The difference between clever and cunning.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

DOOM (2016) Review


The Doom series has long been one of gaming’s flagships. The original, its sequel, and the million and one mods and map-packs they spawned remain highly playable even today. The fast, brutal, accessible gameplay endures the test of time. 

A History of Violence

Doom 3, released in 2004, was a surprising departure from the earlier style of the series. Doom 3 made use of a technologically astounding (for the time) lighting engine to create an extremely dark but atmospheric demon infested Mars base. The core gameplay and atmosphere seemed to be trying to imitate Doom’s own distant descendants, the Half-Life and System Shock series.

Rather than running and gunning against hordes of foes players found themselves picking their way through cramped, shadowy settings. Combat came in the form off a series of haunted house style ambushes by small numbers of enemies. The raw speed and frantic action of the earlier games was replaced with something more akin to survival horror. The constant tension was gripping, even exhausting, but to many players the game didn’t feel like Doom

Hell looks appropriately like a metal album cover.
What little information we received about Doom 4 during development was even less encouraging. Screenshots featured rubble-strewn modern urban settings and unhappy people in tattered military gear. It looked like we were in for a miserably serious slog with nothing in common with the classic Doom gameplay. The news that development was being scrapped and rebooted entirely was met with hesitant relief. When the game was finally released earlier this year expectations were hopeful but not high.

Note: For the rest of this review, Doom refers to the series in general, while DOOM specifically means the 2016 reboot. It’s an ALL CAPS kinda game.

At Doom’s Gate

The opening to DOOM puts any concerns to rest immediately. Within seconds of starting the campaign you are killing. In scant minutes more you are armed, armored, and blasting imps with a shotgun across a demon infested Mars. DOOM understands and embraces what made the first two games so enduring and fun, while updating elements to account for 20 years of technological advancement.

Outdoor sections make a nice contract to the classic gore-strewn corridors.
The Marine still moves with the ground devouring stride of the classic FPS protagonist. Weapons do not need reloading and can be fired until your ammo runs dry. Maps are complex and three-dimensional, often non-linear, and full of valuable secrets that encourage exploration.

While there’s no regenerating health or cover mechanics the march of time has changed some elements. In the original games swarms of enemies were often peppered across a level, creating a constant mix of combat and exploration. Here most combat takes place in discrete arenas. You enter an area, the doors seal, and waves of demons teleport in until you’ve killed them all. 

The Martian vistas drive home the destructive scale of the invasion.
The creatures of DOOM’s bestiary are far faster, smarter, and more dangerous on a one to one basis than their sprite-sheet ancestors. They also take up a lot more processing power. As a technological necessity you’re generally fighting a dozen demons at most, rather than the mobs that could populate the original game’s levels. 

Rip and Tear…

Above all else DOOM rewards speed and aggression. The best way to stay alive is to stay in motion. Hell devours the indolent. As in the original games the Marine is faster and more nimble than most of his foes, able to dodge most attacks and (new to DOOM) rapidly pull himself up onto any ledge he can reach. The level of mobility and lack of falling damage is intoxicating, especially once you unlock the double-jump.

The biggest addition to combat is the new takedown mechanic, dubbed “Glory Kills”. When a demon is near death they’ll reel in place while their outline flashes red. Get close enough and tap the appropriate button and the Marine lunges at the afflicted demon and kills them with his bare hands.

Battles are highly mobile affairs. Keep moving.
By design Glory Kill animations are as short as they are brutal, which is good because they’re central to the DOOM combat loop. They save ammo, buy you a few frames of invincibility, and (with the right upgrades) can even function as a sort of battlefield teleportation to stay one step ahead of your enemies. Most importantly, Glory killed enemies yield health, with a higher payout the closer you are to death.

While health can be found in the environment, the most reliable source in the heat of combat is beat it out of the enemy. The lesson is clear. If you’re getting your ass kicked don’t run away and hide. Attack harder and faster to survive. 

