Doom Eternal throws me into situation after situation of pulse-pounding difficulty. Imps are throwing fireballs at me and weird digital manticores with shields are screaming and some asshole, and I mean a real asshole, is forcing me to stand there and wait to counterattack. And all the while I’m trying to hit glowing parts of enemies, aiming for Glory Kills that will give me some health back, and trying not to die. I mean really, really trying not to die. And in the middle of this edge-of-my-seat skill wizardry, on that edge of my skills and abilities, doing all these things that everyone tells me these Doom games are all about, I can’t help thinking about how silly it is.
Because Doom Eternal isn’t just about shooting demons in hallways and arenas. It is the story of a guy who is part of the eternal struggle between heaven and hell, light and dark, good and evil. And through his experiences and the items he picks up, we learn that these easily divided concepts aren’t all that divided. Without spoiling too much, I can say that our protagonist Doomguy learns that he’s a part of a vaster system of betrayal and violence than he previously knew.
All of this storytelling of big, epic ideas takes place between segments of platforming, gut-ripping, and wall-climbing. There are massive slain demons and powered hell-fighting suits. There are soul factories, and there’s a robust explanation of how hell extracts energy from the human souls that they are harvesting from the earth throughout the game. This is all given weight and gravity by this epic story that contextualizes it all within a long history of the Sentinels, a protector army from a fallen civilization, and their knightly order that goes back to the beginning of their species. We learn of their deals with angels, their war against hell, and a very deep codex of lore that gives a blow-by-blow of how Doomguy fits into the logic.
This is the first time I have ever found the experience of learning to be silly. It is a bizarre phenomenon. I have never before had this almost out of body thing happen where I am playing a game, just doing my thing, and thinking the entire time “why does this exist? Why are these words here? Why were these choices made?” It’s like having an earworm of the greatest pop song, except it is a deep desire to be critical of the thing in front of me.
I don’t have some kind of grudge against Eternal. I think it’s a middling thing that does shooting real good. But slamming that shooting into a big, epic story framework that’s basically an interactive heavy metal album cover feels like someone made Brutal Legend with a straight face. In the middle of that, there’s also a lot of weird lampshade hanging. A parodic news announcer that shows up through the game calls the protagonist (who is legendarily named the Slayer) simply “Doomguy” and “Doom Marine.” Those are the things we call him! The game opens with the rip and tear lines from the Doom comic, and they come back later as a battle cry of a powerful band of interplanar warriors.
Polygon’s Chris Plante is probably the best reviewer so far to grapple with this silliness, and his review comes out as an implicit defense of it all. He advocates for a “lack of shame” and extols the virtues of the “badass” qualities that the game sets up. It is, as he says, extremely confident. But where Plante and I diverge is around the value of that confidence. For Plante, the fact that this is a ballet-like game of violence means that we should be looking to all this context and story set dressing as just that. The core of the game, for him, is the shooting and the movement and the moment-to-moment combat. Everything else is set dressing that we can chuckle at and move on after because damn, this shooting is special.
But I don’t think the shooting is particularly special. This doesn’t scratch an itch for me at all. Despite growing up as a true lover of Quake, my thousands of hours in Call of Duty games and the Halo series have given me strong opinions about what I do and do not like in a shooter. Doom Eternal is just fine. It’s a hard game that puts difficult situations in front of you and uses excellent feedback to make it clear that when you win you’ve done something.
And the silliness I can’t get over with this game comes from that fact that I experience those shooting mechanics as set dressing. The guns are like a thousand other guns. The moment to moment of picking targets and enemies and making calls as to how I take them down are given to me in every other FPS game. Unlike Julie Muncy, I don’t think that Eternal’s problem is that it goes for too much. It’s that it tells this big, bombastic story without any seriousness behind it. It gives the whole thing the same bad feeling that you get when you’re at a bar with a friend-of-a-friend who tells an off-color joke who quickly pivots when it doesn’t land. Did they think it would be funny? Were they testing the waters to see if I would laugh? What the hell does this person believe, and why are they bringing this stuff up? It’s unsettling, and not in the good way that a horror game might do it.
To use an unartful metaphor, Doom Eternal is like a hot dog. It’s a unique one, and there are parts of it unlike other games, but at the core it’s a tube of food in a bun, and the first-person shooting is a delicious brat. Where the genre splits off is in toppings: Call of Duty is a spicy slaw dog. Halo has the honey mustard feel. PUBG has salt on it for some reason. Doom Eternal has that awesome bratwurst at the core, but for some reason it’s garnished it with cotton candy and chocolate syrup. And we’re calling this thing fine dining because we were able to sort out the sugary, mixed-up grit from between our teeth to get that delicious brat.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman. He is the Editor at Large for Paste Games.