The signs weren't good for Doom. Id Software's reboot of the most storied shooter in gaming had languished in development hell for the better part of a decade. Talismanic studio founder John Carmack had left for Oculus. A public debut at E3 last year was less than inspiring. Even the box art sucked.
But in one of those happy surprises that don't come along often enough, Doom is actually fantastic. It takes a minimalist yet utterly modern approach to game design, rendering the original template in 21st century colors, and the result is a thrillingly straightforward experience that makes much of its competition feel bloated and laborious.
The closest analog I can think of, in fact, isn't a game at all, but a recent movie that went through a similarly torturous development process before emerging to rapturous critical applause. Mad Max: Fury Road wouldn't have been on most people's list of most anticipated movies at the start of 2015, yet its iconoclastic direction, focus on pure action, and incredible sense of style made it an artistic and commercial success on every level.
The comparison struck me within the opening minutes of Doom, which make up one of the most striking introductions to a game in recent memory. There's no lengthy opening cutscene or ponderous tutorial — your character starts the game in chains, breaks free in seconds, and the action begins from there. As with Fury Road, the tone and pace are set instantly; Fury Road wastes no time in setting up the chase that dominates the movie, and Doom does the same when introducing its brutal brand of combat.
This wasn't always the design brief. In a 2013 report that makes for fascinating reading in hindsight, Kotaku detailed the tension and struggles behind the game's development, revealing that at one point it was set to be a Call of Duty-style scripted shooter before the entire project was scrapped and restarted. “We weren't happy with the game that was being made," publisher Bethesda’s Pete Hines told Polygon last year. "We decided that it wasn't Doom enough and needed to be thrown out and started over. Some folks left and some faces changed at the studio. Out of that change — which was not easy for those guys to go through — some amazing things happened."
At the time of Kotaku’s report, it was unclear whether what was then known as Doom 4 would ever see the light of day. Fury Road had seen even more dramatic problems, meanwhile, with its initial plans for shooting postponed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, then suffering multiple delays throughout the 2000s. Director George Miller eventually pushed the project forward after falling in love with the script, and it's clear that the final iteration of Doom benefited from a similarly driven vision.
The result is a game almost entirely free of fat, and it revels in that idea — minutes into the game, your character literally disposes with the concept of exposition by throwing away a computer that a character is trying to reach you on. Doom is about nothing but shooting demons, finding keys to open doors to shoot more demons, and discovering secrets that may or may not help you shoot even more demons. While 2004's Doom 3 was a throwback in the sense that it concentrated on the original Doom's horror elements, Doom does the same for the original game's action. In this, it is relentlessly retro. It feeds off and develops endless permutations of interdimensional shotgun combat like Fury Road does with post-apocalyptic car chases.
That's not to say that Doom is unimaginative or one-note. Fury Road would have been a pretty boring movie were it not for Miller's direction and John Seale's phenomenal cinematography, and so it is with Doom's dedication to the mechanics of its particular medium. Id's sprawling level design in particular is exemplary, and its approach to combat is unlike anything else.
In its most frenetic moments, Doom feels like a rhythm game; with a brilliantly dynamic system that sees you stagger enemies with weak shots before finishing them off with melee attacks that garner a brief burst of invulnerability and a small health top-up, driving you on to the next demon. Doom isn't the only first-person shooter in recent years with a fixation on '90s-style action, but it's the first to make it feel truly fresh in the 2010s.
Although Doom is a smart game that may win the affections of some turned off by modern first-person shooters, it’s unlikely to have the surprisingly wide appeal of Fury Road. It is, after all, still incredibly violent, and its later narrative perhaps veers a little too far into the esoteric for its own good. Fury Road, on the other hand, tells a simple story with strong characters after establishing its screwed-up world, and is all the better for it. For all that Doom makes its competitors seem bloated, its narrative could have used some slightly tighter editing.
But the result is still one of my favorite games of the year so far, which is remarkable for a project that I could not have considered less likely to appear on that list a few months ago. Doom is fast, raw, and laser-focused on what it does best. And it marks a stunning return to form for Id Software — it’s by far the most exciting thing the studio has made since 1999’s Quake III Arena, and a surprise every bit as pleasant as Fury Road was last year.
Oh, and they even fixed the box art.
Doom is available now on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.