…Until it is Done

Both the chainsaw and BFG return, but with some design tweaks. The chainsaw instantly kills any non-boss, causing them to erupt into a fountain of gore and ammo pickups. Every chainsaw kill depletes a limited stock of fuel, and bigger demons take more fuel to saw through. The BFG is simply a breathtaking emergency “Kill Everything” button.
The UAC's attempts to blend high science and demonology went predictably poorly.
In keeping with modern game design, DOOM has a generous helping of character and weapon advancement systems. Probably at least one more than it really needs. There are alternate fire modes to unlock, suit upgrade tokens to hunt down, demonic runes to earn and level up and more. It could be argued that RPG elements detract from the purity of the combat, but they reward skillful play and dedicated secret hunting. Some of the demonic runes are almost brokenly powerful, but all the upgrade systems are rewarding and combine to give you a sense of steadily increasing might across the campaign.  

Man and Myth

While story has never been a core element of the Doom series there is one to be found, if you care to look. This time around the Union Aerospace Corporation (A corporate entity that appears in every Doom game) has literally been exploiting Hell as an energy source. This went predictably, spectacularly wrong. The head of the UAC, a cyborg named Samuel Hayden with a smoothly authoritative voice, periodically attempts to explain and justify this to the Marine. The Marine, in turn, ignores him whenever possible and destroys every expensive machine Hayden asks him to gently power down. 

The most fascinating character may well be the Doom Marine himself. If this DOOM he’s not just a grunt in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a figure of myth and dark legend. The UAC recovered him from a sealed tomb during one of their forays into Hell, and the Marine is clearly not native to this place and time. He’s an unstoppable force, loosed upon Mars to wreak a terrible vengeance upon demonkind.

Hayden has a lot to say, but the Marine isn't interested in his excuses.
The Doom Marine never speaks a word, nor should he. This does not mean he is devoid of personality. The Marine talks with his hands, and he talks the loudest when he gets those hands on his enemies. The “Glory Kill” animations tell you everything you need to know about the Marine’s relationship and history with the forces of Hell. 

The Marine will wrench horns and limbs from a foe and use them to bludgeon or impale. Smaller monsters are brutalized or bodily torn in half. Bigger demons are force-fed their own explosive body-parts. 

The Marine HATES the demons. There’s no fear in him of their monstrous nature, no respect for their power. Only contempt and endless fury. He wants them to suffer, but even more than that he wants them to die. The moment his latest victim is dead the Marine discards them and moves on, already seeking another.

Map and Tear

DOOM nails the soundtrack perfectly. A thumping onslaught of power metal with a generous slathering of synth, the music beautifully matches the tone of the game. Many of the tracks pay homage to signature tracks from the previous games. Keep an ear out for the remix of the immortal “At Doom’s Gate.”

DOOM’s robust single player campaign is more than strong enough to carry the game on its own, but it also comes with the expected multiplayer mode and an unexpected level editor.

Snap Map is the built in level editor. As an introduction to level building and scripting it’s an amazingly accessible piece of software. Between the tutorials and intuitive interface anyone can be slapping together a playable level within minutes.

Unfortunately Snap Map has some odd limitations that hold it back. Unlike in the campaign you can’t hold more than two weapons at once, and demons don’t spawn properly if you have too many already in play. Some sort of proper system for debugging scripts as they are executed would be a godsend.
Some familiar foes return.
Snap Map also restricts you to using its set of prefabricated rooms, which sharply limits the kind of levels you can build. Play enough Snap Maps and you’ll start to see a LOT of the same rooms over and over. With no way to import custom assets or build your own rooms or terrain I don’t see it as having anywhere near the longevity of the modding and mapping community for the original Doom

Frag Fest

The multiplayer component of the game was developed by the same studio that does a lot of the CoD and Halo map packs, and it shows. Classic free-for-all death matching is oddly absent. You are restricted to a two-weapon loadout going into the match, although powerful demon transformation runes and limited use superweapons keep map control and awareness important. Winning (or even finishing) a match showers you with cosmetic rewards like armor customization options and taunt emotes.

