Surprise! Doom Is Still An Incredible Game

Surprise! Doom Is Still An Incredible Game

I have a confession to make: my introduction to shooters began with Halo and Half-Life 2, and because of this, I only recently tried my hand at Doom, id Software's 1993 shooter. Because Doom was so old, I figured it had nothing to teach me.

Surely other games had done what Doom had, only better, right? I was wrong. I have now played the game. It taught me a lot, especially about how a game can capitalise on provoking a player's curiosity and how it can make the most out of the element of surprise.

I can now see why Doom sits atop many people's "greatest game of all time" lists. It is tightly-constructed, absolutely fun once you get into its groove, and one of the most influential video games ever made. In the twenty-one years since the game's release, a lot has been said about Doom, usually by people who've played it time and time again and know the game inside and out.

I've just played Doom for the first time, so my outlook is a bit different.

E1M3: Toxin Refinery is the level where Doom began to click for me. I played on the "Hurt me plenty" difficulty, which is Doom's default. It's worth noting that enemy spawns change via difficulty — where newer games often simply change enemy health and damage, Doom changes enemy spawns. Playing the level E1M1 on Ultra-Violence difficulty, for instance, adds former human sergeants who aren't present on Hurt Me Plenty. It's a neat take on difficulty that I wish more games would emulate, not just because it's a more creative challenge, but because it enhances replayability.

At the start of E1M3, you'll find a giant pool of toxic goo. On the other side of it, you'll see a former human sergeant. One of the cool things about Doom is that it often shows you things before you engage with them. Contrast this with a modern military shooter that often has you enter a room, enemies flood in from the other side, and a firefight begins. Not so here: you see the most dangerous enemy in the room, but you don't have to deal with him immediately. Take your time, think it through.

Surprise! Doom Is Still An Incredible Game

Later on, you'll enter a hallway. Through a window to your left, you can see a blue soul sphere sitting on a plinth. Soul spheres boost player health, though, with Doom's limited visual palette, one might assume it's just some sort of set decoration. I thought it was at first, but around it, I noticed imps, Doom's fireball-throwing demons. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to get to the imps or the soul sphere, so I continued onwards.

This is one of the really cool things about Doom. The soul sphere is surrounded by monsters, which means there's got to be a way to get to it, though not from where you're standing. Doom is showing you something you can't get to, which encourages you to ask questions like "What is that?" and "how do I get there?" Can you imagine a modern shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield doing such a thing? With regenerating health systems, there's no reason to include a massive health bonus in the game, much less dangle it in front of players and encourage them to figure out how to reach it.

In the hallway, you can continue forwards, through a door, or take a left into a small room full of monsters. The monsters in Doom are like breadcrumbs. There's no need for modern-style map markers to tell you where to go when the allure of more gameplay nearby is enough. With monsters in the next room, Doom lures players in, saving the door for later. Take a left, clear out the little room, and you'll find a switch. Flip it. If you're paying attention, you'll also notice that one of the walls of this little room is a lift. Hop on and it will take you to a room full of health and ammo. When you're done, just ride it back down.

If you return to the section of the hallway that overlooks the soul sphere, you'll find that the switch you flipped opened a door to a room full of computers. On the left side is a secret lift, and if you hurry, you can catch it. Doing so will trigger a secret door leading to the soul sphere room; on the base of the plinth, you can find a switch which lowers it and delivers your prize.

Surprise! Doom Is Still An Incredible Game

Head back up the stairs, and you'll spot a similar lift across the room.

Two cool things are happening here: first, Doom is using this moment to teach players that crossing certain thresholds can trigger secrets. Additionally, it's not possible to see a second secret door upon entering the computer room; it's only possible when you exit the first secret room that you see the second. Enter it, and you'll find a rocket launcher, ammo, and enemies. Keeping a sharp eye, you might notice a small tunnel off to the side, which will lead you to another secret room, then another, and finally, the first secret room, depositing you right back where you started, freeing you to move forward.

Kill some monsters, look around, and you'll find a path through a room full of more toxic goo. The path forks with another pool of goo in the middle. It doesn't matter which one you take, just kill the monsters and cross the room. On the other side, you'll be ambushed. I like to dispatch the guy on the right first, since there's only one of him, but the first time I did, I was using a shotgun, and I shot both the guy and the barrel next to him, which exploded, killing me. Not a smart move.

Surprise is a useful tool that Doom's designers use well. In the next room, you'll find a blue keycard, the one you need to leave the level. Unfortunately, when you take it, the lights shut off, a door opens, and three imps ambush you. Despite the graphics being decades old, I was still startled the first time. It's a great moment that spices up the way you play, if only for a short while.

Surprise! Doom Is Still An Incredible Game

Now it's time to backtrack to the beginning. If you look down in the forked pathway, you'll notice a health kit in the goo pit below and a concrete platform next to a switch. Jumping down there, you can flip the switch and raise that entire section out of the goo, allowing you to get out of the pit.

