil Daggers tackled this problem by having the player rely on sound for information. That way you can hear what’s happening outside your FoV. But this is where nuDoom drops the ball. The audio mix is so bassy and muddled that it’s impossible to discern the position of most sounds during combat. Many attacks and enemy movements aren’t telegraphed with sound to begin with, and the distracting djent music playing in the background doesn’t help either. That said, the screeching of Lost Souls and Pinkies when they’re about to charge you are prioritized in the mix as they should be. But for other attacks, you only hear them right as they’re about to hit you.
Especially on Nightmare you’ll find yourself getting sniped to death by Imps outside your FoV, where a single fireball shaves off 50HP. As enemies are always spawning around you, you cannot react to or hear that you’re getting sniped from behind because of the poor sound design. You can only hope that staying on the move won’t get you hit. As it is, getting sniped from behind leads to many frustrating deaths where you don’t know what exactly you did wrong or how you even died.
The most obvious solution would be to play a sound cue for when you’re being targeted with a ranged attack from outside your FoV. A more intrusive approach would be to add an indicator on your HUD showing where from behind you are being targeted from, á la Ace Combat 7. At the very least, attacks you can’t reliably react to shouldn’t deal so much damage.
You can find Runes through Rune Trials, which give you extra abilities like increased item pick-up range and faster Glory Kills. But one drawback is that Runes are only found at fixed points in the game. So if you want In-Flight Mobility (enable airstrafing), you need to wait until the seventh level to get it. Since the point of the Rune system is to customize your playstyle, only being able to get the Runes you want way late into the game is counter-productive. One solution would be after clearing a Rune Trial you can pick one of all the available Runes as a reward.
Some Runes like Blood Fueled (gain a temporary speed boost on Glory Kills) and Seek and Destroy (increased Glory Kill activation range) add a lot more depth and utility to Glory Kills, that I’m not sure why they aren’t core abilities. On Nightmare Glory Kills don’t drop much health, so there isn’t much point to using them then. But with Runes, you can use Glory Kills as a movement tool. You can stagger a demon on a ledge above you can’t reach normally, and then Glory Kill yourself up the ledge. Or you could use Glory Kills for a general speed boost.
Credit where credit’s due, nuDoom’s boss fight design is leaps beyond everything the FPS genre shat out before it. For starters, circlestrafing isn’t the dominant strategy. The Cyberdemon has a missile spam attack which carpet bombs the whole arena. It can also make walls rise out of the earth to your left and right, limiting your horizontal movement. The Spider Mastermind will turn the floor into lava and force you to climb onto platforms to avoid damage. What’s more, nuDoom made the revolutionary (for FPS games) discovery of having attacks that are only avoidable by jumping over them. You certainly won’t be able to circlestrafe around wide projectiles or spinning lasers. While Metroid Prime’s bosses did this already, they almost never layered these attacks with others as nuDoom did. By mixing different attacks together that each impose on your movement in unique ways, you can create a lot of interesting attack patterns. This way nuDoom’s bosses actually test your movement, instead of being boring circlestrafefests or abstract puzzles like most FPS bosses before.
Before I get ahead of myself, I should say that the bosses in nuDoom are still mediocre in the grand scale of things. While they do test your movement, movement is only one part of combat. As you will be fighting against one boss enemy, the obvious weapon choices are always Rocket Launcher/Siege Mode/Chaingun. Because the bosses are so large and don’t try to dodge your shots, hitting them is trivial. So your aiming, weapon selection and target prioritization skills don’t get tested, and your movement isn’t tested hard enough to make up for it. The defense part of the boss fights in nuDoom is decent, but the offense is underdeveloped. One way to counteract that would be spawning in regular enemies. This would make you divide your aim and weapon selection between the boss and its minions. That way you can’t just switch cancel the boss to death if you don’t want to get swamped by its minions.
Post-launch, nuDoom also got an Arcade Mode. It introduces a scoring system, and skips a lot of the platforming and unskippable pseudo-cutscenes of the campaign. I’d recommend Arcade Mode over Campaign Mode, but unfortunately Arcade Mode has some problems too. If you want to disable upgrades on weapon mods or max ammo for the sake of challenge, then that’s not possible. If you want to get high ranks without having to use power-ups (and make the game not seem like a cakewalk), then that’s not possible either. Higher score ranks expect you to use the score multiplier from using power-ups. But more importantly, the scoring system is completely busted.
One of the primary scoring methods is getting medals by performing special actions like Glory Kills. To then get the most points, you have to get the most possible medals out of each enemy. The most lucrative combo is to Stun Bomb an enemy, then finish it off with a Charged Burst to the head (netting you the Stunned Enemy, Headshot, and Triple-Hit medals). On every single enemy.
Scoring-wise the Stun Bomb gives you an easy optimal way to maximize your score. This is disappointing as the Stun Bomb is already the most powerful and easy-to-use tool in the game. The scoring system also only expects you to use a part of your arsenal instead of all of it, which is wasted potential since it doesn’t play to nuDoom’s strengths. Ideally, scoring systems should discourage safe playstyles by making riskier and more interesting plays worth more points, and encourage utilizing the full extent of your toolset. Ways of doing this could be rewarding not getting hit and clearing arenas as fast as possible, but also not using your overly powerful options (BFG, Stun Bomb) and encouraging switching weapons.
To sum things up, nuDoom did a lot of innovative things for the genre, but they fell short of what they could have accomplished due to poor balance and ineffective enemy/level design. Doom Eternal seems to be addressing a lot of these issues, so hopefully it turns out better.