Doom's Ultra-Nightmare mode is so difficult that nobody at developer id Software was able to complete it. The premise is simple: Take the game's most punishing difficulty setting, Nightmare, then apply permadeath to it. One wrong move and a six-hour play session can be wiped clean in an instant.
Yet diligent players were able to best this test within two days of the game's release. The first was Zero Master, who holds a speedrun record for Doom 2. Only six hours later a different player, DraQu, who currently holds many speedrunning records for this latest Doom reboot, also completed this insane gauntlet.
Speaking over Skype, DraQu tells me that he practiced for this run by first attempting the game on Nightmare mode. After that, he jumped straight into Ultra-Nightmare. When asked how many attempts it took, DraQu says he didn't keep track, but estimated about 20 with approximately 11-16 tries on day one followed by a mere three on the second day.
DraQu says the most important skill is tracking enemy positions, particularly in the early game when you start out relatively weak. "I have experience with arena FPS games so I kind of know how to track an enemy. That's a big deal when you're trying to avoid damage," the speedrunner says. "Especially early on because you die in one or two hits, so you have to be aware of where your enemies are going. It changes a bit as you progress because you pick up more upgrades and more weapons. Your arsenal gets bigger, you can take a few more hits, so you don't need to worry about that as much."
One might assume that surviving Ultra-Nightmare comes down to pattern recognition and memorising spawn points, but that really isn't the case. "On my first successful attempt I hadn't actually gotten past the Cyberdemon [about two-thirds of the way through the campaign], so I'd only done the section after that once during my first Nightmare playthrough. So I really didn't remember what was going on," he laughs. "It was a miracle that I was even able to complete the game."
So what strategies did this pioneering runner employ? DraQu says his most reviled enemies were the rhino-like charging Pinkies and the Possessed Soldiers with shields. The trick with Pinkies is to use the Plasma Rifle's Stun Bomb mod to lock them into place, then run behind them and unload upon their exposed backside. As for the Possessed Soldiers with shields, DraQu notes that "the way to deal with those guys is to use a weapon that causes splash damage like the Rocket Launcher or an explosive shot from the Shotgun. Shoot next to them, not directly at them, so it will go around the shield. Or the Plasma Stun works really well on them as well."
Other techniques favoured by DraQu include upgrading the Gauss Rifle's Siege mod. "That thing does so much damage it is ridiculous," DraQu says. It's especially powerful when combined with a BFG during a boss battle. "You can use the BFG to stun them, then when they're stunned you do more damage to them. So what I found to be really, really effective was to stun them with a BFG, then use a charged Siege from the Gauss. That does soooo much damage! And you can get two shots in per stun."
Somewhat dispiritingly, DraQu dispels the usefulness of one of my favourite features in Doom: the Glory Kills. These gleefully animated finishing moves that pulverise demons into juicy fountains of gore not only look cool, but also reward players with health drops. They additionally function as a form of mild teleportation as you can zip towards a fatigued enemy from quite a distance (especially with the Seek and Destroy rune equipped). Yet DraQu very seldom employs this maneuver. Here's why:
"The thing about Glory Kills is that on Nightmare and Ultra-Nightmare, they don't really give you anything. You might get one health drop, which is barely five HP. And you really don't do anything with that on Nightmare. But the thing with Glory Kills is that it locks you into an animation and during that animation other enemies can swarm around you. So you're left in a really tough situation after you're finished. So I only did it in really rough situations where I pretty much had to."
As far as upgrading his Praetor suit goes, DraQu initially puts points into protection from environmental damage like explosive barrels and splash damage from his own weapons. Then he focuses on Dexterity for weapon switching, and faster ledge grabbing followed by improving his power-ups so they refill health upon snatching.
Weapon switching is especially important as frequently juggling firearms means you can drastically increase one's rate of fire. This is especially true of weapons with longer recharge times like the Super Shotgun and Rocket Launcher.
Weirdly, DraQu didn't take much advantage of the Rune or equipment systems the first time he finished Ultra-Nightmare. "Most of the time I forget that they even exist," he recalls. "I think I used a Frag Grenade once to kill an imp and that's about it. Later on I discovered that the Siphon Grenade that gives you health from enemies. That's useful. The hologram I never used. You could use it to kite around Pinkies if you don't have the Stun Bomb, but I never used it."
Rune-wise DraQu thinks he missed a few tricks when he first bested this challenge. At the time he favoured runes that increased speed and mid-air maneuverability. "Not for any reason. Just because I like air control." Though there was one time where a rune saved his bacon; The Saving Throw rune lets players survive death just once per life, allowing them a second chance with a mere five hit points keeping them alive. "Five seconds before I died I equipped that rune because I finally remembered that I didn't do that, so it saved me during that run."
Were he to do it all again, DraQu recommends Rich Get Richer, which offers players unlimited ammo should they keep their armour threshold over a certain amount. (100 initially, then 75 once you've upgraded the rune.) "If I was to go back maybe I'd do that so I could pick enemies up at a distance with my Gauss even more effectively," he says.
What DraQu didn't realise, but later Ultra-Nightmare victor and Twitch user KingDime takes into account, is that upgrading the Equipment Power rune makes it so Siphon Grenades replenish armour once your health is full. Couple this with Rich Get Richer's unlimited ammo perk and you can unload an unending barrage of Micro-Missiles unto the hoards of hell.
One of KingDime's most devious techniques comes from him cruelly keeping a lumbering Mancubus alive so he can leach its essence dry to top up his HP and armour (thus regaining unlimited ammo). It's the sort of comically cathartic role-playing Doom was designed to deliver: a seamless synergy of tactics and torture.
The truly great thing about Doom is that there is no one-size-fits all strategy to success. YouTuber Grizwords has completed Ultra-Nightmare on PS4 - a feat that impresses even DraQu - and he opts for many completely different tactics. Grizwords is a big fan of the Heavy Assault Rifle's Sniper Scope, Chaingun, enemy-baiting Holograms, and Glory Kills. In fact, he equips the Dazed and Confused rune making it so enemies stay vulnerable to Glory Kills longer. Grizwords usually takes a more defensive approach, often sticking to one corner of the map and tossing everything they've got at their opposition.
The truth is Doom is a mix of tactics and skill. A clever loadout, progression path, and judicious use of power-ups and weapons will help tremendously in your adventure, but at the end of the day you need to have sharp instincts. Tracking foes, switching to the right weapon for the exact occasion, and precise aiming means the difference between life and death. That's the beauty of id Software's latest: memorisation, planning, and meticulous number-crunching will only only get you so far. For a game that surrounds you with death, Doom, on its hardest setting, does an incredible job of making you feel alive.