Everything that's right - and wrong - with the new Doom console ports

The first two games need a lot of work - but Doom 3 is golden.

Released out of nowhere just last week, the first three numbered Doom games are now available across current generation consoles. On the surface, this is tremendous news, but it didn't take long before the complaints began - and rightfully so, as while Panic Button's Doom 3 conversion is a tremendous piece of work, the conversions of Doom and its first sequel are seriously sub-par.

And that's both astonishing and deeply sad. The original Doom remains one of the finest games ever made. With a perfect blend of brilliant map design, finely tuned gameplay and a gorgeous presentation, it's a game I've continued to return to for decades and I know I'm not alone on that. The notion of a compromised port seems all the more baffling bearing in mind how many times this game has been ported to other systems. In fact, since its original release in late 1993, Doom has been converted across to just about everything with a CPU... and that includes game consoles.

Ported by Nerve, the latest conversions of Doom and Doom 2 should be much better than they are. Or starters, the developer has a long history with id Software games and, in fact, it was founded by an ex-id software employee. Nerve is also responsible for the original Xbox Live Arcade release of Doom, among others. Gripes about these ports first started to emerge when it came to light that the games could only be played if you set-up a completely unneeded Bethesda account. It's a terrible decision that has dominated the conversation around the game and even kicked off a meme cycle, but from my perspective, it's the tip of the iceberg. In bringing Doom back to modern platforms, Nerve has seemingly ported the codebase to C# while using Unity as a shell of sorts. This approach could be useful for porting the game to other platforms, but it seems unnecessary.

Unlike most games today, however, there really is no noticeable difference between the consoles. Doom appears to use software rendering while outputting at 1080p with poor scaling and borders on every console - which is the first problem. The rendering resolution doesn't scale evenly to the output resolution and, since the image is not interpolated in any way, the result is uneven pixels. Combined with an incorrect aspect ratio (a problem with many Doom ports), it's not a pretty picture. It gives the impression that monsters are shorter and wider than they should be while Doom Guy's portrait appears squished.

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Despite the conversion work, this new version of Doom also retains its 35 frames per second cap -which does not divided evenly into 60Hz. In its original form, Doom was designed to run on CRT monitors at 70hz - 35 frames per second is exactly half the refresh rate, delivering consistent motion. The consoles, however, don't support 70Hz output and most will be playing at 60Hz which means uneven frame persistence leading to visible judder. Considering how many source ports eliminate this cap, I feel it was a mistake to retain the 35fps gameplay. As with Nerve's previous Doom ports, the lighting also appears incorrect and overly bright in certain scenarios.

Basically, when it comes to the visual presentation, the game looks OK at a glance but, as you play, these issues become evident which is disappointing - but it's the audio that really falls short. There are two problems here - music playback and lack of sound effect pitch adjustment and clarity. Firstly, the soundtrack seems to have been recorded using the stock Windows GS Midi and then played back as pre-recorded files. Perhaps as a result of sample rate adjustment or some other issue, the actual playback of the music is slow. Slowing down the music doesn't necessarily ruin the tunes but it is less accurate, which is the problem here. Sound effects wise, everything seems muffled and it lacks the pitch shifted audio of the earlier versions of Doom designed to increase sound variety. So its lacks clarity and variability.

All of these problems should be fixable, but in an age where retro gaming is becoming more and more popular, the number one aim in all cases should be authenticity - and these Doom ports just aren't good enough. It's still playable and it's still Doom, but you'd expect more from a brand new, official conversion. Adding to the sense that consumers are being shortchanged is the removal of online multiplayers, plus the fact that Bethesda has delisted the original Xbox 360 version. It's not perfect, but it's better than this - and you could play it via Xbox One back-compat. Delisting it comes across as rather petty but at least it seems like that was unintentional.

There is good news, however, and that is the quality of the new Doom 3 port. Released 11 years after the original, Doom 3 is a divisive but technically stunning showpiece that helped usher in a new generation of 3D rendering and this important release is excellent on all current-gen systems. The original version is a complete re-envisioning of the Doom concept. It's scarier, darker, but more methodical than the original - it's a very different experience, to say the least.

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First demonstrated at Macworld 2001, Doom 3 promised a unified lighting model in which lighting behaved in a realistic fashion, unlike any other game before it. The following year, id unveiled a dramatic demo at E3 2002 - a real-time demonstration that blew away expectations with a level of fidelity quite unlike anything available at the time: relying on real-time lighting, shadows, detailed texture work and a world dripping in atmosphere, id set the anticipation level sky high. The final game wasn't quite what many wanted from a Doom title, but I feel that it stands on its own as a unique combat experience. It's not replacement for the original Doom, but it's a wonderful game in its own right.