Here, Doom reveals something new through backtracking — it's not something we might have seen heading forward, but on our return to the beginning, it's clear how to access the health kit. I've played some bad games that encourage backtracking without anything to show for it, but Doom offers a prize — one which, by the way, would feel meaningless in a game with a modern regenerative health system.

Back at the start, you'll find that a bridge has been raised above this toxic goo switch too, the result of one of the switches you flipped earlier. It looks like it runs straight into a wall, but as you now well know, just because something looks like a wall doesn't mean it is. It's often a secret door. In this case, it leads you to a small room with some goodies inside.

This is my favourite moment in E1M3.

It's a trap! Grabbing the goodies triggers the walls to pull away, revealing plenty of monsters. Once you defeat them, the walls pull away again to reveal even more monsters. When you win, you can take the secret exit out, bypass a bunch of levels, and find yourself in E1M9. Of course, if that doesn't suit you, you can always complete E1M3 the normal way. Doom will support either approach.

Surprise! Doom Is Still An Incredible Game

Doom has things I think a lot of newer games lack. Its health system encourages players to move around the space in search of resources. You can't simply stand still and wait for your health to come back, you have to actively seek out things to find. This feeds into Doom's secret hunting. There's no in-game training that tells you "sometimes, when you enter a room, you trigger a secret," or "if a wall has a different texture, it's a secret door." These things are hinted at clearly, and players are encouraged to figure out how they work. In the soul sphere's case, players literally get to see the prize, but they have to figure out how to get it themselves.

Another cool thing Doom does is surprise. I can't even remember the last game I played that felt as surprising as Doom does. I love hearing an enemy ready to fire, turning sharply, shooting him, and accidentally killing myself in the process because I didn't know an explosive would be there. Suddenly having all the lights go out and barely being able to see was a moment of pure glee for me. Expecting to pick up some health, being ambushed by a bunch of monsters, then surviving only to be ambushed again is simply one of my favourite moments in video games.

Ever heard of chronological snobbery? It's a term for a logical fallacy coined by novelist C.S. Lewis to describe the belief that things from the past are not as good as things from the present simply because they are old. Over the years, I've met plenty of people who've fallen prey to its charms, thinking that just because a game is old, it doesn't have anything to offer.

I spent years thinking I didn't need to play Doom, but I was wrong. Few shooters these days rely on curiosity or surprise the way Doom did. While I love playing Call of Duty and Far Cry as much as the next guy, I can't say either series ever made me curious or surprised. Modern games are fun — they have their place — but old games still have something to offer. They're still worth playing. They're still meaningful and fun.

GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can't get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.


    I played the shit out of this game back in the day.. the memories

    it saddens me when kids (17yo's) say: "whats doom"

    whats doom?

    whats doom!!!

    booooom chick chick

    Once i borrowed my old man's hammer drill to punch a small (ish) hole in the wall from my room to my parents study just so my mates and i could LAN party doom. So worth the trouble i got into for that.

    This game was freakin' unreal.

    And how generous was the demo? Didn't seem to hurt the sales either.

      Back when shareware was more commonplace than a demo.
      Loved all the apogee and similar shareware games, Jazz Jackrabbit ftw!

      I guess Telltale do it now days with Free first episodes now and then on some platforms.

    This is a great article. Well done! I think I want to play Doom again. I agree with almost every point you make - but I didn't realise until I read this. Maps that require back tracking and loop around on themselves. Levels rather than environment corridors.

    Like you, I only got to play the classic DOOMs recently (I'm still trying to work my way through Final DOOM, the super-hard double expansion pack) although I knew a lot about them. I actually played DOOM 3 and Resurrection of Evil first (also many years after their initial release) and thought they were awesome, but it was the original games that really blew me away. These games are TRUE classics- despite their massive technical limitations (can't look up or down, can't jump, no inventory for any usable item that isn't a weapon etc) they are still 100% playable and just as thrilling and enjoyable as they were on the day of their release. The map exploration, the puzzles, the secrets, the ambushes, the MASSIVE guns, the complete lack of crouching in cover waiting for your health to regenerate, the nonlinearity, the pace, the mood- sheer awesome. DOOM 4 may be one of the few upcoming games I'm still vaguely anticipating, but even at my most optimistic I don't really believe it can live up to the originals because... I seriously doubt anything in today's industry ever can.

    Doom is still my favourite game of all time (well I tend to include Doom II there usually). the sheer balance and ingenious design choices (many of which are mentioned in the article) still make it a worthy game indeed. I also like the fact that the player is generally extremely quick nimble (being the fastest character in the game and) making up for the fact that while you're better protected than in Wolf3D, that mobility ends up being one of your best assets (especially in Doom II's bigger levels).