To the developers credit the high speed and mobility of combat remain carried over from the single player campaign, and the basic act of tagging an enemy player with a direct rocket hit or super-shotgun blast remains viscerally satisfying. Less effective are the inclusion of a class of expendable “Hack Module” items that provide brief benefits, like displaying the location of the highest scoring enemy. Try as I might I never felt like I understood how to properly manage, conserve, or trigger these items, and couldn’t really find any documentation explaining them.

Sections of classic levels are hidden across the campaign.
Finally there were a number of unexplained crashes to desktop. These happened just enough to be annoying but not crippling, and didn’t seem to be associated with any particular level, weapon, etc…
None of these minor issues should discourage you from getting DOOM. It’s the best shooter yet of 2016 and more than earns its name. 

Reasons to play: Glorious classic Doom gameplay brought into the 21st century. High mobility combat, levels that reward exploration, and brutal Glory Kills. Great soundtrack. Highly accessible level editor.

Reasons to pass: Odd lack of classic death-matching. Slight technical instability.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Slave Zero Retro Review

Nostalgia can be a powerful, if misleading force. It colors our memories of the past as it shapes our perception of the present. Games and other pieces of media that are fondly remembered do not always hold up under the harsh glare of today’s expectations. 

I first played Slave Zero not long after it came out, in the distant past of 2000 or so. I recall it as having been fun if not particularly deep, and still have fond memories of the game. The game didn’t make much in the way of an impact, and it’s not really remembered as a classic (or much at all) these days. Let’s take a look and see what remains once we’ve peeled away the nostalgia.

Get in the Robot, Chan

Slave Zero’s plot is simple comic book pulp, mostly developed through people yelling at you only to be drowned out by the soundtrack and thunder of combat. The evil SovKhan rules an enormous futuristic eastern-flavored megacity. You play as Chan, a member of an organization called the Guardians that is attempting to overthrow the SovKhan, for reasons.  

Tiny helicopters and tanks oppose you in the early game.
Since the SovKhan has an army of giant robots, and what few Guardians we see are armed with sticks, the Guardians steal the SovKhan’s prototype weapon to even things up. Chan pilots (becomes?) Zero, the first of a line of giant biomechanical war machines called Slaves. For an entity made of so few polygons Zero projects a surprising level of personality between his eternal smirk and swaggering, simian lope. 

A few throwaway lines imply that Chan is permanently fused to Zero somehow, but this is never further developed or explained. This is too bad. Sacrificing your humanity to become a giant fighting machine could have been a fascinating concept to build a story around, but such narrative finesse is beyond a game this big and loud. 

The soundtrack holds up well. A collection of thumping techno with strong organic bass serves as perfect accompaniment to the giant robot on giant robot violence, helping to bring the neon cityscape to life. Give it a listen here.

Built to Scale

Let's be upfront. By modern graphical standards this is an ugly game. Textures are often muddy and polygons scarce. Where Slave Zero succeeds, even despite the obvious technical limitations of the era, is in giving the action a sense of size and scope. 

Tiny cars valiantly attempting to commute through a robot war-zone.
The ground shakes beneath Zero’s mighty swaggering stride while tiny low-poly humans cower and flee. Cars wreck harmlessly against his massive feet as he crosses busy freeways. The helicopters, jets, and tanks that assail you in the early game are as toylike as they are ineffective. Vehicles and other debris can be scooped up and flung like baseballs.

Amusingly the massive civilian casualties and collateral damage your battles through the city must be causing are never mentioned or addressed. Still, nobody ever won a revolution without inflicting a healthy amount of carnage and horror upon the people the revolution is ostensibly being fought for. 