The new port is based on the BFG Edition, which initially launched on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. It made many changes to the core gameplay, including modifying ammo counts and replacing the flashlight with a shoulder mounted torch, while modifying elements of the visuals. While I prefer the look and balance of the original game, the BFG edition is still an excellent way to enjoy Doom 3 today. Panic Button has taken point on this project and delivered a great conversion across all three platforms. Each version takes full advantage of its respective host console: the Switch version turns in a native 1080p presentation at 60 frames per second when docked and 720p while undocked. If you're playing the game on Xbox One X or PS4 Pro, Doom 3 delivers a full native 4K experience. It also automatically downsamples when outputting 1080p - so there's no need to rely on the OS level option. The base consoles, of course, run at 1080p like Switch.

All versions aim to deliver a smooth 60 frames per second experience at the highest possible resolution each platform is capable of. Yes, Doom 3 is an older game, but you cannot take this for granted - it's an impressive achievement. The new release offers a wider range of options compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 conversions, complete with full FOV adjustment and support for flashlight shadows. That last setting, I should note, impacts all dynamic lights - not just the flashlight beam. Enabling it here is the equivalent of using ultra quality lighting in the PC version.

Visually, the game is identical across all machines save for resolution but the same can't be said for performance. If you're on Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro, you can expect a rock-solid experience. After spending a few hours with each version, I was unable to produce any slowdown or drop in performance. There is always a chance things could drop later in the game but I suspect that won't be the case. Doom 3 is a true native 4K60 experience on both machines.

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The base machines perform similarly but its Switch that fascinates the most. Like the other versions, 60 frames per second is the target but, unfortunately, this target is not always met. It's close, but larger areas tend to introduce performance issues that see a drop from the target frame-rate - which is a touch disappointing. What's more interesting, however, is that this isn't the first time this hardware has run Doom 3. Even looking beyond typical homebrew, Doom 3 BFG was released officially for Nvidia's Shield Android TV - a device which shares the same Tegra X1 core as the Switch.

The difference? It's powered by Android which is not known for its graphics performance. Before I could even test this, however, I had to jump through hoops. While we had previously purchased Doom 3 on the Shield, it is now delisted and no longer available to download even if you own the game - something that seemed to happen a while back. Thankfully, Android is an open platform and it was easy enough to side-load an APK with the game data necessary to play. We should not have had to do this, however. We bought this game but we are no longer allowed to own it. The Shield version runs at a full 1080p just like Switch. It lacks the option to enable flashlight shadows, doesn't utilize anti-aliasing and features washed out colours by comparison. The big difference stems from performance - unlike Switch, the Shield version seems to drop frames constantly. It's rarely severe but the frame-rate just never feels consistent and the frame-time graph is regularly disturbed. What's especially strange here is that it seems to be running worse now compared to our tests when it was first released. Maybe it's an OS issue as we tested the game on the very same console.

That said, in reality, the Switch version really isn't dramatically better - it doesn't exhibit those constant small dips and it can drop pretty hard in certain situations. However, you can add around 15 per cent of performance by using default FOV settings and with flashlight shadows disabled, in which case, Switch is faster than the Shield equivalent. Switch even manages to run better portably than in docked mode - the reduction in resolution to 720p helps make up for those demanding settings and I found the experience to be quite impressive on the go. In fact, playing Doom 3 on a portable system at 60fps just feels crazy to me. It's a game that will always feel 'high-end' to me despite its age so it's really neat seeing it on the go. As much as I like it though, it's clearly the worst of the bunch. Xbox One X and PS4 Pro are my picks for this game.

At least all versions run smoother than the original PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of Doom 3 BFG, as you might expect, but the single biggest improvement here is the decrease in loading times. These were very slow on last-gen machines, but all current consoles load much faster and this makes playing the game more enjoyable, as dying doesn't mean waiting. As for a Bethesda.net account requirement? Well, the good news is that it's not needed on Doom 3.

If there's one take-away from this session for me it's that I still love Doom 3. It has a unique atmosphere and feel that just works for me. The gameplay is slower than classic Doom, but it still manages to feel more action-packed than many of the shooters that would follow. It's a game focused on movement while dealing with enemies. In 2004, long distance shooters were becoming increasingly popular and the rise of Call of Duty would shift focus from up-close and personal to distant targets. Doom 3 may not match the originals, but it still focuses on key elements which define them. It's also a ridiculously lengthy game and the BFG version even includes the original expansion pack and an extra set of levels on top of that.

There's work for Nerve and Bethesda to do, then. The ports of Doom and Doom 2 just aren't good enough in their current state. The scaling issues, incorrect lighting, bad sound and frame-rate cap all result in a genuinely disappointing showing. It could and should be much better. The lack of online play is also baffling bearing in mind that Doom was the first Deathmatch game and a milestone moment in the evolution of online multiplayer. With these ports, only local split-screen is supported. Doom 3, on the other hand, is stellar across every platform. Only on Switch will you encounter rough edges from time to time and, even then, it's still a good effort that's well worth checking out.

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About the author

John Linneman

John Linneman

Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. He’s also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.

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