    It also awesome that there's so much in the way of "custom wads/mods" and ongoing development of modern sourceports that bring new features to game(s) (my favourite being GZDoom). To me, it's no surprise that the game is still incredible, because at the core, the amount of consideration and care that got put into it (even in spite of limitations) still made for an amazing game and it just "got things right"; something a lot of games are unable to match IMO, since expectations of what makes a game are very different (e.g. heavy use of cutscenes, scripted moments, linearity - Doom had multiple paths in a map usually and everyone has had those flinch moments when they realise too late an enemy has pursued them half-way across a level!).

    Years later I played Doom III (once I had a good enough PC for it) and, aside from some mods online or some custom tweaks (in order to make the weapons more effective for instance), the game itself was a disappointment. The weapons were absolutely pathetic, combat felt poorer (too many "pest monster moments" and emphasis was on very small groups of enemies teleporting in), there was too little of hell (which had looked awesome), and while the environments looked nice - too many interior base and (later) cavern levels). Felt like the game was held back by both the engine at the time (being focused on lighting/shadows) and the story (the first story is still better to me).

    My favourite level is Tower of Babel, it was the first time I felt genuinely terrified in a game.

    It is also one of those rare games that made taking a rocket to the face feel incredibly painful.

    Yeah, a couple of months ago I went back through Doom and Doom 2, plus the extra levels that came with the Doom 3 anniversary pack, it was a real treat.

    The only thing that bugged me about the game was that the item percentage completion only counted when you collected an item. So if you want 100% of all items you have to waste ammo and get hurt.

      AFAIK, item completion only applied to a select number of items in the first place though (and those items were all able to be picked up regardless of health or current ammo), and didn't apply to every powerup item (e.g. not for Radiation Suit). I'm not sure if earlier versions of the game behaved differently or not though.

        I only played it recently. I saved and reloaded to check. I had to pick up every shotgun shell and health pack to reach 100%.

    One thing I miss about the older style games, the don't have that regenerating health bullcrap. With the health pickup style games, you get more of a rush. I remember being on 10 health, getting a backpack (in Doom 2 I think it was), then a wall coming down revealing Barons and Spiders. My adrenaline kicked in hard, I remember getting a sort of tunnel vision, I played better than I thought I could and managed to beat them.

    Games nowadays, you take too much damage, all you need to do is get behind something for a bit.

      Yeah but Doom was also quite forgiving in a way. Aside from hitscan enemies such as former humans (who were able to be dispatched quite easily and became less prevalent later in the game) and the Spider Mastermind, most enemies are able to be dodged (and quite easily too for veterans of the game) and health items were (in most maps) quite fair. Under those conditions "limited health" is fine.

      I don't think it'd be quite the same if it were like many other games (e.g. CoD) where you've got fast reacting enemies with guns that can fill you with bullets quite quickly. That being said, I kinda wish more games would encourage the fast paced dodging/control that Doom gave players (to me that would make having limited health be much more fun).

    Doom/2 are great enemies, flawless level design and great music with incredibly dated gameplay.

    Brutal Doom rectifies that and IMO it's basically the perfect FPS.

    Last edited 28/03/15 4:40 pm

      Brutal Doom is epic!
      I loved Doom before, but Brutal Doom takes it to a new level! :D

    This is a good explanation of why I HATE regenerating health the point that I think it pretty much completely destroys games. Without regenerating health there's tension and excitement; your health is low, you could die at any moment, but you have to DO something to fix this. You have to keep progressing in your weakened state to find the next healthpack. With regenerating health? There might be 15 seconds of tension at best, but you just hide behind a rock and... yep, good to go again.

    I hate what this does to the pacing of a game. I hate what it does to the tension curve of a game. I hate what it does to the impact of being hit.

    I suppose it simplifies level design somewhat because you don't need to think about where to put health items to keep the game paced well and at the desired level of difficulty. That's not a good reason to do it. I don't think it necessarily makes games more accessible or easier... I just don't get it. It sucks. And it's EVERYWHERE.

    There are other things (like hitmarkers in games where concealment is meant to play a big role or ludicrously short TTKs in online games) that have become staples of FPS games and third-person shooters as well that strike me as being abjectly terrible and I really wish it would stop.

    Maybe I'm just a grumpy old man with rose-tinted glasses and want everything to be like it was when I was young, but I don't think that's it...

      What helped Doom with this though is the fact that the majority of enemies had fireballs/missiles that were able to be dodged if you were skilled/reacted fast enough. The thing that made this great though is that it was just ONE of many factors the player had to worry about (or that the map creator could take advantage of), with things like ammo (particularly when starting later episodes on UV) and a variety of different situations that took advantage of different enemies. Additionally it's also a testament to the great design and considerations of the developers to have made levels that provided the right balance of items/resources to keep you going, as well as balancing for levels to be completed based on pistol starts - it's all those considerations that make a game like this (and it's health system) what it is IMO.

    Excellent write-up. How about you play Heretic now and tell us how you like it?

    I played it again some time last year and it has a distinct feel which modern day games just can't get right. What a amazing game! Doom3 was a miserable mistake and a complete letdown.

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