Doom's superb campaign makes up for underwhelming multiplayer in id Software's remarkable comeback.
Doom has moved on. id Software's new take on its old classic once again straddles a fault-line between the partly colonised surface of Mars and a rollicking Death Metal album cover version of Hell, all goat motifs and bubbling plumes of gore. Brought to life with staggering detail, it's a world away from the sprites and vertices of John Carmack's original Doom engine, but each chapter does feature a secret area modelled on one of Doom or Doom 2's maps, nestled inside this assured, muscular reboot like a vestigial organ.
Venturing into them prompts confused emotions. The whirling volcanic beauty of id Tech 6 evaporates and you are bathed in the harsh, static glare of forgotten pixels. Walls lose their sheen. Shadows harden into blades. Barrels flatten to muddy thumbprints. Lava flows are reduced to flickering mosaics. At first it's as charming as finding a long-lost comic book underneath your bed, but you are an intruder here, able to jump and climb (blasphemy!) where the original Doom's marine could only sprint and strafe, the sumptuous 3D gun in your hand rudely interrupting the illusion of having travelled back to 1993.
This is an all-new Doom, and it turns out we should be thankful for that. If id's reboot has spent nearly a decade languishing in limbo, the single player offers up little evidence of all that strife and sorrow. This is one of the most generous and frenetic shooter campaigns in years, a blend of cleverly layered arena battles and exploration spiced with free-running that owes as much to Quake, Painkiller and Metroid Prime as it does the false partitions and keycards of the original game.
As a work of architecture, the new Doom lacks the delicacy of its unhallowed predecessors: the maps are broken up more obviously into killboxes, often centring on the evisceration (literally) of a demon "Gore Nest" that triggers a wave of spawns, and their moving parts and secret routes are less surprising. There's also a leaden, retrieve-the-McGuffin storyline that very infrequently insists on pegging you down while an NPC acts out, and skulking to the rear, the charisma-deficient multiplayer. But on the whole this is as successful a restoration project as you could hope for, a revival that cherishes its heritage but also understands that the older games have had their day.
Consider the reworked controls and how they structure your access to the arsenal, with seeming reference to, of all genres, the Capcom-brand third-person brawler. In arranging the campaign around free-wheeling wave battles, id has realised that responsiveness and clarity are key, so you can only switch between two primary weapons in real time, after picking them from a Dishonored-style radial menu that plunges the action into slow motion. Once acquired, the chainsaw and legendary BFG are mapped to square and triangle, so you're never further than a single, cathartic button-press from either an always-lethal melee attack or a screen-clearing smartbomb. The chainsaw also doubles as a resourcing tool, carving both flesh and ammunition from the fallen; this goes hand in hand with new Glory Kill finishers, which see you pounding or ripping health refills from staggered, flashing opponents.
When the heat is on, these abilities and mechanics create a rhythm of advance and evasion that's straight out of Devil May Cry, though it's hardly as intricate. You'll scuttle around the perimeter, allowing the terrain's involutions to guide you to item drops and jump pads as you crash through low-level resistance, swivelling at intervals to pull something's arms off or pummel less agile demons with rockets. On higher difficulties, brinkmanship is everything - can you land a Glory Kill on that fallen Mancubus and top up your vitality before a nearby Hell Knight stomps you? Having a maximum of two guns in hand at once, meanwhile, encourages you to work out which weapons complement each other in certain scenarios. The chaingun savages clumps of possessed humans, for example, but is slow to spin up till you unlock one of its mods, so pairing it off with a combat shotgun is advisable.
The new weapon mods (mapped to L2) are immensely gratifying to fool around with - be it the assault rifle's cute yet murderous flocks of micromissiles or the Gauss rifle's Siege mode, which roots you on the spot for an apocalyptic damage buff. Unlocking their most powerful traits lends the combat its upper layer of complexity and challenge - rather than merely spending the Weapon Points the campaign hands out like candy, you'll need to fulfil more demanding criteria such as stunning, then slaughtering several demons at once with the Plasma Rifle's concussion blast. But the real value of mods is simply that you'll need to look for them.
Each is the jealously guarded property of a robot drone, some of which hover on the main path through each level, while most are tucked away in the crannies. Obtaining them all means keeping one eye forever peeled for movable vent panels, interactive terminals, sidepaths that wind marginally out of sight above or below walkways, and the green light fittings that betray objects you can climb on. When you do reach the prize, Doomguy tears it from the drone's claws and administers a corrective thump for good measure. It's both an amusing piece of characterisation and a cruel joke about id's adoption of ideas from role-playing shooters. This isn't learning from your peers - it's mugging them.