The city has a way of dwarfing even Zero.
 The bulk of your opposition consists of robots Zero’s size and larger. Often much larger. A generous helping of destructible buildings and other elements about Zero’s size further deliver a sense of the firepower getting tossed around. Finally the massive, colorful neo-Tokyo cityscape towers over everything, making even you and your ten story opponents seem insignificant.

Kauju War

Gameplay is not complex. You thunder through highly linear levels, destroying everything in your path. Exploration is minimal and backtracking almost non-existent. Occasional arenas halt forward progress until you explode every other giant robot in the vicinity. Irregular platforming has Zero hopping from skyscraper to skyscraper while rare static segments charge you with destroying or defending something while waves of enemy reinforcement pour in. 

Don't stand in front of these guys...
Enemy AI is weak and most foes are not very mobile. Fragile hovering mechs seek you out and harry you from above while heavier units unleash blistering firepower from fixed positions. Zero’s not really nimble enough to dodge, so you must seek cover and retaliate between barrages. While you can occasionally pick the enemy to pieces with the railgun sniper solid level design and enemy placement keeps combat engaging. 

...because they do that.
Zero can carry a mere three weapons at a time, swapping between handheld bullet and energy guns while firing missiles from a shoulder mounted launcher. Aside from a succession of bigger, louder guns (some so comically oversized they are nearly the size of Zero himself) there is no character progression or upgrade system. While the arsenal is satisfyingly destructive simply grabbing the next biggest gun you find is not always the best option. 

Logistical Errors

The sheer rate at which they burn through ammo makes most of the high tier weapons impractical. The giant beam cannon, for example, consumes your entire stock of energy in about two seconds. Supplies are normally so plentiful this isn’t a big deal, but a number of major fights trap you in an arena with a giant damage sponge and a limited number of pickups. There’s simply not enough ammo in many encounters to win if you are carrying the most powerful but inefficient weapons. 

There’s no garage or armory function to let you tweak your loadout between levels. The practical result of all this is that pressing forward with the wrong weapons can render some fights, indeed the game itself, un-winnable. Indeed, I’m honestly not sure there is enough ammo to beat the final boss on hard.  For a game based around using big, simple, powerful weapons to destroy everything in sight discouraging the use of the biggest and most powerful is a bizarre design decision, bordering on a major flaw. 

It's lonely at the top of a miles high city. Watch you step.
Boss fights are (as they should be) among the game’s most memorable encounters. Each pits you against a massive enemy Slave that dwarfs Zero. One boss fight sees you climbing a vertical chamber flooding with lethal acid while the hovering boss blasts away at you from the center. Another gives you an extremely limited number of skyscrapers to safely stand on, which the boss steadily demolishes over the course of your duel. Managing ammo supplies and collecting more without wasting it is at least as important in these encounters as dodging attacks. 

Code Rot

The inevitable change of hardware and software over time have left Slave Zero with some considerable technical issues. Downloading the latest version of nGlide helped remove the savage stuttering the game suffered from, but I could never fix the resolution so my shots didn’t pull to the left of my crosshair. This made long range sniping difficult and broke homing missiles entirely. 

More seriously Slave Zero crashed every time I got close to or took a shot at a specific kind of late-game enemy. I couldn’t find a technical fix and this bug almost scrapped my run of the game.  Fortunately there weren’t many of this particular enemy and a few dozen crashes and some weird footwork was enough to get me past them. 

The sewers are visually dull and full of robot spiders.

Slave Zero is not a long or complex game. You can probably blow through it in a weekend or less. The core gameplay is simple and accessible enough that it holds up today. Other games attempting to convey a sense of relative size and scale between giant characters and environments should look at what Slave Zero accomplishes even with its technical limitations. As a gaming artifact it provides an excellent example of big, dumb, loud fun, left dangerously close to unplayable on a modern machine by the march of time. 

Reasons to play: Game sells the sense of size and scope of being a giant robot. Thumping techno soundtrack. 

Reasons to pass: Simple gameplay and weird weapon/ammo balance. Serious technical glitches on modern machines.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.