There’s a lot about the 2016 reboot of DOOM that deserves praise, and it’s embarrassing that I cannot think of a better way of saying this, but it’s true: the Devil’s in the details. There are so many small, delicate systems of balancing mechanics that allow id’s latest game to transcend the shooter genre and become the kind of universally beloved title that we’ll be pointing to as the pinnacle of dumb, fun gaming for years to come. The Rune system drastically changes gameplay, and the ammo/health drop system works on a level I never expected, but the real breakthrough of DOOM is that, for the first time in a first person shooter, I’ve been tricked into running head first into danger.
Here’s the thing about first person shooters: I have always played it “safe”. Even with the original Doom, my plan of attack usually involved hiding behind a pillar or door and trying to pick-off enemies one-by-one from a safe distance while dodging their long range attacks. That’s how I’ve played most video games in my life. But DOOM figured out how to make me engage in melee, close quarters combat that actually had me chasing the big scary monsters I would have normally spent my time running from. This isn’t just an accomplishment for the franchise, this is an accomplishment for all shooter-type games.
What was the key? Glory Kills.
Glory Kills involve blasting a baddie to a near-death state and then moving in to finish them off with your hands. It is gory and over-the-top and honestly made me feel embarrassed when I played it in front of my girlfriend, because it looks like a satire of what you think violent video games are. It’s a lot of pulling heads off of screaming monsters or punching your way through their skulls. It also triggered the urge to wash my hands between levels, because I started to feel like I’d been through a haunted house of touching gross stuff.
Point being, early in the game Glory Kills present themselves as a quick way to finish off enemies, but even in the first level I said out loud, “This might get old quickly.” Then, the game began to add in bonuses for Glory Kills, including dead enemies dropping ammo and health at a higher rate when you get up close and personal with murdering them, making it not only fun but also nearly a requirement to stay alive on a demon-invaded Mars.
There’s another small detail inherent in the mechanics of the Glory Kill that makes it work so well: invulnerability. For the few seconds that you are engaged in tearing the heart out of an impossible flesh-monster, you cannot take damage from other enemies. In a game built on unrelenting action, Glory Kills become the only opportunity to take a breath and plan your next move. It’s a small tweak which changes gameplay on such a small level I barely noticed until halfway through the campaign, but once you’re aware of it, this brief burst of godhood becomes the most important dance-step in your bloody ballet.
The final detail that really seals the melee deal is the reinvention of the classic chainsaw as a hotkey alternative instead of a main weapon. Instead of living on the same menu wheel of choices as your guns, the chainsaw is always on button away. It can one-hit kill any enemy in the game (when you have the gasoline to fire it up) but more importantly, chainsawing an enemy causes a flood of ammo and power-ups to drop, with more ammo coming from the bigger bads. This means that in the midst of you biggest, most nightmarish battles, you’ll need to pull that tool out and find the biggest scariest guy around and cut his head off — just like what they tell you to do your first day in prison to establish dominance. Right?
This combination of chainsaw ammo dumps, bonus items, and general apocalyptic mayhem makes DOOM the first game to get melee combat correct and to encourage — and reward — players for chasing down giant demons in a manner that the franchise has always wanted. No more hiding in corners dodging projectiles; DOOM makes me get intimate and dirty with all the monsters I meet.