Mods aren't the only treasures buried in the wilderness. There are also tokens with which to upgrade your Praetor suit, dinky Doomguy marionettes, challenge rooms that bestow stat-amplifying Runes, energy orbs that raise your max health, armour or ammunition, and a few more exotic, fan-pleasing trinkets I won't spoil. Each environment is a toybox begging to be plundered, generally as tall as it is wide, though the aesthetic sometimes fails to engage your curiosity. Doom is a technical behemoth that may send your PS4 fan into overdrive, but there are only so many poorly-lit corridors, loading bays and windblown dunes one can stomach. Things do pick up when you reach Hell, however, with its navigable asteroid fields and ravaged vistas of bone and offal.
Nowhere is id's artful re-engineering of Doom's DNA more apparent than in the denizens of the underworld. Certain of the fallen angels are straight updates - Lost Souls are still kamikaze bombers, especially bothersome during platform sections, and the Cacodemon is still a bloated, grinning tumour with a stomachful of acid - but most have been reinvented, generally with the vertical axis in mind. The Imp no longer wobbles about pugnaciously at a distance but scuttles across the layout, lobbing fireballs while dangling from a claw and rushing you when your back is turned. The Pinky is a squealing battering ram that's seriously bad news in the catacombs, resilient against frontal fire but with a soft, spongy rear.
Hell Knights and Barons are now able to perform ground pound attacks, so permitting them a height advantage is deeply unwise. Speaking of which, the gawky, gaping Revenant can boost skywards to unleash a missile barrage. The Archville now teleports, twitching out of harm's way in mimicry of Halo 4's Promethean Knights, in addition to conjuring up other demons. Mix four or more of these creature varieties together and you've got a firefight that's the equal of anything in Destiny. And then there are the bosses, which again take concepts from the original games in fresh directions. I'll leave you to make your own introductions.
The same is true of at least one of the multiplayer modes, Warpath, which blows what you think you know about King of the Hill out the airlock by having the hill move around the map, slopping up walls and cruising through chokepoints while players jockey for possession. The hill's route is clearly marked, so the first question in an attacker's head on respawn is usually whether to chase it or lie in wait; defensive play, conversely, comes down to having somebody in the zone at all times while everybody else keeps their distance for fear of an ambush. It's a fantastic way of teaching you the uses and abuses of the layout, and the multiplayer's only truly memorable flourish.
Warpath aside, the offerings consist of vanilla team deathmatch, objective capture, and a variation on the Kill Confirmed archetype with souls to collect for points instead of dogtags. Freeze Tag is a little more worthy of discussion: it's Team Deathmatch, but weapons turn opponents to blocks of ice rather than slaying them outright. Frozen players can be thawed out by comrades, which creates some hectic clutch moments when a sole survivor brings a team back from the brink; they can also be treated as cover, shunted around or aggressively danced at, because nothing says "camaraderie" like doing the Charleston when the chips are down.
Backing all this up is a set of loadout options, time-limited perks (activated before respawning, as with Titanfall's Burn Cards) and "personalisation" features that couldn't be more flavourless if they were physically wrung from Call of Duty's sagging boxers. It's pure and unapologetic bandwagon-jumping, thankfully quarantined from the rest of the game - you're actually required to reload the whole thing if you want to access multiplayer or Doom's SnapMap level editor. The recycling might be forgivable if the shooting were spot-on, but the guns feel like poor cousins of their magnificent counterparts in single player: splash damage is weirdly miserly and scopes are pushed to the fore. A shade more excitingly, there's a map power-up that transforms you briefly into one of the demons from the campaign, but it's little more than a glorified streak reward in practice, with no modes on offer that make direct use of it.
Save for Warpath, then, the multiplayer is a malnourished appendage, grafted on for the sake of feature parity with the reigning champions of the genre Doom created. But that isn't enough to sully the campaign's lustre. Capacious, beautiful, brainy and barbaric, Doom's return could be this year's most unexpected triumph, largely because it's the work of people who understand that every reboot is a work of both love and hatred, in which creators fight against the pull of the subject matter. It's not enough to summon and confront the devil. You also have to exorcise the creature, to put the past firmly in its place. The Doom of 2016 hasn't rendered the Doom of 1993 surplus to requirements - that would take sorcery indeed - but id has finally managed to escape its gravity.